Plato’s cosmology did not die with him but was developed and given new life by his followers such as Aristotle, who broadcast a sharpened image of the prime mover at the center of a universe of stars moving about him in a procession of celestial grandeur.

A Latin translation of the Timaeus found fertile ground among Neoplatonist philosophers in Alexandria in the third century of our current era, philosophers who subsequently joined Plato’s idealism to Jewish, Christian, and Roman thought, producing a grand image of the heavenly host spread before the mind’s eye for human guidance and edification.

Dionysius (Denys, Dennis) the Areopagite (Pseudo-Dionysius, second century CE, six centuries after Plato), a Neoplatonist with a theological bent, has left us an ornate depiction of the cosmos combined with a religious structure mirroring the heavens in the hierarchy of the Christian church here on Earth.

Dionysius depicted God’s retinue in heaven as divided into a celestial hierarchy of three tiers of heavenly minds placed there for our instruction and imitation here below (a scheme similar to that proposed by the Sumerians–see Post 474).

The purpose, then, of Hierarchy is the assimilation and union . . . with God having Him Leader of all religious science and operations, by looking unflinchingly to His most Divine comeliness, and copying. . . its own followers as Divine images, mirrors most luminous and without flaw, receptive of the primal light and the supremely Divine ray, and devoutly filled with the entrusted radiance, and . . . spreading this radiance ungrudgingly to those after it, in accordance with the supremely Divine regulations. . . .

All of which culminates in a grand summary that emphasizes the power that drives the stars in their harmonious orbits:

He, then, who mentions Hierarchy, denotes a certain altogether Holy Order, an image of the supremely Divine freshness, ministering the mysteries of its own illumination in hierarchical ranks, and sciences, and assimilated to its own proper Head as far as lawful. (From The Celestial Hierarchy, Caput III, Section II, 1899, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/areopagite_13_heavenly_hierarchy.htm, Accessed Nov. 2, 2013.)

For Dionysius, Plato’s cosmos had become a divine holy order immediately accessible to those who would not only contemplate, but obey the directives of its radiance. A strongly prescriptive and mystical tone had crept into the story, comprehensible only to those instructed in decoding such language. But behind the language, the stars can still be seen to shine as clearly and brilliantly as they do overhead on a moonless night through dry air.

The Neoplatonists gave stellar radiance a finely divided and philosophical series of orderly distinctions which they bound into a philosophy centered on a single, luminous, but hidden central God surrounded by ever-larger ranks of heavenly powers, commonly regarded as angels or angelic messengers, the whole troupe of heavenly luminaries being divided into a concentric hierarchy of ever-finer gradations that were meaningful to the informed (indoctrinated) mind.

Dionysius carried his argument to finer levels than most of us care to consider, as if he got points for the number of distinctions he was able to make, creating a lot of confusion and overlap in the process under the guise of devotional scholarship.

His overall scheme, however, divided the celestial hierarchy into three levels, each level composed of three further sub-levels. Beginning tightly around the “Divine Hiddenness” (or prime mover) at the center, the celestial powers or angels are divided into,

  1. a highest, brightest, and hottest circle of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones;
  2. a second circle farther out divided into somewhat lower, dimmer, cooler groupings of “Heavenly Minds,” Lordships, Powers, and Authorities, or alternatively, Dominations, Virtues, and Powers;
  3. with a lesser group of angels in the outer reaches of heaven, those concerned with human welfare and obedience, encompassing Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.

And complementing the celestial hierarchy in heaven, Pseudo-Dionysius depicted three Earthly triads intended to enforce the dictates of heaven upon the faithful below:

  1. symbolic sacraments—Baptism, Communion, and Consecration of the Holy Chrism;
  2. holy orders—Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons;
  3. together with Monks in a state of perfection, Initiated Laity in a state of illumination, and Catechumens in a state of purification.

These Pseudo-Dionysian hierarchies were a late melding of Neoplatonic ideas with orthodox Christian theology to produce a mystical union of ideas and ritual acts as a blend of philosophical and theological strands to produce a wholly spiritual system of human belief rooted firmly in a personal faith, often embracing incompatible aspects, very much like the state Plato found himself in while penning the Timaeus as his last word on creation of the universe and its cosmology.

Shining through the mists of such doctrines, however, is the awe with which people in every age have gazed upon the stars. Our reward is not so much hearing what the stars would say to us if they could speak, but ideas which we unabashedly put in their mouths so that we take from them what we need to hear.

That is the essential point to be made regarding our perennial engagement with the stars: we make of them what we will, and call it the truth. And that is exactly how our minds work, finding little else but variations upon what we are looking for, be it confidence, comfort, succor, authority, charity, gentility, or whatever quality we need to balance the turmoil (chaos) of daily life. The stars are up there for our free and personal use. Living the difficult lives we do here below, we rely on their guidance as needed.

In my next two posts I will wrap up this section on our popular engagements with baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the stars by seeing our take on the stars through Mediaeval times into the space age of today. Then in future posts I will shift to discussing where I hope to have taken readers on our wayfaring together over the past 150 or so posts, leading to the conclusions I will leave you with regarding my views of consciousness, mind, and engagement as draw from the personal journey I have made across the past eighty-two years.

