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Religion and Mysticism

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Shiva Dakshinamurti
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

There exist, generally speaking, two basic postures with respect to spiritual phenomena. The religious attitude is oriented toward collective ritual participation in a shared set of symbols, with the primary aim of assimilating individuals into a system of sentiments, values, and prohibitions. The mystical attitude is concerned with the direct experience of a domain that lies beyond the ordinary realm of thoughts, values, and judgments. It does not pertain to particular things, but to being itself.

It is an empirical fact that religious symbols vary widely from culture to culture. Their transmission can be tracked historically, and in each society in which they appear, they are interpreted in the light of that society’s priorities and values.

To take one example, compare the goddess Inanna in Sumer, Ishtar in Babylon, Isis in Egypt, Venus in Rome, and the Blessed Virgin in the Christian church. These figures are variations on the same motif, sharing associations with the morning star, the lion, the dove, love, and war. Each is the mother or consort of a lunar god who dies and lives again; Inanna is paired with Damuzi, Ishtar with Tammuz, Isis with Osiris, Venus with Adonis, the Virgin with Christ. (In what sense is Christ a moon god? one might ask. But note how long he rested under the earth before returning to life.)

The historical transmission of this goddess is well-known – she spread with the technologies of the city, including writing, mathematics, astronomy, and large-scale irrigation agriculture, from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and then throughout the Mediterranean. The basic structure of the symbol remained intact, but the personality of the goddesses changed substantially, reflecting the values of each societies into which she passed. For the earthy and prelapsarian Sumerians, Inanna is sexually voracious, associated with ritual prostitution and the seduction of heroes, while the Virgin Mary embodies the opposite tendency.

This example illustrates a general principle found in the comparative study of religions, that religious symbols have a particular valence and belong to the sphere of moral valuation represented by the local group. They represent specific attributes, which are determinate – they are either this, or that. An affirmation of the religious symbol therefore become an affirmation of the group and its collective values, and participation in religious rituals brings one into alignment with the group. This social function of religious symbols may shed light on why this goddess spread with the newly-developed city and its new requirements for social adjustment.

Now, it is also an empirical fact that mystical experiences are universal in character, resembling one another throughout the world and lacking local inflection. The mystical attitude is not oriented to any particular things, but to the fact of Being in itself.

Mystical symbols differ fundamentally from religious symbols in that they refer to a domain that lies beyond the values of the social group in which they are expressed. They refer to an experience beyond language, beyond thought, beyond speech, and beyond belief. In opposition to the particularity of religious symbols, we can evoke the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad, which says that the sacred ground of Being is “not this, not that”.

The Kena Upanishad evokes the transcendent mystery in its contemplation of the holy Brahman:

If you think that you know well the truth of Brahman, know that you know little. What you think to be Brahman in your self, or what you think to be Brahman in the gods – that is not Brahman. What is indeed the truth of Brahman you must therefore learn.

I cannot say that I know Brahman fully. Nor can I say that I know him not. He among us knows him best who understands the spirit of the words: “Nor do I know that I know him not.”

He truly knows Brahman who knows him as beyond knowledge, he who thinks that he knows, knows not. The ignorant think that Brahman is known, but the wise know him to be beyond language. (1)

The symbols of mysticism either transcend dualities, or bring them together. Compare our Virgins and libidinous goddesses above with the goddess who speaks in the Gnostic poem Thunder, Perfect Mind, recently discovered in a manuscript dating to the fourth century CE in Nag Hammadi:

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored and the scorned.
I am the whore and the holy.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am (the mother) and the daughter.
I am the limbs of my mother.
I am a barren woman
who has many children…. (2)

Song of the Lark (detail)
Jules-Adolphe Breton

The mystical goddess of Thunder, Perfect Mind transcends the local variations of the goddess we discussed above – she encompasses the reality to which these local variants refer, through their particular frame of reference. She is the universal, not the particular, and like all deities in mystical traditions, she is evoked by uniting signs, such as the coincidentia oppositorum, or union of opposites. I took a look at the union of opposites motif in early Indo-European religious poetry in an earlier post.

In the mystical experience, the sense of an individual self or ego drops away, leaving an experience of union with an Absolute that is uncreated, eternal, peaceful, indescribable, and ultimately meaningful. The features of these experiences have been cataloged by many authors, such as William James in the “Mysticism” chapter of his marvelous The Varieties of Religious Experience.

