Genesis: the Story of Why We’re Different

In the summer of 2011 I was fortunate enough to go to the Wild Goose Festival, a gathering of speakers and artists active in the “emergent Christianity” movement, and there Alison and I met up with Carl McColman, who introduced us to Mike Morell. Like most of the awesome people at the Wild Goose, Mike is a Christian who takes a dim view of dogmatic pronouncements and brimstony evangelism, and he grapples vigorously with the tensions between Biblical teachings and 21st-century reality.

For example, in his post “Evolution and the Two Trees in the Garden” he gives his personal interpretation of Genesis’s story of Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the apple. Mike suggests that the story isn’t really about two actual people, a talking snake, and a magic apple. Instead it’s a metaphor for humanity’s transition from pre-history to history:

But then… something happened. A magnetic pole shift, climate change, or the dawn of complex agriculture. Suddenly (over a period of 2,000-4,000 years – but “suddenly” in geologic time), something changed in our fundamental psychological functioning. Whereas before consciousness was distributed through our entire bodies, now it all rushed up into our heads. Where we used to be instinctual, feeling, tribal creatures, every condition was now in place for us to be discursive reasoning, thinking, individual decision-makers.

This isn’t the only way of interpreting Genesis, of course. Micah Redding, a commenter on Mike’s post, suggests instead that it reflects our knowledge of our own mortality. Others have suggested that it represents the consciousness of ourselves-as-individuals, or dualistic thinking, or moral consciousness, etc., etc.

To me it seems very unlikely that humans actually underwent a physiological or neurological (as opposed to cultural) change as recently as a few thousand years ago. 6000 years ago, humans were already spread all over the world, effectively divided into separate gene pools. Any genetic change that started in 4000 BC would not have reached, say, the Aboriginals of Australia or the indigenous peoples of the Americas until a couple of hundred years ago. Did the Aztecs never (metaphorically) eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? No matter what you think the fruit of the tree represents, it would be hard to argue that.

My own take, of course, is that the Genesis story doesn’t have a “meaning” — outside of the meaning we assign it. And it’s interesting to look at the meanings we give it, because that tells us something about ourselves. In the 19th century, lots of people used the Genesis story to explain why women were second-class citizens; and some people still do that today, though thankfully that’s falling from favor. They also used to tell the stories of the exploits and treacheries of Adam’s sons and Noah’s sons to explain why there were different races of people, and why some races were better than others. You almost never hear those parts of Genesis brought up anymore. Instead, people today talk about what exactly God meant by giving us “dominion” over the world, and whether the story is applicable in some way to evolution, and what it says about the differences between people and animals, and so on.

But when you get down to it, the Genesis story is a tale about why we’re exceptional. There’s all sorts of things in there about humanity being made in God’s image, and being given special instructions, and being uniquely disobedient, and eating magical fruit, and so on; and all of these have been used to argue for humanity’s special place in the world — as well as for the male’s special place in the family, and the white man’s special place in society. Is this healthy?

It’s all too easy, all too tempting, to fall into the trap of thinking that humanity (or males, or the white race, or modern civilization, or the Western tradition) is qualitatively exceptional. All of these categories are certainly unique in some ways, but that’s true of all animals, peoples, cultures and subcultures. People (and animals) have always been sometimes brilliant and sometimes stupid, sometimes wise stewards of the earth and sometimes appallingly thoughtless, sometimes dualistic and sometimes mystic, sometimes moral and sometimes wicked, and so on. Even our technological advancement might not be unique: if we all disappeared tomorrow, almost all evidence of us would be gone in a few thousand years. What sets us apart, if anything, is scale. There are a whole hell of a lot of us being brilliant, stupid, wise, wicked, etc., all at once. But that’s a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one.

Now, I’m all for sacred texts, and for studying them carefully, and trying to draw meaning from them, no matter how crazy they are. But Genesis should be handled carefully. History shows that it’s all too easily read as a grab-bag of excuses for powerful people to believe they’re exceptional, to believe they have a sacred mission, to believe that they can do whatever they want. So meditate on it, contemplate it, even believe it if you want; but do so with care and awareness. If I were going to recommend a creation story to believe, I’d pick one with less violence and misogyny. Personally I’m partial to the Taoist:

Something mysteriously formed,
Born before heaven and Earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging,
Ever present and in motion.
Perhaps it is the mother of ten
thousand things.
I do not know its name
Call it Tao.
For lack of a better word, I call it great.