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434. Cultural Inertia

February 16, 2015

We are born to cultures centered on worship and religion as fixtures of daily life. When I was growing up in Hamilton, New York, in the 1930s, buildings with spires were landmarks in my young eyes, conspicuous curiosities I passed in my roaming about town, but had little to do with. What is it about churches-mosques-synagogues-temples that they should occupy such prominent positions in our lives?

In one form or another, they’ve been around a long time. Recent excavations in Göbekli Tepe in Turkey have uncovered impressive sanctuaries 11,600 years old. On the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Sumerians built ziggurats in 3,200 BCE where priests worshipped gods in their starry heavens. A big part of Sumerian belief focused on the correspondence between the sun’s position in the zodiac and the seasonal labors of people on Earth.

During grape harvesting and pressing, for example, the same constellations of stars were visible overhead each year. That fact was summed in the religious teaching, “On Earth as it is in heaven.” The prime-mover God was sending us signs to make sure we coordinated our practices with his teachings. The priestly class emerged as mediators between the will of God above and dutiful humanity below.

About the same time, the first stage of what we call Stonehenge was erected on Salisbury Plain. During their Babylonian captivity, ancient Hebrews came across what they called the Tower of Babel, a religious structure built by a culture whose speech they found incomprehensible.

In his dialogue the Timaeus, Plato mused about the origin of religion in the seemingly orderly, harmonious, and rational motions of the stars about the celestial pole. Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, passed his mentor’s teachings on to the Middle Ages. Latin translation of part of the Timaeus reached Neoplatonist philosophers in Alexandria, who relayed a good part of Plato’s thinking into the new religion, Christianity, given the recognition and blessing of Constantine, last Roman Emperor.

From the beginning, Christianity’s central theme was the death and rebirth of Jesus, echoing the ancient belief in the miracle of planting a seed in the ground and its sprouting three days later. Jesus was one among a number of vegetation gods (Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Dumuzi, Osiris) who, as exemplary humans or demigods, personified the same cyclical fate that crops do in their annual plantings (death) and sproutings (rebirth).

Chartres Cathedral, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, emphasized not only the link between zodiacal constellations in the sky and the labors of humanity on Earth, but, too, the symbolic cycle of death and rebirth in its zodiacal stained-glass window and clock that still tracks the seasons as gauged by the stars overhead. The cathedral stands as a monument to those longstanding ancient traditions.

Ptolemy in the second century had pictured the motions of the stars as centered on the Earth, and that notion persisted for fourteen hundred years until Copernicus in the sixteenth century discovered Earth to be a planet orbiting around the sun. The stars, it seems, do not move; it is our home planet that is responsible for their orderly march day-by-day, year-after-year through the heavens. Tycho, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton refined the Copernican idea, fixing it in human understanding of the universe.

As late as the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas stated: Nothing can move itself; there must be a first mover. The first mover is called God. That is a restatement of Plato’s belief as expressed in the Timaeus. But it is not the stars that move, it is Earth revolving about its axis that makes the stars only seem to move. As it is Earth’s orbiting about the sun that powers the progression of zodiacal constellations repeatedly through the seasons of the year.

But despite the enlightened cosmology put forward during the European renaissance in a new understanding that put Earth as a minor planet orbiting a typical sun in the outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy, western religious culture did not update its primitive belief in the orderly and rational motions of a universe for which only a God as prime mover was deemed responsible.

Religion, which means binding (Latin, re-ligare) humanity to the apparent motion of the stars at the will of a prime mover, was too invested in its traditional ideas to change, so kept on as before, exposing its asserted beliefs as a matter of unsupported faith, so reducing church doctrine to the level of mythology.

Then Charles Darwin came along and provided compendious evidence that humans are descended from an ancient lineage of animal life, making it impossible to believe that we were created by God in his image. Without ceremony, Adam and Eve in their happy garden became merely a myth. Yet when I was born, all those steeple houses stood on the main streets of Hamilton, pointing skyward, just as the columns at Göbekli Tepe did 11,600 years ago in the mountains that fed melting snow into the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Strange business. My culture today sends me mixed and incompatible messages about the universe. Science says one thing based on corroborated evidence; the church says something entirely other on the basis of its longstanding faith. A faith that still erects spires pointing to the heavens.

How am I to engage such a culture so divided between passionate faith and demonstrable evidence? That’s easy. Evidence trumps faith every time. I go with the facts supporting our modern cosmology (just think of the evidence provided by the Hubble Space Telescope alone) over Plato’s ideals of order, harmony, and reason—which gave us a picture of the universe as he wished it were, not as we now know it to be.

Much of the turmoil in the world today stems from armed conflicts between different systems of faith. We keep lugging past ideas around with us as if they were as relevant to our time on Earth as they were 1,800 years ago, 2,700 years ago, or even 11,600 years ago. Once cultural memes get planted, they go on forever and never die off. We won’t let them die off. Out of sentiment, we are dedicated to preserving every thought anybody ever had, no matter how feeble or erroneous.

