Value Pushers

Last week we looked at how values pull us forward, inspiring us to strengthen our better natures. A moral ideal can only offer itself, we decide to pursue it or not. Values cannot push us forward; acts of goodness forced have not been considered moral acts since before the time of Plato. This has not kept some in every generation from trying to push values, forcing them on others. This authoritarian approach may no longer force conversions at gun point but the heavy handed ways of those authoritarian hierarchies we looked at back in Egypt’s pyramids is as prevalent now as it ever has been.

The difference between this push and pull is analogous to the difference in physics between tension, the force that pulls and compression which is the force that pushes. When a good friend who was a civil engineer taught us the basics of engineering he put the rule concerning these forces quite succinctly, “don’t push on a string.” In part this is how we build bridges that stay up through thick and thin. A similar principal dwells in the psyche.

The sponge that is the childhood brain absorbs the norms of its parents and society right along with its mother’s milk. The child progresses through its ethical training by extending its listening from the mother to the father, then on to the family, the baby-sitter or daycare attendant and on to teacher and classroom which will remain the context for the rest of that human being’s pre-adult development. In these environments the child encounters numerous conflicting messages about what is socially acceptable or not. We are educated in the good, the bad and the ugly.

The child is of course not a blank slate. They are bringing a very specific and unique set of genetic pre-dispositions to whatever events the play of chance, coincidence and circumstance deliver to their growing mind. Not one human being anywhere at any time could claim any less or any more than this same cosmic inheritance. We know now how the mind is prepared to respond to the environment it finds itself in by turning on and off the expression of genes as needed and invoked by triggering circumstances. This moldable aspect of human nature has long been recognized, “give me a child till they are seven and I will shape the man” went the old Jesuit boast. A bit overblown perhaps but clearly the human child can be shaped into any number of cultural forms.

There is no choice about educating the young mind. That is going to happen. What should concern us is what values we are going to educate them in. Let us assume that the long rich history of human thought includes precious, hard earned insights into living well which we want to pass onto the next generation, as we say, religiously.

This being the case there are two ways we can think about our existential situation. One hypothesis is that whatever is of highest value that must be passed on to the next generation will be found outside the individual. In this view a sacred revelation or tradition or book rooted in the deep past is the single most important human wisdom. This is what they will strive to share with their children. This approach includes numerous spokespersons for delivering the moral message, including the parents themselves if they are fundamentalist believers. In these homes the natural teaching role of parents as loving, fallible human beings can easily become mixed up with the moral absolutes claimed by the divine.

The other way of thinking about the epigenetic nature of human development is rooted in the opposite hypothesis. By this way of thinking whatever is of highest value which must be passed on to the coming generation is something to be found within. In this view the purpose of education is not to instill a truth from the outside but to provide what is needed for a human being to flourish through using their own capabilities. Education is the avenue for engaging in a dialog with inherited thought, guided by one’s own creativity and curiosity. The ideal is the life long learner.

These two understandings of the human condition diverge around the question of authority. Where should the locus of ultimate authority for an individual lie? It is worth reminding ourselves that all of human conscious experience has only ever been through the medium of individual lives. Though this is an obvious truism, it is easy to fall into an abstraction of the past that seems to somehow include something more. So it is a question about where an individual ultimately turns for meaning – to their direct experience of living and dying or to an external source, an authority.

I’ve presented the two possible hypotheses as if they had equal weight, as if it were a rather simple choice between which camps one belongs to. Perhaps in these opposing worldviews we could see the roots of the conservative and liberal, the believer and the agnostic, the republican and the democrat. Well, not quite. I think these are deeper waters, deep enough to see reflections of liberation, emptiness, and a joyful path.

The first camp provides a way for the voice of the individual to abdicate its responsibility for what it is teaching since they claim to only be passing on the received truth. Against this collective weight of shared belief those in the other camp have only their lone voice to raise in opposition; the deck is heavily stacked against them. Just consider for a moment how challenging it is to depend on your own understanding, your own insights one-hundred and ten percent. Those who take the path of the individual listen to the priests and gurus, scientists and philosophers but at the end of the day they bet with their lives on their own understanding of what is and what is not real and true.

