There is no need to uncritically accept conspiracy theories, and it is high time that “spiritual” people in the United States bring the light of reason to their socio-political views. There is no worldwide organization in total control of the world’s economic and political structures. The Illuminati was a short-lived attempt by a Bavarian atheist to infiltrate occultism and use it as a tool for popularizing secularism (a worthless effort, given that occultism was already largely in favor of political secularism, at the time). The Freemasons do not rule the world’s banking system; if they did, I would not be working retail and worrying over going into debt for college. The Bilderberg Group is just a group of big business and high finance gamers trying to get in on more and more successful business investments; it may be crass and selfish, but it isn’t shadowy or sinister.
Even the “1%” are not in a deliberate conspiracy of social or economic control. The fact is, they don’t need to hide what they’re doing or why. Who’s going to stop them? All it has ever taken is a little political nudge here and there and most people will pretty naturally fall in line with a pro-business agenda. Why? Because a pro-business agenda looks exactly like a pro-individualist agenda, and who doesn’t love freedom?
The principle of parsimony (popularly known as Occam’s razor) states, quite simply, that all other things being equal, the explanation which requires the fewest assumptions is the correct one. This means that an explanation which takes account of all evidence without injecting unnecessary assumptions is the correct explanation, while its neighbor which has added even one assumption above and beyond the evidence is at least partially wrong.
With this in mind, we simply do not need the Illuminati, or the New World Order, or the Grays cloaked in near-earth orbit to explain the problems in this world. A healthy mix of greed, fear, and incompetence are more than enough to cause an economic collapse, tyrannical laws and social instability. And, quite honestly, aren’t these enough to worry about without dragging unrealistic paranoia into it?
I have a hypothesis. It seems to me that many “conspiracy theories” work in two directions at once: on one hand, they provide a scapegoat, which is everybody’s favorite mechanism for avoiding blame for the state of the world; on the other hand, conspiracy theories provide an ersatz consolation in that they send the message that, “Well, at least somebody is in control of this mess!” The fact is that people (and societies) are more often buffeted by the winds of fate, pushed around by the tides of luck, and bogged-down by the flotsam and jetsam of good, old-fashioned human incompetence. Still, even if everything is going wrong, it is somewhat comforting to think that some understandable, human agency is both maintaining and benefiting from the seemingly implacable scenario of earthly life. And, to some extent, there are plenty of humans who do benefit from such things. But these aren’t shadowy cabals; they’re us. Even the “99%” in America (with the obvious exceptions of the extremely poor and the homeless)—the middle and upper-middle classes especially, but not exclusively by any means—benefit directly from the hellish conditions of other parts of the world. This isn’t a reason to merely feel guilty, but is worthy of serious attention. Even the “1%”—who do rule the world, after a fashion—aren’t evil sorcerers committing intentional human sacrifice; they certainly do evil, but not out of a will to do evil; they, like all imperfect people, are doing what they think is best for themselves and their families. Almost nobody does something “bad” because they want to do “bad”; usually, evil is committed out of a misguided and narrowly-focused zeal to do good.
So, let’s stop with the black helicopters, the Illuminati, and the like, and face the very real, very serious problems which we do have before us—problems which are spoken of not in shadowy, pentagram-laden grottoes, but openly in board rooms, congresses and parliaments, shareholder meetings, and trade conventions. The problems may arise from nature, but they are bound-up and intensified by ignorance, irrationality, and a callous disregard for the broader needs of others.
Gnosticism is not a religious movement easily politicized; anybody with a genuine understanding of the “nature of Gnosis”, whether they accept it or not, can see that Gnosticism is an enemy to temporal power in all of its forms, natural as well as supernatural. We aren’t likely to lay ourselves down for a politician or a god who makes us promises we know they cannot keep. Still, this is not an argument for isolationism or quietism. An equally important aspect of Gnosticism’s rejection of authority is its general insistence on courage in the face—or jaws—of authority. The early Christians who got branded as Gnostics by heresy-hunters (a name which we moderns have taken up proudly, but which we must remember was rarely, if ever, used by our predecessors to describe themselves) were largely no big fans of martyrdom, but understood that it was necessary to be ready to suffer and die with dignity and faith. But not only do we not want to walk into the grinding maw of suffering, but most especially we do not want others to be forced into that position.