Consciousness is the medium that preserves those outdated ideas. We resurrect them because we somehow find them comforting as reminders of childhood. So our intelligence is split between faith and fact, tradition and the latest breakthrough. And for some reason we cannot tell the difference. Between what is relevant to our lives and what is superfluous. We know better yet seem not to know better at the same time. This is the conundrum at the core of our everyday culture. Due to trusting memory more than perception, the familiar past more than the now.

That was the conundrum I experienced growing up as a kid, and still find within me even though I have gained so much vital experience between then and now. Humanity suffers from cultural inertia in not being able to let go of outdated ideas. That is, from couching those ancient ideas as honored faiths and mythologies which, in all innocence, keep us chained to our primal ignorance and mistaken beliefs.

Even the word “universe” itself is a misnomer because it means one-turning, as a hidden reference to the impossible-to-believe-in prime mover behind what we used to think of as the motion of the heavens, but now understand as a reflection of the motions of our home planet.

So much to wrap our minds around, so little time. How do we know what to take off the shelf of our culture, and what to shun like the plague?

Discrimination is the secret, not personal preference, not tradition, not habit. Exercising the gifts we are born with in reaching out to the universe around us, not accepting it on anyone’s terms but our own. Seeing with our own eyes. But that is hard work. Requiring us to be on the forefront of our own minds at all times, defining the leading edge of our human understanding as we go.

That, I think, is the responsibility we owe to our ancestors, to transcend their faulty cultural beliefs by advancing with the experiences available to us that they never knew. That is the essence of engagement. Keeping up with what’s happening around us in our own times. Not living in the past, but shifting with every new day into the now. Going beyond old notions and ideas. Faith is a lazy way of avoiding the hard work being asked of us as we evolve with the life around us. Keeping up with the times. Looking to the future, not the past.

The culture we are born to is the challenge we must accept in growing into our new selves every day. We must make our efforts part of that culture, and so move it ahead with us. The risk if we don’t is to become imprisoned by the past. Is that why we’re here, to be stuck in the mire of ancient ideas?

I will conclude this section on cultural engagements with twelve examples of my personal cultural engagements divided among my next four posts.

“Reification” is a five-dollar word that means turning an idea in the mind into a material thing. The verbs “specify,” “objectify,” “incorporate,” “substantiate,” “materialize,” or “realize” might serve as well (though that’s not how we typically use them). In the case of misidentifying Fred, what I did in my mind was reify, “impersonate,” “incarnate,” “or embody” a stranger as my friend.

Watching plays, films, and TV serials, we believe in the characters so much that we forget they are actors playing roles scripted in advance. We are completely taken in, or rather, take ourselves in, wanting to believe in the plot as an actual event unfolding before our eyes. The reification of God from being a concept in the human mind to the so-called creator, prime mover, and ruler of the universe serves as the archest example of the elevation of an idea from subjective to objective status in the history of the world, which exhibits the power of the human imagination in believing what it chooses to believe.

We do not simply look at a scene and see what is laid out before our eyes. Perception is a creative act, a fitting-together of details into a pattern we are prepared to recognize. Prepared by having seen it before many times or accompanied by strong emotion so that we build pathways in our brains by strengthening the synapses that link them together to form a route blazed with recognizable features (color, size, shape, contour, motion, texture, location, etc.). If a particular array of features can be recalled as a unit, then we are likely to remember it when we meet it again. Expecting to see something in a certain locale, we open our minds to just that thing so we are more likely to see it when we come across something that might resemble it.

The key point is to have something in mind before we come across it, in mind as a particular structure within our neural network of interconnected neurons and cortical columns. Expectancy gives priority and ready access to just that mental structure, saving a huge amount of time and effort in suiting ourselves to our worldly environment and, conversely, that environment to us.

 

(Copyright © 2010)

“God,” “heaven,” “the night sky,” and “the universe” are four different characterizations for a sensory phenomenon that looks something like this:

One TurningOur sense of the motion of the stars at night is one of the most powerful and enduring wonders of human experience. Because we can have that experience again and again throughout a lifetime, we know it is true. Yet it isn’t true. The apparent wheeling of the stars is an illusion. The stars are not moving in unison—Earth is turning on its axis, carrying us with it, making the stars appear to be rotating overhead while all the time it is we who are rotating. We have names for the rising and setting of the sun and the moon—two heavenly bodies closer to home—yet, again, sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset are illusions created by the dipping of the eastern or rising of the western horizon against the background of the solar system and stars beyond. Projecting our Earthly motion onto the sun and the moon, as we do on the stars, we stake our claim to being the center of the universe, even though that concept is a convenient fiction in the human mind.

Earthrise experienced as sunset Universe means “one turning” or “turning oneness,” reflecting the sense of unity we feel when all about us shares the same motion. The concepts of God and heaven arise in the sighted consciousness of every human who has ever stood in the dark after the western horizon has swallowed the sun and celebrated the stately dance of the stars overhead against the background  of eternity and infinity. There is no escaping the feeling of awe and reverence which that ceremony kindles within us. Projected onto the scene, we categorize our feeling as being in the presence of the gods or of deities, which is what the words signify—the shining ones, from the Indo-European root, deiw-, to shine (and in such derivatives as sky, heaven, god, deity, divine, divinity, dios, Jove, and Jupiter).* Halos about the Heads of sacred figures reveal the cosmic origin of their holiness—and of the awe we bestow upon them. 

