The Iron Lady: The View of a Bleeding Heart

“They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.”
 ~ Margaret Thatcher

* * *

I watched Iron Lady, the biographical movie of Margaret Thatcher.

My following thoughts are mostly a response to the portrayal of Thatcher in this movie. Besides some limited websearches done in the process of writing, my analysis is intentionally limited in scope for I have no desire to spend the time that would be necessary to provide a more complex and thorough analysis. Instead, I’m using the movie as a jumping off point for my thoughts on a particular variety of conservatism that has dominated politics for decades.

* * *

I can’t say I ever had much curiosity about Thatcher. I’m not a conservative and I’m not British. Still, her impact on the world (along with that of Reagan) continues to be felt by people far and wide… and so it is hard to be indifferent about her or about what she represents. We are still living in the world of Thatcher and Reagan. The recent worldwide economic problems are the culmination of the neoliberal era. Deregulation, privatization and globalization has finally come to its inevitable conclusion. Maybe that is why a movie about Thatcher is so relevant right now.

To balance my liberal bias, it was helpful to have watched the movie with my conservative parents. As members of an older generation now retired, they have more of a memory of Thatcher. And as strong supporters of Reagan, they are sympathetic to Thatcher’s politics and worldview. My parents, of course, would disagree with my assessment and considering their perspective makes me think more deeply about that era of politics during my childhood.

I asked my parents if they thought the movie was fair. They considered it to be a fair portrayal, although my dad thought her ideas were given short shrift. My dad probably would have preferred a more straightforward political biography. I liked the focus on the personal as it helped me to understand the motivation behind the politics, but like my dad I would have appreciated more focus on ideas or else on the real world consequences of her policies.

Actually, I would like to have seen those two aspects combined (along with the personal). What came across to me in this portrayal is the sense of psychological division, maybe even dissociation. Thatcher had sacrificed so much that it felt to me like she may have sacrificed something of herself, that some aspect of her humanity was lost or blurred or somehow not fully present in her politics, in her professional persona. Showing her as an old lady dealing with the onset of dementia seemed to get at this division… between the personal and the political, between ideas and consequences. She was ‘principled’ and everything else was sacrificed for her principles. The movie seemed to be largely about how much that sacrifice cost on the personal level.

* * *

There was a scene where she recalled her now dead husband proposing marriage to her. She explained to him that she would refuse to be a simple housewife who dies cleaning the tea cups, an apparent reference to her own mother. She told him that she wanted her life to matter.

This could be taken as how even women on the right were beginning to make feminist demands by refusing to be limited to traditional family roles, but it also could be taken as a revelation of how much she hated manual labor and those who make their living by doing it, i.e., the working class. She knew she was better than that, better than the kind of person who lived their life that way. She had more important things to do, more important than simply raising a family as most humans have done since humans have existed. Her hatred or else lack of compassion for the lower classes seemed obvious to me, although she didn’t see herself that way (nor, of course, would conservatives such as my parents see her that way).

She spoke of not being disconnected from average people and she attempted to prove this by demonstrating she knew the price of basic food items that people depended upon such as milk and butter (prices she was aware of because of her having grown up as the daughter of a grocery store owner). To me, this just further demonstrated how disconnected she was. The price of milk and butter is one of the lesser worries of the poor, especially the poorest of the poor who might choose to spend their meager money on more basic necessities than relatively expensive dairy products. There was irony in her self-defense also in that she was responsible for cutting the milk program for public schools.

Anyway, the marriage proposal scene was centrally important to the movie. It was subtly referenced again at the end of the movie. She is an old lady, her husband now dead and her kids grown up, her mind and her self-independence is slowly disappearing. In a sense, she ends up in the place that she thought she was hoping to escape, essentially no better off than her own mother who apparently was a housewife and no better than all the working class housewives, aging as the great equalizer. All the meaning her life might have had is now just a fading memory. The reality of her life is portrayed by the very last scene: standing at the sink washing a tea cup.

* * *

Thatcher said what she cared about was ideas, not emotions; but emotions are what makes us human, what separates mammals from lizards. She saw emotions as weakness. Human life consisting of body and heart, manual labor and emotion, that was weakness, moral weakness. She wanted a life of the mind where thought and principle ruled, the mind relating to the body as God relates to the fallen world.

In another scene, she shared her philosophy with her doctor. It was in response, as I recall, to his asking her how she was feeling. She told him that people were too obsessed with emotions these days, that it is thoughts that matter. Thoughts lead to words, words lead to actions… and then eventually to character. There was also irony in this scene. The doctor was asking if she was experiencing any problems, any halluncinations, etc. She lied to the doctor in saying she was fine. She seemed to believe that by thinking she was fine and saying she was fine that therefore she was fine. Thought trumps reality, at least in her mind.

The way her logic was portrayed in that scene reminds me of something reportedly said by Karl Rove while in the Bush Administration (the aide spoken of is Karl Rove):

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

This emphasis on thought and ideas over everything else directly relates to the perception of someone like Thatcher being ‘principled’. To my parents, this is admirable. To me, less so. I can admire principles and those who hold to them… when those principles are worthy… but ideological beliefs detached from or forced onto reality doesn’t appeal to me. Principles that have such a relationship to reality easily become talking points, rhetorical devices that close down the mind and close down all possible debate.

How my parents see it is that conservative politicians are no longer principled. I sort of understand what they mean, but I also think they are romanticizing the past. Yes, many politicians these days are without principles. However, was Thatcher really all that different?

For example, she supported terrorists in Afghanistan because they fit her agenda, despite her claim of being principled in not bowing down to terrorists. Principles are tricky things when applied to reality for we inevitably interpret our principles to rationalize our actions. Using the Afghanistan example, to remain true to her principles all Thatcher had to do was call the Afghanistan fighters something other than terrorists which is what she did and so they were no longer terrorists, at least in her mind (assuming she was deceiving herself instead of just deceiving others).

* * *

In speaking about another area of fighting, she had to deal with the Falklands conflict. I don’t know if her actions were morally justified or if it was merely the British government defending its colonial empire, but what interested me was the portrayal of her response in the movie.

Thatcher explained in one scene (speaking to other politicians questioning the war) that she knew what the soldiers experienced because she too had to fight hard as a politician and in another scene (writing to the parents of deceased soldiers) that she too was a mother with a son. This further demonstrated how disconnected she was. Her metaphorical fighting in politics is no where near the same as soldiers fighting where they are forced to kill and to risk their own death. Also, just because she was a mother doesn’t mean that she had any possible hope of understanding the experience of the actual mothers of those soldiers. Her political persona was that she was a normal Britain and that she shared in the suffering the country was undergoing, but that is obvious bullshit whether it was a lie told to others or a rationalization told to herself.

This reminds me of what could be called empathetic imagination. Research shows that liberals test higher on the measurment of ‘thin boundaries’. One attribute of ‘thin boundaries’ is empathy. Other research shows that liberals are more distracted because they are constantly paying attention to other people such as watching eye cues. In this way, liberals are more tangibly aware of the people around them. This makes sense when one considers liberal philosophy which focuses on empathy and compassion, on considering the larger collective of humanity rather than just the individual or the group the individual belongs to. For liberals, this isn’t just a set of beliefs but an actual experience of reality.

There is an example of this.

Stem cell research is supported by liberals because, whether or not they have personal experience related to the issue, they can imagine and empathize with the suffering of those who could be helped by medical procedures developed through stem cell research. On the other hand, conservatives on average don’t support stem cell research, but conservatives who have a loved one who could be helped because of stem cell research show a majority support for it. The key difference between the two categories of conservatives is personal experience. Conservatives depend on personal experience more than liberals when it comes to empathizing with others and treating them compassionately.

Everyone, whether liberal or conservative, can understand the suffering of others more easily if the person suffering is a loved one or if the suffering touches upon some other personal experience. However, only liberals show the propensity to care about suffering to which they have no personal connection. It is easier for someone with a liberal predisposition to imagine how others experience the world (empathy, imagination and liberalism are found to be correlated in the research done on MBTI ‘intuition’, FFM ‘openness to experience’ and Hartmann’s ‘thin boundary type’). This is why conservatives perceive liberals as moral relativists for the liberal mindset is more open to considering such subjective and intersubjective factors, rather than narrowly focused on emotionally-detached principles.

From my liberal perspective, someone like Margaret Thatcher seemed to lack empathetic imagination. She could privatize public property and public investments because of her lack of a personal connection to the average working person who was negatively impacted by unemployment and because of her personal connection to her crony friends who profited from the deal. The inability or unwillingness to see outside of one’s personal experience is something all humans struggle with to some degree, but obviously not everyone feels the need to struggle with it for it simply isn’t as much of a priority for some people (not as much of an emotionally pressing issue, just an abstract set of data to be unemotionally analyzed or else ideologically dismissed). In fact, such empathy is often seen as moral weakness by those on the right and so liberals are perceived as ‘bleeding hearts’.

This saddens me. There is so much heartlessness in the world, so much lack of genuine understanding. It seems that, if we have to wait for conservatives to have personal experience to actually care about the worlds’ problems, then we will be waiting a long time.

* * *

Let me return to my parents.

They aren’t heartless as conservatives, but it seems clear to me that neither do they have an overabundance of what I personally experience as empathetic imagination, not to say that they are entirely lacking in this. They care and they are good people, something I want to strongly emphasize as they are some of the most morally principled people I personally know. It’s just that they don’t seem to have a tangible sense of concern about the poor and disadvantaged, not in the bleeding heart liberal sense. They feel bad about the suffering and struggle of others, but they see it as being to some extent separate from their personal lives (by which I don’t mean to imply that we don’t all to varying degrees feel this constraint of separation between our experience and the experience of others, but the difference in degree of this emotional disconnection is very important).

I sense this fundamental difference, although it is hard to explain for I can’t claim to know my parents’ actual experience. However, I do know my own experience and I can sense the difference. For me, the suffering in the world is tangibly part of my sense of self as if an extension of my own body. I intentionally worded it that way. My dad likes to share an example from Adam Smith where the body is used as a way of arguing for the limits of empathy:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with  all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an  earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had  no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected  upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I  imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the  misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy  reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all  the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment…And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these  humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his  business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the  same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The  most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more  real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he  would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore  with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of  his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems  plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune  of his own.

The argument is that empathy is limited to proximity, that we are more likely to identify with the suffering of our own potentially lost finger than the suffering of massive numbers of strangers. This is true, but research shows it isn’t equally true in all ways for all people, for example:

“We see that liberals and progressives are more sympathetic toward animals and foreigners than are conservatives and libertarians.”

So, it may be true that all humans will care more about their own finger for fear of physical pain and the related potential of death is a strong instinct, although I would argue that if empathy for strangers wasn’t also a strong instinct then large-scale civilization as we have wouldn’t be possible. The difference isn’t that liberals care less about their own finger but that they care more about strangers. Unlike the implications of Smith’s argument, caring about one doesn’t inevitably limit the caring about the other. For conservatives’ relationship to strangers, though, there would seem to be a perceived conflict between the two for conservatives have more of an instinct of fear and mistrust toward strangers. What conservatives don’t understand is that liberals don’t share this strong instinct which isn’t to say liberals entirely lack it.

In speaking to my dad, he didn’t understand this view. I can, as a liberal, accept that there are differences between types of people and that some differences are just differences with no inherent moral superiority for one or the other. Sometimes fearing strangers is evolutionarily advantageous and at other times empathy is the better option. Conservatives, especially social conservatives, tend to see this as moral relativism whereas liberals are more likely to just see it as reality (or what science has so far been able to discover about the reality of human nature).

Part of the reason liberals are better at empathizing with others, especially others who are different, is that liberals don’t require one side to be entirely right and the other side to be entirely wrong. Data shows that liberals are the only American demographic to have majority support for compromise (i.e., making personal sacrifices in order to avoid unnecessary conflict, in order to find a middle ground of agreement or possibly just a good enough solution).

One of the problems I see as a liberal is that the more that empathy is limited the more projection becomes inevitable. Conservatives genuinely believe that their view of human nature is simply right and so they tend to project their own conservative predisposition onto everyone else. Liberal’s higher propensity for empathy offers more protection against this kind of projection, but there is another kind of weakness to the liberal position. Liberals have a hard time understanding and accepting that conservatives either don’t have as strong of an ability to empathize or else don’t have as strong of a desire for it. Empathy is the very foundation of the liberals experience of reality. It’s mind-blowing to the liberal to consider someone who puts principles over empathetic compassion. To a liberal, the only principles that would be morally worthy are those that originate from empathetic compassion. Conservatives just see this as moral weakness, moral relativism.

So, even my desire for compromise between conservative principle and liberal empathy is just another liberal bias.