I think it takes work to really be in the second camp and take responsibility for your own mind. We are all susceptible to numerous avoidance plays, even when we see the sense of this position. Modern life makes it very easy to get so busy we can become distracted away from the big questions for years, the questions of values and how we should live. It is also easy in this environment to harbor a vague dependency on experts. When this happens we do not just see them as the storehouses of detailed knowledge which they are, but as relieving us of the duty to think for ourselves. Then, for example, the ubiquitous response to concern about the Eco-crisis, ‘they’ll think of something,’ is expressing a fundamentalist belief instead of expressing the simple emotional aspiration; ‘Gee, I sure hope they think of something.’

Faith in engineering creates a technological priesthood just as surely as faith in holy books create the soteriological priesthoods.

It is interesting how this question of authority works well for appreciating some of the history of ideas that have accompanied Western history. The Protestant reformation was a move in the direction of the individual over the authoritarian hierarchy yet the results could hardly be said to qualify as complete liberation from membership in the first camp. In fact the most dogmatic Christian denominations are found among the Protestants. The movement of collective thought then took another step towards the individual with the rise of Deism, Nature’s God. These thinkers concerned themselves with battling superstition in both Catholic and Protestant traditions, which in their view only obscured the truth of the creator they found best expressed in the timelessness of scientific laws such as Newtonian dynamics. It is from the Deists that Masonry is born and, as mentioned last week, it is from Masonry that many of the ideals that inspired the formation of the United States are drawn. The United States has been at the forefront of another step towards the individual with modernization’s thoroughgoing secularization under a technocracy.

Numerous scholars have taken this move towards the individual in the history of ideas as their field of study. Just a glance at a few titles gives a sense of how it has often been interpreted; The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, and The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity.

Somewhere on our journey to Ayn Rand neoliberalism we went off the rails. Dissolving the effectiveness of the bulwarks of community left individuals as easy prey to the authoritarian hierarchies now firmly grasping the helm of history: the international mega-corporations.

There are further complications. The separation of the two camps in not as straight forward as this introduction to this new cycle of posts has implied. There is a key role to be played by what has been called the inner guru as an authority the individual needs to learn to recognize. Lacking this element, these steps towards the individual and away from authoritarian hierarchies leads to the type of empty, pompous egomania so pervasively on display in our day and age. Also it is true that among the non-fundamentalist sects there is recognition of the difference between a childhood faith based on accepting the word of others and a mature adult faith arrived at by an individual struggling with the quest for answers to the big questions on their own. The final complication we must consider is that there may be no black and white answer to a choice between the two camps; maybe all we can hope for is a position on the spectrum of belief.

As I said, I think it is hard work to be in the second camp.  It is much easier to pride ourselves as being paragons of individual freedom than to actually live free lives.

A large part of why this is so deals with how the authoritarian voice is implanted in our heads through our long childhood. Extremely polarizing moralities are pushed by harshly critical inner voices; voices we usually only dimly perceive, yet they are adept at crushing our self esteem. Most people in a consumer society feel rather down on themselves, to put it mildly. To pull no punches about the inherent pathology: hating themselves they hate life, hating life they hate the earth on which it unfolds.

Pulled by Values

Last week ended with a consideration of how much poorer the world would be if the United States were no longer a going concern. I’d like to offer one way in which that might be so as a way of introducing this week’s discussion of values. I suggest that what the United States has represented in the world above all else is a set of values. Arguably the foundation of the Untied States was the greatest lasting legacy of the Masonic and fraternal brotherhoods. Masonry was a child of the Age of Reason and its founders were determined to do what they could to stomp out the religious wars which had been raging on the European continent for centuries. In their teaching they elevate the reality of brotherhood above the religious and philosophical abstractions which divide us. This led them to seek something new in the world: the separation of church and state. America’s first amendment is the embodiment of that ideal, that commitment to take armies and politics out of the hands of the church. Current headlines show this is still a very lively debate.

The time has come to talk of how beliefs are expressions of values and try to convey the importance of values both for understanding ourselves as a species and for leading a meaningful life. The religious traditions we have been surveying have each provided countless millions of our fellow human beings with community and moral direction. I even know atheists and agnostics who have sent their children to church for their education in morality and values, recognizing that one of their key roles is in supporting young families and shaping young minds.