Early shepherds and other night folk noticed that seven great lights moved against the cyclical pattern apparently set by the stars, and we still dedicate the days of our week to those lights.

  • Sunday to the sun;
  • Monday to the moon;
  • Tuesday to planet Mars personified as Tiu, Germanic god of war;
  • Wednesday to planet Mercury personified as Odin, Woden, or Wotan, chief Teutonic god;
  • Thursday to planet Jupiter personified as Thor, related to Late Latin thunor or thunder;
  • Friday to planet Venus personified as Old Norse Frigg, wife to Odin, goddess of love and of heaven;
  • Saturday to planet Saturn personified as the rustic Roman god of agriculture.

This seven-day week is an amalgam made from several different cultural systems:

This system was brought into Hellenistic Egypt from Mesopotamia, where astrology had been practiced for millenniums and where seven had always been a propitious number. In A.D. 321 the emperor Constantine the Great grafted this astrological system onto the Roman calendar (The American Heritage Dictionary, Word History for Wednesday).

Distancing themselves, various religions dismiss these categorizations as pagan, that is, being of the country where uncultured peasants dwell, but the characterizations linking planets and gods in the human mind have stuck for thousands of years, suggesting the true power of such primal images and associations. In themselves, these images are neutral aspects of our placement in Earthly surroundings, but consciousness endows them with a salience of grandeur and significance, requiring the categories we project upon them be of the very highest order.

The four quarter days of the year demark the four seasons, summer and winter solstices when the sun “stands still” at the extreme turning points on its journey along the horizon, and spring and fall equinoxes when the sun rises and sets due east and west, respectively, and night and day are of equal length. Our compass of 360 degrees (reflecting an early approximation of the seasonal cycle repeating after that many days) is based on the normal (right-angle) alignment of Earth’s axis pointing due north toward the Pole Star and the east-west line between sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes. A great many pyramids, temples, basilicas, cathedrals, and city plans are oriented in time and place to harmonize with the evident plan of the universe as early observers interpreted it in light of their understanding and experience. As Earthlings, humans have had no other choice. Sensitivity to the cosmos is built into consciousness, calibrating our senses of orientation, correctness, and wonder.

Since 1994, I have joined a group of friends in observing theVernal equinox vigil “sunrise” at 5:35 a.m. on the day of the spring equinox as viewed from Ocean Drive in Acadia National Park. Equinox It strikes me still as the right thing to do—make a personal effort to celebrate the  ending of winter and coming ofEquinox potluck breakfast spring as one of the most decisive events of the year. Following the vigil, we retire to the home of a couple living nearby for a potluck  breakfast. After orienting our lives to the seasons, by 7:45 a.m. we are ready to walk into our days heartened to be in synch with the cosmos.

  Using the simplest tools, early astronomers projected lines and angles onto the night sky in mapping the positions of stars and planets, giving birth to geometry, navigation, and astrology at the same time. A friend once had my horoscope done, informing me my rising sign is in 03 degrees Scorpio:

You tend to be quiet, reserved, secretive and, at times, quite difficult to understand. Others notice your deep emotions and feelings and wonder how to draw you out. Stubborn and tough, you fight for any position you believe in. You are very resourceful and formidable when you become angered or upset about something. You enjoy living life at the cutting edge—for you life must be experienced intensely and totally. Quite courageous, you are willing to take calculated risks. Easily hurt by others, you often strike back with bitter sarcasm. Sensitive and curious, you are concerned with the deeper mysteries of human psychology. Once you have become interested in any subject, you pursue it with total fanaticism (Astrolabe @ alabe.com, 2001).

As a characterization of myself, that’s about as accurate as any resume I might concoct on my own. All based on heavenly alignments and relationships bearing on the date, time, and place of my birth. Those who devised and refined the system were conscious and observant Earthlings determined to conduct their lives in keeping with the order of the heavens as they perceived it. Perhaps subtle planetary alignments actually do affect the epigenetic connections of our brains as we lie deep within the refuge of our mother’s womb. I think it more likely that our placement in time and locale on the Earth sets the conditions of our formative development. We become creatures of that particular era and place, adopting or reacting to the ways of family and community as exemplars we ourselves would do well to follow.

In Reflection 183: Orthodox Consciousness, I wrote of my young self discovering fossils as a vital part of my early life, and splashing about the springtime hills surrounding my native haunts:

Since then, I’ve always felt there is more to existence than the surface reveals. My approach has been to probe everything to find out what secret life is trapped within—now including my own brain. Here I am, still tapping away, longing to reveal more of Earth’s secrets.