* * *

My parents are very principled, more principled than I am in terms of acting on what they believe (although that may have more to do with my severe depression than with my morally relativistic liberalism). Even if they don’t have a strong liberal response of empathetic imagination, they do respond compassionately based on their principles and act accordingly.

It isn’t that conservatives lack the ability to be compassionate. It’s just that they would experience it differently and act on it differently, constrained as it is to conservative biases and predispositions. For my parents and many other conservatives, compassionate action is seen as part of their religious duty, organized religion representing their ultimate sense of moral order. Religion is one of the greatest forces humans have for mobilizing individual and collective action, both for good and evil as history shows. I have tons of respect for the ability conservatives have in getting things done through organizing around religious authority, even if I don’t always respect the purposes to which this is used.

I’m not exactly criticizing conservatives. Many conservatives do a lot of good in the world. There are some clear advantages to the principled way of relating to other people, assuming that the principles are worthy. However, according to my liberal bleeding heart, naive as it may seem to conservatives, I feel the world would be a better place if conservative principledness was combined with liberal empathy… or at least if the two could work together instead of being in conflict.

* * *

Let me end with some commentary on the quote I began with. Margaret Thatcher said:

“They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.”

When I first heard that, I was utterly amazed, baffled even. There was no way, it seemed to me, that someone could honestly believe such a declaration, especially not a political leader of society. It had to be political rhetoric. Of course, society exists for civilization couldn’t exist without the social quality of humans, that tricky element that differentiates once again between mammals and lizards… and, I’d add, between higher primates and most other species. I understand the modern focus on the individual, but one would have to be detached from reality to deny the inherently social nature of the human species.

There goes my liberal bias again, rearing its ugly head.

This issue of ‘society’ came up last night while I was perusing some books about liberalism. In The Future of Liberalism by Alan Wolfe, he quoted James Oakes (p. 12):

“Society was the great discovery of enlightened liberals. They felt liberated by their conviction that most of the things that previous generations had taken to be “natural” or “divinely ordained” were, in fact, the products of human history. Families, political systems, even economies were, as liberals realized (and as we would put it), “socially constructed.” For liberals, humans were above all social beings. They were born tabula rasa and were thus the products of their upbringing, their environment. To function freely as a flourishing human being, everyone had to be, well, socialized. And if humans are the products of society, then the social institutions that shape them must be constructed so as to produce the kind of individuals each society wants.”

It is ‘society’ that is the key element that many conservatives don’t understand, even when they acknowledge it. This connects back to Adam Smith.

It wasn’t just about a person’s finger vs the faceless masses in a distant country. No, more fundamentally it was about the individual vs the group (i.e., society), in particular the individual vs someone else’s group. In saying there is no society, Thatcher was saying that this ‘society’ proposed by liberals isn’t my society (isn’t the group I belong to as a wealthy person, as a political elite, as a conservative Christian, or whatever else). Liberals like to see humanity as a whole (as seen with their tendency to care about strangers) whereas conservatives see humanity divided up into separate, competing groups. Thatcher was willing to admit that humans exist in basic social groups such as families, but she refused to admit that her family had anything directly to do with the families of the working class or the families in a poor country (earthquake or not). It’s an individual attitude of me and mine. It is groupthink combined with a sometimes implicit but often explicit xenophobia.

Conservatives see the idea of a greater society as a threat. Liberals, however, see it as a reason for hope, a potential for progress. Instead of being isolated in a world of fear and violence, liberals want to live in a world of shared humanity with a shared destiny, shared sacrifice and shared benefit. Progress is the central part in this different response. As Mike Kane explained it:

“Might it be that the whole of my disagreement with Smith lies in this: that an event in China was so remote to the European “man of humanity” in 1759 as to be near negligible? If so, then the greater proximity, the so-called global village, that technology enables, does serve to broader both the depth and scope of empathy. It seems to me that distance in the 18th century created the same remove that time continues to do for us. I feel more empathy for, which is another way of saying I feel more in common with, the victims of the Japanese disaster, than I do with the victims of the Irish potato famine, who are some of my ancestors, or more than I do with the millions of victims of the “Spanish flu”, with most of whom I have a greater cultural, religious, and linguistic fit than I do with the Japanese.

“The theory I am testing is that technology exponentially increases the proximity by which people can feel empathy and obliterates cultural differences and geographic distance. The only distance that exempts itself from the compassion-broadening effect of technology is the distant past. The fact that the past is so exempt only goes to show in a new instance the inherent difference between the space and time of human experience.”

Mike’s above response seems like a typical liberal response. Unlike the conservative view, humanity isn’t forever constrained by the seeming limits of human nature for human nature isn’t singular and unchanging, rather human nature contains infinite potential and so is malleable to the degree that potential is tapped. Change the conditions and the human response will change. This is the power of ‘society’, a power that scares shitless many a conservative. A conservative like Thatcher denies ‘society’ not because she doesn’t believe in its power but because she does believe in it and so perceives it as a threat that must be disempowered. Society is to liberals what religion is to conservatives, both forces to be reckoned with.

* * *

I don’t see this difference ever being resolved through discussion. Individual people don’t change for the most part. Change happens over generations as society itself changes. My only hope, as a liberal, is that society has across the centuries become ever increasingly liberal. Even conservatives like my parents, fairly typical conservatives, are ideologically more liberal than conservatives were a century ago. My dad has admitted to me that conservatism needs to change with the times, a very liberal attitude for a conservative to hold.

However, just because society becomes more liberal it doesn’t follow that the conservative predisposition is going away, unless some major genetic engineering project is implemented in a dystopian future of totalitarianism (in which case it would no longer be a liberal society). More reasonably, I suspect that as long as civilization as we know it doesn’t collapse the trend toward a liberal society will continue, however slowly and imperfectly.

Such a liberal society will be forced to find a compromise between the two predispositions, even though conservatives may not appreciate being made to play as equal partners with liberals. That is the only good possibility that I see. A conservative society, almost by definition, can’t allow freedom for the liberal predisposition. A liberal society, on the other hand, necessitates allowing freedom for the conservative predisposition… for that is the nature of the liberal predisposition.

Only liberals care about compromise and so only liberals will be able to find a solution of compromise… or else, in failing, give conservatives the opportunity to create a society of anti-liberalism. I’m not sure that even most conservatives would be happy if conservatives were victorious in creating such a society.

* * *

As a note, I wanted to point out that I’m speaking very broadly here, and so there is plenty of room for pointing out exceptions and criticizing about overgeneralization. Still, I think my speaking in such broad terms is useful for delineating the general meanings of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’.

I have for the most part stopped identifying myself as a ‘liberal’. Mostly what I mean here by ‘liberal’ is liberal-minded in the psychological sense, although there is obvious correlation to various political ideologies. I, however, am not advocating a specific ideology here, especially not the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party. The liberal predisposition has led to minds as diverse as Locke and Paine, has led to ideals as diverse as individualism and progressivism. What form liberalism may take in the future is probably beyond my imagination.

As for specific ideologies of my own preference, I’m less of a liberal and more of a weird combination of socialist and libertarian. So, in reference to a ‘liberal’ society, I’m speaking about an open society of multiculturalism and social democracy. This wouldn’t necessarily require a welfare state or even a strong, central state government at all.

I should also point out that, even though my parents may not be atypical as American conservatives, I’m not sure that they are the best representatives of the conservative predisposition. On the spectrum of predispositions, my parents are nowhere near being far right-wingers (such as, for example, measured by tests for Right-Wing Authoritarianism). I’m not sure that genetically my predisposition is all that different from my parents, but different social environments and life experiences have brought out the liberal potential within my genetics.

Research and basic observation shows that people also can switch predispositions for short periods of time such as during stress or permanently because of trauma. Predisposition is just a tendency, a potential. However, once manifest, most people tend to maintain a particular predisposition as the resting point of their personality.

* * *

In case anyone is interested, I came across an interesting review of the movie in question and a couple of interesting videos about Margaret Thatcher:

The Iron Lady: The Margaret Thatcher Movie We Don’t Need
By Laura Flanders
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God & Freewill, Theists & Atheists

God and freewill, two things that will forever perplex me.

I see them as basically on the same level, theological concepts. God is the faith of the theists. And freewill is the faith of the atheists.

I don’t mean this in a necessarily dismissive way. I actually am affirming the notion of faith. We humans aren’t as rational as we think. Whether theist or atheist, most people are always looking to rationalize. It might not be as obvious with theism, but apologetics is just an attempt (typically a very bad attempt) at rationalizing theism and apologetics is big business these days. Atheists aren’t off the hook, though. It is atheists, more than theists, who usually find it difficult to admit the irrational/nonrational components of life.

I say this as an agnostic who is hard put to take sides in most theist vs atheist debates, although I tend to go with the atheists when it comes to respecting intellect and science. Despite my sharing certain values with many atheists, I can’t follow atheists all the way down the path of rationality. The world is too strange and humans too complex.

Consider freewill. I’ve come to see the atheist’s focus on freewill as a substitute for the theistic soul.

Anyone who has studied psychological research enough knows that most things humans do aren’t rational or often even conscious. We really don’t know why we are the way we are or why we do what we do, but through science we can observe correlations and make predictions. If you know enough about a person, they can be fairly predictable. If humans weren’t predictable, insurance companies wouldn’t be able to make profits. Still, prediction isn’t the same thing as insight and understanding.

There is no rational reason to believe in freewill and yet most people believe in it. It is our shared cultural bias. Even most theists accept freewill, albeit a human will subordinated to the Will of God and/or a human will limited to a morally weak human nature (depending on the theology in question). We believe in freewill because our entire culture is based on this belief and so confirms it and supports it. Still, it is just a belief, one that doesn’t perfectly conform to reality.

Here is where I’m coming from. I’m not religious, but I am spiritual… a statement that most atheists don’t understand, although one could be a spiritual atheist (such as a Buddhist)… a statement maybe that even most theists don’t understand. On the other hand, my not being religious doesn’t imply that I’m anti-religious. I’m simply non-religious, but informally I’m attracted to certain religious practices such as meditation and even prayer (not that I ever feel clear about what I may or may not be praying to). My faith is more Jungian than anything. So, theological ideas such as God and freewill are only meaningful to me in terms of possible underlying archetypes that hold sway deep within the human psyche, if not also in the world at large.

My experiences and observations, my understandings and intuitions have made it hard for me to find a place in any particular Western tradition. Beyond the Jungian, I suppose I could put myself in the very general category of radical skeptic (i.e., zetetic) which I’ve at times identified as agnostic gnosticism or else as Fortean. I’m defined by endless curiosity, greater than any belief or reason.

The religous and philosophical traditions that I have been most drawn to are those of the East, whether the Gnosticism born out of the Middle East or the Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism of the Far East. In this instance, I was thinking about Hinduism. I often contemplate Saraswati, the goddess of creativitiy and intellect, the ultimate artist’s muse. Do I believe in Saraswati? I don’t know. It seems like a silly question. I’m tempted to respond as Jung in saying I don’t believe, I know… but that still leaves such ‘knowing’ unexplained. There is an archetypal truth to Saraswati and I feel no need nor ability to further explain what that might be.

I was thinking about all of this in terms of vision and inspiration. In my own way, I have a visionary sense of Saraswati and this inspires me. But the name ‘Saraswati’ doesn’t matter nor does the religious accoutrements. I’m not a Hindu nor do I want to be. Saraswati is just a reference point for a deeper truth that is otherwise hard to articulate. I don’t believe in God and yet I have this intuitive sense of the divine, for lack of better words. I don’t believe in freewill and yet I have this intuitive sense of a creative ‘will’ that drives me and inspires me.

There was another aspect of Hinduism that was on my mind. The idea of willpower is symbolized and embodied by the god Ganesha. I feel no particular attraction to Ganesha, but I like the idea of willpower as a god rather than as a mere psychological attribute or mere personal expression. This seems to get closer to what willpower means on the archetypal level.

We each are diven and inspired by some vision of reality. This is our faith, typically unquestioned and often unconscious. We simply know it as our ‘reality’ and as such it forms our reality tunnel. There is a Hindu belief that a god resides in or is expressed through each person’s secret heart, the Hridaya chakra. I interpret this in Jungian terms. We each are ruled by some core truth or essence or pattern, whatever you want to call it, however you want to explain it.

We can have a vision of God or a god and we can be ruled by it. But if we explore it more deeply, we might discover a greater truth to why we are drawn to such a vision. We can have a vision of freewill and we can be ruled by it. But we can seek to make this faith conscious, thus seeing will as something greater than a personal possession, control for the sake of control (in the words of William S. Burroughs, “is control controlled by our need to control?”).

Whatever your god or vision, is what is ruling you worthy of your faith? If your faith is blind and your being ruled is unconscious, where does that leave you?

Dark Imagination

The Darkness. The Blackness.
The Dark Mother. The Black Goddess.
All Devouring. All Giving.