The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand
things.

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

(Trans. Jane English)

Gaus: Freedom, Morality, and the State

Ok, here’s another book I desperately want to have (and while I’m wishing, it sure would be great to have the time to read it as well): The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World by Gerald Gaus. It’s about large-scale human societies — how they arose, how they work (to the extent that they do), and how they ought to work.

Now, everybody and her brother has their own ideas about what’s wrong with the government, and what should be done to fix it. For a while, it was thought that that emperors and kings were either gods, or representatives of God on Earth. This idea became less popular as it became more and more clear that emperors and kings were, by and large, greedy psychopathic killers. Then it was thought that government was a sort of “social contract” that existed because, in the deeps of time, Man was in a State of Nature and everyone was a greedy psychopathic killer, and eventually it was decided that someone should be made a policeman and thereby keep the peace. This idea fell out of favor as anthropologists discovered that non-state societies (such as indigenous tribes) were, by and large, peaceful, content, and sane; and as archaeologists found that the first city-states actually arose because some minority group (such as a priesthood) gained monopolistic control of some essential resource (such as an irrigation system) and starting lording it over everyone else. And once you have a state in one place, then the neighboring villages and tribes start gathering into states of their own, if only for mutual defense. So it would seem that a government is an evil that’s only necessary if there are other governments around.

Photo © Alison Lilly 2012

And yet the modern large-scale state has some definite advantages. Of course, it defends its citizens against other states. But beyond that, it provides a free-trade zone, and an area of consistent laws about education, taxation, health care, and so on, which serves to both enrich its citizens and provide for jurisprudence and the rule of law. So how did the (relatively) moral, just modern nation-state arise out of the barbarity of its ancestry? And is it possible to make it even better?

This is what Gaus’s book is about. He has apparently drawn together many of the most recent strands of philosophy, game theory, and social science into a coherent whole — a theory of how a society can be free, moral, and just — and he’s gotten some rave reviews. I’m an optimistic fellow (or at least, I’d like to be) and it would be great to think that something that started out as common banditry and blackmail would inexorably develop, over time, organically, into something wonderful, even beautiful. We don’t often think of human nature working like that, but human nature is just nature. And changing excrement into flowers is the way nature works, isn’t it?

Self-Help Love-Hate

I’d like to read some Montaigne — partly because it’s like 18th-century self-help, and partly in spite of it.

I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of self-help. On the one hand, it’s a genre full of charlatans, fly-by-night money-back guarantees, misguided seekers, and people looking for ways to get rich quick. On the other hand, what higher goal could there be than becoming a better person (whatever that might mean)? What higher philosophy is there than the question of humanity’s purpose? The real allure of self-help is, or ought to be, not finding out how to be “successful,” but to discover humanity’s greatest potential, and find out how one can fulfill it.

When I read an actual piece of self-help writing, I sometimes find myself torn back and forth between the love and the hate. For example, a few years ago I found out about polyphasic sleep, a way of using a rigid nap schedule to sleep just two hours per day. I was repelled by the idea of “hacking” my body’s natural rhythms, as if it were a machine that could be hotwired or supercharged. Nevertheless I tried it — not because I was trying to become more successful or productive (though that certainly was a nice side effect during the 18-month trial), but I because I was after deeper answers: what is sleep really for? And how would it feel to live one’s life in such a fundamentally different way? How much of our sense of ‘being human’ is wrapped up in the daily cycle of sleep and waking? I got some interesting results (which I won’t go into here) and eventually stopped because it was too hard to keep to the rigid nap schedule.

But it’s because of this love-hate relationship that I’m interested in learning more about Montaigne. A while back it was rather fashionable for self-help bloggers to read and discuss him (probably at least in part because of a timely book by Sarah Bakewell that they could link to and get affiliate money from Amazon). Unfortunately, most of the self-help bloggers dismissed the long philosophical tradition he drew from and focused on his cheekiness, his self-experimentation, and his productivity. But I would rather know what he thought of cannibalism, the custom of wearing clothes, warhorses, solitude, sleep (of course), and the complex notion of self (for he famously said “I turn my gaze inward… I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself … I roll about in myself”). And I would rather know his place in the long philosophical tradition of the west, that strange mix of earnest seeking and personality cult.

Cutting to the chase: I’d like to read some good self-help that I don’t have to feel two ways about.