People who report experiences of this sort are often transformed by them, and they may begin to act and think in reference to a mode of reality that is difficult for us ordinary monkeys to understand. There are many delightful iconoclasts in the mystical traditions of the world, who scoff at merely-religious symbols. Take this prayer by the Tibetan Tantric master Drukpa Kunley, which I have long prized:

I bow to the fornicators discontented with their wives;
I bow to crooked speech and lying talk;
I bow to ungrateful children;
I bow to professors attached to their words;
I bow to gluttonous gomchens;
I bow to philanthropists with self-seeking motives;
I bow to traders who exchange wisdom with wealth;
I bow to renunciates who gather wealth secretly;
I bow to prattlers who never listen;
I bow to tramps who reject a home;
I bow to the bums of insatiate whores.

An interesting example that may be closer to home for some readers is Job of the Old Testament. Through his trials, he comes to know a God who is beyond the sphere of human understanding and judgment in every sense. And note that the majority of the book contrasts Job’s experience of God’s unveiling with the religious perspective represented by his friends, who have come to comfort him. They remain convinced that Job must have done something to deserve the terrible things that befell him. That is, they can only interpret Job’s problems with respect to their own provincial ideas of justice and fairness. They represent the conventional religious wisdom as it is embodied by the group, and as is so often the case with the conventional wisdom, they are totally wrong.

The great poet Rumi speaks in the Sufi symbolic language of being “drunk on the divine,” and in this poem he ultimately refers to his beloved companion and mentor, Shams:

I know nothing of that wine – I’m annihilated.
  I’ve gone too far into No-place to know where I am.
Sometimes I fall to the depths of an ocean,
  then I rise up again like the sun.
Sometimes I make a world pregnant,
  sometimes I give birth to a world of creation.
Like a parrot, my soul nibbles on sugar,
  then I become drunk and nibble the parrot.
I can’t be held by any place in the world,
  I know nothing but that placeless Friend.
I’m a drunken rascal, totally mad –
  among all the rascals, I make the most noise.
You say to me, “why don’t you come to yourself?”
  You show me myself, I’ll come to it.
The shadow of the Phoenix has caressed me so much
  that you’d say I’m the Phoenix, he’s the shadow.
I saw beauty drunk, and it kept saying,
  “I’m affliction, I’m affliction, I’m affliction.”
A hundred souls answered it from every direction –
  “I’m yours, I’m yours, I’m yours!
You are the light that kept on saying to Moses,
  “I’m God, I’m God, I’m God.”
I said: “Shams of Tabriz, who are you?”
  He said: “I’m you, I’m you, I’m you.” (3)

The words of many masters are echoed in this poem. “You show me myself, I’ll come to it,” reminds me of Bodhidharma’s admonition to his student Hui-k’o “Bring me your mind, and I will put it to rest.”

Or you might think of the great Sufi master Mansur al-Hallaj, who executed before Rumi’s time for saying “There is nothing wrapped in my turban but God.”

Or you might hear echoes of the goddess of Thunder, Perfect Mind, speaking in Rumi’s voice, telling him, and you, and everyone: “I’m you, I’m you, I’m you.”

Not the you that you cherish and protect, but the you that you truly are.

(1) Swami Prabhavananda, and Manchester F, trans. and ed. The Upanishads; Breath of the Eternal. New American Library. 1957. p. 31.
(2) Meyer M, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne. 2007. p. 372
(3) Chittick WC. Sufism; A Beginner’s Guide. Oneword Publications. 2000. p. 117


Written by Mesocosm

March 16, 2012 at 9:11 am

The Letter Killeth, but the Spirit Giveth Life

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On Christian Doctrine, Part 1

Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of heaven will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you. (1)

12th Century Byzantine Mosaic,
Bode Museum
(Click to Enlarge)

These words from the Gospel of Thomas, written several decades before the Gospel of John, give a sense of the diversity of beliefs available to early Christians. Where John would emphasize the absolute uniqueness of Christ’s relationship to God, calling Jesus “the only begotten of the Father,” (John 1:15), Thomas proclaims a Christ who teaches that God is everywhere and within, saying “Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up a stone and you will find me there.” (2)

From the perspective of the Gospel of Thomas, it is not the fact of Christ’s resurrection, but of each individual’s relationship to God, that leads to salvation. In this account, Christ is an exemplar of the relationship everyone has to divinity: “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty, and you are poverty.” (3)

By the late second century, Iraeneus of Lyon had determined that the three Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, along with the Gospel of John, were to be considered canonical, and all others were superfluous. The mainstream church has followed his lead on this matter ever since. The universalizing theology of Thomas was rejected in favor of John’s unique, cosmological Christ, the Word by which all things were made, co-eternal with God, and man’s relationship to God was determined to be through Jesus alone.