She who is the Blackness, the Emptiness, the Void. Ancient memory, bodily impulses, guts and groin.

Deep in the Earth, the Womb of the Mother of us all, the Virgin Mother. Caverns where all light is extinguished, where the force of Light can’t penetrate. All that one can do is feel, feel, feel… run one’s fingers along the walls, feel the mud between one’s toes… feel, feel, feel the tug of water flowing downward, ever downward into chasms unseen.

The Earth, Gaia. The dark rich soil out of which life grows. The humus where life and death meets, endless aeons of death upon death out of which life emerges, a dark magic of creation that simultaneously re-creates even as it creates anew.

The Deep Blackness of the ocean where undiscovered beings dwell. The Darkness of the woods on a moonless night. Breathing, movements, things that brush by, things that sting. A mass of life, an orgy of life, self-consuming, all-consuming. Life flows, emerges, feeds. Life, an urge, a force.

The Darkness, Blackness of night. The garish sun hidden by earth, the distant stars like cat’s eyes in the dark, eyes looking back across light years of space. The openess, the emptiness of space, the void, the womb. Infinite potential that can be nothing else.

The Darkness, Blackness of mind. The unconscious unknown, unknowable. The Dark Imagination. The Trickster is the first Son of the Dark Mother, the Black Goddess. The Artist is her servant, she his muse. The Light of Truth must be brought down into the Darkness of Being. Light given form becomes darkness. Darkness given form becomes substance. Gestation is an event out of sight, out of mind.

“Art flies around truth, but with the definite intention of not getting burnt. Its capacity lies in finding in the dark void a place where the beam of light can be intensely caught, without this having been perceptible before.”

Franz Kafka (1953). Blue Octavo Notebooks

What is a Church? Soul vs Spirit

This post is third in a series, but it is more narrowly focused than the previous posts. I wanted to isolate a single issue that I presented in my first post:

“Many people have a nonchalant attitude about community. They just don’t understand its value or they don’t appreciate how difficult it is to create and maintain. This is particularly true among fiscal conservatives which is a distinction between them and more traditional conservatives.

“I spoke to a fiscal conservative who is a Christian (a combination I’ve always found odd, at times verging on the hypocritical with some views) and he demonstrated this difference. The church he attended had reached capacity and would require a new building for the church to grow. As a fiscal conservative, he assumed growth was better than maintaining the past. This fiscal conservative also had moved around a lot because of career and so had little investment in the community. He didn’t understand why many church members didn’t want to move. It took my liberal mindset (or, rather, my Midwestern liberal mindset) to explain it to him. The church wasn’t simply a physical structure. It was part of people’s sense of community and home. It was where people grew up, got married, and raised their kids.

“Fiscal conservatives, however, just see the economic and the physical aspects, and so they can’t see the difference between one building and another, between an old church and a new church, between a thriving neighborhood of beautiful old houses and a multi-use apartment building with no character. I understand what might be gained by building something new. I’m not against economic improvements if they are done with foresight and done with a goal of long-term benefits for the entire community. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand or value such faith in improvements through entrepreneurial investments. Rather, the problem is that fiscal conservatives and many capitalists don’t understand the view of those living in a community who want to defend their community.”

* * *

I’m not a religious person. So, it might seem odd that I would defend the value of churches against the criticisms of a church-going Christian. In another mood, I would gladly criticize Christians being overly attached to churches. But my present motivations aren’t about religion itself, rather about the more intangible (which one could label ‘spiritual’) aspects of human experience as it relates to the more tangible aspects of human community.

Even though I’m not  a religious person, I am a spiritual person in my own way. I’m oddly going to make a ‘spiritual’ defense of churches and, more generally speaking, of “The Commons”. From this perspective, I will use ‘spiritual’ terminology to make my argument. (The second paragraph down, I make a distinction between ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’, but here I’m speaking of ‘spiritual’ in the sense of including both aspects.)

Before I begin my commentary, let me briefly clarify where I’m coming from when I speak of being spiritual in my own way. The idea I will focus on is that of an ensouled world which, at least in my mind, connects with: Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, David Abram’s sensuous world, Julian Jayne’s bicameral mind, Paul Shepard’s theory of social evolution, various authors writing about the imaginal/daimonic such as Patrick Harpur and Henry Corbin, Terrence McKenna’s philosophizing on psychedelics and nature, the Fortean views of Jacques Vallee and John Keel, and on and on. These form the background of my thinking, but none of these are directly important at the moment and so I won’t discuss any of the above authors and ideas.

However, I should explain the most important influence on my thinking in this context. Thomas Moore and James Hillman speak of ‘soul’ as different than ‘spirit’, something like the Taoist yang in relationship to yin. The ‘soul’ is worldly, personal, and messy. The ‘spirit’ is other-worldly, impersonal, and pure. Monotheistic religions tend to idealize the ‘spirit’ while demonizing the ‘soul’. I will, therefore, be defending the ‘soul’ against the typical monotheistic view of an authoritarian ‘spirit’.

* * *

I feel the need to add a caveat.

I’m not just criticizing the view of others that I disagree with. I’m ultimately speaking of a conflict within myself. I struggle with my relationship to the larger world. I haven’t come to terms with my sense of community and my sense of the spiritual. I’m far from being a conservative Christian and even further from being a fiscally conservative Christian, but I have some sympathetic understanding of the seeming conflict between the soul and the spirit.

So, my defense of soul doesn’t come from a superior vantage point. That is the point of soul, after all, in that it doesn’t proclaim the superiority of God-like certainty, rather it acknowledges the humility of being in the muck and the mud along with everyone else (‘humility’ being etymologically related to ‘humus’ and ‘human’). Many events and issues in my life such as depression have humbled me. I offer my humbled opinion, for whatever it is worth.

That said, I will not withhold my criticism of those who are overly certain of the truth of their own opinions, especially conservative Christians who claim to know the Mind of God. Conservatism is built on the premise that some issues can be known with certainty and that the conservative has a monopoly on such truth, this conservative position being seen in opposition to the more ‘relativistic’ (open-minded and humble) view of liberals that the world and human nature is too complex for simple moral judgments… and that Biblical studies is too rife with subjective biases of interpretation to make any claims about the Mind of God.

The fiscally conservative Christian ignores the fact that Jesus was far from being a fiscal conservative and that the Christian tradition for most of its history was highly critical of laissez-faire capitalism. Jesus even points out that such a focus on material wealth makes it more difficult to gain entrance into heaven (i.e., camels passing through the eye of the needle). I would love to see a fiscally conservative Christian who truly had a change of heart and followed Jesus’ commandment to “Give away all your riches to the poor and follow me.” Such a commandment helps explain why Jesus was so angry about moneylenders in the temple, moneylenders being laissez-faire capitalists of the Jewish world at that time. The fiscally conservative Christian forgets that Jesus declared Love to be the new commandment, rather than following the old laws of authoritarian submission and righteous judgment.

Because of this, I criticize the self-righteousness of some fiscally conservative Christians from a desire to make humble, to bring down to the equalizing level of earthly life where the rich man dies just the same as the poor, not to set myself above anyone else. A person enthralled by spirit becomes arrogant in their sense of being above it all or at least above others, a very unChristian attitude. I’m of course not arguing spirit is inherently wrong or immoral, but it can be unhealthy, ugly and dangerous even, when it becomes out of balance with and unanchored from soul. Only through soul can love manifest on the human level as empathy and compassion, a very Christian attitude.

I say this as a person who isn’t unfamiliar with the experience of being enthralled by spirit (by self-certainty) and who at times have felt arrogantly above others, although being humbled once again tends to quickly follow. That is a normal human experience. However, certain social philosophies and economic theories become encoded into theological certainties which can make for an almost unassailable stance of righteous self-certitude. Occasionally falling into the error of arrogance isn’t problematic in itself, but theologically defending that error is problematic to the utmost degree. That is always the danger of theology. Our self-rationalizations can become reality tunnels writ large to encompass the entire cosmos, our opinions seemingly declared by God Almighty. As such, fiscal conservatism as a theory is simply an opinion no more worthy than any other opinion, but fiscal conservatism as theology can become an oppressive ideological force that attempts to remake the world in its image. From its earliest development, capitalism was promoted by Christians and has always had behind it the force of evangelism spreading the Good Word (an issue already analyzed by many others such as Max Weber).

There is a safety mechanism in the worldview of soul. As balance to spirit, it sees the many in the one. Soul helps us to see our opinions as just opinions even as we aspire toward greater understanding.

* * *

So, what is ‘soul’?

Soul is life, is the vital essence of who we are, our being in and part of the world. When soul is denied, it goes dormant or is otherwise submerged giving the appearance of death like plants in winter. If soul is denied long enough, it can be irretrievably harmed and manifest in unhealthy ways.

When natural environments are treated as things, they become mere natural resources; trees become lumber; animals meat; rivers water. When communities are treated as legal constructs, they become mere physical locations filled with isolated things, interchangeable parts; homes become property; churches structures; neighborhoods opportunities for development. When people are treated as demographics, they become mere labels; humans become voters, consumers and target audiences; neighbors strangers; workers human resources, cogs in the machine.

The living breathing worldview of the soul undermines and protects against the worldview of isolated objects devoid of spiritual meaning, devoid of all value besides what is projected upon them. Humans and all other beings aren’t isolated objects, aren’t even isolated subjects. We all are meeting points of endless relationships. When we forget that, we become like billiard balls where the only relationships occur when we crash together in a series of events beyond our control and comprehension, meaningless causation of physical laws and forces.

Some argue that they don’t value objects for the reason they value people, but they make all the world into objects as a stage for human action. This inevitably destroys meaning in human relationships, isolating people, inevitably making the subjective conform to the objective… or else see the subjective as trapped in the objective like a ghost in the machine. I don’t see how this is better. They precisely aren’t valuing life in all of its forms, human included, by projecting their lifeless vision onto a living universe. When the eye is dead to the life before it, what is beheld is seen as if dead and so is treated that way, a self-fulfilling prophecy of a lifeless universe. This is vision without heart, without soul. In place of God’s Creation or Nature’s Majesty, a tragic nightmare world of death takes form. A belief in an objective world of objects transforms life into death, an act of black magick, words denying life forcing reality to conform.

After creating this hell on earth, an escape is required. Humans become trapped in bodies hoping for divine salvation. The world is a place of ugly matter and base desires, a place of sin and corruption, a place at worst to be feared and at best kept at a distance. Our real home is elsewhere. We shouldn’t become too comfortable here in this world so far below God’s Heaven. As the Bible says, Satan is the “god of this world”. The result is that even humans become objects for the Eternal Spirit is trapped within human bodily forms that are easily corrupted and tempted by Original Sin, Eternal Spirit longing to escape into Heaven.

In my own way, I’m not unsympathetic to such a view for I have my Gnostic tendencies and I was raised a Christian in a Christian society. My psyche is enmeshed in the Christian worldview. As an American, I grew up watching apocalyptic movies tinged with Christian theology. More significantly, I grew up in New Thought Christianity and so I know the positive spin that can be overlaid upon this otherwise dark vision.

I’m purposely portraying this worldview in its most melodramatic form. There are many milder and more subtle forms of it, some with no overt religious elements at all. I don’t mean to attack anyone in particular in my portrayal. I don’t even mean to say anyone is wrong in holding such views, whether or not the ‘accused’ see my portrayal as accurate or fair. What I’m trying to get at is the essence of what it means for actual human beings in this world we find ourselves in, our shared lives held together by community institutions and social systems, by the complex ecosystems we live in, the environment and atmosphere we are enmeshed in, the air and water flowing freely from place to place acknowledging no mapped boundaries or legal constructs of property.

* * *

The problem I see is that the religious version of the ‘objective’ worldview doesn’t go far enough. Those advocating it continue to cling to the material world even as they deny it. Maybe the failure is in their conception and therefore perception of the material world. If they truly pushed into spiritual territory, they might discover their perception of the material world is transformed. In seeking the divine elsewhere, maybe they miss the divine all around them. Maybe the divine can only be known in specifics: specific relationships and connections, specific communities and churches, specific places and senses of place, etc. Maybe it is in holding back from the divine that they devalue certain manifestations of the divine.

Those advocating this ‘objective’ worldview don’t seem aware of the transaction being made. There is a sleight-of-hand going on that is built into the belief system at a level not easily discerned. An arbitrary distinction is being made about where the human ends and the world begins, where the divine ends and the earthly begins. This is an attempt to create a metaphysical trick or manipulation, an ideological lifting oneself up by the bootstraps… to keep one’s boots out of the mud by floating on a divine breath of air… to be in the world but not of the world. It is like trying to use the Holy Spirit as a barrier between oneself and the world so that it becomes an act of spiritually dividing instead of spiritually relating, spritually denying instead of spiritually affirming. There is a profound refusal at its core, an emphatic ‘No!’ declared to the world like an incantatory protection.