Which, for me, captures the essence of who I am in engaging the specific circumstances of my placement on Earth, forging interests and attitudes to last a lifetime. I detect that same essence in the horoscope fragment quoted above, and in the image of early peoples enrapt by the slow dance of stars and planets across the night sky. Consciousness aligns us with the turning of the universe we are born to, committing us early on to lead the lives we fulfill as we age. For me, spiritual guidance is found not in churches so much as in open spaces—estuaries, mountain ridges, shores, bogs, deserts, and wild areas of every sort where natural processes flourish today as they have since beginning times. If I can resonate with those processes without disturbing them, then I am more likely to thrive than those who degrade or deplete them.

Joining the dance of stars and planets in the night sky is a bit like hopping onto a moving freight train or spinning carousel. You have to get up to speed before making the leap. But when you do leap, you are already with the program, so have a better chance of furthering the general order than upsetting it, of adding your weight to the one turning than stumbling and being flung aside as disruptive or irrelevant. How we characterize the dance determines how we live—in or out of harmony with Earth and its cosmos.

 __________

* “Indo-European Roots,” Appendix to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition, (Houghton Mifflin, 1992).

Earthfall, March 20, 2006

(Copyright © 2009)

My freshman year in college, I learned about what were nicely called “fudge factors” in math class. You’d do your homework, of course, and compare the answer you got with the one in the back of the book. If they were different, you’d simply adjust your answer by a fudge factor that would make it come out right.

Fudge factors are as old as the hills. And as new as today. When I feel lightheaded and can’t think, I say it’s the new or full moon, or low atmosphere pressure, or something I ate, or I’m having a bad day, or I’m just not myself, or I got up on the wrong side of the bed. Whatever is not going right can be explained by one kind of fudge factor or another that when applied, helps me adjust to the circumstances I’m in.

In the Second World War, when airplanes didn’t perform as they should, it was blamed on gremlins, ill-tempered little  beings who loved to gum up the works. Gremlins were fudge factors that marked problems until an explanation could be found. Kilrokilroywasherey played a somewhat similar function during the war as Allied Forces advanced through Europe, showing up in the damndest places as a little face with a big nose peering over a fence drawn above the slogan, “Kilroy was here.” Wherever you went, Kilroy always got there first, making foreign parts feel almost familiar to troops far from home.

Fudge factors are some of the first principles of consciousness. We are so earnest in wanting things to turn out right, we enlist them to do the heavy lifting of making events as they turn out conform to our hopes and basic assumptions. If we believe in a supreme being, then everything that happens expresses the will of that being. God hurled Hurricane Katrina at New Orleans to punish the city for its errant ways. Nothing is neater and tidier than that trick. Or for good or ill, whatever happens is a matter of luck. If you luck-out, you win; if you don’t, you lose. Either way, the assumption holds. Similarly, if you believe in astrology, you can’t go wrong. Whatever happens in life is a function of alignments and relationships between planets at the moment of birth (or conception). The system is so complicated and subject to subtle shadings of influence, everything ends up being a function of every possible effect, proving the worth of the system. Astrology works particularly well in hindsight so once knowing the effect, you can give proper credit to whatever cause you select.

Consciousness comes fully equipped with the latest fudge factors. Whatever you believe, you can justify; whatever you justify, you can believe. I believe ecosystems run all life on Earth. Wherever I look, there be ecosystems. Interfere with ecosystems, you interfere with life in that place. If life goes wrong, look to the ecosystems that support it. Neat, simple, and maybe even partly right. But ecosystems are never the whole story; they are the rationale by which I make sense to myself, my personal fudge factor in reconciling my understanding with the facts. “Ecosystem” is shorthand for a complex biological system beyond my comprehension. “Watershed” is of the same order in, as I say, receiving, storing, and distributing the water on which all life depends. When I look on a landscape, I see watersheds. Ah ha, see there! Moisture flowing through the land, bringing it to life—just as I said it would.

Or you could say of an event, it was fated to happen. In northern climes, snow generally melts in March or April, so the landscape seems fated to restore itself shortly thereafter. Fate is one of the oldest fudge factors because it explains everything. Whatever happens is fated to happen. Thus it is written in the great book of time. You don’t need to understand biological systems to give all credit to fate for how things work out. Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be—as if it was all written out beforehand, as somebody or something knew it would turn out.

Mother Nature is also a common fudge factor. I’ve heard a great many fishermen credit her with masterminding the migrations of fish, the relative abundance of species year to year, ups and downs of thermometers and barometers and tide gauges, and so on. Mother Nature works through natural cycles of dearth and plenty, bad years and good. Exploitation of resources has nothing to do with it. What happens is what she wants to happen. If a fishery gets depleted, you just turn to another—usually lower in the food pyramid. If a fishery recovers somewhat, you say “I told you it would, you’ve got to have faith in Mother Nature.”

Of course Mother Nature is the female counterpart of God the ultimate Father. We seem to like our fudge factors to take on a human guise so we can relate to them up-front and personally. Instead of seeing God as a creation of the human mind, we turn the notion on its head and see God as the creator of the universe—including the human mind—who controls everything that happens. On that assumption, there are no mysteries anymore because God is the ultimate cause, and you just trace everything back to him. That way you feel you understand everything when in fact you understand nothing. God is just a manner of speaking—a verbal figment whose only meaning is the ritualized suite of behaviors we perform when we mention his name. That, and the attitude of submission we assume in abandoning our quest to understand the workings of the world. Those who pose rational arguments against claims for God’s existence are wasting their time. The concept of God is not rational. Like any fudge factor, God is an expedient to deploy when you haven’t done your homework. God is a cop-out, not an answer to a serious question.