Gnosticism is not a faith of elitism, but neither are we populists. Really, we refuse to limit ourselves to such categories, as if we had to leave behind our suffering sisters and brothers in order to accept scholarship, ideas, and personal experience. And that’s the rub: our fellow humans, our fellow life-forms generally, are suffering just by virtue of living in this world-system. And so are we, personally. Neither is the problem purely collective, nor purely individual; it cuts across such simplistic notions. And so does salvation. Fundamentalists are all about the individual, while liberals are all about the Group. Gnostics don’t see a conflict, there, but only a confusing array of artificial barriers which are designed such that to break one down another one must be erected; to get rid of racial tensions, we must substitute religious ones, to evoke a particularly successful (read: pernicious) example from American society. (This is not to say that racism doesn’t still exist, and strongly, but only to point toward one of the strategies of social integration.)
If you put a gun to my head, I would call myself a “social democrat”, but that hardly encapsulates my entire socio-political worldview. It just gives you an idea. Similarly, many Gnostics of my acquaintance identify as “libertarian”, but I would never try to argue with them as if they were simply Tea Party stooges. That would miss the point. Just like everybody else, Gnostics try to ally themselves with whichever mass movement seems to be aiming in the direction of the Good; the difference is, we also try to remind ourselves that the Good, in the Enlightenment sense, is inherently unattainable in this world. We aren’t caught by empty promises quite as often because of it. Of course, we often fall off the opposite edge into raw and bleeding pessimism, a possibility we must try to guard against by invoking the Romantic sensibility of the inherent divinity of each and every human and of humankind as a manifestation of a profound spiritual totality.
That is the crux of the Gnostic worldview in the modern world, especially as concerns politics and society: we are neither wholly of the Enlightenment, nor wholly of the Romantic, but both speak to us deeply. We are truly children of the Greeks, for we see the bare pathos of existence while trying to reason-out an ethical response to it.We lop-off the nihilistic relativism of postmodern culture with one edge of the blade while slicing through the prefab truths of absolutism with the other. We live with contradictions and seeming-paradoxes until resolution comes, always by a drop of reason, a bucket of sweat, and a downpour of Grace.
So, when we Gnostics enter into political discourse, we do so not as liberals or conservatives, not as progressives or libertarians, certainly not as Democrats or Republicans; we enter in as smiling-faced Siddharthas, as laughing Jesuses, as Strangers to the Powers of this world-system, who aren’t willing to play by those rules for the brute fact that they have been decreed. No empty iconoclasm, here; it isn’t by whim that we ignore the rules to the game of life, but because it is by those rules that we are made sinners, while freedom from them allows us the chance to be truly moral, truly good, truly loving. And that won’t mean the same thing from this moment to the next.
I am prompted to make my thoughts clear on this topic by a recent discussion, in which several people asserted that suffering could be, of itself, “good”.
I could not disagree with this point any more if I denied the very experience of suffering. The justification generally given is that suffering often acts as the impetus for efforts of self-development. This is true, certainly; any self-examination in an adult will prove it out in one’s own personal history. However, let us not make a mistake in logic! To say that we can bring something good out of suffering is not the same as saying that suffering itself is inherently good.
Consider an analogy: a camper is incautious and does not put out his fire before moving on. The fire spreads and rages, destroying acres and acres of forest, spreading across fields of dry grass and into areas populated by humans. Several people, not to mention the numerous animals and incredible numbers of trees, lose their lives, and thousands or millions of dollars in property damage on top of it all. But the burnt remnants of trees and plants fertilize the soil, allowing for the regrowth of the forest even more lush than before. And the fields that were burned now make for excellent farmland. So some benefit did come from it, in the long run! But was the fire, or the carelessness which caused it, or the drought conditions which allowed it to spread, or all of the death and destruction, good of itself? It would be a callous and unreflective soul who would answer in the affirmative.
