Divine Intervention

I already had something more beautiful and valuable than I would find anywhere I went “out there” in the world.

I went on a little shopping excursion this weekend and was very happy to run across the little guys in the photo in a thrift shop. They were made in Greece, and I suppose they’re sold as tourist trinkets there. They’re about four inches tall and pretty crudely made, especially Apollo, who seems to have a bit of a lurch going, like he’s spent too much time hanging around with Dionysus. But I don’t mind that. Finding them was the best thing that’s happened to me in a while.

I’m in transition in more ways than one at the moment, and I feel like I’ve been in suspended animation for the past year. I’ll be moving to my own place at the end of June, but until then my living arrangements don’t give me much chance to live my womanhood, which is pretty frustrating, of course. The long weekend just made it worse, giving me that much more time to feel pointless, which is why I decided to go shopping; it got me out of the house and passed some time doing something besides thinking about my situation.

So that was positive in itself. But the thing is, these two little figurines have a special meaning for me because of a dream I had quite a few years ago, a dream that became a major turning point in my life.

In the dream, I was on my way to the Hauptbahnhof (main railroad station) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (I worked in Frankfurt for a while, many years ago.) I was definitely going to the station to take a train, but the dream didn’t indicate where my journey was going to take me. As I approached the station, I saw there were numerous street vendors with tables set up along the sidewalk, hawking all kinds of wares. (This is not something you’d see there in real life.) It crossed my mind that maybe I would find something that would be useful on my trip, so I started browsing the tables.

I wasn’t finding anything that seemed very helpful, and I finally came to the last table without seeing anything I wanted. And then much to my surprise, I saw my maternal grandmother (who had died many years before) sitting in a chair nearby. Naturally, I stopped to talk with her. I explained my predicament, and she just nodded toward my hand and said, “What have you got there?”

I looked down and realized with considerable surprise that I was carrying what appeared to be a small suitcase, rather old and a little beat-up. I laid it on the nearest table and opened it, and was astonished at what I saw inside. It wasn’t actually a suitcase, it was a carrying case, and in it were two golden statuettes set into form-fitting recesses in the lining: figurines of Artemis and Apollo, about 8 to 10 inches tall, very beautifully wrought in a style somewhat like that of Benvenuto Cellini.

Seeing them, I realized at once that I didn’t need to acquire anything else for my journey. Indeed, maybe having these images in gold meant that I didn’t need to make the journey at all – I already had something more beautiful and valuable than I would find anywhere I went “out there” in the world. And that’s when I woke up.

I’m not going to do a detailed interpretation of my dream here. I’ll note that I have a lifelong love of Greek mythology, going back to grade school, when I read a collection of tales from the Greek myths written by Robert Graves (“Greek Gods and Heroes”). From that time on, in the symbolic competition that has been referred to as “Athens vs. Jerusalem,” I’ve always sided with Athens.

I should also mention that at the time I had this dream, my lifelong spiritual search was leading me increasingly to suspect that I was going to find my core intuitions best articulated in ancient Greek philosophy, specifically the Orphic-Pythagorean-Platonic tradition. I was resisting this conclusion at the time because I had studied philosophy in college (indeed, I majored in it for a while) and had found nothing in that study that seemed even remotely connected to my spiritual intuitions.

The dream led me to revisit and reacquaint myself with Plato and also his later follower Plotinus. What I found in their writings, looked at afresh without the refracting lens of scholarly prejudice, was that the ancient philosophers never intended to teach a purely intellectual, abstract system of thinking, but rather were teaching a systematic “way” of self-transformation and spiritual ascent – a way, moreover, that closely resembles the teachings of the great masters of the East. And I’ve been working on practicing that way ever since.

As for Artemis and Apollo, as brother and sister – twins – they form a syzygy (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/syzygy ), a union or reconciliation of opposites symbolized by the union of a female and a male divinity. Their attributes make this clear: Apollo is the god of the sun, of daylight and thus of the conscious, rational mind. Artemis is the goddess of the moon, of night, of the unconscious mind and the ineradicable non-rationality that exists both below and above human consciousness.