The process of consolidating a Christian orthodoxy continued for several centuries, throughout the Patristic Period, the late Roman Empire, and the early Middle Ages, and during this time countless alternative views were rejected and suppressed.

The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, describing the relationship between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, was established at the First Council of Nicea in 325 CE, the first great ecumenical council of the church. This council produced the Nicene Creed, which explains the Trinity as one unified Godhead consisting of three persons, each of whom is wholly and completely God.

The Latin word translated as person in the Creed is persona, which literally refers to a stage mask used in drama. The relationship between the three personae is described as follows:

Christogramic Lamp, 4th-5th Century, Athens

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and of all things seen and unseen. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and born of the Father before all ages. God from God, light from light, true God from true God. Begotten, not made, of one being (homoousios) with the Father, by whom all things were made. […]

And (we believe) in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son), who together with the Father and the Son is to be worshiped and glorified, as was spoken by the Prophets….

Not all Christians accepted the idea that Christ was of one being with the father. The Alexandrian bishop Arius (c. 250–336 CE), for example, argued that Christ, as the Son of God, was created by God and is apart from God. This view came to be called Arianism, and is now considered to be one of the cardinal heresies of the Christian church.

Mary with Child, Heidelberg

In the early first millennium, however, Arianism was widely accepted, especially among the Germanic peoples of Europe. The Visigothic king Alaric I, who sacked Rome in 410, was an Arian, as was Odoacer, the ruler of the foederati who deposed the last Roman emperor in 476.

In 451, the doctrine of Arianism was formally and explicitly rejected at the Council of Chalcedon, the last great ecumenical council. Chalcedon judged Christ to be “the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body….” In so doing, the orthodox church embraced the paradox (or mystery, if you prefer) that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine at the same time.

The church often describes the defeat of Arianism as a theological triumph, with the better, truer doctrine winning out over the lesser, but in reality it was a military and political victory, not a theological one. The Germanic peoples who subscribed to Arianism were defeated by the Franks, who were soon to become the next great power in Europe after the fall of Rome. The first ruler of the united Frankish tribes was Clovis I (481–511), who established the long-lived Merovingian dynasty. His affirmation of the Chalcedonian Creed was decisive.

The church would continue to use political and military force to suppress divergent beliefs for the next thousand years. Pope Innocent III, for example, went so far as to declare a crusade against the people of southern France in 1209, in an efforts to stamp out Catharism. His crusading warriors, in their zeal, put thousands of unarmed civilian inhabitants of Béziers to the sword, having famously decreed “Kill them all, God will know his own.”

Jan Hus

Jan Hus, Deutsches Historisches Museum

Any number of would-be reformers were condemned and their works destroyed. The English priest John Wycliffe was declared a heretic after his death in 1384. His body was exhumed and desecrated, and his books were burned.

Jan Hus, the controversial Czech reformer, was invited to the Council of Constance in 1414. When he arrived, having been promised safe conduct, he was seized and burned at the stake. The blood-letting based on control of Christian doctrine continued to the time of Martin Luther and beyond

There is no question that the history of Christianity is a proper mess, I think. But in what follows, I would like to express some criticisms of Christianity on a doctrinal basis, instead of on historical or social grounds.

The Doctrine of the Trinity, and the Exclusion of the Goddess

As described above, the Nicean doctrine of the Trinity describes one God with three personae, which the church reads as persons, but which I interpret as aspects. In my interpretation, transcendent God is known to human consciousness by way of different images or archetypes, each of which ultimately refers to the same mystery.

I cannot accept the doctrine that there are three and only three personae that properly refer to God. An important case-in-point is the orthodox rejection of female images of divinity, which the church has boldly asserted, but cannot sustain.

Gender is rooted in the cultural and biological facts of our species, and surely has nothing to do with a deity who is beyond all that. But in terms of religious psychology, our species has a common heritage extending back tens of thousands of years, and it everywhere embraces female representations of the divine. I cannot believe that it is spiritually or psychologically healthy, or even possible, to exclude female representations for long.

This accounts, I think, for the enormous popularity of the Virgin Mary, who rose from her humble origins as the mother of Jesus in the Gospels to herself immaculate, elevated up to heaven by the doctrine of the Ascension, and crowned as its queen.