The belief system behind it necessitates most, if not all, of the world to be seen as lifeless (or even Godless) objects without fundamental value or inherent meaning. People holding this worldview put value in seeing the world without value. Despite the claims of some, they still value objects even if it is a negative value, a negating value, a soul-denying and soul-deadening value. Negative values aren’t just passively implied, rather are actively enforced within one’s worldview which includes the perceptions, choices and actions determined by the constraints of that worldview.

* * *

The destruction of nature that has followed civilization where ever it goes, gaining momentum with modern industrialization, wouldn’t be possible without nature first being turned into objects to be used and abused, discarded and destroyed. Scientists used to cut the vocal cords of animals they were dissecting so that the screams of pain and terror wouldn’t interfere with their psychotic delusion that animals were objects. The very act affirmed what the scientists claimed to deny. This dynamic continues to play out in new forms of behavior we all participate in as part of modern society.

We continue to metaphorically cut the vocal cords of the living world surrounding us, the ensouled world enfolding us. When we see a church as just a building or a stream as just water, we cut the vocal cords of the living essence and the living beings that form them.

To focus just on the human component, it is obvious that a church is so much more than a mere building. A church is an expression of the devotion to God and the love of community. It is the shared creation of specific people living in a specific place and time, specific people sharing their loves and their lives, specific people in relationship to one another and to the world around them, an integral part of what makes a community tangibly real rather than an empty abstraction. A church is the embodiment of the divinity of human relationships, the Holy Spirit one might say, in the way that the human form is the emodiment of the human soul. A church consists of relationships of family, friends and neighbors, of newcomers looking for community, of travelers looking for solace, for the needy looking for compassion and assistance. Generations of people are raised in a church where babies are baptised, couples are married, and departed loved ones are given funeral services. The value of a church is beyond any monetary assessment. A church is an expression of the living memory and share space of a community of people. A shared soul forms out of such expressions of community for a piece of each person’s soul becomes part of the soul of that place, an anchoring not just of the human in the world but the divine as well.

Where people gather God is present. This isn’t to be taken lightly. A manifestation of the divine isn’t something to be taken for granted.

* * *

This doesn’t even need to be thought of in metaphysical terms. When I speak of the divine, you can replace it with your understanding of the more intangible parts of culture. When I speak of a shared soul, you can replace it with tangible experience of community. I’m not arguing about ultimate reality here for that is beyond the limits of rational debate. What I’m speaking of is the experience itself of humans as a social species. This is hard to understand and it inevitably takes on religious overtones for theological language was designed for describing such intersubjective territory.

History demonstrates that community is an endless challenge, hard to create well while easy to destroy. To annihalate a people, you don’t need to commit genocide. All you have to do is annihalate all outward forms of their culture. And at the heart of every culture is religion: traditions and practices, rituals and ritual objects, iconography and places of worship, etc. It’s easy to dismiss the value of outward forms for it is easy to take them for granted. Most people, especially in Western developed countries, don’t know the value of outward forms of community and culture because they’ve never experienced their absence.

Maybe ‘God’ can’t be killed, whatever one may think God is or isn’t. However, I would argue that specific manifestations of the divine (or cultural expressions thereof) can be essentially killed. When the outward forms that help invoke a God (or make a particular spiritual experience possible) are eliminated, the God (or spiritual experience) is also eliminated. New outward forms may take their place and people may not realize anything has changed, but new outward forms create a whole new sense of community and culture, a whole new relationship to the divine. Something once gone may be gone forever. When I observe the outward forms of many modern Christians, I feel certain that they aren’t worshipping the same thing that Christians worshipped in the first century. The outward forms of those early Christians have almost been entirely lost to us, only tattered fragments remain.

* * *

Let me respond to a Christian perspective, specifically that of a fiscally conservative Christian (in opposition to a traditional Christian).

Jesus taught first and foremost the value of love. He taught to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. There is nothing in such a teaching that denies or dismisses the outward forms of religious community. Jesus never suggests worshipping any place or thing, but neither does he suggest against worshipping any place or thing. As far as I know, Jesus says nothing at all on the matter. It’s like trying to read modern views of homosexuality into the Bible.

Anyway, the issue isn’t about worshipping a building for that entirely misses the point. It’s about have basic respect for humans and human nature. God doesn’t command you to disrespect and disregard the outward forms of community and the other values that God instilled in human nature, does he? Even the earliest Christians constructed buildings for communally living in and worshipping in. Jesus never argued that it was morally wrong or religiously irrelevant for there to be a Jewish place of worship, never argued that the temple was just a building without spiritual value or divine relevance. It was because the temple was a religiously important place that he cast out the moneylenders. If Jesus thought the temple was just an object without meaning, he wouldn’t have become so angry at it being desecrated by what he considered religiously unworthy activities.

Let me get even more specific. The Christian I was discussing with has incorporated a lot of New Thought style of theology. For example, we were discussing A Course in Miracles which is a very New Agey channeled text. It might seem odd that a highly conservative Christian would embrace what would appear as hyper-liberal theology, but in America this is actually rather common for America has never had a strong traditional culture especially not among Protestants. Even the average conservative Protestant in America is liberal compared to the average traditional conservative of Catholicism.

This was made poignantly clear in something I recalled from What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank (Kindle Locations 2004-2013):

“One more thing about the backlash personality type: every single one of the bitter self-made men of my youth was a believer in the power of positive thinking. If you just had a sunny disposish and kept everlastingly at it, they thought, you were bound to succeed. The contradiction between their professed positiveness and their actual negativity about nearly everything never seemed to occur to them. On the contrary; they would oscillate from the one to the other as though the two naturally complemented each other, giving me advice on keeping a positive mental outlook even while raging against the environmentalist bumper stickers on other people’s cars or scoffing at Kansas City’s latest plan for improving its schools. The world’s failure to live up to the impossible promises of the positive-thinking credo did not convince these men of the credo’s impracticality, but rather that the world was in a sad state of decline, that it had forsaken the true and correct path.2 It was as though the fair-play lessons of Jack Armstrong, Frank Merriwell, and the other heroes of their prewar boyhood had congealed quite naturally into the world bitterness of their present-day heroes, Charles Bronson, Dirty Harry, Gordon Liddy, and the tax rebel Howard Jarvis.”

This cuts to the conflict I sense in the weird combination of fiscal conservatism and Christian conservatism. This is particularly made clear with New Thought Christianity or what, in Evangelical circles, goes by the label of Prosperity Gospel and other names as well. It’s a spiritual ‘positive’ idealism combined with a material criticalness, the latter even manifesting as cynicism or outright apocalyptic visions. In less extreme forms, the conflict is more subtle.

I will explain by returning to the Christian I’ve already mentioned above. He has a mix of enjoying the materially good life and being critical of those who spiritually value the shared aspects of community life such as a church for he sees a church as being essentially unreligious since it is a material structure (of the world instead of God, the two apparently perceived as being in oppositional conflict). It’s because his religion can be disconnected from economics in this manner that economics can become to varying degrees be disconnected from the moral aspects of community. From this perspective, the decision to keep or sell a church should be an entirely economic decision rather than a religious decision, a decision informed by individual personal opinions rather than the fellowship of a shared vision. His God (i.e., his projections onto an image of ‘God’) doesn’t necessarily care about the material world and so his religiosity has no necessary impact on economic decisions. This is why a fiscally conservative Christian could feel no hypocrisy in laying off thousands to increase profits no matter its impact on community (because corporations are legally required to base their decisions solely on profit) and then going to church to donate money that will go to help those in need. As such, the two worlds don’t necessarily have any relationship to one another.

To return to A Course in Miracles (ACIM), I’ll explain a little about it. It was a channeled text that was ‘channeled’ by a psychologist at a time when Eastern philosophy and Gnostic texts were gaining popularity, and so it contains many non-Christian elements (or what more traditional conservatives would consider non-Christian).  ACIM promotes psychologicalized Eastern philosophy of cognitive detachment (“this item has no real meaning”, “the only value this item has is the value I give it”, etc), but combines this with Christian terminology through a more Valentinian Gnostic theology (a tradition considered heretical by both Catholics and Protestants). The detachment aspect conveninetly can be used to reinforce the fiscally conservative Christian worldview in that it can be interpreted as detaching the spiritual from the physical. However, I would counter by pointing out it also teaches acceptance of and not judgment of others (in their own attachments). The particular fiscally conservative Christian in question was surprised by how his fellow Christians were ‘attached’ to their church, a church that he felt no attachment to since he had only been attending it for a few years. In response, I was surprised by his being surprised by normal human behavior. It’s not clear that the spiritual value of the outward forms of a religious community have anything to do with what the ACIM teaches.

Plus, I would add two other criticisms of using ACIM to criticize the average Christian. First, if one wants to be nitpicky, there isn’t a perfect correlation between what Jesus teaches in the New Testament and what Jesus teaches in ACIM. The channeled ACIM Jesus, in fact, corrects some perceived mistakes made in the recorded sayings of the New Testament Jesus. Second, I see potentially dysfunctional aspects in the ACIM psycho-spiritual theology. It is a product of our culture with the same problems of disconnection from the world we are a part of. It’s just a book. Why would I value the abstract ideas in a book over the tangible realities of shared community life? I have much bigger issues with those who form idolatrous attachments to a holy book (few Christians know the original meaning of God’s Word/Logos, confusing it with the NT) than with those who may form idolatrous attachments to churches and other social institutions that help maintain a healthy sense of community in this world we share, this world which the generations following us will inherit. Even the ACIM advises against idolatrous attachment to ACIM or any practice or tradition, and it explains that there is no single right path.

I don’t mean that there is nothing of value in the view I’m criticizing. As the Christian I spoke with explained, “God cares about people, not objects, as should we.” The belief that God cares about people obviously isn’t a bad thing taken in isolation, but the larger view encompassing it is problematic. Besides, I have no interest in speaking for God as if I know the Divine Mind behind all of Creation. I perceive this as an arrogant certainty that many conservative Christians are prone to. Ignoring claims of knowing God’s Mind, I see no logical reason behind this stance. If God is unlimited, why would He be limited or limit Himself to only caring about humans. In this vast universe, humans are a tiny speck and yet the conservative God cares only about that tiny speck while actively denying any interest or concern, any compassion or love for the rest of His Own Creation. I can’t comprehend such a belief, can’t comprehend it in my mind or in my experience, certainly not in my heart.

That is precisely the problem from my perspective. To see humans as spiritually independent of and separate from the rest of the world is to try to make us into individual objects possessed by God, i.e., Godly objects temporarily lost in a Godless world. I would instead argue that people are relationships: people’s relationship to what is beyond the human (God that is the Creator of the world and the Holy Spirit that is the Breath of God in the world), people’s relationship to other people (made in the image of God), people’s relationship to the earth (God’s Creation), etc. To see something as mere object is to not see God in it. That is a choice you can make, but not one I would recommend. It seems sad to me that one would choose to see the world empty of the Divine. Most Christians acknowledge God isn’t limited to church, but Christianity does teach that God is present where those gather in His name and that includes churches. To say God doesn’t care about objects is to say God doesn’t care about God’s Creation which just doesn’t make sense to me.

Maybe God in a sense isn’t in objects, but if so I would also argue God isn’t in subjects either. If anything, God is the relationship between all things, subjects and objects. Anyway, the division between subject and object is a very modern human construct that has no clear relevance to divine reality or the teachings of Jesus.

* * *

I have one last aspect to consider. I realized that Cartesian dualism of subject/object has infiltrated very deeply into society and into our collective conscious, thus framing so many discussions that occur. Even though it was a product of Enlightenment thinking, Cartesian dualism has been embraced even by conservative Christians who have reinterpreted traditional theology accordingly.

The battle going on in our society right now isn’t between traditionalists and non-traditionalists for one could argue that there are no traditionalists left besides maybe some indigenous tribes that have managed to remain somewhat isolated from civilization. Even the Catholic Church has embraced so much that is modern such as no longer burning witches and including aliens as potentially being part of God’s Creation. We aren’t in Kansas anymore.

Cartesian dualism has led to Cartesian anxiety. Various groups have proposed different ways of dealing with Cartesian anxiety, some more successful or at least less dysfunctional than others.

Some Christians, especially fundamentalists, have declared a divinity that simply negates the issue or rather banishes the issue from the minds of said fundamentalists who then can pretend the issue doesn’t exist. God cares about subjects and so objects are irrelevant: Let Capitalism reign supreme! Or Bring on the Apocalypse! Let the world fend for itself as the Christians prepare for their Heavenly reward. I personally don’t consider that an optimal response to the predicament, but I can see the allure in the comforting confidence of blind faith.

