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The case for new gods
On judgement, monuments and personifying ideals.
In the face of rejection, we are offered the choice to do better or to lash out in rage.
If you choose rage, guilt will follow.
Humanity was born from the guilt.
The original sin—the exit from the Garden of Eden.
Do we accept it or do better?
This is for each of us our own choice.
Our modern curse is that we are both judge and actor.
The rejection that many now face is their own—not that of a God, or other.
We are contending with the energy required for this runaway improvement in our own intelligence and capacity for self reflection.
The story of the fallen is the story of the ones who cease to judge and reflect, but continue to act.
The rest of us are left to create new gods to ease the guilt and walk with them as far as we can.
I recently spent a week in Greece traveling between some of the most iconic constructed achievements in human history. These structures were by no coincidence erected in the territory where western thought originated.
In that time, the thought became obvious to me that each and every one of these monuments where not built for the sake of building or for the achievement itself. They were all structures erected to honor and pay respects to a higher form of being.
This thought prompted me to compare what we had built then to what we are building today. I realized the greatest creations today are not tributes or offerings to gods, they are tributes to humanity and its’ own achievements.
I spent a good deal of time contending with whether this was a good thing, a bad thing, or if it even mattered. I've come to the conclusion that it lowers the standard people judge themselves against to find room for growth. Judgement is what prompts people to seek out redemption through action. Redemption is the fulfillment of a future brighter than the present. We achieve salvation by continually participating in the process of making that future a reality.
I am religious in the sense that I believe in a power higher than myself.
I feel comfortable dancing between specific religions because I understand the axioms that are common across any religion I’ve ever encountered. The stories through which they are communicated are context designed to make those axioms understandable through different mediums. I couldn’t effectively communicate those axioms by themselves. I suppose if I tried they might look something like the 10 commandments—common sense, sure, but lacking something that really makes them stick.
That is why humanity tells stories.
Something that we tell people when doing our Legacy Interviews is come prepared to tell stories. It might seem easy to tell future generations the logical explanations for wisdom that their family should carry on—be honest, have integrity, save more than you spend, etc. But like the 10 commandments, something about hearing a loved one tell you to ‘be honest’ for the thousandth time just isn’t going to stick. However, hearing the family member you respect tell the story you’d never heard with some context in it that makes you chuckle, may make your stomach turn, or may even make you feel despair, will evoke an emotional trigger that more firmly roots the axiom: value truth. It will give future generations something to tell around the dinner table for years to come.
This is what the ancient Greeks did on the monuments that I visited—they told stories. On the frieze surrounding the Parthenon, stories are told of the Panathenaic procession in which Athenian citizens offered sacrifices, raced chariots and fought beasts to honor their city's patron goddess, Athena. On the western pediment of the structure, the dispute between Athena and Poseidon was depicted in which each of the 2 offer a sacred gift to the city to win the citizens’ favor and earn the right to have the city be named after them. Poseidon is seen striking a rock through which salt water is erupting. This was not valued very highly because the city is already in close proximity to the Aegean sea. Athena on the other hand plants a seed that sprouts the first olive tree, giving the citizens oil, a food source and a new form of life. On the Eastern pediment, the story of Athena's birth is told in which she is sprung straight from the head of her father Zeus in full battle armor after he is struck in the head by an axe—thank the gods for more modern birthing techniques, eh?
I saw similar stories told on structures from Delphi, to Cape Sounion and even on Christian monasteries in the sky-scraping rock faces of Meteora. In fact, every respectable church we visited had a craftsman's depiction of a biblical story somewhere on the inside. As you walk in and look up at the ceiling, scenes are played out in mosaic tile or intricate paintings for all below to see.
The problem with understanding something via it’s context alone without taking the time to understand it for it’s axioms or core principles is that it leaves room to be swayed by interpretation. Interpretations can be created and abused by people who understand that the majority of people don’t take the responsibility of making sense of the world upon themselves, they outsource it to others.
All great leaders are storytellers. The game of political leadership today strikes me as mostly a contest to see who can win the bid on the greatest sum of trust being outsourced by the general public. Rather than timeless myths, the stories of the day are spun from the news to create devises that emotionally trigger their listeners into believing whatever manufactured truth an effective storyteller has chosen to embed it with. We're lucky when the manufactured truths align with the real truth.