Moon

The moon was full this morning in Virgo — an earth sign ruled by the messenger god Mercury. What better time to bring the moon to earth? And by coincidence (?), just as the Earth was placed directly between the sun and moon, the sun reached out with a massive solar flare.

Moon comes from Proto Indo European meses or menses, the word used for both moon and month; and this in turn was probably derived from the root me, meaning “measure”. Menses (which of course is also the ancestor of Latin menses, “months”, now used to refer to uterine discharge) descended into Proto Germanic as maenon and Old English as mona.

Spiritually the word moon indicates an orb of manifestation and making, particularly the creation of of flowing, fast, wholesome energy which grounds and returns to Source. You can see this echoed in the sorts of idioms surrounding the word: shoot the moon, moon-eyed, over the moon.

The origin of the popular rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle” are completely unknown, though personally I’m inclined to the theory that it’s a mnemonic for remembering the some of the constellations.

There is an inn, a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
One night to drink his fill…

–Tolkien

The Upper Airs: Layers of Landscapes in Meditation

In meditation I almost always return to an inner landscape which I’ve described in a lot of detail elsewhere, but starting about a year ago I discovered I had access to another world, one that felt like it was directly above the old one — as if it were a mile or two up, floating in the air, invisible.

One of the first times I reached it was when I visited the “Man of the Delta”, who I think may be one of my muses. He is a crooked old man with leathery skin and a wry smile, and he lives in an earthen / adobe tower in the midst of a swampy, sandy delta. When I first visited there, I didn’t know how it was connected to the rest of my inner landscape; but in April of last year I found the path. I was doing a meditation on my fiction writing (which had not been going smoothly) and had drawn the Hermit card. Here are some notes I took at the time.

The Man of the Delta

“I returned to the Hermit’s tower in the Forest of Branching Paths (which I’d first visited last summer, when I was working on that whole ‘deserving success’ issue), and he introduced me to an old man. The old man was old because his energy was spent moving from task to task, never setting his burden down or allowing the gods to carry it for a while. It ran him to age and thus to dust. (Definitely a warning!) What was the alternative? The Hermit pointed me towards a monk, a young man dressed in red with black eyes dotted with stars. He had infinite strength because the gods do his heavy lifting. It’s a matter, the Hermit said, of taking the time to rest, recharge, and allow the gods space to work.

He then showed me a doorway that led to a room where sunlight was falling from high, high above. This room was at the bottom of a tall tower. All up the sides of the tower spiraled a wooden staircase, and I started climbing it. I climbed forever and ever… At last I arrived at the last place I expected — the top of the adobe tower of the Man of the Delta. Everything was pretty much the same there, but now I understood it to be a very ‘high vibration’ place. My sense was that I should visit this area more often, and work with the two men here (who I now understand to be reflexes of the “two” hermits in the tower below).

My big take-away is to allow Spirit to work through me. With rest, exercise, and meditation, the energy will flow and everything will unfold the way it should.”

The Sea-Cedars

Since then I’ve visited other upper, ‘high-vibration’ areas. Sometimes I have to climb up to them; other times I slip into them as soon as I enter meditation. This is how I described it in notes last July:

“It’s usually very misty, and the colors less vivid. Also, it’s harder to ‘see’ things; and I have less freedom of movement. It’s as if I am a ‘child’ here — I can’t see the tops of things or around them without a lot of work, and there are some areas I simply can’t go at all.

There are two areas here I’ve explored. One is the Delta area, which I’ve described before. If I get on a boat on the sea at the edge of the Delta, I’ll arrive at a wooded coastline. The coast is cedar trees I think mostly, with a forest floor coated with needles. The woods are inhabited by beings I think of as ‘elves’, with slate-white robes. They are exceedingly tall and thin. Some are bearded, some have long white or blond hair; they are kindly, and they care for me. They have a home, or complex of homes, here in the trees, which are much like the house at Rivendell in the movie Lord of the Rings. Overall it is a perfect place for relaxing and recuperating, and I get a sense that part of my spirit spends a fair bit of time here, doing just that. There are rooms with cozy fires, and somewhere in it I have a small bedroom where they often tend to me…

By the water, there is a dock or pier area, made of marble. I do not know if vessels ever visit here.

Inland a bit the cedar forest opens up into a huge meadow, and in the grass is a complex ‘henge’ of large white stones. It is definitely astrological in pattern. In the center of it is a tall white stone, which I think has carvings on it — though the mists are always thick here, and I can never visit without my tall white guardians. The central white stone is directly ‘above’ Apollo’s temple in the lower landscape.