It is here, where real lives interface with the mythic symbols, that the truth of a belief system is to be found. At any rate there is a psychological truth here that undoubtedly has real effects in the real world, regardless of the veracity of any dogmatic content we might consider. Put simply, these great symbol systems do not need to be true in a scientific sense, in fact cannot be since they contradict one another, to ring true in a psychological sense for some people, some of the time.

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” Pascal

It seems that if we are to understand anything about ourselves this widespread phenomenon, self identified among believers as the most important part of their lives, must be included. It was a mistake of the Age of Reason to expect that rational argument and scientific demonstration alone would dislodge what they called the superstitions of man. They failed to appreciate that aspect of symbols that reaches into depths of direct emotional and perceptual experience, all that is not so much irrational as a-rational. They capture apperceptions, which are accompanied by a sense of penetrating deeply into reality with a profoundly meaningful insight, that do not use formal logic at all.

When our cognitive apparatus confronts the numinous aspect of the symbol it has a tendency to take flight on the wings of abstraction. It flies into the aethers of dogmatic certainty buoyed up by experiences of consciousness confronting emotions and perceptions in a particularly raw and direct fashion. Faith feels right.

That feeling is involved is just the clue we need. That feeling is involved in all faith is not a dirty little secret to be hushed into a corner by apologetics. Feelings are how we encounter, express, and embody our personal and cultural values. The myths and stories, symbols and rituals of religion are the vehicles by which these values take on form among us. They confront us with a choice about how we will live.

This is an important point Viktor Frankl makes in Man’s Search for Meaning. Values pull man, they do not drive him as an instinct does. They pull because there is always a choice involved; to accept or reject what is being offered. “Man is never driven to moral behavior; in each instance he decides to behave morally. Man does not do so in order to satisfy a moral drive and to have a good conscience; he does so for the sake of a cause to which he commits himself, or for a person whom he loves, or for the sake of his God.”

He does so for the sake of a cause. This is how the ego is removed from the driver’s seat. Something bigger than just your own appetites becomes a part of your experience. But we have to be careful here since the ego can easily hide its agendas behind the most righteous garbs. When individuals encounter the psychic force built up around these collective symbol systems they are initially swept away. It takes time to develop the critical faculties required to take a step back and consider that one’s own symbolic inheritances are fundamentally equivalent to others. People of good will the world over, in any century or country you care to name, have been inspired by the same good heart you and your kin have known. Though our values express our individuality more than any other aspect of our character, we share most of their fundamental characteristics with all the members of Homo Sapiens, in fact most likely with all mammals. We mature by examining our inherited and epigenetically formed values in light of our own individual experience and choosing which ones we will strengthen and lend support to at the expense of others.

With all the killing in the name of religion from inquisitions to crusades it is easy to overlook the rather quieter role of religious stories in our lives. They are there to transmit values from one generation to the next. A mother tells her children the story of Moses to communicate the types of values she believes constitutes good character. As an example, consider the story of Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac we looked at earlier in the context of child sacrifice. Here the value being transmitted is clearly that we must be willing to sacrifice what is most dear to us if the ultimate truth requires it. It is getting at what we said above about how a cause can give us the strength to transcend our selfishness.

The value of the Christian story is non-violence as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and countless, nameless others have understood for centuries. Its simple message has been slandered and obfuscated since the beginning since it is awfully inconvenient for those who profit from war. Still it is hard to miss. The whole point about this person being the son of god and not just any person like you and me is that they had the miraculous ability to call down the whole host of heaven, literally the armies of heaven, yet chose not to – even under torture. Buddha taught a similar insight into our moral reality:

“Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.”

It is more than just a little ironic that the United States which prided itself on being a Christian nation became the country with the largest military in the history of the earth.

This bond between religious stories, symbols and rites and our systems of values is inseparable. Our cultural and personal identity is shaped and formed through the epigenetic process of development throughout our long childhoods, as previously discussed, and that process includes exposure to cultural religious traditions. This developmental role of values may help explain how they are the source of the strongest differences among us; as we say, one man’s heaven is another man’s hell. When push comes to shove at this level of our deepest values, we find it trivial to justify the demonization and destruction of the other – the blasphemer and heretics who dare to value things in ways unlike ourselves.