It has been said that pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. This is true, insofar as pain is merely a physiological and/or emotional reaction to some stimulus, while suffering is the result of consciousness of that pain. In other words, pain is just something that “happens to” you, while suffering is something that you “do with” pain. A fish never asks, “Why me?!” And that, conscious awareness, is the key to the whole question.
The degree to which any given individual possesses the capacity for self-reflection is also the degree to which that individual may suffer. The more questions the individual can ask, the more he may suffer. But that does not reflect an inherent property of suffering as much as an inherent property of awareness. It is as the Buddha said: it is Mind that makes a heaven out of hell and a hell out of heaven. Suffering is, of itself, morally neutral. Causing suffering, however, is morally reprehensible. If suffering were inherently good, causing it would also be good, which would lead us into a moral and ethical black hole.
Now, it is also awareness, mind, Νους, which is capable of bringing good out of evil. In our present case, it is conscious reflection which may extract a lesson from the suffering. If I am not paying attention in the kitchen and I put my hand onto a hot stove, I will feel pain, and I will probably suffer by looking at my burn, thinking about how much it hurts, and asking how I could have been so stupid, but only if I take just a moment to consider just how, really, I could have been so stupid, can I learn how not to repeat it. Does that make the burn, or the fact of my consciousness of the pain, beneficial? No, but I might be smart enough to extract some small nugget of knowledge out of those things and avoid making the same mistake twice.
On a higher plane of thought, suffering as both experience and concept, in the broad scope of its reality, provides even more food for thought. I can begin to ask the questions, “Why does suffering exist?”, “Why do innocents suffer?”, and so forth. But the good which comes from this process is not the doing of suffering, but of my reflective and active mind. That is the good in the equation of suffering. Just as a hammer can be both a weapon and a tool, we each have some capacity to use our minds to create, preserve, and carry on cycles of suffering, or we can use them to alleviate and prevent suffering. The more we grow, the more we learn to direct our minds according to our higher will, the more good we can extract and unfold from the suffering which makes up so much of this world. We may learn to outsmart the devil and take from him his power, but that doesn’t make the devil our friend!
New Age, New Thought, and occult understandings of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions tend to be superficial at best. I am not excempt from that analysis, though I have been personally trying to deepen my knowledge of those sources from which I draw the most, especially the Bible, Christian mysticism, Zen Buddhism, and the old Hermetic documents. I am still no expert, but I’ve learned some things of importance. In Hermetics, we try to take the broad view of things: neither losing the forest for the trees, nor the trees for the forest. We don’t always succeed, but at least the effort tends to lead us in the right direction.
For around six months, I was a member of a truly amazing church family in Waynesville, NC. The Creative Thought Center is a marvelous church based in New Thought, especially Earnest Holmes’ Science of Mind (or “Religious Science” as he sometimes called it). The CTC is, thankfully, independent of any otherarching hierarchical organization, such as Holmes’ Church of Religious Science, which allows them to be very accepting of people of all manner of religious and spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and many more obscure that you likely have never heard of. I had overwhelmingly positive experiences with these folks. I want to emphasize my love for them before I move on.
Unfortunately, the CTC family has a tendency, like many involved in the study of one metaphysical branch or another, to fall prey to one or more of the various “pop mysticisms” which keep coming into existence these days. Perhaps more than any other time in history, mysticism is a popular topic, but also more than any other time, it is heavily overlaid with modern and postmodern expectations and imaginings so as to lose much of the true message of mysticism.
“We’re all ONE, so you can be RICH!” It sounds ridiculous when you put it in stark terms, but that’s exactly the message so often given. It does not follow.
I will be the first to say that, yes, greater material prosperity can be had through the use of magic, affirmative prayer, and so on. Such uses of the so-called “powers” are not, however, the primary objective of mysticism; the powers, when used at all, are to be used in all ways to aid in the mystical ascent and to aid those around us.
In many ways, it is a good thing that pop mysticism has gotten people to re-evaluate their place in the world, their relationship to the Divine, and their relationships to one another, but I think that it often does more harm than good as it turns the mystical quest into the same debased search for power found in the medieval demonologies.