Some thinkers (e.g., Nietzsche) have seen Apollo as the epitome of order, and any divinity set in opposition to him (Dionysus, for Nietzsche) as disorder personified. I think this is wrong; rather, what Apollo and Artemis represent is the interplay of two kinds of order, both necessary to life and growth: formal, principled order and natural, dynamic order. Apollo without Artemis is static and sterile, Artemis without Apollo is riotous and self-destructive.

It seems to me that no human can be whole without awareness of and attentiveness to both these sides of ourselves. More importantly in the context of today’s world-situation, no society can be whole that doesn’t acknowledge and respect the creativity inherent in the “other” and promote and protect the freedom needed for this “other” to breathe and grow and live its self-nature for all to see.artemis-sculpt01

The Soul of the Rose

Touch my intangible heart
with your imperceptible soul.

(A painting by J.W. Waterhouse)

Look for the invisible
Listen for silence
Touch my intangible heart
with your imperceptible soul

Life itself is invisible
We see living things
but not life itself
We know life directly
only inside ourselves
that’s where we know each other
truly touch each other

I feel you in me
and me in you
life flowing, pulsing
Not: The life in you
is like the life in me
But: There is one life
in you and me
and everything

From the beginning of everything
this moment was born
this place, this situation
this perfect rose-blossom
basking in balmy sunshine
its aroma indescribable
its velvety petals brushing our lips
like the touch of sunlight
or soft warm naked skin
like the throb of your heartbeat
inside my chest

Logos and Eros

The natural human being is curious, has a need and a drive to learn, to understand, to know.

I’m a very religious person. I believe (one way of saying it) that manifest reality is produced by an unmanifest reality. I believe in one Highest Good and Highest Truth, and I would like to keep it always in mind as I deal with life. And I think religion in general can and should – and occasionally has been – good for humankind. It can encourage us to set our aspirations high, to treat each other compassionately and to find spiritual replenishment in everything we do.

In general, you could say I’m pro-religion. But yes, I have been making some fairly critical statements on this blog about a certain religious doctrine and the behavior of some of the people who espouse that doctrine. I’m speaking, of course, of the claim that the Bible is “the word of God and literally true, word by word.”

As multiple surveys – like the General Social Survey I’ve mentioned a few times, and the recent PRRI survey – have shown, people who interpret the Bible literally (or say they do) are the most prone of any religious group to hold prejudices against minorities of different kinds. They’re also the group that most wants to censor speech or writing they disagree with. And today, they are the only religious category in which a majority still favor restricting or punishing certain sexual orientations and gender identities, purely because the Bible says they’re bad.

There are a lot of ways to refute the claim that the Bible is literally true from beginning to end and the accompanying claim that its divine authorship guarantees its authority as the only reliable guide to divine and human reality. What I want to say this time is somewhat inspired by the alchemical woodcut that I put at the top of the page. I added the word bubble to draw attention to the element of conflict the picture shows. On the left, we see a Christian bishop attired in his official regalia and clutching the symbol of his office, the shepherd’s crook. On the right stands a dual-natured person, male and female in one body. The bishop is making an admonishing gesture and the androgyne holds something that seems to have been formed into the letter “Y.”

I think the artist was showing the contrast between the highly civilized and formalized religion of the medieval church and the “natural religion” of the human soul. By that period, the church was as much a body of definitions and dogmas as a collection of people. And expressing disagreement with the church on a fine point of doctrine could often prove fatal. But the natural human being is curious, has a need and a drive to explore, to learn, to understand, to know. It’s a drive that can’t be stopped by rigid, lifeless laws and limits. We will always ask “Why?”

I can’t say for sure whether that Y in the picture is really a visual pun on “why.” It could be purely symbolic, pointing to the unification of the divided. A forked stick, like a fork in a road, can be seen from two directions. If you’re traveling in one direction and come to a fork, you see it as one road splitting in two. But if you’re traveling in the opposite direction, it would look like two roads converging into one.

Carl Jung argued at great length that the medieval alchemists were using their art of chemical transformations to bring about their own spiritual transformation. The process begins with a dark, formless mass that is changed step by step to produce an increasingly pure and living substance, symbolized at last by the child of Hermes and Aphrodite, uniting Intelligence and Love, Logos and Eros – the divine wedding, the sign of the transformation and unification into wholeness of the inner human.