We are not unwise when we recognize it is a world in which it is best to allow different strokes for different folks, different scenes for different genes. We are less wise when we forget values can only pull us forward. Then we are sorely tempted to force our values on others through conversion and confrontation at the end of a gun and by means of bomb vests.

Here’s the thing. The values chosen will in no small part determine the emotional reaction you will have to the various events of your life and times. This emotional reaction will in turn determine the overall level of satisfaction you will have with your life. No wonder our most heated arguments are around conflicting values; we instinctively recognize how much is at stake.

Our values are not reached through wholly rational analysis but by a combination of reason and emotion harvesting the fruits of perceptual experience. One person has every benefit a life in a first world country can offer yet only ever complains, while another with crushing physical handicaps and haunted by uncertainty around their next meal greets every event with a cheerful heart. What makes such profoundly fundamental differences among us but the values by which we view our lives and experiences? The values we hold will color the motives we attribute to others to explain their actions; was that rudeness a typical manifestation of that person’s perverse and cursed nature or a simple slip under pressure of a person most likely to be friendly and helpful to most people, most of the time?

Need it be pointed out that our attitude about the earth and its bounty, or stinginess, will also arise from the same types of dynamics within our psyches?

As a culture we are learning to appreciate that the opportunity costs that accompany choosing a value are enormous. Choose to value consumer goods, for example, and a whole collection of alternative values goes by the wayside. Equally, choose to value a thriving and healthy biosphere and a different set of alternative values are going to be left unexplored. See how values pull us, tug on us, tempting us to offer them our loyalty?

It is difficult to remember in the arena of values that our rational, logical arguments will only carry us so far. A sort of pseudo-rationalism is put to work justifying positions with warring rhetoric and symbolisms. The environmental movement has been trying to present the facts of the ecological crisis in the mistaken conviction that a clear presentation would lead people to change their choice of values. Revolutionaries from across the political spectrum have made the same short-sighted mistake; they believed a rational presentation of a better way would lead the people to adopt it forthwith. As we have learned dearly, the totalitarian persuasions are not far behind. So what of environmentalism? Is there a green jack-boot in its future? Perhaps. As the wheels continue to fall off the bus of fossil fueled industrial civilization much will depend on the values we choose.

Beasts and Caesars

“Society reposes on the fact that man is a creature of habit. By interlocking the various habits of many men, society obtains a structure which may be compared with that of a running machine… Let anyone try to realize what would happen to himself if all those on whom he depends – the postmen, railwaymen, butchers, bakers, printers and very many others – were suddenly to vary their settled routines; he will then begin to appreciate in how great a degree the power of modern man over nature is due to the fact that society is a ‘going concern,’ or, in the language of the engineer, has momentum. Stop the running long enough to throw men’s habits out of gear with one another, and society would quickly run down to the simple reality of control by nature. Vast numbers would die in consequence.”
Sir Halford Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality 

“He calls it Reason, using light celestial
Just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.”
Goethe, Faust

 

The recent rumblings between Iran and Saudi Arabia are capable of invoking nightmares among those of us concerned about oil as a weapon. Right now we are watching a confluence of saber rattling and sectarianism against the background of the rising militant Islamic State. Let us all pray this particular confrontation develops no further. Business as usual in the world’s industrial societies is 100% dependent on the uninterrupted flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. If the flow of oil were to be interrupted,particularly for any great length of time, the situation industrial societies find themselves in could get real interesting, real quick. Some might even say it could be apocalyptic.

We left off last week in our examination of the Biblical Apocalypse by highlighting how the image of Babylon captures well the world neoliberalism has created. The central role of finance and the trading of goods is taught in that Biblical book to be the Achilles’ heel of empires, and that it is the hubris of the emperor’s cult which is to be resisted.

