Symbols and Survival

Whether or not you believe you believe in Him, if you are a member of Western culture, you believe in God-the-Father’s “survival stragegies.” Western survival strategies understand the male way of survival — dominance — as the key to and model for the survival of Western society. Western society believes that its survival depends upon its ability to dominate all others in the world through achieving and maintaining superior power — whether it be political, military, economic, technological, informational, etc.. God-the-Father as symbol connects to and fleshes out, in a culturally-specific way, the biological archetype for human maleness, making all men gods and God the quintessential Male. God the symbol is therefore powered by all the deeply felt drives and emotions experienced by and associated with the biological human male as he exists in Western society.

God the Father, who according to Christian doctrine transcends, owns, and controls Nature and all those who dwell therein, is both based on and defines the concept of the Western human male — who is transcendent, controlling, and a natural owner of others and the land — in short a natural colonial. The JudeoChristian understanding of God cleaves our perception of reality cleanly in half — creating a dualism of God and not-God which long predates Descartes. The symbol of the transcendent father undergirds our unconscious cultural assumptions (1) that man transcends nature, men transcend women, and members of the Judeo Christian tradition (Western culture) transcend members of other cultures; and (2) that maintaining this attitude of transcendence, with everyone in his or her appropriate place in the transcendent pecking order, is key to our salvation — and our survival. Hence the violent opposition to feminism, environmentalism, and various human and civil rights movements. These movements are understood at the deepest level as a direct challenge to the survival of God’s orderly universe and its inhabitants.

The concept of the transcendent father is expressed through the relationship of God and his Son, Christ, and through the story of creation in Genesis which creates a hierarchy of transcendence vis a vis man and nature and men and women. It separates that which transcends from that which is transcended, the split in the symbolic realm — God/creation, spirit/matter, heaven/earth — providing the model for the split in the “real” world — man/nature, men/women, us/them — taking value from one side of the equation and awarding it to the other. Western survival strategies reflect this duality and although rife with injustice for those on the bottom have worked pretty well for over two millennia.

(1)Christianity teaches that God the Father, the Transcendent Creator and Source of our being is Spirit, Male, Omnipotent, and Omniscient and the standard for our cultural values — a standard against which all are measured.

Because God is transcendent spirit (Mind), we value mind over matter, heaven over earth, and the future (everlasting life) over the present (earthly life). This belief creates a consciousness which is future-oriented and which evaluates present actions in terms of future consequences — which is not altogether a bad thing. It creates and underscores man’s view of himself as separate from and superior to nature, thereby giving man the confidence he has needed to harness the powers of nature for his own use. The flaw in this strategy is that we are material beings who live on earth and who must of necessity be concerned with the here and now, and to be focused on a future — especially a future in some spiritual realm — means that we may neglect important issues on the ground. The second and more serious flaw is that it is based on a very dangerous illusion, for man only appears to control of nature; in truth man is an integral part of nature and utterly dependent on nature.

Because man is made in God’s transcendent image, we value man (humanity) over nature and understand man to be separate from and superior to nature. We accept nature as a given to be used and abused as we wish. The survival value of this belief is that it creates a desacralized nature, giving us the confidence and moral right to use and exploit nature for our own benefit. The flaw in this strategy is that nature itself has enormous survival value. We are absolutely dependent on it — not separate from and superior to nature. Because we are a part of nature, we are therefore vulnerable to the damage we ourselves do to nature. But in the symbolic universe we have created, we are separate from nature, we speak of “Man and Nature” everyday as if they were two separate entities.

Because God is male, our culture values men over women, men’s work over women’s work, and all masculine qualities over all feminine qualities. The survival value of this belief is that the devaluation of the feminine gives us the moral right to use and exploit women and women’s bodies and women’s work for the benefit of the culture without experiencing guilt. Just as we understand nature as a given, we understand women, their bodies, and their work as a given. The flaw in this strategy is that, in truth, women make an enormous contribution to the survival of the species, and once women recognize their own value, the value of their bodies and their work, they will no longer submit to this exploitative behavior. Without women’s willing acceptance of their devalued position, a culture which assumes and depends on the kindness of women cannot survive. Just think of the economic gift women who worked in the home gave for little more than food and shelter.

Because God is omnipotent, we value power, be it economic or military, and the powerful, over the poor and powerless. Because God is omniscient, we value mind over matter, the mental over the physical. The survival value of these beliefs is that they give those made in God’s image the moral right to exploit the weak and powerless for the benefit of the culture. The flaw in this survival strategy is that labor has intrinsic survival value in spite of the fact that those at the top of the food chain are in denial that it is they who are truly dependent.

Because God lays down the law and demands absolute obedience, we value a law-based authoritarianism. The survival value of this belief is that it takes or appears to take human bias and favoritism out of the justice process and promotes a more just and healthy society. The flaw in this belief is that transcendent authoritarian men often make laws to benefit themselves and then use them to oppress those less powerful, undermining and corrupting the culture.

(2) God the Son, who as all God and all man is immanent (at least temporarily) as well as transcendent, provides the role model for those of us who are not made in God’s image — those of us who are not rich and powerful authoritarian males — whose value is utilitarian rather than intrinsic.

Because God the Son is loving and forgiving, those of us who do not make the transcendent cut are valued if we are loving and forgiving to those who abuse us.