Beyond that, I can’t see much of the terrain. I get the impression of forests and mountains beyond the meadow in one direction, and the other way I think there are bona fide deserts, perhaps with tall stony towers like one finds in the American southwest, but I’m not sure. I know it is a region of horses, somehow.”

Seattle Spring

The 2nd week of January, as I mentioned in the Sound article, we flew to Seattle and found our apartment; the third week I had to go to Las Vegas for a business trip; and then the next week we moved away from Pittsburgh. The final week of January we were driving across the country. We spent two nights in Albuquerque, and I particularly felt the touch of the landscape there: as we crossed the continental divide west of the city, it was like I’d tipped over the edge at last and was coming to the Glittering World, as the Navajo call it… And on Feb 1 we rolled into Seattle.

Then there was a lot of unpacking and cleaning and whatnot, and both Alison and I have been a bit off-balance since we arrived. We’ve gotten in touch with some local friends, and taken some long walks in the neighborhoods and parks, and we’re starting to get our bearings and establish some routines.

But one thing that took me completely by surprise was the fact that the higher-vibration landscape is strongly connected with the Pacific Northwest. The forest by the water, with the elvish city and the stone quays — this is the landscape here. The trees are exactly the same as what I saw in meditation — not just in how they look, but in how they feel. I’m not sure about the grassy meadow out beyond the trees, but the white standing stone is some sort of hub, a spiral / web connection with all things. Not the World Tree itself: that I’ve located further out, in the direction of the deserts. But in general, since I got out here, I’ve gotten more of my bearings at this ‘higher’ level, and felt more at home there.

One aspect of the Seattle landscape that was definitely missing from my inner-landscape vision is the white-capped mountains visible to the east and west. They’re not always there, but when the skies are clear they are impossible to miss; and they touch the heart profoundly. For now we’ve only seen them marching in the distance, but at some point we’ll drive out to them and introduce ourselves properly. They are guardians of a sort, I feel; gods, in fact.

Except perhaps Rainier. That one seems older, less friendly… Perhaps less a god than an old earth spirit, a Jotun, a Titan. One to keep an eye on.

 

Sound

This afternoon, shortly before four o’clock, the sun, which had been low and sickly most of the day, began to seriously consider setting, her flames licking the clouds and igniting them all along the horizon above the Olympic mountains, and tracing the waves of Puget Sound with gold and scarlet, as I stood at the brink of the waters, blinking in the cold wind from the sea. The sound stretched out vast in front of me, confusing distances, so that the postcard-perfect snowy mountains looked both as far as the edge of the world and close enough to touch. Behind me was Seattle, with its rumbling buses and rushing cars and chattering humanity. With me here, at the line where sea, sky, and city met, was a seagull — at least, I think it was a seagull, though I’ve never seen a seagull that was so large, mottled gray, and ill-tempered. I considered trying to snap its picture, but it just scowled at me and flew off.

In English sound has four basic meanings, each of them historically unrelated to the others — an unusual situation. The “narrow channel of water” goes back to Germanic swem, “move, be in motion”, which is also the root of swim. The “fathom, probe” meaning is possibly related to swem as well, but can’t be traced back further than Old French sonde. The “noise” meaning has the most regal pedigree — it goes back through Latin sonus to Proto Indo European swonus, which is also the root of swan (“the sounding bird”) and sing. And the “healthy, unhurt” meaning comes from Proto Indo European swen-to, “strong, healthy”.

It’s my sense that the fact that all these meanings have merged into a single simple word — sound — shows an unconscious acknowledgement among English speakers of the underlying affinity between these concepts. Phonosemantically sound indicates energy that arises with great vigor but also with resonance, depth, and earthiness. You can feel the same energy in south and ground and round — volume, profundity, but also vibration and motion. For each of these concepts — the narrow waters, the far fathoms, the shaking air, the healthy body — sound calls to mind a mass, often in movement: a channel of ocean, an echo in the depths, a billow in the atmosphere, an unsullied solid.

And these thoughts bring me round again to where I’m standing. I am here because of a confluence of ripples set in motion quite suddenly this fall. So much was different a year ago — on a cold January day — when I stood with my fiancee on the opposite edge of the continent, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, our faces to the ocean’s wind, planning our wedding. I had a solid job with good prospects, our little home in Pittsburgh was established and orderly, my children (who visited on weekends) were doing well across town with their mother. Everything seemed reasonably sound and predictable. Then, two weeks before our wedding in September, there was an earthquake under my little life: my company was bought by a much larger one in Seattle. Like a hammer tapped against a weak spot in a support beam, or a shout in silence, or a boulder falling into a deep pool, those corporate executives brought a sharp shock to my life. Even as Alison and I launched our new lives as husband and wife, we were shifted, shunted, and everything began to settle into a new shape.