That post also laid out the splitting of trinities; the mirror images of God-Father, Christ-Son and Holy Spirit are reflected in the Book of Revelation by the Dragon-Father (mother?), Whore-Daughter, and unholy beast. This was presented in the context of the psychological phenomenon whereby unconscious material first presents itself to consciousness as if it is split in two. The maturing of the psyche, individuation, comes about with a reconciliation of these opposites, a reconciliation recognizable in the schematic layout of mandala forms.

This week we are going to apply the interpretive key of the splitting phenomenon to some of the remaining characters of the dark trinity of the apocalyptic story. When laying out the mirror images above I overlooked a detail; there is not one beast described in the book but two. That is, the symbol of the beast is itself split. There is said to be a beast of the sea – which historically in the book stands for the Emperor of Rome, likely Domitian. The other beast is said to be of the land and historically most scholars associate it with the Roman provinces and their principal governors. They are said to promote the worship of the first beast and his image, the royal visage on the coin of the realm. We can see why they promote this state of affairs when in their lament for the fallen Babylon “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn for her, because there will be no more markets for their cargo…”

The image is of the Emperor ruling the sea and like the Illuminati octopus (joke folks) extending his imperial reach across the globe through every port city. A type of geopolitics with a world island is being described.

If the appearance of the two beasts is taken as a case of splitting it hardly follows the typical pattern where one side is all good and the other evil; both after all are a part of the dark inversion. Perhaps we can throw more light on the symbols by comparing them with their counterparts in the light trinity, namely the Holy Spirit.

Carl Jung spent considerable effort in explaining the implications of the feminine, earthly fourth said to be necessary to balance the masculine, heavenly trinity at the heart of Christian theology and western culture. He was inspired, in part, by the alchemical Axiom of Maria which stated (using Marie-Louise von Franz translation) “Out of the One comes Two, out of Two comes Three, from the third comes the One as the Fourth.” It was Jung’s contention that the West had developed lopsidedly by enthroning the light of reason and damning all else – all the other experiences of human consciousness such as dreams, visions and altered states. This neurosis was said to be related to our inability to properly integrate the feminine values of nurturance and compassion in our overly masculine and competitive culture. By his light the result would be an irruption from the unconscious of just those repressed elements needed to rebalance the collective psyche and steer it away from madness.

He thought the occurrences of widespread UFO phenomenon was a psychic manifestation in individuals of the unconscious material breaking through, noting the mandala shape often associated with UFO sightings. He also saw in the Catholic Church’s 1950 declaration of the Assumption of Mary as dogma a powerful corrective being applied right at the heart of the matter. With the Assumption the feminine and earthly were returned to the trinity, creating the three-fold / four-fold wholeness that is the mystery of the mandala. The Holy Spirit and Mary are now forming a reconciliation of sorts; the spirit in the pure womb, the container and the contained.

The growing concern for the state of the planet and the growth of Gaian lifestyles are further manifestations of this same eruption into consciousness, the same rebalancing of the collective psyche. In this model what each of us do matters a great deal as it will either lend weight to the ongoing evolution of the  mind’s individuation – and the accompanying strengthening of the dignity and compassion that goes along with being such a human being – or obversely throws its weight onto the precarious burden of rear-guard movements already threatening regressive madness.

Babylon pointed to trade and finance as a warning. The beasts point to politics with theirs. Man can indeed be wolf to man. When must we most watch out for this slide into political butchery? The warning in the Apocalypse story seems to be related to what has been called the rise of the Caesars. This is a stage when the strong man appears promising to restore order once the empire is rotten at the core, the collapse of complexity is well underway and the habitual daily habits that once supplied the populous with goods and services has been disrupted. The masses giddy with idealistic freedom after the French revolution did not take long, once the food was no longer forthcoming, to find and enthrone Napoleon.

In the Biblical story all this is symbolized by the special time being depicted. What is happening on earth is reflected in heaven, the Platonic realm of pure ideas if you will, where the Dragon has been cast out and takes with him a third of the stars of heaven. This image of stars crashing to earth is but the most dramatic of a series of natural disasters said to plague the human inhabitants of the earth at the time of Revelation. Scholars of apocalyptic literature explain the disruptions of the natural order are reflections of the societal breakdown from which apocalyptic literature is born. The beasts then warn us about the types of politics that accompany such times; the politics of collapsed states where it is rule by the ruthless and the law of the jungle prevails. Beasts indeed.