This is why I believe it matters our greatest creations are no longer tributes to higher powers representing unquestionable truths. It leaves the door open for stories to be reinterpreted and washed away based on the aims of the present day's leadership. Stories that embed unquestionable truths are an opportunity to question the actions of leaders who don't want to be questioned. Most of history's emperors might have been naked; they may have just been good enough storytellers to keep people thinking their birthday suit was their Sunday’s best.
This isn't to say religion impenetrably solves a problem that modernity doesn't. Religious stories have had their fair share of abusive interpreters throughout history as well. What religion has that the current status quo doesn't is canon. Canon is the source material an individual can always refer to in order to uncover the ground truths behind a given set of context. For Christianity, this is the Bible, for the Ancient Greeks, this was their mythological structure, for the Hindus, the Bhagavad Gita, and so on. If an individual so chose to do so, there was always somewhere to go in order to expend the energy required to make sense of the world themselves.
Where do we go in 2023 for the canon narrative as to what in the hell is going on? Everything just keeps happening, everywhere, all at once.
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You have to admire the work required to build a Gothic Cathedral. I sure did when visiting Westminster Abbey for the first time a few weeks ago. Thousands of hours of detailed craftsmanship allocated by hundreds of actors of which we will never know their names. They had something that us moderns don't. They had conviction. The people building the greatest monuments in history were not concerned about being judged by their fellow man, they were properly concerned about being judged in their effort by a higher power. They put in the time to make every detail right, not because they wanted to gain status, wealth or something in between, but because they honored their work, and feared the judgement that would come if they did not. It could be said they did it because they felt they had to.
“People in those old times had convictions; we moderns only have opinions. And it needs more than a mere opinion to erect a Gothic cathedral.”
― Heinrich Heine
I've taken a great liking to reading the works of Carl Jung, because he was the first person whose ideas I consumed that seemed to have some sense of this same conviction about them. It was not until I started reading his Liber Novus I started to understand why. The Liber Novus is one of Jung's more unique works across all of his writing because as you're reading it, it will seem something more like a surrealist novel than a psychoanalytical text. It leaves some room for subjectivity. It does not rely on its own intellectual authority to be taken as true.
What I've since come to understand is Jung was using his active imagination techniques to create a new God all to himself, of which he named Abraxas, but I’ll talk about creating new gods below. First I have to explain how we killed the old ones.
I have a friend who comes from an entirety different cultural background than I do, and he told me the cause of a higher than normal amount of violence in his community is due to a lack of vocabulary. At first I didn't understand, and so he went on to explain to me that because the people he grew up with did not have as quality of an education as many others, they did not have the words to explain away the things they were feeling and talk out their problems, which caused them to revert to violence against each other.
It clicked with me when I realized what my friend was explaining was itself a Jungian idea; to explain a thing is to take away it's power. This is what humanity has done to its gods many times throughout history, and the trend that was perhaps sealed with the advent of the enlightenment period.
Before humans developed the language to explain the intuitions inside themselves, they were personified to be characters playing out narratives from without so that they could be learned from. This is what broke us from being an instinct-action species and offered us the tool of reflection. Some animals have been observed to use forms of communication that could be considered similar to storytelling, but none quite like humans. Chimpanzees and bonobos use gestures and vocalizations to convey information about food locations, predators, and other important information. Dolphins and certain species of birds use vocal mimicry, which could be considered a form of symbolic communication. Some researchers have suggested that certain types of animal behavior, such as the dance of the honeybee, may be a form of communication that conveys information about food sources. However, these forms of communication do not involve the same level of abstraction and symbolism as human language and storytelling, and they are not used in the same way to convey narrative or fictional information.
After the enlightenment, the broader trend of society teetered towards ceasing to believe in the stories that led us out of the dark to begin with. A half century later, Nietzsche exclaimed the famous, "God is dead!" to convey people were no longer relying on religious beliefs and needed to find new ways of understanding the world and themselves.
Instinct alone is not enough for building lasting systems. Planning, thought and storytelling are necessary precursors to create systems that can store value for the future, instead of just capitalizing on it in the moment. Only through reason and intuition together are we are able to make informed decisions and sacrifice short-term gains for long-term benefits.