It’s still settling. Our orderly little home in Pittsburgh has been sorted, boxed, and readied for transport three thousand miles. Just today, I put down the deposit to reserve a new apartment — a newer, smaller place, cozier, with more light and less carpet, and strange west-coast trees in the yard. I hope they will be our friends. My new job is even more solid, with even better prospects, but will require more time in an office. The schedule of visitation with the kids — three months in the summer? Two months with extra weeks in the fall and winter? Something else entirely? — has become a source of contention, and I can only hope that it’s resolved quickly. The only thing that has remained rock-steady has been my wife, who has been beside me without a doubt or a flinch every step. When the ground shook under us, we leaned on each other. When the hardest shocks came, we were knocked to our knees, but we landed together, and rose again together.

We were married on the edge of land, sea, and sky, but also on a knife’s edge in our lives — between jobs, between homes, between cities, between landscapes. In September we knew that the edge was coming, but we couldn’t see beyond it. Today I stand on another shore, under another sky, with a new home and new work before me. Even this northern sun seems new. But it is good. And she still stands with me.

There is a sound — a song — when I hear it these days, I often cry.

Harbor

We’re here where the daylight begins
The fog on the streetlight slowly thins
Water on water’s the way
The safety of shoreline fading away

Sail your sea
Meet your storm
All I want is to be your harbor
The light in me
Will guide you home
All I want is to be your harbor

Fear is the brightest of signs
The shape of the boundary you leave behind
So sing all your questions to sleep
The answers are out there in the drowning deep

You’ve got a journey to make
There’s your horizon to chase
So go far beyond where we stand
No matter the distance
I’m holding your hand

Vienna Teng

Oddments

  • It’s been almost four months since I’ve posted here; the new marriage, new job, new home, and new child custody situation have put this blog on the back burner. But finally things are settling into their new shape, and I can breathe a bit. My posting will still be very sporadic over the next couple of weeks, but I hope to have everything on an even keel by early February.
  • In the meantime, I’ve collected some past writings and put them on a new blog, Skein of Words. I want to use it for bits and snatches of fiction I’m working on. I tend to have a number of projects going at once, many of them interconnected and interrelated, and it’s only every once in a while that once of them is knocked into a shape finished enough to be ‘published’ (though, these days, the very definition of ‘finished’ and ‘public’ are changing month to month!). I have been trying to discipline myself to work very hard on just one project until it is finished, but I visited a psychic during my honeymoon who suggested I take a more relaxed, playful attitude. So I made this blog where I can simply work on whatever I want to work on, and whenever one of my projects is ‘ready’, I’ll put it on Amazon and ‘publish’ it. Good times! Check it out!
  • If you follow me on facebook (either my personal account or my Druid Journal page), you might have noticed that I haven’t posted anything in months. I’ve gotten pretty fed up with facebook, and plan on confining myself to Twitter (@druidjournal) and G+ from now on. Look me up there!
  • “In Seattle you haven’t had enough coffee until you can thread a sewing machine while it’s running.” ~Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon
  • There is a famous, oft-quoted speech attributed to Chief Seattle in 1854, at the time when his people agreed to move to a reservation. It is eloquent and moving, but it was made up in the mid 70’s by a screenwriter. Nevertheless a version exists which probably actually reflects what Seattle really said, and is definitely worth reading: “When the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone… At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land.” – Chief Seattle (probably)

A Wedding on the Edge

Ocean, a poem

Mary Oliver

I am in love with Ocean
lifting her thousands of white hats
in the chop of the storm,
or lying smooth and blue, the
loveliest bed in the world.
In the personal life, there is

always grief more than enough,
a heart load for each of us
on the dusty road. I suppose
there is a reason for this, so I will be
patient, acquiescent. But I will live
nowhere except here, by Ocean, trusting
equally in all blast and welcome
of her sorrowless, salt self.

On the edge of the Sea, Alison and I are getting married today. May our souls be wound round each other in joy. May Earth, Sea and Sky bless us, and may our love be as great as they, and as free, as wild, as young, and as eternal.