As events along the curve of society’s catabolic collapse accelerate the people naturally look for a strong leader who promises to deliver them from the painful dangers and uncertainties of societal chaos. The earliest kings were likely the toughest SOBs around. Something similar is taking place here. The aura of safety around the great man, even if illusory, is seen as a life preserver to which the people desperately cling.

With the fall of Babylon the beasts come. This is how Oswald Spengler puts it in The Decline of the West, “… the Caesar-men. Before them the omnipotence of money collapses. The Imperial Age, in every culture alike, signifies the end of the politics of mind and money. The powers of the blood, unbroken bodily forces, resume their ancient leadership. ‘Race’ springs forth, pure and irresistible – the strongest win and the residue is their spoil. They seize the management of the world, and the realm of books and problems petrifies or vanishes from memory.”

I think what the Apocalypse offers are warnings; their symbolic inheritance captures lessons learned from a particular time and place that are being presented to speak directly to any other time and place that might find itself dealing with the same dangers. This is a bad time for good people, the story says; the Dragon sends a flood of persecution to try and sweep away the “church.” The Western Revelation captures what we as a people have learned about the ways of humanity and empire. From the esoteric point of view to read it as just some sort of religious faith document is to largely miss the point.

We don’t want to go here if it can be avoided. America as a collapsed state would be a very poor condition for the world to find itself in. These real life horrors come in degrees so we can rationally hope that strengthening and spreading pockets of sanity might tame the descent into madness. The long descent as the global financial system teeters, aka Babylon falls, and our societies shed excess complexity need not be accompanied by a descent into social chaos. Disruptions of law and order can be contained if we work to encourage one another in appreciating and celebrating the blessing of life lived simply. There are many broken cornerstones in our politics today but we are pretty clear on what they are and what it would take to fix them. In spite of the headlines of gloom the good that people are able to manifest, if they so choose, remains an overwhelming characteristic of daily life for the vast majority. We can draw on that as we face the work of societal transformation we are all caught up in whether we like it or not.

It is a sad truth about human nature that often we do not appreciate a good until it is gone. We should all hope and work so that this does not become the case here. Just as with contemplation practice we can learn to perceive the preciousness of what we have without losing it, so with similar concentration on our country’s founding principles we have a good chance of getting through the next few challenging decades with our dignity intact.

Otherwise we just might find ourselves in that other part of the Apocalyptic story, the one that takes place on the fields of Armageddon. This is the western cremation ground. Here at last, and in final form, the ego learns it is not in control and does not have the final word; that it has been ignorant about reality. Human hubris is slaughtered; the meek inherit the earth and the clear light of the heavenly city, that jeweled mandala of the west, shines forth. It is a fitting conclusion to the Bible that has taken the ego’s journey as its theme. It is not however meant to be a Pentagon planning document as fundamentalists of every stripe the world over mistakenly believe. For them it is a trap. Here, in the core stories that carry such gravitas in the western psyche, it is very dangerous to mix the planes and eat the menu instead of the meal.

Babylon

“If God will intercede to stop humans from destroying the earth – which 39% of respondents believed to be true – why legislate limits on carbon emissions?”
Half of Americans think Climate Change is a Sign of the Apocalypse

 

One of the more interesting things Carl Jung observed in dream analysis is that when an item is coming to consciousness for the first time it will often present itself as double, as twin images. One side often embodies the dark, twisted and sick while the other light, wholesomeness, and health. It is as if consciousness, when confronted with something larger than it is able to cope with whole, approaches it piecemeal. By working with the opposites the mind is lead towards harmonizing disparate aspects of itself. Identifying this process has provided an illuminating key to some very interesting interpretations of stories and stages of psychological development.

For example, in developmental psychology it is common to observe in young people a clean cut separation of the world into two opposite camps; the sheep and the goats. Later in life, as experiences accumulate, a more mature view develops that recognizes the potential for good or ill resides in each and every one of us.

