Just Say No To Transcendence

February 13th, 2007

This essay attempts to answer Prince Charles’ query as to “…what it is about our society and its values that has led us to act with thoughtless destructiveness,” posed in his speech given when he received Harvard Medical School’s Health and the Global Environment Award. The text of the entire speech can be found at http://www.princeofwales.gov.uk/

Recently, Britain’s Prince Charles was given Harvard Medical School’s Health and the Global Environment Award. Luckily for me, C-Span covered the event and so I got to hear the Prince’s acceptance speech, which I thought was brilliant. In case you missed it, here are the paragraphs which I thought were the best, followed by my own thoughts on the topic of the root causes of environmental degradation and the perilous situation we find ourselves in.

But if the facts [surrounding the environmental crisis] are now so clear … it is surely the duty of each and every one of us to find out what we can do to make the situation better. However, if we are to do this, I think we need first to stop and ask how we could have allowed ourselves to reach this point in the first place? In my own attempts to draw attention to environmental issues, I have always tried to ask what it is about our society and its values that has led us to act with such thoughtless destructiveness. With all our knowledge, our resources and our capacity for sophisticated analysis of any and every problem known to man, how on earth did we arrive at this point? If we could answer that question, we could be more confident about our ability to look for and implement solutions before it really is too late.

The crux of the problem, I believe, is that we have come to see ourselves as being outside of Nature and free to manipulate and control her constituent parts, imagining somehow that the whole will not suffer and can take care of itself, and of us, whatever we do. I happen to think that this illusion of separateness conceals from us the degree to which we are still entirely dependent on those natural systems for our basic needs, notwithstanding our technological genius. Surely, if we are to find our way through to a wiser, more balanced future we must learn to see the world differently – and our role in it? To me, this is a ‘crisis of perception’ which we have to face up to. If we don’t, we will inevitably end up making all the same mistakes, all over again.

As the Prince says, how on earth did we arrive at this point? Where did we get this image of ourselves as being separate from and outside of nature? And why, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, do we continue to see ourselves that way?

I asked myself these same questions about ten years ago. For me it seemed to boil down to a question of values – why did we devalue nature and overvalue humanity? Since I have always associated values with religion, I thought religion would be the logical place to look for answers. In 1997, I entered Vanderbilt Divinity School to study Christianity’s role, if any, in influencing our attitudes toward Nature. In 2000, I graduated, convinced that I had identified the culprit. And, I would like to share my insights into this matter with you.

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Liberals and Conservatives, In Brief

November 21st, 2006

Over the past 50 years, powerful new medical, agricultural, industrial, and weapons technologies have literally changed our world. Over the past 50 years, science has given us new understandings of who and where we are as human beings on this planet in this space and at this time. These new technologies and new perspectives have altered our understandings of our relative position and importance in the universe and affect how we relate to each other and other species. They have changed the environments – whether social and physical or religious and philosophical — in which we must survive.

Those of us in the liberal camp acknowledge the change in our world and are striving to adapt to this change by developing new ways of relating to each other at a personal, national, international – and species — level. We know that we are entering liminal space which is always scary and where mistakes will be made. But the reality is that the changes in our social and physical and intellectual environments mean that we have no choice but to go forward, carving out a new worldview as we go along.

Conservatives on the other hand are in denial that anything has changed – including the climate. They want to stick to the tried and true. They want to live in a well-ordered society where America is as innocent as the dawn, God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. They want to believe that we live in a world where Daddy’s at work, Mom’s at home looking after the kids, and corporations are run by honest, simple, straight-talking CEO’s and managers. They want to live in a world where women make babies and men make the rules, for this is the world they know and understand and can manipulate to their advantage.