In minds where God holds forth in broad daylight, the Devil frequently lurks in his shadow. God is assigned the job of making good things happen, the Devil of bringing destruction and disaster wherever he can in his capacity as ultimate gremlin. The Devil puts a face on entropy, and makes it intentional in fulfilling a preconceived purpose. Ascribing consciousness to gods, devils, gremlins, elves, and even Uncle Scrooge makes them all agents of ourselves—the projectors—as if we fully understood what was going on. This demonstrates the weakness in Bishop Ockham’s razor by which the simplest explanation is likely to apply. Nothing is simpler than projecting consciousness into fictitious beings—yet even though it makes us feel good, it leaves our preconceived assumptions absolutely intact. Fudge factors mock true learning and intelligence by the shoddiness with which they are applied. We may entertain them with good-humored affection—as Kilroy was held by G.I.s in World War II—but in truth we are kidding ourselves if we take the joke seriously.

Fudge factors transform dross into treasure, which is what alchemists tried to do in transmuting base metals into noble ones. They serve as a kind of philosophers’ stone for rubbing tarnish off one thing, making it shine like something else as if mere friction could turn lead into gold. In that sense, fudge factors are elixirs of the mind for turning the annoying into the acceptable, the bad into the good, the not-so-good into the perfect. Fudge factors and elixirs are underlying principles whose falsity and absurdity are not taken into account because only the seeming results are what matter. They are lies we tell ourselves in striving toward little-t truth.

Science, on the other hand, messy as it is, relies on evidence, not magical explanations. If it has a magic elixir, it is likely a supposed dependence on reason rather than hunches, trial and error, persistence, and sometimes luck in being in the right place at the right time to witness a particular phenomenon. Scientists often employ the human faculty of insight—an exercise in informed imagination—which nobody truly understands, but can sometimes lead the way to discovery. The difference between insights and elixirs is that one comes from inside the problem itself as an organic extension, while the other is laid on from the outside to make it work out in an acceptable manner, so confirming prior belief. Science, then, is capable of moving forward; fudge factors always send us back where we were. At its best, science is progressive, while reliance on magical thinking is regressive, allowing us to think we are moving ahead while we are actually stuck in our tracks.

Attitude is the key to choosing between magic elixirs and true insights. Do we insist on claiming to know, or are we willing to live with the fact that we don’t? If we fall in the first class, pride and rigidity are our undoing. If in the second, disbelief and humility are our burden. The difference is told by the fabled race between tortoise and hare. Hare bounds effortlessly ahead, then sits on his haunches and gloats. Tortoise digs in with each claw and lurches in a direction he can’t fully appreciate—until he crosses the finish line first and discovers where he was headed all along. Those who leap lithely without fully challenging themselves are apt to fall behind; those who pull themselves along by doing the work required to go one step at a time will eventually cover more ground than those who advance by fits and starts.

Either way, the issue is to find a way of dealing effectively with our current situation as we construe it in consciousness. I mean the italics to emphasize the difference between, on one hand, thinking we already know the world as it is, and on the other, assuming responsibility for shaping that world by means of rigorous probing of personal experience. Elixirs and fudge factors provide ready answers as if we knew what we were talking about, providing immediate comfort in a false sense of security; taking trouble to investigate why we see things as we do commits us to a much more arduous path which, in the end, can lead to surprising and even profound insights into our true situation. The choice is ours to make, the understanding ours to earn.

Fudge factors and elixirs are the easy way out. In life, there are no answers in the back of the book because the book has never been written. Lead cannot be transmuted into gold no matter how hard we wish it so. Put differently, each of us must write her own book by living her life as best she can. That’s why I say attitude is so important in exploring consciousness. We can seed it with what we already know—and learn nothing. Or we can live with doubt and uncertainty by questioning everything we do. One way leads backward, one forward.

I opt to move ahead by studying how I visualize my own situation in the world, how I construe it, shape it, formulate it, depict it, describe it, concoct it, characterize it—all on my own. Without resorting to fudge factors, elixirs, gods, angels, devils, or easy answers of any kind. Life, in the end, is the result of how we live. It does not exist as an abstract entity we magically fulfill by being born. Life is neither this nor that—it is precisely what we make it for ourselves from our own inner stuff. Life is the process of making sense under the circumstances we find ourselves in, which we can only interpret as best we can, and then reconsider in light of what happens next. There are no right answers; there is only what we do.