At the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE, Mary was proclaimed not just “Christ-Bearer,” but “God-Bearer” (Theotokos). (4) By virtue of this promotion, she acquired the epithet “Mother of God,” which had long been associated throughout the Roman world with various goddesses, especially the Egyptian goddess Isis, mother of Horus. Early iconography of Mary and Jesus was heavily influenced by depictions of Isis with the infant Horus upon her lap.

Ephesian Artemis, Capitoline Museum, Rome

It is significant that this elevation of stature should occur in the Ionian city of Ephesus, which was renowned throughout antiquity as the center of a fertility-goddess cult dedicated to Artemis.

As Mary became increasingly identified as the Queen of Heaven, she took on the attributes of similar goddess mother/consort figures, who had long been paired with a god who suffers death and finds resurrected. This combined symbol has persisted since at least the eighth millennium BCE, when it was carved into the shrines of Çatal Höyük in Anatolia, or present-day Turkey.

The Virgin Mary elicits from the faithful that particular and ardent form of love that the Goddess always evokes. It is the same devotional love that Apuleius proclaims to the goddess Isis in his wonderful novel The Golden Ass. Apuleius declares to Isis in a voice choked with sobs:

Holiest of the Holy, perpetual comfort of mankind, you whose bountiful grace nourishes the whole world; whose heart turns towards all those in sorrow and tribulation as a mother’s to her children; you who take no rest by night, no rest by day, but are always at hand to succor the distressed by land and sea, dispersing the gales that beat upon them. (5)

How closely this resembles the Marian hymn Salve Regina, set to music by hundreds of Christian composers:

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve;
to thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.

Turn then, most gracious advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us;
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary. (6)

If we go back to the world’s earliest writings, at Sumer, we find this prayer to the goddess Inanna:

From heaven’s midst Milady
  looks kindly down,
before holy Inanna, before her eyes
  they walk –
August is the queen, the evening star in the sky,
Fitly (therefore) they praise the maiden Inanna.
August is the queen, the evening star in the sky
  unto the border of heaven! (7)

Like Inanna, Ishtar, Isis, and Aphrodite, the Virgin Mary is paired with a God associated with the moon and with the animal sacrifice. Mary shares their cardinal attributes: the dove and the Morning Star.

Apuleius had the good sense to recognize what should be perfectly obvious, that the many congruent images of the Goddess refer to the same experience:

Blessed Queen of Heaven, whether you are pleased to be known as Ceres, the original harvest mother who in joy at the finding of your lost daughter Proserpine abolished the rude acorn diet of our forefathers and gave them bread raised from the fertile soil of Eleusis; or whether as celestial Venus, now adored at sea-girt Paphos, who at the time of the first creation coupled the sexes in mutual love and so contrived that man should continue to propagate his kind forever; or whether as Artemis, the physician sister of Phoebus Apollo, reliever of the birth pangs of women, and now adored in the ancient shrine of Ephesus; or whether as dread Proserpine to whom the owl cries at night, whose triple face is potent against the malice of ghosts, keeping them imprisoned below the earth; you who wander through many sacred groves and are propitiated with many different rites – you whose womanly light illumines the walls of every city, whose misty radiance nurses the happy seeds under the soil, you who control the wandering course of the sun and the very power of his rays – I beseech you, by whatever name, in whatever aspect, with whatever ceremonies you deign to be involved, have mercy upon me in my extreme distress…. (8)

The Blessed Queen of Heaven answers the innate need of the human psyche to cloak the divine in a woman’s form, and it cannot be suppressed for long.


In Part Two this series, I will have a look at the problem of Christ’s dual nature, and the solution proposed by the Council of Chalcedon.

Virgin and Child with an Angel (detail)
Sandro Botticelli
Art Institute of Chicago


1) “The Gospel of Thomas”, 3. from Myer M., et al. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne. 2007. p 139
2) Thomas, 77. from Myer, 2007. p 146
3) Thomas, 3. from Myer, 2007. p 139
4) Baring A, Cashford J. The Myth of the Goddess. Penguin Books. 1993. p 550
5) Apuleius, trans. Robert Graves. The Transformations of Lucius; Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass. Noonday Press. 1979. p 282
6) “Salve Regina.” from Wikipedia. Accessed Feb 3, 2012.
7) “Hymn to Inanna.” from Jacobsen T. The Harps that Once…; Sumerian Poetry in Translation. Yale University Press. 1987. pp 118-9
8) Apuleius, pp 262-3

All images (c) Barnaby Thieme, all rights reserved.

Written by Mesocosm

February 3, 2012 at 1:04 pm