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Taking Religion Seriously: Moral Minds and Mary Midgley

November 1st, 2006

Even though I’m sure I’ll disagree with a lot of what it has to say (I’m a post-modern deconstructionist, after all, and words like universal always raise my hackles), I am so glad that a book like Moral Minds has come out (Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right And Wrong, Marc Hauser). We need some sort of antidote from the scientific community to books which have recently been published denouncing religion as too silly to take seriously. I have not yet had a chance to read Moral Minds, but based on the NYT review and some brief participation in Professor Marc Hauser‘s online research project, it appears that, although Moral Minds does not address religion per se, focusing instead on what Professor Hauser believes is the significant role of morality in human evolutionary biology, Moral Minds at least opens the way for serious scientific discussion of the function of religion in human evolutionary biology – given that religion is a primary provider of moral system and therefore a shaper of moral minds.

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Rape and Pillage: The Sacred Marriage and the Gospel of John, Take One

October 24th, 2006

The Christian version of the new creation as told in the Gospel of John completes the transition from pre-Western to Western consciousness – a symbolic journey which began in the dark mysteries of the great Mother and moved through the various iterations of the Sacred Marriage to finally arrive at the current version of the story — which reads like wife abuse and an ugly custody battle leading up to an acrimonious divorce.

From a survival strategy based on a worldview which saw all life as dependent on a Sacred Nature, humanity evolved a new survival strategy – a strategy which focused on the domination of a desacralized nature (land) and the conquest of the people most closely associated with nature and the land (women, farmers, peasants, campesinos, etc.). Western culture moved away from a reality which placed the highest value on life-giving activities: the care and feeding of plant, animal, and human life, and constructed a new reality where the highest survival value was given to life-taking activities: the conquest of land and the extermination or enslavement or colonizing of the people on that land. Why did this happen? Is Western humanity cruel and perverse?
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The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

October 22nd, 2006

Dear Richard Dawkins,

I have just read Jim Holt’s review of your new book The God Delusion in The New York Times (October 22), and I have a few comments. First and foremost, I would like to apologize for what I am about to say, because my comments are based only on a review. Although I have not yet read the book, I would like to address some of the issues brought up by Holt while they are fresh in my mind. Read the rest of this entry »

The Sacred Marriage: Analyzing the Symbology That Gave Birth to Christianity

October 18th, 2006

I first ran across the the Sacred Marriage when, as a bored twelve-year-old browsing through my grandfather’s books, I made the amazing discovery of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Let me just say that it certainly got my attention and I was bored no more. I next encountered the themes of the sacred marriage a few years later in the novels of Mary Renault, specifically, The King Must Die and again felt the powerful emotional pull of this story. Fifty years later, it continues to fascinate me.
These early exposures to the Sacred Marriage and the emotions which it evokes sent me on a lifetime quest to understand its mysterious power — and the power of myth and symbols in general.

Over the years, through my studies of myth and religion, I have come to believe that the power of symbols derives from their role in the shaping of human consciousness. I believe it is the function of symbols, specifically religious and mythological (other people’s religious) symbols, to shape our psychological and emotional realities in response to the requirements of the physical and social worlds we inhabit.

Pagan myths and symbols found sacred life-giving qualities within nature and created a human consciousness which promoted and sustained a pastoral and agricultural way of life — when that way of life made the most sense with respect to human survival. In contrast, symbologies associated with transcendent patriarchal monotheism (Christianity, as the most extreme and successful example) find the sacred outside of nature, specifically in a transcendent male authoritarian god who looks and acts a lot like a powerful human king. Transcendent patriarchal monotheism creates a type of human consciousness which has the go-ahead, even the mandate, to exploit a desacralized nature including those humans most closely associated with nature — women and indigenous peoples, etc. Transcendent patriarchal monotheism promotes and sustains a social structure and value system which is congenial with an imperial worldview.

Although there is still a great deal of academic argument swirling around the “facts” of the sacred marriage and the dying and rising god, I think there can be no disagreement on the power of its symbology – based as it is on the most powerful of human emotions, surrounding the most powerful of human experiences: sex, death, and birth — nor on its formative role in the evolution of the symbology of the JudeoChristian tradition. Judging from the art and mythology of the ancient near east (ANE), pagan nature religions of that time and place frequently employed the symbology of the sacred marriage. For further proof of the power and ubiquity of these themes in the ANE, one need look no further than the Hebrew and Christian creation myths to detect the symbology of the sacred marriage lurking just beneath the surface – and wreaking a good deal of psychological havoc for all true believers who find themselves faced with endless religious contradictions. For evidence of the power of this symbology, even today, just key in “sacred marriage” in your web browser and see how many references can be found on the internet.