The Bible is of course a book and by definition is all Logos: all words, statements, stories, explanations, rules. And the “religions of the book” – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have all tended to add more words, filling vast libraries, in fact, with increasingly fine distinctions, restrictive definitions and narrow decisions – a dense web of boundaries that believers are forbidden to cross.

Logos without Eros is lifeless and uncreative, Eros without Logos is chaotic and self-consuming. Like Yin and Yang, Logos and Eros must join to create and sustain, must join and rejoin infinitely in the cosmic dance of light and dark. And no one, no voice, no book, will ever say everything that needs to be said about it. There is no final word – unless it’s “Why?”

Non-Binary Binary

Instead of the biologically or anatomically determined model of gender that our society seems to prefer these days, I’d like to suggest something different, something non-binary though still, in a way, binary.

I’ve been working off and on for a long time with the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination. It’s based on the concepts of yin and yang, which are more or less familiar to a lot of people today. Indeed, there are probably millions of people in America today who have what they think of as yin-yang tattoos, wear yin-yang jewelry and post yin-yang images to Facebook.

The familiar symbol of two circling fishlike energies, one black and the other white, is actually called the t’ai chi, which means something like “supreme ultimate.” (The slow-motion martial art that people call tai chi is actually “t’ai chi chuan,” or “supreme ultimate boxing”.) What it symbolizes is an interaction of forces that gives rise to all the phenomena of the world around us.

Those two forces are associated with all the varied dualisms or dichotomies that we humans are prone to see in nature, in society and in ourselves. Yin, “the receptive,” is associated with things dark, earthy, inward-tending, nurturing, passive. Yang, “the creative,” is assocciated with light, the sky, outwardness, activity and aggression. Culturally, yin characteristics have been associated with the feminine and yang characteristics with the masculine, but the association isn’t essential – within ancient Chinese philosophy the daughters and sons of the highest principles represent combinations of yin and yang; only the mother and father are purely one or the other.

Using the I Ching for divination involves casting coins or sticks to obtain combinations of six “lines,” each of which is either yin or yang, with the resulting “hexagram” defining a situation or moment that can then be interpreted according to the relative preponderance of yin or yang and their positions in the structure of the moment.

The reason I think this might be of interest in discussions of gender is because out of the 64 possible combinations of yin and yang in the I Ching, only two are pure yin or pure yang. That’s only about 3 percent. Pure yin amounts to just 1.5 percent, and pure yang likewise.

So if we were to look at the I Ching as a model for gender, we would expect to find only about 3 percent of the population expressing either pure masculinity or pure feminity, and the remaining 97 percent expressing some combination of yin and yang, including eight that are equally yin and yang.

None of these combinations is fixed or static; on the contrary, each easily becomes another with the change of even one line. That’s why the book is called I Ching, which means Book of Changes.

So I think it’s worth looking at this very ancient and very deep text for possible applications to the study of gender identity and to our personal individual circumstances. I think all of us have experienced fluctuations in how we feel about our gender, and the I Ching could provide us with some help in articulating what we feel, as well as a model of how duality or multiplicity or complexity can finally be the expression of ultimate oneness.

Philosophical Realism

“The fact that the moon exists and is spherical is independent of anything anyone happens to say or think about the matter.”

“There are two general aspects to realism, illustrated by looking at realism about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties. First, there is a claim about existence. Tables, rocks, the moon, and so on, all exist, as do the following facts: the table’s being square, the rock’s being made of granite, and the moon’s being spherical and yellow. The second aspect of realism about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties concerns independence. The fact that the moon exists and is spherical is independent of anything anyone happens to say or think about the matter. Likewise, although there is a clear sense in which the table’s being square is dependent on us (it was designed and constructed by human beings after all), this is not the type of dependence that the realist wishes to deny. The realist wishes to claim that apart from the mundane sort of empirical dependence of objects and their properties familiar to us from everyday life, there is no further (philosophically interesting) sense in which everyday objects and their properties can be said to be dependent on anyone’s linguistic practices, conceptual schemes, or whatever.”

Miller, Alexander, “Realism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/realism/&gt;.