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(Copyright © 2009)

The center of the spectacle is straight overhead. Looking up, I see streamers shimmering from around the horizon toward that focus where, wavering, flowing, they whirl together in a pulsing gyre of living forms that spreads and contracts and shifts its shape as I watch. Glowing spiders turn into snakes into eyes into butterflies. The air is clear, sky dark, each star a vivid needle of light. Beneath the stars, the cartwheel aurora rings its changes without repetition as if two eyes aren’t enough to take it in and I need ears as well. I am having a whole-body experience. Candle flames turn into running wolves into great whales into chickens, rays shooting above the trees all the while, feeding the gyre, spinning it round and round and into itself. Roses turn to sparklers turn to ants turn to dinosaurs. The spectacle goes on for hours, each second requiring my whole attention. What if I blinked and missed something? But eventually, cold, stiff, tired, I not only blink but go to bed, my head swimming with the best display of northern lights I’ve ever seen—and as it turns out, ever will see in my life.

I wrote it all down next morning, as much as I could remember, making lists of images in sequence as one led to another. But I lost the list, so rely on fading memory in writing this post, trying to get the feel at least in place of exact details. I didn’t know I was having a spiritual experience at the time, but looking back, that’s what I’d say it was now. Wholly engaged and alive, I met the cosmos half-way as it revealed itself to me as if I was part of the lightshow itself. As if I belonged there so I could participate on my own scale of wonder as the sky showed what it could do in spreading its mystery and glory before me. The cosmos was shining down, and I rose to the occasion by paying it the attention—the homage—it deserved.

Speaking of homage, the English words homage, humble, humus, human, and Earthling all descend from the same root in an ancient language spoken near the northern end of (what we now call) the Caspian Sea seven thousand years ago.  Languages in Europe and Asia based on such roots include (among many others) Persian, Hindi, Kurdish, Greek, Latin, Russian, French, German, and English. Homage, humble, humus, human, and Earthling all have meanings relating to Earth because that’s what their common ancient root dhghem- meant in the Proto-Indo-European language long ago.

Like reverence and veneration, homage is a show of honor and respect to another to whom it is due. In my scale of values, paying close attention to something is a way of devoting my consciousness to it as a sign of its importance in my little world. It is one way to give of myself in return for what consciousness gives to me. That is exactly how I felt watching the shape-shifting aurora overhead. I wasn’t passively observing it; I was interacting with it on a mutual basis, serving it by giving it prominence in my mind. I call the giving of personal homage in that way a spiritual act.

Typically, people think of spirituality as implying a relation with capital-g God, but that’s not how I mean it. God comes with too much baggage and too many special needs in being the so-called creator, supreme ruler and judge of the universe, party to a covenant favoring one group of people above all others, yet another male in superhero guise, and advocate for subjecting the natural world to human domination. It is exactly that sort of program carried out by the faithful that has led to Earth’s desecration. So many people in America claiming to believe in such a figure leaves no doubt in my mind why this nation is in the sorry state it is today. The God story doesn’t even make a good read as a myth because the main character is so arrogant, demanding, excitable, and intolerant—so patriarchal. As a concept in the human mind, God is a regrettable habit it is time we outgrew—or impeached. No, for me spirituality has nothing to do with God or any religion centered on God.

If not God or religion, what then is the basis of spirituality? Not scripture, surely. More, some form of nonverbal engagement with someone or something deserving the highest level of attention and respect. Such as the display of northern lights I brought up at the start of this post. Like the exquisite lion’s mane jellyfish three-and-a-half feet across I met while rowing, the most beautiful creature I have ever seen—better than a unicorn (had I encountered one). It wafted to Taunton Bay via the Labrador Current; it might well have splashed down from outer space—off Baffin Island, say—and drifted the rest of the way. Amethyst, shaped and billowing like a submersible parachute, fully transparent, it swam just under the surface three inches below me: I could see every detail, including the barbed tendrils it used to snare its prey. I’d seen countless smaller lion’s manes washed up on shore, looking like day-old helpings of raspberry Jell-O. Usually in winter. But this was a bright spring day. I rowed off to get my camera, and of course the jellyfish was gone when I got back. I followed the current but never saw it again. Like the cartwheel aurora, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But that one encounter was what it took to forge a memory I will take to the crematorium.

To me, spirituality is a felt connection with all that is, including (to shorten a long list) northern lights; amethyst jellyfish; Earth, our habitat in space; common and remarkable Earthlings of every sort; wetlands; lichens; old-growth forests; the Milky Way; and the universe as revealed by the Hubble Space Telescope. What I get for exercising my spiritual consciousness is a sense of belonging to something larger than myself, of having a place in the All. Not only a place but having a sense of participating—as myself—wherever I am. I am not obliged to worship anything, beg forgiveness, tithe, genuflect, or confess my sins. Free to be myself, I find my own way in a universe I happen to find very stimulating and often attractive. I am deeply appreciative, but get far more back from the All than the attentions I give. I don’t ask for beauty, it simply appears, particularly when I do not expect it.

Wholly engaged in such a way, I am moved to be alive in that place at that time. We come together, cosmos and I. The word I use for that wordless state is spirituality.

Spirituality, then, is the sense of affirmation that comes back to me when I care for the world that consciousness reveals to my awareness. Care is the essential factor, the feeling not just of being there, but of putting myself out to care for and about where I am. As an Earthling in good standing, I willingly oblige myself to care for my home planet and to respect its inhabitants, both human and otherwise. Spirituality is a looping engagement with my Earthly surroundings such that my awareness is enriched by paying attention to events which return the investment many times over.