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Delving Into the Mysteries of Human Consciousness

October 16th, 2006

Readers sometimes ask me to define the word “deconstructing” so, I will try to answer in a way that is meaningful within the context of the essays on this site.

For many years I was a structuralist, i.e., I was convinced that at the deepest level of the human psyche there was a structure of universal values and absolute truths which were common to all people in all cultures at all periods of history. I thought that, if I could just discover this bedrock of values, I could then trust them to guide me through my life – and I was desperate for such a guide. And, so I spent many hours pouring through books of mythologies, books on comparative religion, books on psychology and anthropology, and so forth. But what I found as “universal” was not universal, but merely western; and what I thought was truth was at odds with my own experience of reality.

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The Survival Value of Religion: The Good News and the Bad News

September 10th, 2006

According to New Scientist (January 28-February 3, 2006), “The study of belief in all its forms has become a very hot topic” (page 29). That statement alone is not remarkable; but the fact that New Scientist is making it is. Because science, as New Scientist acknowledges, has been reluctant to take religion seriously as a topic worthy of study. In that issue, Robin Dunbar, Alison Motluck, and Clare Wilson provide three different approaches to the topic in the articles “We Believe,” page 30, “Particles of Faith,” page 34, and “Glad to be Gullible,” page 37. The Atlantic got in on the act in the December 2005 issue with their cover story “Is God An Accident?” by Paul Bloom. And just yesterday (February 19, 2006), The New York Times reviewed Daniel Dennett”s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

I guess this scientific interest should not be surprising, but it is, given science’s perverse resistance to taking religion seriously in a world which is being torn apart by religion. It is like the Bush administration’s denial of global warming. Given the very dangerous state of the world right now resulting from a sharp right turn toward religious fundamentalism (both Christian and Islamic), however, even scientists are beginning to realize that religion when it is radicalized is a force which is as real, as powerful, and as potentially dangerous as a hurricane. At any rate, I am glad the discussion is happening and this essay is my contribution to the conversation. It addresses the origins of religion, the relationship between religion and survival, the power of religion, and the difficulties of letting go ” even when religion has become a destructive force.

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Terminal Priapism

September 10th, 2006

Forget avian flu. We have a more immediate problem. The United States is experiencing an epidemic of priapism — both literally and figuratively. First and most importantly, we have a president whose hardness (compassionate claims to the contrary) is and has been demonstrated in his zealous execution of prisoners in Texas, in his enthusiasm to send his own countrymen and women to death in Iraq, in his careless killing of thousands of Iraqi innocents, and in his grotesque policies which have lead to the abuse of hundreds of innocent political prisoners. This murderous hardness of heart — or resolve, as it is euphemistically called — is putative evidence of the hardness of another organ whose ability to stand at attention is proof positive of strength and masculinity — qualities the president is at great pains to manifest in his physical stance and his rhetoric, most famously in the genital- hugging flight suit he so proudly wore when announcing the end of the war.

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Man, Revisited

September 6th, 2006

When I went to college, many years ago, we all had to take a course known as “Man Viewed in the Light of History and Religion” otherwise known as “Man” (quite aptly, as I came later to understand). It was a survey of western civilization, specifically the writings of Western men (those old dead white males you hear so much about); and the opinings of these great men were reverently presented as the highest wisdom – and in some cases as ultimate truth. And I, like Maria von Herbert (see below) and as most women students have done over the years, read these men and believed that they were speaking to me and to my condition. Obviously, I couldn’t have been more wrong and obviously I was in complete denial, refusing to believe the words that my eyes were taking in. However, at some level, my mind was processing this information, with the result that I was deeply conflicted about what it meant to me to be a women vs. what being a woman meant in terms of value in my own culture. What a relief to finally get all that sorted out.