Old news by now, but I feel the need to weigh in. “You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” said Pope Benedict XVI to a group of reporters on his Alitalia flight to Yaounde, Camaroon; “On the contrary, it increases the problem.” (Wall Street Journal article here.)
That’s hilarious. I hate to devolve into mere sarcasm here, but how else am I supposed to respond?
On the level of common sense, this is patently ridiculous and false information. With leaders like this, I weep for the faithful.
Are condoms 100% effective? Of course not. Are abstinence and monogamy the only methods which are? Barring rape and the odd accidental needle-stick, yes. Given my druthers, I’d love to see more people in Africa and elsewhere slowing down on their sexual promiscuity and being more willing to commit themselves to one another in loving monogamy. Given the choice between giving out good information and the practical tools to protect oneself and others, and telling flat-out lies to remain within one’s religious moral confines, however, I’d never try to tell people that condoms make it worse!
In this Interfax article, the Russian Orthodox leadership of Moscow support the Pope’s position, saying: “It is incorrect to consider condoms as a panacea for AIDS.” Of course it is, but that isn’t what most health activists are doing. No thinking person can believe that dropping a crate of condoms in every village will suddenly make HIV/AIDS go away, but putting condoms into the hands of people who will be having sex with one another no matter what anybody else says and teaching them how to properly use them will at least stem the tide somewhat, saving lives and giving the world more time to come up with a real solution.
Quoth Fr. Vsevolod: “If a person lives a sinful, aimless and senseless life, uses drugs and is lewd, some disease will kill him one day, neither a condom nor medicine will save him.”
Well that’s Christian love right there, isn’t it? “If you’re a sinner, why should anybody bother trying to help?”
I have a great idea. Let’s do a background check on anybody attempting to enter a church; if they’ve ever committed a crime beyond traffic violations, if they’ve ever had an abortion for any reason, if they’ve ever attended a sex education class that mentioned birth control as an option, turn them away. The next time you meet somebody with cancer, tell them you’ll pray for them only on the condition that they’ve never touched drugs, never had sex outside of wedlock, and never even considered playing a violent video game or going to a nightclub on a Saturday. Then we can organize, incorporate, and call ourselves “The United Church of the Holy Inquisition” and begin fundraising for a “landmine the lawns of the mentally handicapped” event.
Who’s with me?
(With thanks to Jonathan Swift, who has gone where savage indignation can lacerate his breast no more.)
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Mt. 25:40)
Whenever he was asked to castigate non-Christians or gays for their differing beliefs, he would instead face them and say, with sincerity, “God loves you just the way you are.” Often this provoked ire from fundamentalists. (15 reasons Mr. Rogers was best neighbor ever, reason #5)
Once when she was in a deep depression, my fiance caught an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on TV. He looked directly into the camera and said, with complete sincerity, “I love you just the way you are.” And she wept.
That’s the kind of power that Faith acting through Love (Gal. 5:6) can bring to this world. A man like Fred Rogers is a rare blessing, a man who is both worldly and holy, down-to-earth and saintly, a modern-day Francis of Assisi for whom every one of God’s creatures is of the utmost importance. Imagine on your worst day, hearing Mister Rogers himself saying to you, “I love you just the way you are.” Put yourself there. You feel worthless, useless, ugly, stupid, damned, and this beautiful man says that he loves you unconditionally just because you are.
My friend Gentry once said, “Mister Rogers was a better Jesus than Jesus.” To most people, Jesus Christ and other truly loving figures (from Siddhartha Guatama to God Herself) are very distant in time and space. That is why we sometimes see a person like Fred Rogers, to provide a walking, talking reminder, one whom we might see at the supermarket or naked in a gym locker room (true story; Gentry again).
Whether you do it in the name of God, Christ, Allah, Krishna, Buddha, anybody else, or nobody else, please make today and everyday a very special day for somebody special: you and everybody else!
Happy Won’t You Be My Neighbor Day to one and all. Be good to one another. God bless you and God bless Mister Rogers and his whole earthly neighborhood.