I am on top of Cadillac Mountain at dawn as two artists in residence—two dancers—give their final performance. The stage consists of two granite slabs close together. Lighting is provided by the rising sun shining on the barefoot dancers from behind—revealing them as silhouettes. One is seated facing the sun, the other standing with raised arms poised in welcome. The sun moves; the seated figure rises on one knee; the other beckons with stretched arm to the side. As the dance progresses, it is clear the movements are for the benefit of the sun, not the audience. We are merely a backdrop. Suddenly I realize I am made of granite, a kind of menhir, placed among other standing monuments to mark the commencement of a new day. We’ve been here since the Laurentian Ice Sheet retreated 12 thousand years ago. The dancers move about gracefully on their respective slabs, then after a while come to a halt. The menhirs around me clap, bringing me to my senses, so I clap as well. Appreciations are murmured, then dancers and audience drift off. The slabs remain, showing no trace of the performance. It was dark when I arrived at the summit; now the sun is well on its way to a summit of its own.

Spirituality is transformative. It spurs exploration of other dimensions of consciousness, providing novel perspectives on everyday life. I don’t need drugs to achieve such a state, or endless chanting, or stressful postures. All I need is to give myself wholly to experiencing the moment wherever I am. In that sense, spirituality is a celebratory attitude toward consciousness itself.

The word spirituality refers to the state of being spiritual, which means having the nature of spirit, which derives from Latin spiritus meaning breath, breathing, air, life, soul, and other good things. The concept of spirit is based on breathing seen as the essential medium of life. When the baby cries at birth, she takes her first breath; when the codger issues his last gasp, he dies. Life is the interval between first and last breaths. So very early on, breath was interpreted as the vital, animating principle bringing inert matter to life. At a particular time and place, the name for that principle was spiritus, and that name has stuck to our day.

In the meantime, our understanding of life has advanced so we know oxygen in the air is essential to life, but it is not the whole story. We also know food providing calories to burn in the presence of oxygen is essential to life, as many chemical nutrients are essential. And a genome of some sort is necessary to provide bodily architecture enabling the many processes of life. The so-called life principle turns out to be far more complex than the ancients could grasp. Breath and breathing come nowhere near accounting for life. And nominating God as the agent bestowing life by breathing in a baby’s mouth and withdrawing it from the old codger, in light of what we know today, appears not only old-fashioned but simply wrong.

So we are left with the word spirituality in our vocabulary that cannot possibly mean what it once did. Understanding has moved on, leaving it an orphan, a word without meaning. Yet, too, a word toward which we have an attitude of respect because it was so useful in explaining the mystery of life. What do we do with it? We have a choice: stick to old ways, or graft new understanding onto old roots. Keep the term but give it a new meaning—exactly what I am up to in this post. That way, we acknowledge our nature as creatures of habit, but give ourselves a push forward in updating the conventional wisdom of our day. (The term God, too, needs updating because its former meaning as spiritual ruler of the universe is now so eroded as to be full of holes, leaving many of us trying to catch rain in a sieve. But that’s another post for another day.)

Take One: I am in a parking lot, beneath a poplar just leafing out. Carole and I are ignoring the cars, looking up at a yellow-and-black bird singing on a branch of the tree like the muezzin in his minaret. We have cause to listen: that male goldfinch is announcing himself to (the female portion of) his world, “I will support you with my vigor and the territory I am claiming even now; won’t you join me?” Truth and beauty from the beak of a bird. Take Two: We are entering Acadia from Route 3 by a path leading across the top of a beaver dam. The air is filled with music. Carole points across the pond to a red dot high in a dead tree. That dot is the source of the melody we hear—a male scarlet tanager singing his heart out—commanding us and every other eared being within range to listen with awe to that one voice of all voices in the universe. Take Three: I am alone on an island in April, walking from the stone cabin my father built in 1940-41 to the shingled cabin I built in 1976. It rained in the night; everything is damp and dripping, including me as I brush spruce boughs aside. Even so, I am having the time of my life listening to a male robin I cannot see in the tree overhead, caroling what I take to be the finest song ever sung. I didn’t know robins had it in them. But they are thrushes after all, related to hermit and wood thrushes, so I stand still for twenty minutes and give myself to wet woods that can produce such a sound.

Spiritual takes, all three. Transporting, transformative, never to be forgotten. When the universe calls, I stop to listen. Spirituality is that simple. Finally, another encounter with northern lights that rocked me not back on my heels but in my boat.

The night is clear and still. I am rowing to the island after a meeting that ran late. I keep looking over my shoulder to see the pale green aurora arching over the island, and its reflection under the island in the still bay filled with stars. The total effect is of a green eye with a black pupil: the island and its reflection being inside the shimmering green lozenge of the aurora and its reflection. Of all creatures on Earth, I am the only one to witness the apparition of this celestial eye looking back at me. In a sense, an illusion, but all awareness is illusion. I give up trying to row and turn my boat around so I, at my rowing station, can face north. What can I say? This is a time for looking, not speaking. For savoring, not acting. Everything comes together in this moment, island, aurora, universe, and me.

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