Because God the Son is self-sacrificial, we are valued for self-sacrifice in the pursuit of a “higher” cause.

Because God the Son is obedient to authority (God the Father), we are also valued for obedience to authority.

The survival strategy of these values is that it provides a cadre of willing workers to carry out the will of those in authority. The flaw in this strategy is that it depends on the belief of those on the bottom that those on top are working for the well being and survival of those on the bottom. If those on the top betray the trust of those on the bottom and those on the bottom lose faith in those on the top, the whole system melts down.

For two thousand years, these strategies have worked: the transcendent attitude has promoted the development of science and technology, military and industrial empires — all of which have contributed to the success and survival of Western culture — and those on the bottom have benefitted just enough so that they would continue to support the whole social apparatus . However, times they are a changin — and if we are to survive, our famous ability to adapt must kick in.

A Change in the Perception of Reality Requires a Change of Symbol

What happens when the circumstances which dictate our perception of reality change so drastically that the new reality challenges every belief the culture has about what it takes to survive and neither tweaking nor reinterpretation will suffice? Are we, like fish out of water, doomed because our environment is changing so drastically? Or can we evolve into a new humanity, with new strengths and new strategies for survival?

This is not an idle question, for during the 20th century — and continuing on into the 21st century — we experienced dramatic changes in our understanding of the nature of reality. This new understanding emerged partly as a result of new information about the physical universe which was made available to the general public through broader access to higher education, specifically science. This new understanding of the universe and our place in it is coupled with changes in environmental and social conditions, brought about by enormous advances in technology and enormous increases in population and economic wealth. To complete the picture of a world undergoing fundamental transformation, add the fact that our new perception of reality is enhanced and speeded along by the mass media — especially television and, more recently, the internet.

The new reality we find ourselves in is both much larger and much smaller than we had imagined. While Carl Sagan and NASA have shown us the immensities of space and time, air travel demonstrates that the farthest reaches of the globe are only hours away, and television brings events on the other side of the world into our living rooms as they happen. On the one hand, discovering ourselves to be in a universe of a billion suns, instead of only one, seems to diminish our cosmic significance. On the other hand, advances in technology mean that here on Earth, our significance is growing. What had once been a limitless earth, with new horizons always beckoning, is now a global village, where we cannot escape the consequences of our actions, whether economic, environmental, or political. And — as a result of population density, environmental disasters, new pandemics such as AIDS, weapons of mass destruction, a global economy, Western hegemony, and international terrorism — an endangered and dangerous global village — a global village in danger of becoming overcrowded, polluted, and very sick — if not totally wiped out.

Not only is our perception of spatial reality changing, to make things even more complicated, our perception of the reality of relationships within the village are changing. In the domestic sphere, the scales in the power balance are tipping toward women, who have gained control of their reproductive lives through the technology of the birth-control pill, and, consequently are also gaining control over their economic lives, with increased access to educational and professional opportunities. Women are learning to survive on their own and are seeking more egalitarian relationships where each partner is equally valued. No longer is the family, heretofore the basic building block of Western society, providing the top-down model for the unilateral exercise of authority and the multilateral exercise of obedience to authority.

Respect for authority in other ways is eroding — weakened more and more as we continue to discover that those in authority have betrayed — and continue to betray — our trust: Johnson with Viet Nam, Nixon with Watergate, Reagan with Iran Contra, NASA with the Challenger, Bill Clinton and Monica, George Bush II with Iraq, Katrina, and an endless parade of corrupt corporations. We are finding that the trickle down from the rich and powerful is more than likely to be toxic.

But instead of learning from our new experiences in our new world, we are afraid. We want to deny its reality and return to the macho authoritarianism of the past. In the year of our Lord George Bush 2006, we are experiencing an extraordinary, although not entirely unexpected, cultural backlash. Although our new reality calls for new survival strategies, we are hanging on to our old understanding of ourselves and our world with a vengeance. The United States, the single superpower in the world, is demonstrating human freedom and dominion by the exercise of unparalleled and unchallenged military might, bombing thousands of innocent Iraqis into oblivion.

Like heroes of old, we are once again striding boldly forth over the earth. But it is a different earth and a strange freedom — the freedom to exploit yet another group of people in the global market. We are deliberately removing all economic and environmental rules and regulations, allowing business and industry and technology to damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead, enabling the most venal and vicious and unscrupulous of our leaders to freely exercise their economic power, untrammeled by economic or environmental regulations. On the other hand we are trying to roll back the tide where women and minorities are concerned, trying to deprive women of their reproductive freedom and minorities of educational opportunities which can move them out of poverty and into the professional class. These actions, I would argue, operate against the survival of the human race.

If we want to survive, therefore, we have no other choice but to change our survival strategies — a tall order, I admit. But necessary. And we can and will do it if we have to. Given the increase in global population, does it really make any sense to continue to go forth and multiply? Given global warming, toxic waste, polluted air and water, does it make any sense to continue the exploitation of nature? Given weapons of mass destruction, and the spread of these weapons to individuals rather than states, does it make any sense to depend on military might for our survival? We have the most powerful military in the world, but it was powerless to protect us from Islamic terrorists on September 11, and can do little to prevent future attacks.

The bottom line is that new realities call forth new symbols to explain those realities and how we are to survive within them. What will our new symbology be?


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