Friday, 26 September 2008

balance and cyclicity

An address given at Frenchay Chapel on 21 September 2008.

The Archangel Michael, whose feast day is associated with the Autumn Equinox, was a dragon-slayer. The dragon that he slew, according to the Book of Revelations, was the Adversary, the serpent from the Garden of Eden.

What a tangle of mythology is involved in this story! In the West, dragons are seen as ferocious fire-breathing beasts; in China, they live at the bottom of the sea and of wells, and bring rain and other blessings. And in other ancient stories, serpents are a symbol of wisdom. Indeed, the Gnostics saw the serpent in the Garden of Eden as a manifestation of Sophia, the personification of wisdom.

So why is a being of light slaying the dragon? To find out, we need to look at the evolution of another dragon-slaying story, that of St George. In the earliest version of the story, George tamed the dragon and led it into the city by the golden girdle of the maiden who was to have been sacrificed to it.

If we see the dragon as a symbol of the beast within all of us, we can see that it is better to tame it and harness its energies for good, not to try to kill it (for it will assuredly resurface somewhere else, when we were least expecting it). We need to balance the energies within ourselves.
So why did the story evolve into one where the dragon was killed? Because the dragon was seen as the untamed power of nature, which must be subdued wherever it was found – in women or in the wilderness.

In China, meanwhile, they saw life as the balance of opposites – yin and yang, night and day, life and death, eternally cycling around each other in the great dance of existence. Hence dragons were the dynamic energy of the elements, bringing rain and growth. They were part of the dynamic equilibrium of nature. Equilibrium means “equal freedom” – freedom to move, to grow and to change; freedom of choice.

This dynamic balance of opposites can also be seen in the dance of the seasons – “a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted”. The wheel of the year turns; falling in the autumn, rising in the spring. As it falls in the autumn, and the nights draw in, we turn inward, towards home, and hearth, and spiritual things; baking, and making jam and wine; creative projects.

It also means that, instead of being harsh with ourselves when we get things wrong, we need to forgive ourselves; as Mary Oliver writes in Wild Geese:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Many religious traditions call upon their followers to empty themselves and allow the Divine to fill them. This sounds to me like a painful process. Rather, I think the work of spirituality is to relax, to find the inner stillness and space that is already there. All we have to do is to remember who we really are; to reconnect with the ebb and flow of the cycles of life. Everything is cyclical – the seasons, the tides, the orbits of the planets – why not human life? But it is not just a ceaseless round of the same old things, repeated ad nauseam. Everything changes; everything is always becoming something else; nothing is ever lost.

In Judaism, the Autumn Equinox is the birthday of the world. According to the Jewish website “Tel Shemesh”:
Rosh haShanah, in Jewish legend, is the anniversary of the day on which God created humans and animals—the beginning of the world. God creates humanity out of the dust of the earth, and out of God’s own spirit. Of humans, it says that “God created the human in God’s own image, in the image of God God created the human, male and female God created them.” Adam and Eve are born on Rosh Hashanah, as is the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. The first of the year falls on a day that reminds us that the Divine is within us and all beings. We blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, to signal the thunderous impact of this Presence on our lives, and we engage in memory—considering all that we have done during the year, seeking to make right where we have erred, seeking to become whole where we have been in turmoil, seeking to make ourselves new. It is a time of conception in all its forms. There is a tradition that the Jewish year has a “mother”—Rosh haShanah, the 1st of Tishrei—and a “father,” the 1st of Nisan (both are new years according to the Jewish calendar). If Rosh haShanah is the mother, then the shofar is the womb through which our spirits pass on the way to redemption. The ram’s horn represents the power of the Shekhinah to be hollow, to be a vessel for creation. Yet the shofar also reminds us of the ayil (ram) who sounds like El (God)—the masculine forces of the Divine. The liturgy of Rosh haShanah focuses on avinu malkeinu—our father, our king, the stern but loving father of Jewish tradition. We cast bread into bodies of water in the ritual called tashlich (throwing away), to cast away those behaviors we no longer want or need. Yet we can balance this image with the phrase in the Rosh haShanah liturgy: “hayom harat olam”—today is the birthday of the world, or more accurately, today is the pregnancy of the world. On Rosh Hashanah our world becomes pregnant with God, and God is pregnant with us. It is a time of mutual awareness and understanding. It is the time when we enter the inner world, the world of the womb, in order to be reborn into change.
Joseph Campbell wrote about the journey of the hero, who descends into the underworld, confronts his deepest fears, and returns to the everyday world bringing back a blessing for humanity. This story appears in a thousand different forms: The Epic of Gilgamesh, Jonah and the Whale, Jesus dying and being resurrected, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and the plot of just about any film you can think of; they all conform to this pattern. We are all heroes on our own journeys, bringing back wisdom from the depths for the benefit of humanity.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

for a given value of...