In both Nietzsche's and Jung's ideas, there is an emphasis on the importance of self-discovery and the rejection of society’s beliefs and values in order to create unique ways of understanding and living in the world. By developing personal convictions, religions, or systems of belief, individuals can better navigate the complexities of life to find meaning and purpose.
People need something greater than their peers to set the standard for personal growth and development. Comparing oneself to others in terms of achievement, success, appearance, or lifestyle can be motivating, but it can also lead to feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt. Additionally, it does not offer the means to discover new ways of improving the world as a whole.
When people compare themselves to a higher power or divine figure, such as God or a Christ figure, they are looking at a more abstract or idealized standard. These figures are considered to be perfect or infallible, and are looked to as role models for moral and spiritual guidance. Comparing oneself to a higher power can serve as a source of inspiration and motivation to strive for personal growth and improvement.
This comparison can also lead to feelings of guilt or shame if one feels they are falling short of these standards, but the shame from failing to meet a infallible standard is much healthier than the self-doubt of failing to replicate the examples set by peers. The curse of humanity is that we can never reach this standard, and so the guilt of not living up to it is with us always.
Like the Jungian idea I mention above, we used to be able to more readily explain away this existential dread by comparing ourselves to our Gods and understanding that we could never achieve the standards we set out for ourselves. We were contented to find peace, or salvation from partaking in the process. When we killed our external Gods through the enlightenment, what John Vervaeke calls the modern meaning crisis began to arise.
We are in the midst of a mental health crisis. There are increases in anxiety disorders, depression, despair, suicide rates are going up in North America, parts of Europe, other parts of the world. And that mental health crisis is itself due to and engaged with crises in the environment and the political system. And those in turn are immeshed within a deeper cultural historical crisis. I call this the meaning crisis. So the meaning crisis expresses itself and many people are giving voice to this in many different ways, in this increasing sense of bullshit.
Bullshit is on the increase. It's more and more pervasive throughout our lives and there's this sense of drowning in this old ocean of bullshit. And we have to understand why is this the case and what can we do about it? So today there is an increase of people feeling very disconnected from themselves, from each other, from the world, from a viable and foreseeable future.
— Vervaeke in Lecture 1 of Awakening from the Meaning Crisis
What does modern salvation look like and how can we find peace in the fact that the standard for self-judgment is inherently unachievable while still reaping the benefits of having an infallible standard? I believe the answer is to create new personal gods based on our own ideals.
This is what I got a taste of when reading Carl Jung's development of Abraxas in the Liber Novus, and why this is a text I've referred to in multiple past posts.Jung was creating his own standard by personifying a new god, just for himself. He is not the first person to do this, but he is perhaps the first one to have formalized it into his process of individuation. We can see similar examples in Socrates and his daemon, and Stephen Pressfield and his muse.
Each of these examples involves the concept of personification, or the attribution of human qualities or characteristics to non-human entities. Socrates believed that he had an inner voice, or daemon, that guided him and provided him with wisdom. In Pressfield's writing, the muse is a personification of inspiration and creativity. In Jung's work, he personifies various archetypal figures, such as the anima and animus, which represent the feminine and masculine aspects of the psyche, and the shadow, perhaps his most famous archetype.
All of these examples involve a belief in some sort of inner force or voice that the individual turns to for guidance and inspiration. In the case of Socrates, his daemon was believed to be an external voice that guided him, while in Pressfield and Jung's examples, the muse and archetypal figures are personifications of internal psychological processes.
The figures mentioned above were all engaging in a process of self-exploration and personal transformation, and they used these personifications as a way to understand and navigate their own inner workings. They believed that by personifying these entities, they could better understand and connect with their own inner wisdom and inspiration. The impact their work has had in history is a modest example of how this exercise can be successful.
This method is also used in literature where the best fiction writers personify ideas they are trying to work out in their characters, and develop them further by continuing to place them in novel environments throughout the course of a narrative. This is known as the "dramatization of ideas.” What I am suggesting is something a little different, a "personification of ideals."
I was prompted to organize these ideas because I realized over the course of my recent travels that the external monuments being built today, aren’t sufficient to inspire personal salvation. Our era has defeated objective ideals with reason, and so we are left to create new ideals within our own subjectivity.
This is the path forward I see for religion, and developing modern canon. The Hebrews said “anyone who saves a life is as if they saved an entire world.”
Save yourself first.
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