Many other non-Christians have offered other responses, but let me stick closer to the Christian view since it directly relates to the topic of this discussion. The first thing that came to mind was Martin Buber’s philosophy of I-Thou vs I-It; although a Jew, he had major influence on 20th century Christianity. I was actually wondering if this might be behind the theology of fiscally conservative Christianity. That would be ironic if it were the case for Buber was a socialist Jew (the socialism he advocated was of a libertarian, although not anti-statist, variety that emphasized the importance of community, especially religious community, as part of a larger organization of commuity, “a community of communities”; but he warned against ideological dogma which is why he so strongly emphasized the importance of relationships over abstractions).

Here is Buber clarifying that there is something beyond the false dichotomy of subject vs object:

“Subjectivism is psychologization while objectivism is reification of God: One a false fixation, the other a false liberation; both departures from the way of actuality, both attempts to find a substitute for it.”

Buber’s Thou inhabits the space of betwixt-and-between, the interstitial and liminal… or rather it is the witness to and affirmation of that space.

Buber wanted to create a modern theology that could take into account modern human experience in a changing world, maybe in particular in context of industrialization as he was born in 1878 when all of society was being transformed by new technology and a new kind of economy, when the majority of humans were moving from farms into cities. He clarified his distinction because of his criticisms of how capitalism objectifies the world and how individualism distorts human relationships, although he also acknowledged the problems of statist communism (ideologies not being the specific problem and so exchanging one ideology for another wouldn’t solve the problem).

Buber was initially inspired by his experiences of and his relationships with non-human nature:

“The demanding silence of forms (of nature), the loving speech of human beings, the eloquent muteness of creatures — all of these are gateways into the presence of the word.”

As one person explained Buber’s theology:

“The eternal Thou is not an object of experience, and is not an object of thought. The eternal Thou is not something which can be investigated or examined. The eternal Thou is not a knowable object. However, the eternal Thou can be known as the absolute Person who gives unity to all being.”

Unity to all being, not just human beings. Unity rather than division. Not subject vs object. Not this ideology vs that ideology. Not any division of any kind, instead relationships that transcend false dichotomies.

I was reading an article that compares Buber with Winnicot. It gave me some insight into Buber’s ideas about relationships, fellowship and community, in particular in terms of worldly objects such as a building used as a church. Winnicot had two very important ideas: 1) tansitional object, and 2) holding environment. A transitional object such as a teddy bear allows for a healthy transition from dependency on mother to a more independent sense of individuated self. A holding environment is a space that can be safely explored as an extension of the experience of safety that the mother provides.

Religion potentially provides both. A church could act as a holding environment. It is easy as mature adults to look down upon those who need a holding environment, but we all at one point needed a holding environment (as we all once were children) and at various times in our life we will continue to need holding environments (the offices of ministers or psychotherapists create this for us when they assist us with our problems as adults). Transitional spaces and objects provide for an experience in between subject and object. It is this in-between aspect that creates the creative space for entry of the divine into this world.

Religion in particular along with culture and community in general wouldn’t be possible without such in-between spaces. Consider “The Commons” which includes everything from public libraries to public recreation centers to public parks, all the places that form the safe transitional spaces of childhood and which continue to to play a major role into adulthood. It is “The Commons” that creates a shared space between your space and my space. A church where even strangers are welcome also very similar to the experience found in “The Commons”.

Since Christianity has been the focus of this discussion, I’ll end with an interesting application of Buber’s thought to Christian theology:

“Communion leads to community through mutual surrender and reciprocity. Each person is open to the other,accepting the other unconditionally,giving the best one has to offer and receiving from the other in kind.25 The Trinity is one such community;within the Trinity we find three different entities or “persons”. Each one is distinct from the other,yet cannot be defined without the others. Each divine person is affirmed by affirming the others,and through surrendering to the others. Boff points out the richness in this unity which is not mere uniformity;here individuality is respected. Community emerges through communion and mutual self-surrender,26 a self-surrender which is the meaning of kenosis.

“This perfect community of the Trinity is illustrated by the statement “God is love”(1 John 4:8). According to Himes this classic expression is the basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. To claim that God is love means that God is pure self-gift,God is revealed as the One who is perfectly self-giving. From this statement flows the commandment:“Love one another as I have loved you”(John 3:34). The Trinity depicts a relationship of mutual self-giving:the Father gives himself completely to the Son and the Son gives himself completely to the Father. The Spirit,proceeding from both,is the bond of the love between them:“God is the lover,the beloved,and the love between them.”27 Thus God is not a person,that is,one entity of the relationship,but the fullness of relatedness.

“This perfect community,moreover,is not restricted to the Godhead. Boff explains that the divine communion is a mystery of “inclusion”,with the Three opening the divine community to the outside and inviting human beings to share in their community and life. This message goes to the heart of Jesus’final discourse,part of which is quoted at the beginning of this essay. The incarnation of the Son of God,argues Boff,inserted the Trinitarian community into human history,making it possible to eliminate the barriers of distinction and to create a community of equals.

“I think that a renewed appreciation of Trinitarian theology will help expose the inherent individualism of the current consumer ideology,and foster a genuine means of belonging. The claim that the Trinity is the basis for human belonging makes a strong political statement,for it insists not only that human beings are social but that the ground of all being lies in belonging to one another. Moreover,the Trinity provides the deepest foundation possible within the Christian tradition for the rejection of the bias towards individualism. Within the Trinitarian model the individual and community are inter-related. And the means by which one enters into this relationship is through the exercise of self-giving. We could argue then,with Himes,for the right of a person to become a self-gift. To claim that God is Triune points to the perfect relationship within the Godhead exercised through a mutual giving and receiving. To maintain that the human being is made in the image and likeness of God is to claim that the human person is capable of becoming a self-gift.

“This argument seeks to expose the shortcoming of individualism. Those who champion individualism think of freedom as the absence of interference from outside forces. In contrast,those who advocate a communitarian society based on the divine Trinity think of freedom as the ability to make our lives a gift through which we deepen our relationship with the community. Human relationships are meant to mirror the divine communion. A person is a being-in-relationship,and to exist is to be in a relationship. According to Himes,human nature is characterized by the capacity to know and to will relatedness. To limit relatedness is to limit one’s very existence. To deny relationality is to hover on the brink of non-being. But the more we belong to one another–the more we are able to make ourselves a gift–the more fully we exist.

“There are three spheres,says Buber,in which the world of relation is built:

  1. our life with nature,
  2. our life with men,
  3. and our life with ‘intelligible essences.’ 

“Each of these gates leads into the presence of the Word,but when the full meeting takes place they ‘are united in one gateway of real life.’ Of the three spheres,our life with man ‘is the main portal into whose opening the two side-gates leads,and in which they are included.’ It is here alone that the moments of relation are bound together by speech,and here alone ‘as reality that cannot be lost’ are ‘knowing and being known,loving and being loved.’ The relation with man is thus ‘the real simile of the relation with God,’ for ‘in it true address receives true response.’ But in God’s response all the universe is made manifest as language. (I and Thou,op. cit.,p. 101 ff.)

 “The fundamental beliefs of Buber’s “I-Thou” philosophy are the reality of the I-Thou relation into which no deception can penetrate,the reality of the meeting between God and man which transforms man’s being,and the reality of the turning which puts a limit to man’s movement away from God.

“On the basis of these beliefs Buber has defined evil as the predominance of the world of It to the exclusion of relation,and he has conceived of the redemption of evil as taking place in the primal movement of the turning which brings man back to God and back to solidarity of relation with man and the world. Relation is ‘good’ and alienation ‘evil.’ Yet the times of alienation may prepare the forces that will be directed,when the turning comes,not only to the earthly forms of relation but to the Eternal Thou.”

The Spirit and Spirits of the Season

The following is my response to Matt Cardin’s post, ‘This myth is realized today in us’: On the deep meaning of Christmas.

 * * *

I listened to an interview with Varla Ventura on Coast to Coast AM. She was discussing her book about Christmas stories and folklore.

Between Varla Ventura and the people calling in, it was an interesting show. I was familiar with some of what was brought up, but it’s easy to forget about the other side of Christmas and it is good to be reminded. Most of Christmas has little to do with Christianity. And a lot of the folklore of this time of the season is rather dark.

Our modern tradition of celebrating joyously is only half of the story. It’s the darkest time of the year, the time of short days and cold, when in the past there was little food available and many dangers. It’s when the sun stands still and spirits, ghosts and ghouls come out to haunt and torment. It’s a time of fear when those who have been bad are punished, when those who venture outside can come to untimely ends. And in America we forget about Santa’s not-so-friendly sidekick. (For example, read these from Varla Ventura: Beware the Scandinavian Christmas Troll & The Christmas Troll.)

Plus, there is all that cool stuff about Siberian shamans, magical mushrooms and flying reindeer. We forget the magical part of Christmas, the supernatural, the awe-inspiring unknown of the dark time of the year. Santa is the demi-god of the season, a manifestation of the divine; and his workers, his minions the elves exist behind the scenes of our reality doing whatever it is they do.

We celebrate as an act of sympathetic magic, hoping that the sun will rise again and warm days will be around the corner. When something ends, it isn’t known what will begin, in this case what the next year will be like. In making our New Year’s resolutions, we pray for good fortune that will be bestowed upon us, we ask that the forces beyond the human sphere will assist us instead of blocking and antagonizing us in our hopes and aspirations.

The Christmas celebration is ritual magick, an invocation of a seasonal spirit, a bringing down of the divine into this miserable earthly realm and an appeasing of the cthonic beings that live among us. We put out the milk and cookies so that the hungry elves and spirits will be sated. We sacrifice evergreen trees, a symbol of eternal life. We light up our houses to keep the darkness at bay and to ressurect the solar deity that has died, standing still on the solar cross. We tell stories of the newborn king who shall save us all who worship him. We give presents to celebrate the ideal and hope of goodwill, the archetype and spiritual force of bounty.

Even in our consumerism, we are practicing ritual magick. We buy and we give, the flow of money an act of faith in our society and our way of life. Most retail businesses make most of their money during the winter holidays. Some may see this as mere gross materialism. Yes, it is a celebration of material life, but there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that life is material, that the world we live in is material. The only thing to criticize is how often we forget the magical quality present in our stories and traditions, in our rituals and celebrations. There is real power in such collective actions and intentions when they are focused by ancient symbols and rites.

We collectively envision the world as a better place, envision ourselves as better people. We watch movies that teach us about lost souls learning the meaning of Christmas, the reason of the season. Even when we easily are overcome by anxiety and fear, greed even as shoppers compete and we spend money we should be saving, we do so because we feel a compulsion to ensure that everything is just right, to ensure the ritual is a success. Maybe once the family gets together there will be complaints and arguments, but it’s more important about what we strive to be. We put on our best clothes or our best faces and we try to get into the holiday mood… and the social expectations of it all may feel overwhelming. Still, we all play our part. Even many atheists and non-Christians join in the festivities. We may not know why it is important, but we know it is. That is the nature of traditions, especially those with deep religious significance.

To see it as a battle between baby Jesus and the Satanic forces of capitalism (God and Mammon) is to miss the point, so it seems to me. Christians, maybe more than anyone, too often miss the real Spirit of the Season.

Christianity is based on an ancient solar myth with Jesus as the solar god-man who has taken many forms. Darkness and light are like Yin and Yang. Jesus descends to Hell to save the damned before rising to Heaven. At this time of year, we focus so much on the birth of our savior that we forget that death precedes birth in the spiritual realm. It’s at the Winter Solstice that we are reminded that God as Jesus was born into this world, that spirituality isn’t just about being saved in the afterlife. It’s an opportunity to see God as being a force on earth and throughout mankind, among family and friends, among neighbors and communities. We manifest God by taking care of each other, by helping the poor, by giving freely. The Divine is here with us, all around us, the world alive with Spirit and spirits.

The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal

This interview about the ‘monstrous’ made me think of a related idea. The monstrous is a more extreme version of the ‘impure’, whether impure in terms of the physical, psychological, social, religious, etc. The monstrous and the impure are both in some way ‘wrong’ at a gut level. They just feel wrong causing an instinctual response to get away from the perceived source of danger… or else to force it to get away from us, to attack it, to banish it.

The reason the idea of the ‘impure’ came to my mind was because of research I’ve seen on ideology. Conservatives have a stronger disgust response. The research I recall had to do with rotting fruit. To conservatives, this was more likely to be responded to with disgust. This makes sense in that rotten food has the potential to cause sickness, but rotten fruit is hardly an unusual experience. Anyone who keeps fruit around the house regularly experiences fruit that is in varying states of rot. It’s just what fruit does when it sits around long enough.

This is also interesting in that rotting fruit is the cause of alcohol. Learning how to make alcohol was one of humanity’s greatest discoveries. More importantly, alcohol has the ability to alter our consciousness (often making us more ‘open’ which is a trait related to liberalism) and this is probably the reason alcohol has been associated with the divine and with religious rituals.