Christian theology is no stranger to the splitting process; the Christian Bible itself could be characterized as bookended by just such phenomenon. It starts its tale of humanity in the Garden of Eden in which there are two trees; one the tree of life granting immortality and the other the tree of good and evil bringing death. At the end of the Bible is the Book of Revelation in which an evil trinity of sorts confronts the holy trinity and the end of the human world is the result.

We have been exploring the esoteric roots of western traditions in an attempt to find insight into the ongoing Eco- crisis. This point of view reads symbolism as expositions of human experience and lessons learned. Though our rational mind would like all its lessons cut and dried and delivered in unambiguous prose the nature of our perceptual, emotional and cognitive experience is such that only symbols are able to capture the essential elements of the most profound lessons and insights we are able to share with one another. Symbols can also be mined for allegorical or metaphorical meaning yet remain inviolate at the end of the day.

Consider for example the symbolism of the two types of trees in the Garden of Eden stories. Over the centuries buckets of ink have been spilt “explaining” how they represent one aspect of our experience or another. One family of explanations sees in the story the loss of childhood innocence with the coming of sexual knowledge. Another reads the tale as an explanation of undifferentiated consciousness falling into dualism while yet another family of interpretations insists on reading it literally (perhaps the apple was some new kind of neurotransmitter allowing the hominid brain to develop – that’s as far down that path I’m willing to go). This ability to host numerous insights is what makes the symbols of our stories so fruitful. Those fascinated by a particular set of symbols never tire of contemplating them.

Perhaps nowhere in the western intellectual tradition is this more obviously the case than in the lurid symbolism found in the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse. Scholars have poured over every dot and tittle and offer an interpretive key to the symbolism by recognizing the coded allusions to the Roman Empire and Emperor they contain. Historically the book is concerned with the collapse of that empire as well as the imperial cult of Emperor worship. It calls Christians to refuse to partake in the imperial cult even at the risk of martyrdom.

Apocalyptic literature is the literature of societal collapse. This alone would bring it within the purview of mindful ecology which is concerned with how people are reacting to the age of limits. That it is in the news daily only adds another good reason to take a look. But beyond these there is the elephant in the room, the specific detail that fits hand to glove within these Faustian times. Or so, at least, it seems to me.

Before adding my own two cents for how we might think about these symbols, let’s take a step back and look at the larger Biblical picture. The most defining feature is how time is being characterized as having a clear beginning and end. History is being presented as a linear progression throughout, with each event corresponding to some hidden purpose. The earth is presented as a type of backdrop or theatrical stage scene in which the real drama, the drama of souls, plays out. It is worth pointing out in passing that although this model of time has played a fundamental role in western thought it is not the only viable model nor does it correspond to what we know about relativity in physics. An earlier post mentioned an alternative in which the present moment outflows endlessly, like the center point of a mandala. Interestingly the culmination of celestial visions in the Christian Bible is also presented in a mandala form.

Recognizing this linear model of time it is not difficult to see how the Biblical symbolism lends itself to the mystical insight, the esoteric point of view. We find the symbolism relating very directly to the experiences of the ego. The western stories, more so than those of the east, take the ego on its own terms and spin out the consequences. The mind comes into awareness at some moment in early childhood we do not recall. The soft nurturance of infantile innocence and dependency gives way to struggle and toil as we enter childhood and adolescence and work out for ourselves what lights we will live by, what strikes us as good and ill. Garden of Eden story: check. At the other end of life we face our demise and with our death comes the end of the world – for us. Book of Revelation story: check.

Notice how the mystical reading moves these things from some far off and abstract dogmatic assertions about how the universe is and bring them as close to us as our breath. Though the mystic is typically considered to be rather head in the clouds and pie in the sky types, here we see something extraordinary; it is they who stick with the evident; grounding speculations in experiences rather empirically. Something similar was found when we examined ‘cold reason’ and found that without emotion being properly involved, reason goes off the tracks. Here we are finding that without personal experience to add wisdom to these stories, we all too easily end up with compassionless dogmas and holy wars.

