Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Gods

Gods are superior beings, real or imagined. Krishna and Jesus are collectively imagined and, sometimes, individually, “seen.” Visionary experience is neither objective experience nor mere imagination but an altered state of consciousness, requiring further investigation. 

Possibly, some real beings are superior to humanity. However, it is not possible that a single pre-existent superhuman being created the universe because the creator before the creation would be a self without other, which is like a square without sides. Any real superior beings must exist in a context that makes them powerful but not omnipotent, subtle but not bodiless and natural, not supernatural. For example, survivors of an earlier universe influencing the formation of later universes would indeed be god-like.

Our ancestors saw the Sun emerge from the horizon, plants from the earth and offspring from parents so they imagined that superhuman beings had emerged from an original void or chaos. We now know that complicated beings developed by gradual changes and distinct stages from pre-biotic chemistry. Energized complex molecules changed randomly until one became self-replicating. These changes obeyed natural laws whereas spontaneous generation of complicated beings would have to be called "supernatural." Any being capable of creating a universe would have to be more complicated than it, therefore would require a further explanation. Odin's grandfather emerged from ice licked by a cow whose milk fed a giant formed from heated ice. Thus, in Norse mythology, inanimate processes, including dialectical interactions, preceded life although the cow is unexplained and no stages preceded complicated life.

Jews and Muslims each promoted a different tribal deity not only to solitary divine status but also to supra-cosmic infinitude. In the latter sense at least, any “one god” is a divine pretender. In the original sense of finite superior beings, the number of gods is probably either none or many. Jewish monotheism developed gradually. Abraham, like anyone else at the time, worshiped a god. His descendants escaping from slavery made an exclusive deal with one particular deity whom Moses saw and met on a mountain. Later, prophets preserving Hebrew identity despite invasions and Exile claimed that all other gods were powerless before the single Hebrew deity. Even this claim was not yet full monotheism. The proposition that other gods are powerless still implies that they do at least exist. Pagans replied not, “Our gods do exist” but “Our gods are indeed powerful.”

However, the proposition that other gods are powerless simultaneously implies the exact opposite. Since power is the essence of godhood, to say of any god that he is powerless is to say that he does not matter, counts for nothing, need not be placated or worshiped and in practice does not exist, certainly not as a god. Finally, to attribute infinite, beginningless and endless power to the one god is to initiate full monotheism, replacing “a god” with “God.” If there is only one, then he no longer requires a distinguishing name although some monotheists continue to insist on a particular name. (If only one human male survived, then he could be addressed indifferently as “John” or “Man” although he might still prefer “John.”)

Jews preserved their monotheism as part of their identity. Many Gentiles repelled by Jewish Law were nevertheless attracted to monotheism as a single explanation of diverse phenomena. Christianity presented monotheism without the Law but Christians struggled to preserve monotheism. The earliest New Testament canon was the Marcionite “Gospel and Apostle,” modeled on the Hebrew “Law and the Prophets.” Marcion opposed Jesus’ new god to Moses’ old god. Orthodox Christians incorporated Hebrew scriptures into their canon as the Old Testament and identified the two gods.

The Trinity doctrine prevented three divine persons from becoming three gods. A human Mother of God replaced the divine Mother Goddess. Powerful supernatural beings became angels or demons. Satan was a rebel creature, not a rival creator. Whereas the Roman state had deified dead Emperors, the Roman church, the ghost of the Empire enthroned on its tomb, now canonized dead saints. Thus, the bishops controlled but could not eliminate a strong polytheist tendency.

Semitic monotheism is exclusive and intolerant, denying other gods, whereas Indian monotheism is inclusive and tolerant, identifying all gods and coexisting with impersonalist or atheist interpretations of the same scriptures. Since it is evident that many gods are worshiped and arguable that none exist, either polytheism or atheism is preferable to monotheism. In fact, if “atheism” means the denial or even just the absence of monotheism, then it is compatible with polytheism, as in some parts of the Indian tradition. Modern secularists can combine philosophical, scientific atheism with imaginative, literary polytheism. 
 We inherit all of the sciences and scriptures.

Prayers addressed to whom it may concern or to “whatever gods may be” can be petitions or aspirations: 
 
“From delusion, lead us to truth; from darkness, lead us to light.” (adapted from Brihad-Aranyka Upanishad 1.3.28)

Non-monotheists can both pray hypothetically and meditate. The Buddha was a “teacher of gods and men.”

Named gods are imagined. It is imagination that creates words, myths, arts and artifacts. Imagined gods personify creativity. They are in us.

“I said, ‘Ye are gods.’ ” (John 10. 34; Psalms 82. 6)

Jupiter was the chief god and the Pontifex Maximus was the chief priest of the Roman state religion. Greek-influenced Romans identified Jupiter with Zeus. Imperial Romans  identified local gods like Thor with Jupiter-Zeus. Constantine ruling, as it seemed, one world empire replaced the chief god Jupiter-Zeus with the single god Christ and made the bishop of Rome the Pontifex Maximus. In Europe, the state religion survived the state. The Supreme Pontiff claimed universal (“Catholic”) spiritual authority, became a local temporal ruler and is still the Vatican City head of state.

In reality, the Pope is one more bishop, a remote successor of the Apostles, and Christ is one more god, an imagined superior being and a deified historical figure about whom almost nothing historical is known.