So, rotting fruit doesn’t only endanger our physical health. It also endangers us through its potential to alter our minds, to connect us to realms unknown and uncontrollable. Dionysus, after all, is the God of wine. To the modern (especially the modern conservative religious type), a God like Dionysus is a bit on the monstrous side.

This makes me wonder what has become of the monstrous. In the Old Testament, Yahweh wasn’t disconnected from the monstrous. We moderns tend to see fear as being somehow unacceptable. This is even true for modern conservatives who often portray God as lacking the true horrific power that Yahweh had in the distant past.

The liberal tends to not have much understanding or respect for the monstrous/impure. The liberal response to rotten fruit is to be curious. As a liberal, I highly recommend this response. However, I also wonder if something is lost when fear isn’t given a place in our values and beliefs, in our religious conceptions.

This is why I’ve been drawn to the imaginal. The imaginal is the realm of the trickster, neither this nor that or else maybe both.

The trickster has always had an liminal role, often a being above or greater than or prior to humans and also below or lesser than or progeny of the Gods. Godmen, both God and man, like Jesus tend to have Trickster qualities. Other beings, neither God nor man, such as Prometheus and Loki also tend to have Trickster qualities.

Depending on the culture, the Trickster may be perceived as either good or evil, either as defender of religious/social purity or as tempter/deceiver. Take Dionysus for example. He originally was worshipped by one group, but deemed dangerous by others, especially those in power who would attempt to deny him. With the Romans, he was turned into Bacchus who was less overtly divine. Dionysus, however, lived on in another form as many of his attributes were inherited by and made into more human form with Jesus Christ.

Humans have always been wary of the imaginal. It’s disconcerting to come face to face with something unknown and not be able to discern whether it is friend or foe. It’s easier to make an arbitrary designation one way or the other and create social boundaries and cultural norms to protect against it. Most often, especially for the conservative, this means the imaginal gets portrayed as evil or dangerous. The liberal goes the opposite direction by often dismissing the imaginal entirely. Neither side necessarily takes the imaginal seriously on its own terms.

Re: Ideas are alive. We are their hosts.

I recently noticed another interesting blog post by Matt Cardin:

Ideas are alive. We are their hosts.

I posted it on Facebook which led to a conversation with a friend.

She wrote: “So, ideas as a kind of AI…”

I responded with: “Yeah, something like that. Ever since I heard of the theory of memes, it’s always made sense to me. It really makes sense to me when combined with Jung’s view of archetypes and the view of the imaginal.
“However, I’m not sure about the criticisms of Marx. I don’t consider myself a Marxist (mostly because I’m too uninformed about Marxism), but I’m certainly not an anti-Marxist. I do see truth that ideas often are fake, especially on the level of politics. A meme is amoral. It simply seeks to propagate itself. Political power is similar. A meme can reflect a deeper level of truth, but not always and maybe not usually.”

She then asked: “But what is it that feeds memes or ideas, that helps them propogate?”

The following was my answer:

That is an interesting and insightful question. It’s hard to answer as it implies further questions.

Asking what memes or ideas feed upon is the same as asking what are they dependent upon for their very existence and the continuation of that existence. How independent are they? To what extent are they self-propagating and hence independent of humans? Even if memes feed upon human psychic energy, is that their only food source? And either way, who created them originally or where do they come from?

It reminds me of the idea of thought-forms in the Tibetan tradition. They put an interesting twist on it. A ‘god’ or ‘buddha’ or other spiritual being is a thought-form. Ultimately, thought-forms aren’t real. They are merely useful in aligning our minds with some higher truth or, if they are of another variety, then they are the opposite of useful. This value of usefulness is held above any claims of reality. Focusing on thought-forms is useful because it makes us realize that we too are thought-forms and ultimately not real.

No matter their origins or their nature, it does seem that memes and thought-forms feed upon human psychic energy. In terms of human experience, at least, the paranormal tends to pay attention to a person when that person pays attention to the paranormal. Or is it that the person pays attention to the paranormal when the paranormal pays attention to that person? Are we feeding the beings of the imaginal realm or are they feeding us? Or is it a symbiosis?

Maybe the best explanatory model would be a metaphor, especially since we are trying to explain the imaginal where metaphors can resonate more deeply. The metaphor I had in mind is the garden.

The human psyche is a garden. All plants come from the wild as do humans. We create a garden that is separate from the wild, a safe area that we defend and tend. Humans eventually become so dependent on their garden that they forget about the wilderness except when it presents dangers and problems. The supernatural is the wilderness, the area we’ve chosen to exclude from our cultivated human reality. The garden is a reality tunnel, a filter throught which we see the world and a set of beliefs by which we interpret our experience.

The garden we create becomes an extension of ourselves. Maybe a meme is a humanized idea. Out in the wild, there are many thought-forms that float in and out of existence, that mate and evolve. When we domesticate an idea, we make it a part of the human world. We claim it as our own and if it is successful as a meme it becomes a part of our sense of identity. Eventually, the thought-form can become so domesticated that it can no longer survive in the wild.

This could be where symbiosis becomes possible.

Here is a quote from an article (Smithsonian.com: “What Defines a Meme?” — James Gleick, May 2011) in the above blog post:

“That “soup” is human culture; the vector of transmission is language, and the spawning ground is the brain. For this bodiless replicator itself, Dawkins proposed a name. He called it the meme.”

This seems to be the environment in which symbiosis takes place. When humans developed abstract thinking and language, they were able to grasp and more clearly perceive the non-material. This led to a familiarity, a closeness between the human species and the wild thought-forms. Humans became something more than just animal. As fairytales and UFO experiencers explain, maybe there even was a cross-breeding of sorts, a psychic melding between self and other.

I wanted to add some more commentary on Marx. I noticed that Matt Cardin linked to some writings by Marx:

“In every epoch the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas, that is, the class that is the dominant material power of society is at the same time its dominant intellectual power. The class that has at its disposal the means of material production also for that reason disposes simultaneously of the means of intellectual production, so that in general it exercises its power over the ideas of those who lacke the means. The dominant thoughts are, furthermore, nothing but the ideal expression of the dominant material relations; they are the dominant material relations conceived as thoughts, in other words, the expression of the social relations which make one class the dominant one, and thus the ideas of its dominance.”

This relates to two aspects.

First, there is propaganda that is controlled by those with the power, propaganda being a manifestation of and an extension of power. Even with the acceptance of the reality of the imaginal, the power of propaganda is no less real. Propaganda just demonstrates how we are controlled by ideas and how, therefore, we seek to control ideas. However, it must be pointed out that even the powerful end up falling under the sway of the ideas that they think they control. Memes are powerful, even more powerful than the most powerful humans, for the reason that their power is subtle.

Second, this can be interpreted in a more contemporary understanding through the lense of what Robert Anton Wilson wrote about reality tunnels. We get trapped in a reality tunnel and can’t see outside of it. It determines our thinking. An example of this is that the medium is the message. When humans shifted from oral speech to written text, all of society shifted and all of collective reality shifted with it.

This notion of reality tunnels is elucidated, in different terms, within Marxism:

“This phenomenon is not restricted to individuals; but can, significantly, be applied to the various classes in a society. Class ideals spring from the conditions and necessities of its members. The bourgeois notions of private property and marriage are thus extensions of the material position of the bourgeoisie. “But don’t wrangle with us so long as you apply, to our intended abolition of bourgeois property, the standard of your bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, etc. Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of existence of your class” (Communist Manifesto). Culture, as it is understood in the larger sense, can be viewed as an outgrowth of the beliefs held by that society’s dominant class, as it has the power to impose its perspectives and make them seem ‘natural’ or ‘universal’. Thus, institutions such as the family, law, and religion as manifested in bourgeois society should not be dealt with in the terms of ‘universal law’ in which the bourgeois is likely to understand it. Rather, they should be viewed strictly in terms of the ‘life-activity’ of the bourgeois class, namely, accumulation. Ideals such as that of the free market are merely the beliefs held by the dominant class. Marx cites the case of classical economists: “There are only two kinds of institutions for them, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions… Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any” (Capital 92). These constructs become the cultural norm insofar as they are imposed by the ruling class.”

Marx is challenging ‘natural law’. This is a fair criticism. By claiming that one’s beliefs are ‘natural law’, one claims one’s beliefs can’t be challenged as if one was speaking for God. The powerful will claim their beliefs are ‘natural’, meaning real, and everyone else’s beliefs are unnatural or unreal, somehow unworthy and even dangerous.

A reality tunnel is about what is perceived as real. Also, a reality tunnel is typically a collective phenomena. We all share some basic reality tunnels or else we couldn’t communicate at all.

“Thus, Marx views consciousness as interwoven with the practical elements of individuals’ lives; a person’s place in society conditions his or her opinions. Ideas and consciousness must necessarily be rooted in an individual’s life and daily activity; earlier thinkers’ notion of a ‘self-sufficient philosophy’ cannot accurately explain the relationship between consciousness, ideas, and life. Significantly, these ideas extend beyond the individual level such that one can speak of class-consciousness. Marx elaborates on this notion, understanding the power relations and struggles as having ramifications in the moral or ideological realm, as the dominance of one ideology or the conflict between ideologies speak to the underlying class dominance and struggles. In this way, material conditions are able to determine what human beings, as historical actors, are able to do.”

Marx was challenging Enlightenment ideals. He was pointing out that abstract thought isn’t separate from the everyday world. To most people today, that is commonsense and to claim otherwise would seem silly. After all, thoughts exist in the realm where psyche and biology meet. We aren’t disembodied thinkers. Enactivists most strongly challenge this false notion and they do so from within a scientific framework. The ideal of disembodied thought is a meme that has haunted modern humans for quite a while now and has caused Cartesian anxiety.

It’s probably true that Marx tended to go too far in the opposite direction in emphasizing the material world, but his insight shouldn’t be dismissed. In the context of the imaginal, a deeper resonance can be given to the Marxist worldview. The imaginal is the meeting and merging of the subjective and objective, the inner and outer, the material and non-material. Ideas, like plants, grow in the mud of the earth. An idea is just a seed until planted.

Here is another link from Matt Cardin and the relevant quote:

“Marx is, in fact, more complicated on this issue, however, since at other times he suggests that some aspects of ideology (for example, literature) can have a semi-autonomous existence; that is, that such cultural products can exert an influence that is at odds with the dominant mode of production.”

So, apparently Marx didn’t merely see ideas as being entirely controlled. Rather, he saw ideas as sources of power, both power to control and power to challenge control. Some aspects of ideology such as literature touch upon the imaginal and tap into the power of the imaginal, a power that isn’t human. I realize Marx probably didn’t understand it in this way, but Marx did recognize that ideas couldn’t always be controlled.

Fortean Curiosity: Liberalism & Intelligence

I was hanging out with a friend and chatting about important issues of life… such as the existence of Men In Black and the nature of Fortean realities. Ya know, important issues.

My friend mentioned an author he had come across who described his own supposed experiences with Men In Black. He portrayed them as being not all that troublesome. He apparently thought one’s relationship with them could be managed. Just tell them to quit causing trouble and they’d settle down or something like that.

As I recall, this wasn’t how John Keel portrayed the Men In Black. Keel didn’t necessarily see them as dangerous or at least not intentionally dangerous, but they could really mess with one’s head and turn one’s world upside down. However, maybe they can be ‘managed’ in the sense that the less you pay attention to them the less they tend to pay to you.

That is the theory, anyway… not that I have any personal experience of the Men In Black. But in other ways, I’ve had my share of weird experiences in my life. I don’t speculate about it much beyond accepting that the world is a very strange place. If you’re lucky or unlucky (depending on your perspective), the strangeness might peek out at you at some point in your own life. When such happens, it does make one question one’s assumptions about reality.

My friend was explaining that reading about such things just makes him feel disoriented and it seems he didn’t see this as a good thing. I understood where he was coming from. I responded by explaining my own view. As I see it, the universe is vast. Most of the universe is alien to and indifferent to us humans. We are a minor species on a tiny planet in one insignificant corner of the universe. Even on the planet earth, we humans aren’t as important as we like to pretend. For the most part, the vast world beyond human society serves no purpose for human society. There might be little if anything to gain from interacting with Men In Black or exploring Fortean realities. No matter how hard you try, you probably never will understand any of it. Besides, most people don’t seem to care about the world beyond their private little world of family, friends and co-workers… nor are there many good arguments for why they necessarily should care.