From this wider view another feature of the Biblical symbolism stands out running parallel to the shape of time. That is how these stories imply that the experiences of history’s nightmare somehow all make sense in light of some final revelation. This special revelation has inspired Gnostics of every stripe in every generation. This is where the myth of Faust finds its roots in Christian cultures and it should come as no surprise that such cultures have excelled in the sciences. In the book of Revelation the seals unfold and the trumpets blare and each time the reader is made privy to another event hidden from the beginning of the world. The western idea of progress captures this expectation that someday in the future a final, ultimate understanding will finally dawn and from it will come utopia.

Another feature the Book of Revelation lends itself to supporting is the idea that the real life of this life we experience exists elsewhere than where it appears. The book is constructed as a puzzle box, a set of nesting dolls where the reader is lead on into unfolding events with ever increasing anticipation of a final revelation. There are seven seals that are opened but the opening of the seventh reveals seven trumpets which blare, the seventh one of which, in turn, reveals the throne vision etc.

We are in the basement of the mind as it were, where the shape of what can or cannot be considered meaningful for us personally and collectively is molded. These major stories are like a tutor talking to us in the language we immediately perceive, the language of dreams.

Which brings us back to the phenomenon of splitting Jung observed. It has become cliché to speak of self-fulfilling prophecies when discussing the Apocalypse. I suggest the splitting phenomenon adds weight to this insight by lending it a nuance that makes it a helpful heuristic by which we might comprehend the nature of the changes our societies are going through today. It is not just that we are unconsciously seeking out an Armageddon level of confrontation with the infidels – though we are – but also that we are turning our worship to the dark trinity as well. It is not just that we are idiots conflating personal death with planetary death and both with ultimate culmination of righteousness (immanentize the eschaton!), though this too is in play. What splitting suggests is that we are also struggling to grow into a new awareness. I think culturally we are somewhat like the child who wants to leave their parent’s dogmatic religion to experience something more valid and real for themselves.

Just what this awareness might be only our descendants will be able to identify with certainty but an examination of the symbolism involved can provide us with clues. It seems to be related to empires, trade and economics; some lesson about sustainability perhaps.

The split in the Apocalypse occurs as a war in heaven and its spilling over to the earth. The God-Father, Christ-Son, and Holy Spirit collection finds its mirror image in the Dragon-Father, Whore-Daughter, and unholy beast (which is itself split).

Ecologically oriented as I am I cannot help but point out a few details I think are telling. It is my opinion that in general we human beings are not nearly as unconscious as we let on. We understand a lot more about our existential situation than we dare to admit within the very limited confines of our everyday waking consciousness. One of the ways I see this manifesting is in the care with which we have crafted the neoliberal globalization message to fit so well with the apocalyptic symbolism. Here in the basement of the mind…

Babylon is the central player here just as Christ is in the corresponding light trinity. The book does not say that much about Babylon but it is enough to be recognizable:

  • Her doctrine is that of the anti-Christ: anti-compassion aka selfishness
  • All the nations of the earth are made to trade with her, in case you thought gun-boat diplomacy was something new
  • “Merchants of the earth grew rich trading in her desire for luxury” or what the King James Version calls “delicacies.” This is not globalization to spread well crafted necessities to as many people as possible but to adorn the one percent with baubles
  • “The kings of the earth fornicate with her.” Sex sells. And we have already looked at the incestuous pyramids of kingly hierarchy where the revolving door between say, politicians and armament manufacturers still spins

Babylon seems made to order as the poster child for the fossil fueled, globalized, industrial civilization, the consumer culture it sustains, and the neoliberalism by which it justifies itself. Now isn’t that an odd thing for a (formerly?) Christian culture to do? As if a splitting phenomenon is unfolding on a massive scale as the eons turn…

Half of all Americans think climate change is a sign of the end times. I quoted an article earlier about how young Muslims are joining ISIS because they think by doing so they will participate in the final battle of Armageddon. There is no escaping how all this is bundled together in our intellectual history. We have turned to the dark side to receive our revelation. I wonder what it is going to be. How much further do we need to go in molding events to confirm our beliefs?

Here is my two cents about what the story in the Book of Revelation means; it’s like an inside view of the resurrected life, life beyond robots. It is a rather simple message really, involving the mystery of ever-present time:

The war is over – the good guys won. The Apocalypse has been cancelled.