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Two Wrongheaded Cultural Assumptions

February 24th, 2006

If the behavior of Western Man is a threat to our survival, as I believe it is, then we need to change it. But, in order to change it, we first need to inquire into why we do the things we do. This inquiry, however, is complicated by two cultural assumptions which operate against both inquiry and change and which need to be dealt with before going any further:

(1) We assume that we “Westerners” are free, rational and objective individuals who choose our behaviors based on “what makes the most sense” — and we believe that “what makes sense” is a rational and objective determination.

(2) At the same time, oddly enough, we assume that much of our behavior is hard-wired because it is necessary to our survival, and therefore cannot and should not be changed: For example, capitalism is frequently explained as an expression of our innate greed — which is viewed as a survival instinct; militarism is explained on the basis that human aggression is a given and must be defended against. Therefore, it is argued by conservatives, it would be unrealistic, impractical, and “against human nature” to work toward a more economically equitable and non-militaristic society.
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Symbols and Survival

February 24th, 2006

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.
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Homage to Lynn White [Revised]

January 20th, 2006

A discussion of the destructive effects of the Christian attitude toward Nature

Why does Western culture believe it has the right if not the mandate to exploit nature? Why is this attitude so deeply rooted in our psyches that some of us can’t even imagine any other way of relating to nature? What is the root of this attitude? Human greed, human perversity? A biologically determined human nature?

According to historian Lynn White, Jr., Western society’s exploitation of nature is the logical working out of Christian teaching; it is, ironically, moral conduct in action. Simply put, the historical roots of the ecological crisis can be found in Christianity itself.

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Intelligent Design: On the Absurdity of the Premise

September 7th, 2005

In a desperate move to circumvent the doctrine of the separation of church and state and get creationism taught in public schools, Intelligent Design theorists are claiming a scientific proof for both the existence and nature of a Supernatural Intelligent Designer (SID) who bears a suspicious resemblance to the Christian God — i.e, a Heavenly Father (sun deity) made in the image of a transcendent human male. There hasn’t been such an uproar over evolution since the Scopes trial. And, the fervor of the religious right surrounding this debate is reminiscent of Catholicism’s rejection of heliocentrism 500 years ago. Let’s hope Richard Dawkins, one of the best evolutionary biologists of our day, doesn’t end up under house arrest like Gallileo.
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The Bridegroom of the Church and Other Malicious and Misleading Metaphors

May 13th, 2005

In the flurry of media attention surrounding the death of one pope and the election of another, a Catholic theologian on “Meet the Press” was asked to explain the theological thinking barring the ordination of women in the Catholic church. He said that the ordination of women was not merely an issue of church doctrine — which, if it were, could be changed — the ordination of women was against the will of God, and therefore not open to discussion.
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Damsels in Distress, Murder Most Foul, and The Da Vinci Code

May 11th, 2005

Although I, like other readers, thoroughly enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code, for me, the most fascinating and interesting thing about The Da Vinci Code is the phenomenal response to it — which shows that The Da Vinci Code is much more than just a fast-paced page turner. What is it about this novel that millions of readers find so compelling? What is it about this novel that the church finds so threatening and so dangerous that it has no less a personage than Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone up in arms, warning Catholics a little belatedly — not to read it and that shill for the church, Pat Buchanan, suggesting on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country that a fatwah should be issued against author Dan Brown?
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Three Challenges to Christianity

April 8th, 2005

I am a feminist, an environmentalist, and a pacifist. I used to be a liberal Christian, but trying to maintain my belief in Christianity in the face of so much open hostility to feminsim, environmentalism, and pacifism was just too difficult. And so, I accepted the fact that Christianity is essentially, not just coincidentally, anti-woman, anti-nature, and anti-peace, I left the fold, and in doing so liberated myself from many of the internal and external conflicts with which I had been struggling.
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The Pope and I

April 8th, 2005

Back about twenty years ago, while I was doing my exercises before work and listening to NPR, I heard a report about a breakdown in communication between the pope and the archbishhop who was head of the Anglican church. It seems that these two eminences were planning a get-together to discuss the issue of women and the priesthood, when the pope cancelled the meeting. The pope then announced that it was against God’s will for women to be priests. Period. That Jesus Christ had been male, the apostles had been male, the apostolic succession had been from male to male down the centuries to him and that he was not going to be the one to break with tradition and allow a woman into the priesthood (giving her, I guess, a shot at the papacy, should she make it up through the Catholic hierarchy).