On the other hand, if you’re a curious person, it’s hard to ignore curious things. And if the Men In Black come knocking at your door, they apparently can be very hard to ignore. Sure, all things Fortean may not serve any human purpose. But then again, one could argue that nothing in life serves any ultimate purpose besides the purpose we give it. I guess it comes down to each person having to figure out their own purpose, their own priorities and motivations. If your purpose is to be a rational scientist or a good Christian, then maybe you should just ignore all the weird stuff if possible. Just carry on as if everything were normal. But for some of us, we just aren’t good at ignoring the inconvenient and uncomfortable details of existence.

I’m such a person. I agree that it all can be disorienting. But so what? Life is disorienting. We all go along confused in our own heads. Some of us admit to this confusion and others spend their whole lives denying it. At some point in my life, I learned to embrace the confusion. I don’t know that it does me any good, but it’s gotten me this far. As Popeye famously said, “I yam what I yam.”

Those thoughts are interesting enough, but another issue was motivating my putting this all down in words. Just yesterday, I wrote about IQ and about how people are different, specifically in their learning styles. One thing I brought up is the research showing a correlation between liberalism and high IQ. Also, there has been research showing a correlation between liberalism and openness to experience. I was thinking about the relationship of intelligence and openness, and how both would relate to the paranormal.

I’ve written about this a bit in the past. Research confirms the distinction between religiosity and spirituality. People who have spiritual experiences are less likely to go to church, especially after having had their experience(s). That is massively intriguing in its implications, but it does make sense when you think about it. It easier to conform to beliefs of things you’ve never personally experienced. However, once you’ve had experiences, your experiences might not conform to the beliefs which would force you to make a choice between experience and belief.

Liberalism correlates to thin boundary types, a psychological category similar to openness. A thin boundary type experiences less distinction between things: waking and dreaming, reality and imagination (or imaginal), self and other, etc. This relates to openness to experience in that the thin boundary type feels less repulsion and fear toward that which exists outside of their normal sense of self and of their normal sense of reality. This obviously connects with intelligence in terms of curiosity. Intelligent people tend to be people who like learning new things: testing the known and exploring the unknown, questioning beliefs and pushing the boundaries of knowledge. As such, a thin boundaried liberal is more likely to be curious about the paranormal and more willing to entertain possibilities that don’t seem commonsense or don’t seem to have any practical application.

The conservative asks, “Why?” And the liberal asks, “Why not?”

The liberal may be intelligent as measured on IQ tests, but that doesn’t mean they are smart in the everyday sense. Being open to experience doesn’t always lead to ‘smart’ results. For example, intelligent people drink more and do more drugs. As Satoshi Kanazawa concludes in the second link:

“People – scientists and civilians alike – often associate intelligence with positive life outcomes.  The fact that more intelligent individuals are more likely to consume alcohol, tobacco, and psychoactive drugs tampers this universally positive view of intelligence and intelligent individuals.  Intelligent people don’t always do the right thing, only the evolutionarily novel thing.”

Liberals are more likely to engage in behaviors that are evolutionarily novel. Such novel thinking correlates to IQ. The conservative impulse is to stick closely to what has proven to work in the past. Sometimes that leads to the best results in the present and sometimes not. We have, through technology, created a society that is constantly changing and doing so at an ever faster rate. This gives the liberal mindset an edge in the modern world. Even so, human nature remains fundamentally the same and hence the conservative impulse remains valid probably more often than not.

Satoshi Kanazawa further fleshes out his out his hypothesis:

“…common sense is eminently evolutionarily familiar.  Our ancestors could not have survived a single day in their hostile environment full of predators and enemies if they did not possess functional common sense.  That’s why it has become integral part of evolved human nature in the form of evolved psychological mechanisms in the social and interpersonal domains.  Because common sense is evolutionarily familiar and thus natural, the Hypothesis would predict that more intelligent people may be less likely to resort to it.  They may be more likely to resort to evolutionarily novel, non-common sensical, stupid ideas to solve problems in the evolutionarily familiar domains.

“This, incidentally, is the reason I never use words like “smart” and “clever” as synonyms for “intelligent.”  Similarly, I never use words like “dumb” and “stupid” as synonyms for “unintelligent.”  “Intelligent” has a specific scientific meaning – possessing higher levels of general intelligence – whereas “smart” and “stupid” have more to do with common sense than intelligence.  From my perspective, more intelligent people like liberals are more likely to be “stupid” (lacking common sense), whereas less intelligent people like conservatives are more likely to be “smart.””

Whether or not liberal intelligence is healthy or beneficial, it does allow for discovering the new and so increases the probability of improvement (even as it threatens the stability of the traditional social order). Liberals, for whatever reason, have less respect for the argument that something is best simply because it worked at some point in the past. To the liberal, things can always be improved. Plus, it’s just fun and exciting, inspiring even, to adventure forth. Every advancement of civilization can be credited to this liberal impulse.

Why did Galileo feel such a need to scientifically challenge the religious views of his day? Why did the many explorers in the past get in ships to go to places that no one knew existed? Why do we send men to the moon? Why does anyone do anything new and different? What is the point? Does there have to be a point?

The liberal may not be able to explain why any given thing is worthy, but it is worthy to the liberal because it satisfies their liberal impulse. This liberal impulse, afterall, is a human impulse. It’s part of what makes us humans. It’s the reason we didn’t remain naked primates wandering the plains of Africa. Even conservatives have this liberal impulse, although to a much lesser degree of course.

Nonetheless, it can’t be denied that this liberal impulse can get us into trouble. Civilization itself is a evolutionarily novel behavior relative to most of human evolution. Civilization is definitely nice in many ways, but it has also led to massive problems for the species such as destruction of the environment we require for our survival. Likewise, the liberal impulse can lead people to be so open to the new that the liberally-inclined person may meet dangers they can’t overcome or escape from. Sometimes you can explore the Fortean and come back with tales of adventure and at other times you go insane or worse.

From the conservative position of practical commonsense, it might be ‘stupid’ to explore the Fortean and it might be unhealthy to explore such bizarre things. But if humans were able and willing to thwart the liberal impulse, I wouldn’t now be here writing about such things. In a purely conservative world, there would be no civilization or culture. Instead, we would be ‘traditional’ primates doing what all other primates do.

My friend was wondering if there was any good reason to explore areas he finds disorienting. No, there is no good reason in terms of rationality. A person seeks out the disorienting because, if they are liberally-inclined, that is what they feel compelled to do. In fact, it’s what all humans feel compelled to do, just some people feel this compulsion to a lesser degree.

American Liberalism & the Occult

I just watched this video about American liberalism having some origins in the occult. It reminds me of some passages from books I was recently reading (the passages are below the video).

American history is a lot more interesting than they teach in school. By the way, the guy in the video seems to be partly talking about America’s Great Awakenings. America has always been a country of religious experimentation. The deism of many of the founding father is an example of this (such as Thomas Paine writing and speaking about deism, atheism and Jesus being based on solar mythology).

What interests me the most is the time period in question is America’s Third Great Awakening which includes the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Populist Era… which set the stage for the Progressive Era. The book passages below are about the Populist Era when this Third Great Awakening became fully manifest as a movement.

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Postel, Charles (2009). The Populist Vision (Kindle Locations 5292-5356). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

As the secretary of the People’s party in Grimes County, Texas, John W. H. Davis devoted his public energies to enacting the Populist agenda of economic, financial, and political reform. In his private contemplations, however, these reforms were closely intertwined with questions of faith. He understood that religion as practiced was “dead.” Christianity ignored the here and now with its misplaced focus on “your dead carcass after death.” Yes, Davis conceded, a “pure undefiled Christianity,” combined with an honest ballot, would bring the necessary improvements. But he was troubled by the question of whether such a secular brotherhood could still be called Christianity at all. In search for answers he turned to non-Christian beliefs. He read across a range of spiritualist and other metaphysical literature, and carefully clipped and filed in his personal papers Charles C. Post’s article about the evolution of man, apes, and the irrationality of belief in God. For Davis, it made no sense to have “a political hell on earth” and a “religious heaven by the same person.” He searched for a unified vision of spiritual and material progress. The study of “mental science” was of a piece with his investigations into census data and national legislation, inseparable parts of a single quest for human improvement.59

Davis understood the controversial nature of his religious views and kept his studies of “mental science” to himself. Because of efforts to avoid public discord, it is difficult to quantify the number of Populists who believed in spiritualism, “mental science,” or similar metaphysical systems. The task is even more complex given that many other Americans—from faithful Christians to skeptical agnostics—entertained curiosity about communicating with the spirits of the dead and other metaphysical practices. In Texas, among the signs that the Populists showed interest in their movement, the Southern Mercury extended sympathy toward the spiritualists in the face of ostracism by “religious fanatics.” Texas spiritualist associations, although small in number, only organized in districts that also happened to be Populist strongholds. The impoverished cotton farmers of Davis’s Grimes County, for example, sustained a spiritualist organization with twenty-nine official members.60

The most prominent spiritualist in Texas, Eben LaFayette Dohoney, ran as the People’s party candidate for a state judgeship. Dohoney was also one of the leading prohibitionists in the state. Although most Populists sympathized with the temperance movement, the Texas People’s party preferred “local option” restrictions on alcohol sales rather than alienating German and other voters. This tolerant gesture was largely undone in the public mind by placing Dohoney on the Populist ticket as he was well-known for his strident prohibitionist views. The spiritualists did not view alcohol abuse as a sin, the work of the devil, or a ticket to eternal damnation. But it did threaten public health. And the spiritualists’ commitment to health and fitness made them uncompromising foes of the liquor industry.61

The tangible connections between spiritual reform, health reform, and social reform brought spiritualists into the Populist ranks. The spiritualists did not confine their attention to the séance. Their belief in progress—the “continuous progressive unfoldment” of the human condition—translated into social activism. A number of spiritualists embraced an “evolutionary revolution” toward the cooperative commonwealth. The spiritualist newspaper Carrier Dove popularized legislation making the federal government responsible for financing and regulating cooperative corporations “under comprehensive and uniform laws.” Although less specific than Charles Macune’s subtreasury plan, the proposal was premised on the same state-centered and cooperativist assumptions.62

The spiritualists rejected the framework of Christianity in favor of what they understood as a scientific outlook. Like the Swedenborgians, the spiritualists used the language of modern science and based their claims on empirical evidence rather than emotion or doctrine. They viewed the discovery of the ability to communicate with the spirits of the dead as a confirmation of reason and science in the struggle against the mysterious and supernatural, just as the harnessing of electricity confirmed the scientific age. Although spiritualism bore the brunt of intense hostility from the churches and the pious, it had a considerable public presence in late nineteenth-century life. Like other cultural movements of the era, the spiritualists made extensive use of the camp meeting. Crowds five thousand to ten thousand strong gathered under spiritualist tents to hear the speeches of famous mediums. Although some of the participants were city people enjoying a rural retreat, the movement had a broad rural following. The annual camp meetings of the Mississippi Valley Spiritualists Association lasted for a month and drew thousands of participants from Texas, Minnesota, and everywhere in between.63

Spiritualism provided an attractive alternative for women. The Christian churches, with their ordained clergy and scriptural proscriptions, placed obstacles to women’s expression and equality. “Spiritualism,” its practitioners stressed, “has no oracles, no priests, no leaders. The truth, wherever found, is all it seeks.” Women thus found opportunities as trance mediums and truth seekers. Victoria Woodhull, the best-known spiritualist of the 1870s, connected spiritualism in the public mind with free love and challenges to traditional gender roles. Although most spiritualists distanced themselves from Woodhull’s free love ideas, they campaigned for women’s progress, advocating dress and dietary reform, job protection, career opportunities, and the right to vote. The spiritualists played a prominent role in the national suffrage movement, and in California the trance medium Laura de Force Gordon led the state suffrage association.64

Given their ideas about reform, spiritualists often made good Populists. The editor Annie Diggs, the silver crusader George Bowen, and the novelist Hamlin Garland were among other prominent midwestern Populists involved with spiritualism. James Vincent Sr., father of the Vincent brothers, popularized spiritualist ideas in the pages of the Nonconformist. His wife had been a spiritualist, and after her death he grew dissatisfied with religious interpretations of the afterlife. “While for myself I have no faith in the teachings of the bible,” he conceded, “I cannot deny the doctrine of immortality.” He found the solution to otherwise unexplainable phenomena in spiritualism, which provided empirical proof that “the mind is active everywhere.” Only the scientific methods of the séance allowed for the perception of this electricity-like force.65

Spiritualism played a large role in California Populism. Marion Cannon, exercising his authority as president of the state Farmer’s Alliance, pointedly ruled against a candidate for membership who did not believe in a supreme being. This ruling, however, served to allay public fears, as both the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s party in California owed a great deal to spiritualism and related movements that flourished in the state’s climate of religious tolerance and experimentation. Here it should be kept in mind that much of the California movement had a nonreligious character, marked more by a casual drift from religious concerns than commitment to alternative beliefs. Cannon himself showed disinterest in spiritual matters, and although his wife was a committed church member, the church was one of the few organizations in which he did not take part. At the same time, a section of the reform movement in California embraced non-Christian beliefs in which a supreme being played an ambiguous part or no part at all.66