The Rev Dr Incitatus writes:
I think Stephen's new approach is better, in which he simply asks whether it's worth worshipping God, rather than trying to address whether God exists at all. The former question is far more straightforward, independent of the ambiguity of the term "God", and thus amenable to empirical assessment, imho: clearly, it really isn't terribly important to worship him, because it makes no tangible difference to the lives of people whether they do or do not.
Whether it's worth worshipping depends on what you mean by "God" and what you mean by "worship".

If by worship you mean "assign ultimate worth to" (as opposed to the opposite end of the worship spectrum, "abase yourself before") then worship is something we all do when we decide on our values. We do it when we fall in love, stand enraptured before the beauty of Nature or are awed by the exciting knowledge about to be revealed by the Large Hadron Collider.

If by "God" (I prefer the gender-neutral term "Divine") you mean the wonder and mystery of being alive, the beauty of the white Moon among the stars, the magnificence of galaxies, and the beauty of Nature, then yes, it's worth worshipping (in the sense of assigning ultimate worth to). It's also worth communing with, meditating on, writing poetry about, and exploring empirically. But is there any point trying to reclaim the words "god" or "divine" to mean all that? Not, in my opinion, if you mean something supernatural, ontologically transcendent, and of pure essence. I think the term Tao describes it much better; it means the way, and thus implies constant movement and change, and it is immanent in the universe, or even an emergent property of it. If the divine/deities/genii loci is/are (as I propose) the emergent consciousness of complex systems, why shouldn't the Universe have consciousness? (Teehee, I said this to a major proponent of emergent complexity; I think he was a bit horrified that I was using his theory like that - but I reminded him that I was only proposing a hypothesis, at which he was somewhat mollified.) There's no particular reason why walking bags mostly made of water suspended from a calciferous internal structure should have consciousness, so why not other complex systems?

If by "God" you mean the alleged authoritarian in the sky with the big stick, then the answer is definitely no, especially if the worship is of the self-abasement variety.

Thursday, 4 September 2008


There are two forms of transcendence; ontological and epistemological. Ontological transcendence being the idea that some world of ideal Platonic forms or divine essence exists beyond the world (I reject this) and epistemological transcendence being the idea that transcendence can be experienced in collectivity - the experience of coinherence, for example, or the moment of identification of the Beloved with the world ("Thou art that"). I imagine that A N Whitehead (and most Pagans) would have no problem with epistemological transcendence, which is entirely consistent with the immanence of the divine. For me, the transcendent quality I experience in the contemplation of Nature is in identifying with it, not in the idea that it points to some ideal Platonic form.  I sometimes experience Nature transfigured (though not all the time) but I believe the transfiguration is in my perception of it (as in Blake's assertion that if the doors of perception were cleaned, everything would appear as it is, infinite) not in the breaking through of Divine essence.

I am interested in Teilhard de Chardin's idea of the Omega Point but he regards the world as being drawn towards the Omega Point by a complex consciousness residing in the future, which seems unnecessarily elaborate.

The Pagan version of cosmic consciousness is Oberon Zell-Ravenheart's Gaia Thesis, formulated in his book Theagenesis (1970).  This simply posits that the Earth, as a complex system, has consciousness (maybe as an emergent property).  It predates the better-known Gaia Hypothesis of James Lovelock by four years; and Lovelock and Zell actually corresponded on the subject in the 1970s.

In the Tao Te Ching, the Ten Thousand Things are born of the Tao, and include everything - there is no artificial distinction between good and bad.
The Valley Spirit never dies
It is named the Mysterious Female.
And the doorway of the Mysterious Female
Is the base from which Heaven and Earth sprang.
It is there within us all the while;
Draw upon it as you will, it never runs dry.
They also return to the Tao, because it is in their nature to do so:
In Tao the only motion is returning;
The only useful quality, weakness.
For though all creatures under heaven are the products of Being,
Being itself is the product of Not-being.
Note that "Not-being" is probably not the same as "divine essence"; in Buddhism, the distinction is between being and not-being, rather than between essence and energy/existence.  I would imagine the same was true of Taoism.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Read this and weep

Falling out with Oscar
- John Gray, Oscar Wilde and Dorian Gray. Via {feuilleton}

How terribly, terribly sad that John Gray had to deny his sexuality in order to live his spirituality. And how heart-breaking that this is still happening to many LGBTQ people in churches.