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Born in a Manger, Giving Birth in a Barn

April 8th, 2005

Although Easter has recently passed, it is Christmas I have been thinking about lately and the mother of that baby who was so famously “away in a manger.” I, like millions before me, have fallen under the enchantment of the cozy homeyness of the stable where Jesus was born, the soft golden light cast by a lantern or perhaps emanating from the Lord Jesus himself, the warmth of the animal bodies, the softness of their breath stirring the straw of the manger , caressing the baby lying within.
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Letter on Gay Marriage

April 8th, 2005

Dear Frances,

Good article. I agree with the pope that gay marriage causes irreparable damage to society and injures the very fabric of society. I disagree with the pope that this is a bad thing. Patriarchal (Christian) social values need to be damaged — if not completely overturned. Patriarchal Christian values are founded on the patriarachal family with god the father on top, mom next and the kids underneath. The patriarchal family begins the programming process that makes us believe that it is natural for men to be in charge and women to be under them. It is the foundation of a hierarchical social structure which concentrates power in a CEO, President, General, etc., overvalues them and devalues everyone underneath.
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An Exchange with Richard Dawkins

March 24th, 2005

Date: February 6, 2005

Dear Richard Dawkins,

If my name doesn’t ring a bell, I was one of your table companions on the recent “free inquiry” cruise. I have debated whether or not to write you about my theory concerning the role of religion in evolutionary biology and had decided against it, but after watching a C-SPAN discussion led by Steven Pinker in which both your name and the question of the evolutionary value of religion came up, I decided to give it a shot. The reason I am writing to you is that I met you and you are a “great man” in the field of evolutionary biology and one tiny good word from you would lend credibility to my point of view — if you thought it had any merit. I also enjoyed meeting you and thought you were a nice and non-pompous and approachable person — in spite of your considerable stature. And, since I sit down here in Georgia thinking away every day and have few connections in the field which most interests me, meeting you seemed like a gift.
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Myth, Religion, and Human Evolutionary Biology

December 15th, 2003

Somewhere in the distant past, in search of the ultimate survival strategy, humanity struck out on a path different from that of our animal friends, evolving from creatures ruled by instinct to creatures ruled by culture. This deviation from the animal norm is known as the human experiment, and the jury is still out as to its success. For, given the choices we are making and the direction we are taking, we may go the way of the dinosaurs.
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On Being a Post-Christian

November 23rd, 2003

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.

Quatrain 158, Open Secret: Versions of Rumi,
(tr. by John Moyne and Coleman Barks, Threshold Books, 1984)
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The Social Construction of the Feminine (1941-1963): A Personal Memoir

November 23rd, 2003

In the 1970s, when NASA spacecraft performed docking maneuvers in orbit, the Apollo and Saturn modules consummated their couplings with the aid of a very large (but quite simple) male plug and female socket. The Soviet space agency of that same period equipped its Soyuz vessels with a male-female interlink almost identical to NASA’s. However for the linkup between Apollo 18 and Soyuz 19, in July of 1975, U.S. and Soviet aerospace engineers designed an incredibly complex (and inefficient) set of docking clamps that bore no resemblance to the genitals of any known sex. This was necessary for one reason only: on that historic “first date” between the two rival space agencies, neither participant was willing to take the “female” role, which would require its spaceship to be penetrated by the other nation’s male hardware.

Excerpt from a letter from F. Gwynplaine MacIntire printed in the February, 2000, issue of The Atlantic Monthly
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