The spiritualist colony at Summerland, south of Santa Barbara, served as an organizing center for Populism. James S. Barbee, a Confederate veteran authorized by the national Farmers’ Alliance to organize on the West Coast, was closely tied to Summerland and, with the assistance of Alliance organizer Anna Ferry Smith, made it a base of statewide organizing. Burdette Cornell, a recent arrival from the Midwest known by the Populists as “our Nebraska Farm Boy,” served as the secretary of the Summerland Spiritualist Association. He traveled extensively throughout the state as a Farmers’ Alliance organizer, setting up suballiances in remote rural districts. A spiritualist cadre, which included prominent women activists such as Mary A. White and Addie Ballou, similarly helped build the Nationalist clubs and the People’s party in California.67

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Postel, Charles (2009). The Populist Vision (Kindle Locations 5357-5398). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

Besides the spiritualists, adherents of the related belief system known as Theosophy were similarly attracted to Populism. Theosophists also approached spirituality from the modern standpoint of rational inquiry and scientific validation. However, instead of focusing on communication with the dead, they studied what they viewed as the advanced ideas of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Asian belief systems. They also explored magic and the mystical, not out of belief in the supernatural, but in pursuit of “occult science,” that is, rational and scientific explanations for unexplained psychic phenomena. Founded by the Russian émigré Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the Theosophist movement, with headquarters in Madras, India, established branches in forty-two countries, with more than one hundred American chapters. Its followers tended to be in self-conscious revolt against the confines of traditional belief, and saw themselves as innovators on the cutting edge of a new, modern, and scientific world outlook. Their British counterparts, historian Alex Owen writes, pursued “a thoroughly modern project” with “distinctively avant-garde themes and preoccupations.” The same pursuit brought American Theosophists to Populist reform.68

Inspired by Buddhist and related ideas about the unity of life, Theosophists came to similar conclusions as the social Christians about human solidarity and social reform. They found the doctrines of Bellamy’s Nationalism especially attractive. Although Edward Bellamy himself was a social Christian, several of his closest associates, including Cyrus Field Willard, Sylvester Baxter, and other founders of Nationalism were Theosophists. In California, the Theosophists played a major role in organizing Nationalist clubs up and down the state. The influence of “occult science” spread well beyond the organized Theosophist societies, as occult lecturers and practitioners formed part of the bohemian subculture of reform. The caustically skeptical and atheistic Anna Fader Haskell found their ideas “rather absurd.” Yet, much to her chagrin, her husband Burnette had a long-standing interest in magic and named their son after the mystical Chaldaic god Astoroth.69

Mystical religion remained in the shadows of the Populist movement. It had its moment of national attention, however, with Coxey’s Army and the prominent role played by Jacob Coxey’s coleader of the march, Carl Browne. During the 1870s, Browne had served as secretary to Denis Kearney in the California Workingmen’s party agitation for Chinese exclusion. He later joined the Theosophists, who, ironically, provided some of the clearest voices on the West Coast in favor of racial tolerance. In 1893 he met Jacob Coxey, the Ohio Populist. The Californian introduced the Ohioan to both Theosophy and to the idea of organizing “Industrial Armies” as a means to bring the plight of the unemployed to public attention. The result was the famous march on Washington. Along the way, they mixed their campaign for a “good roads bill” with Theosophist teachings about Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and immortality.

Coxey and Browne dubbed their march “The Commonweal of Christ,” and announced to crowds of spectators that their march was a manifestation of the reincarnation of Jesus and other spiritual masters. This left many observers perplexed. The official chronicler of the march, Henry Vincent, received an inquiry as to what precisely was the nature of Coxey’s religious views. To this he replied that, as far as he understood it, Coxey’s religion “was to uplift humanity, relieve the oppressed and ‘let my people go free.’” As for Coxey’s church, Vincent described it as “the big one,” which “takes in all humanity irrespective of sect divisions.” Such an explanation made sense given the liberal and inclusive environment of Populist religiosity.70

Adherents of Theosophy saw themselves as the vanguard of a global unification of religious beliefs. They represented a small part of a much broader late nineteenth-century enthusiasm in America to learn from non-Christian belief systems. The wave of interest culminated in the 1893 World Parliament of Religions held in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair. The organizer of the event, John Henry Barrows, a liberal theologian and minister of Chicago’s First Presbyterian Church, promoted the Parliament as “the most phenomenal fact of the Columbian Exposition.” The Parliament drew over 150,000 people from across the nation and the globe to its sessions. Reform-minded participants welcomed the opportunity to learn “what God has wrought through Buddha and Zoroaster.” They saw the event as a turning point in the quest for understanding the universal “religion of humanity” and “science of religion.” The nation’s newspapers carried detailed reports. In North Carolina, the front-page headline of the Populist Caucasian saluted the “Unique Assembly” and provided its rural readers with an account of how the followers of Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and “all religions” sought unity on the basis of “the golden rule.”71

Such liberal religious sentiments expressed in rural Populist newspapers help explain the clash over comparative religion in Dayton, Tennessee, so many years later. At the Scopes trial, Darrow queried Bryan about what he knew of Buddha and Zoroaster, of which Bryan claimed to have little familiarity. Darrow’s purpose in this line of questioning was not to ridicule Bryan for his ignorance of obscure subjects. Rather, he grilled Bryan about the existence of other belief systems for the same reason

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Lears, Jackson (2009). Rebirth of a Nation (Kindle Locations 4567-4607). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Despite the prominence of progressive cliché, the vitalist celebration of spontaneity did lead to a new, more fluid style of thought—a distrust of static formulas and unchanging traditions, a fascination with energy, growth, and process; a willingness to lay “hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency,” as John Dewey wrote in “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy” (1910), and recast truth-claims in more dynamic idioms. One can see this antiformalist tendency in everything from Holmes’s influential slogan about “the life of the law” (it “has not been logic; it has been experience”) to Dewey’s ideal school, whose aim was “not learning, but first living,” as a follower said in 1910, “and then learning through and in relation to this living.” Antiformalist urges energized the pragmatic turn in American philosophy, the insistence that ideas be evaluated with respect to their actual consequences in everyday life. Pragmatism was conceived by Charles Peirce, nurtured to adulthood by William James, and applied to politics and society by Dewey. It was the most influential philosophical consequence of the quest for immediate experience. The long-term results were anticlimactic. Among Dewey’s epigones, pragmatism never entirely escaped the utilitarian cast of mind; the pragmatic criterion of truth became “what works” and education for living became vocational training.

Yet the vitalist impulse itself had larger than utilitarian implications. Its significance, like its origin, was religious. It lay at the heart of a broad revolt against positivism, a rejection of a barren universe governed by inexorable laws, where everything was measurable and nothing mysterious. The real problem for many vitalists (and certainly for James) was the specter of a life (and death) without meaning. It is possible to see all the talk about “life” as a way of whistling past the graveyard of traditional Christianity. But the vitalist ferment was also a genuine attempt to explore new meanings for human existence amid the wreckage of collapsing dualities: body and soul, matter and spirit, this world and the next.

Educated Protestants, dissatisfied with desiccated theology, cast about for vital conceptions of cosmic meaning. Many explored medieval Catholic mysticism as an alternative to the banalities of the typical Sunday sermon, the sort of platitudes uttered by Henry Ward Beecher and other ministers who reduced the Protestant ethic to a mere prescription for worldly success. Buddhism and other Asian religions—discovered, imagined, and synthesized—also began to play a role in focusing popular longings. Vedanta, popularized at the Chicago World’s Fair and after by Swami Vivekenanda, and theosophy, preached by Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, were both synthetic expressions of spiritual ferment. Paul Carus founded the magazine Open Court to carry forward the work of the World’s Parliament of Religions, begun at the Chicago Fair, to create a common ground of ecumenical discussion, which might lead to a new synthesis—a “Religion of the Future” that might appeal to believer and skeptic alike.

The results were mixed. Contributors to Open Court asked questions like “What is Life?” and then stumbled about in a soupy haze of abstractions. “The truth is, there are, as there must be, original factors in the world…and life (or chemical activity and appetency) is like gravity, one of them,” William Salter announced in 1901. “If we wish to account for them, we have to go back to the maker of all things (if there is a Maker) not to any of the things that are made.” One thing was certain: “The only salvation for society as for the individual, is from within—it is more life.” The reverence for “life” could overcome death itself. “Who knows but that that greater death which sooner or later overtakes us all…starts energies into play deeper than we had known before—that it is the death of the body, and freedom, new birth, to the soul?’

The desire for regeneration led to death’s door and beyond. Yearnings for empirical proof of an afterlife and for communication with departed loved ones accelerated the appeal of spiritualism. Here was another example of fascination with invisible force, impossible to see but unmistakable (to believers) in its consequences—tables rising from the floor, sepulchral voices, mysterious music. Even William James was intrigued. While he remained skeptical of sweaty séances in darkened rooms, he joined the American Society for Psychical Research, providing legitimacy to the quest for connection with “discarnate spirits.” His interest in spiritualism reflected his openness to all manner of evidence, no matter how bizarre or apparently inexplicable—his radical empiricism, as he called it.

Radical empiricism was the most profound intellectual consequence of the vitalist impulse. It animated James’s attempt to imagine “a world of pure experience,” a “blooming buzzing confusion” of perceptions from which we select and fashion our concepts. It validated his (and his contemporaries’) probing of religious experiences and other extreme psychic states, explorations that underscored the revelatory power of the “unclassified residuum” in mental life and the tentative, provisional character of scientific claims about it. Here and elsewhere, James stood in the midst of the transatlantic maelstrom that became

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NDE: Spirituality vs Religiosity

Last night, I was listening to Coast to Coast AM. The host mentioned a study in passing which caught my interest. The study was about the impact of NDEs on spirituality and religion. He said the results of NDE experiencers was the opposite of those church attenders who never had an NDE. After their NDE, experiencers were increasingly interested in spirituality and yet their church attendance decreased. On the other hand, non-experiencers over time (as they aged?) became less interested in spirituality all the while attending church more often.

I tried to find this study, but was unable to find it. NDEs is the topic of tonight’s show on Coast to Coast Am. The guest is Pin van Lommel who has written about the topic, but I don’t know if the study is discussed in one of his books. I did find other research which was related. In the following paper, I found a description of research showing that belief in the paranormal is negatively related to religious participation.

The Polarization of Psi Beliefs:
Rational, Controlling, Masculine Skepticism Versus Interconnected, Spiritual, Feminine Belief
J. E. Kennedy
pp 31-2

There are mixed findings and opinions from research on the relationship between religion and paranormal beliefs. National surveys in Canada and Iceland found that religious interests or beliefs were associated with belief in the paranormal (Haraldsson, 1981; Orenstein, 2002). These results are supported by other studies (see Thalbourne & Houtkooper, 2002). However, a national survey in the U.S. found that the correlations between religious and paranormal beliefs were largely nonsignificant (Rice, 2003). Various other studies found no relationship or mixed results between religion and belief in the paranormal (reviewed in Irwin, 1993; see also Orenstein, 2002; Rice, 2003).

These inconsistencies apparently reflect the fact that certain measures of religion are related to psi beliefs and others are not. Orenstein (2002) reported that belief in the paranormal was positively related to religious faith but negatively related to religious participation in a representative national survey in Canada. For those who had high religious belief but low church attendance, 78% scored high on 6 paranormal belief questions. For those who had high religious belief and high church attendance, 24% scored high on paranormal beliefs. For those who had low religious belief and low church attendance, 11% scored high on paranormal beliefs.

So, what does that mean? My guess is that this connects to Ernest Hartmann’s research on boundary types. Thick boundary types would prefer organized religion because it’s clearly defined in its social structure and in its belief system. However, thin boundary types prefer more open-endedness and inconclusiveness which goes against most organized religion, especially of the highly organized variety such as the Catholic Church. Research shows that thin boundary types are more open to non-ordinary experiences (i.e., spiritual, paranormal; et cetera). An NDE, by definition, is a thin boundary experience in that it’s a very personal experience of thin boundary between life and death.

Even if you don’t believe in religion or the paranormal, I think this type of research is interesting in what it says about human nature. A thick boundary person simply is less comfortable with spirituality and the paranormal. If the thick boundary person is religious, they’re more likely to label the non-ordinary as evil or at least consider it highly suspect. If a thick boundary person isn’t religious, they’re likely to deem claims of non-ordinary experiences as false or meaningless or else to rationalize them away merely brain malfunctions. In this way, the religious fundamentalist and the atheistic fundamentalist would find themselves in similar opposition to the spiritual believer and paranormal experiencer.

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