Monotheism arose from polytheism by diverse processes.

Prophetic: denigrating other gods.
Christian: resisting polytheism.
Roman: replacing a pantheon with the one god.
Muslim: identifying a tribal god with the one god.
Masonic: identifying Baal and Osiris with the one god.
Hindu: worshiping each god in turn as the one god.
Krishna-ist: insisting that Krishna is the supreme god.
Yogic: defining the Hindu one god as a permanently discarnate soul, not a creator.
Sikh: identifying the Hindu and Muslim gods.

Denigrating other people’s gods is wrong, yet this is how Hebrew prophecy began and how Gentile Christianity spread. Removing monotheism leaves both polytheism and atheism. The Yoga Sutras (authoritative texts) would have been atheist if they had not classified devotion as a kind of yoga and therefore classified God as a kind of soul. The only acceptable monotheism is the Hindu version which claims that apparently diverse objects of worship are really one and therefore sanctions polytheist practice.

As in ancient times, we can acknowledge that: 

different gods are worshiped;
gods can be powerful, e.g., can motivate armies, but are finite, e.g., their armies can be defeated;
they sometimes assimilate each other. 
For example, the Jewish and Muslim gods began as different tribal deities and retain their individual names even though the Koran identifies them. Jesus can be seen as a prophet of Allah or as an avatar like Rama or Krishna.

Unlike most ancients, we clearly differentiate the questions: what gods do these people worship? and: do these gods exist? Further questions may arise from future study both of external reality and of altered states of consciousness. A Pagan tells me that she sees and converses with Isis. Because my inner processes are entirely abstract, I cannot visualize and therefore cannot reproduce her experience. I accept her account of the experience but what is the status of that experience? 

It is not objective. Impartial observers cannot see, hear or detect Isis and the person who does see and hear her cannot photograph or record her. But the experience seems to be more or other than subjective. It is a dialogue concretely experienced and engaged in as if it were an objective event. It is not merely imagined. The term “vividly imagined” might be applicable though probably not acceptable to those who have such experiences. 

Does visionary experience require a third category, the “trans-subjective”? This question need not entail an eclectic mixing of the antithetical philosophies, materialism (the primacy of being) and idealism (the primacy of consciousness). If brains are material instruments of consciousness, it does not follow that they are instruments of an immaterial consciousness just as, if bombs are material instruments of destruction, it does not follow that destruction is immaterial. 

Individuals function not as isolated organisms but as members of societies with histories. Collective personifications of aspects of consciousness became modes of individual experience. Thus, individuals have been able to experience panic by seeing (a vision of) Pan, fear thunder by seeing Thor, face death by seeing Kali, feel protected by seeing Mary, cherish the earth by seeing the Goddess, love animals by seeing St Francis, travel confidently by seeing St Christopher, go mad by seeing demons, wage war while seeing Mars or St Michael, transcend self by seeing Krishna or Christ and approach enlightenment, wisdom or compassion by seeing the Buddha, Manjusri or Kanzeon. Forgotten gods return to the unconscious or transform: Diana into Mary, Thor into St Olaf, gods into Bodhisattvas. Symbols mean what we make them mean. As Christ’s influence grew, Pagans had to acknowledge that he was a powerful god, then Constantine conquered in the sign of the cross.

“Trans-subjectivity” entails first that such personifications can appear to us as if they were external beings. As collective personifications, they are already external to individual consciousness. Can they appear to be materially external as well? Less plausibly, “trans-subjectivity” also implies that the personifications are not only apparently external but also independently conscious so that dialogues with them are genuine, not merely apparent. On this hypothesis, they not only transcend our subjectivity but also are transcendent subjects.

Human consciousness is a powerful force that can, within a single brain, fragment into multiple personalities with distinct characters and memories. Can it also collectively diverge into human minds and emergent deities? As against this, we regularly dream about conversations without, usually, hypothesizing that the other speaker in a dreamed conversation is independently conscious. If an apparent dialogue with Isis is helpful or informative, then it is less important to consider whether it is really an inner monologue in dramatic form. 

Does the conscious mind converse with a conscious deity or with its own unconscious? Alternatively, independently existent superior beings might communicate with us through familiar forms. Some Christians insist that it is demons that do this but we can evaluate non-Christian visions only by their consequences which usually are not demonstrably harmful.
Artistically, we can enjoy an imaginative global polytheism while acknowledging that it bears different interpretations, the most literal and least plausible being that gods exist as imagined. The Sandman by Neil Gaiman is a fictitious account of personifications and myths actively living inside human beings. Death and Dream are anthropomorphic personifications. Gods begin in Dream’s realm and end in Death’s.

Visionary experiences are not uniform. My acquaintance sees Isis inwardly while meditating – she enters a temple and converses with an animated statue of the goddess – whereas another Pagan sees Herne the Hunter externally although others present do not necessarily see him. The practice of inwardly inducing vivid images is, by definition, vivid imagination but not all visions are deliberate or internal and apparently the statue acts independently once visualized. 
A trainee at a Cumbrian Buddhist College visualized a seated Buddha only to see him stand up and walk away as if to say, “Meditate without visualizing.” We can broaden our perspectives by heeding instead of dismissing such accounts. Familiar states of consciousness must be a small section of a potential spectrum. I am surer of this last point than I am of “trans-subjectivity.”

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