ORThis is a post about how we are all changing, and how we need to keep some momentum behind it. And how you might help. Anyway .....
Speaking of great figures in history called Rene, it's Magritte's birthday today. I'll come back to that later.
First, Bible Study Class is IN. There's a documentary series on TV at the moment here, simply called The Bible, in which seven different people from all sorts of backgrounds each take an episode to explore a Biblical theme. First was Howard Jacobsen doing Genesis, then Rageh Omar on the whole "children of Abraham" thing and just the other night was British MP Ann Widdicombe on the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue. I really disliked her by the end of it, I must admit, but that's beside my point. I want to refer especially to the first two commandments, as we understand them to be.
The First Commandment, in the most widely used translation in English, is "Thou shalt have no other gods but me." In other words, "I am THE ONE, OK??" So here we have it, codification at last of the thing that started with Abraham those many generations before, monotheism. At this point in time, it's still a pretty radical idea, that there might be a single overarching being, a Creator divinity: This is regardless of any other attributes we might ascribe to such a being; the historical point of turning is that this is the start of what became a movement to sweep the world and which now informs the lives of all of us profoundly, believers or not, that there is ONE God. Prior to this, the status quo for millenia were varieties on the theme of there being many gods, you see.
Having lots of Gods is really handy, politically and socially. Since we seem intent on ascribing human qualities onto whichever inhabitants of our various Divine Pantheons we decree, having a bunch of them we can give different themes, emotive forces, or responsibilities to can be extremely useful. It's also a spiritual get-out clause. If something goes wrong, it may be that a) you failed to please your own favourite/responsible god correctly or b) it might be the fault of another deity. You never really have to run up hard against the idea that with a single creator God, they must either be a) not entirely as loving of us as we'd like to be of one another or b) simply incompetent in the omnipotence stakes, or c) possess some nasty punitive and judgmental streak, all seeing as how Bad Stuff continues to happen. With monotheism, for the believer in a singular Creator, these problems can never be resolved, and have essentially given rise to every schism, restrictive dogma, conflict and malpractice of the various major Abrahamic religions and all that have spun off from them.
Here's what I think about the First Commandment: That it was a message intended to convey an insight that actually does have a deep and truthful resonance for most of us humans. I would actually almost say all humans, such is my personal worldview, ignoring for a moment the central place that the inevitability of uncertainty holds in my understanding of Things. That this message about a singular God was intended to strengthen a core shift in the thinking of the now-called Israelites and possibly the wider world at the time, to assist in the evolution of the human mass consciousness/spirit/collective soul/whatever to a step removed from this Gods-in-our-various-self-images meme that had swept the world previously. And that this insight has in a new translation been coming increasingly to the fore again now, via the changes wrought by mass education. literacy, and communication. The idea that All Is One. That this Commandment is nothing more than someone trying to explain to people who cannot possibly get their heads culturally around there being no gods with humanlike attributes messing with us from above that at its core spirituality and spiritual experience - apperception of Godhead if you like - is a unitary and unifying thing.
OK, so maybe it's an artefact of our neural and physical architecture - maybe it is all due to a rush of DMT from the pineal gland or whatever, or maybe it is the case that there is some yet-to-be-measureable unifying field that connects with everything on a plane that intersects with what we experience as life and which gives us somehow the impression of an existence of itself beyond physical death. Or something like that. I don't know. What I'm saying is that at its heart, the First Commandment got two fundamental things wrong, from a modern-day perspective. Firstly, it commanded. How terribly disempowering, how very disconnecting a thing to do, to assume there is a power separate from and greater than oneself. Secondly, it codified God as a personality, thus limiting the possibilities of apprehending Spirit as something other than some dude with a life of their own and probably a beard.
Which brings me nicely to the Second Commandment, one often just simply overlooked everywhere but in the most modern Abrahamic religion, Islam. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth".
For sure, it's a tricky translation. Graven image we can take pretty much as 'physical representation', like a picture or sculpture. But then, how is painting a picture with words any different, if I do it well enough? And the definition of the subject matter in question is problematic. The heaven part is clear - don't make pictures of stuff like God or the Afterlife etc (a precept roundly ignored all throughout modern-day Christendom anyway) but those other two - referring to Hell or life on Earth? In Judaism and Islam they use no images of things at all in worship, and have various other rules about what can and cannot be depicted. The Amish won't even keep photographs. The modern Christian watered-down version is "don't worship images of stuff that isn't the One God, OK?" Which I think has entirely missed the point.
My take on the point of this Second Commandment, and one which, as with the First, is rearing itself up spontaneously in a purer and reinvigorated expansion of itself in our consensual hallucination of a mass consciousness, brings me back neatly to the birthday boy, Magritte, and this painting:
"This is not a pipe"
Magritte painted a series of what came to be known colloquially as "ceci n'est pas une pipe" works, in which he'd use captions to deny that the object was, say, what it looked like. That an image of an apple was not, in fact, an apple. When asked about this pipe painting, Magritte explained it thusly: "Of course it is not a pipe; just try and fill it with tobacco". He was making a commentary on communication, on the use of imagery and of any means of conveying an idea (in this case the idea of 'pipe'); that however hard we try, the communication is not, and never can be, the thing itself. Take this notion further, and we get somewhere very interesting with this Commandment.
On one level, this Commandment is saying that "images of Oneness (or 'God' for those still needing to wear those limiting spectacles for the moment) are only pretend, and cannot give you the real meaning of the thing". The logical corollary of this is that the idea of God, or Oneness, or whatever, is not able to be conveyed - that you must actually experience the pipe. The extension is of course that the Other, the Divine, is in fact able to be experienced. To me, that's the core underlying message of the Second Commandment. That worship of images of anything is an easy fallacy to fall for, a sup to our egotistical need to project ourselves into some place beyond what we can perceive with our senses, to insist we can connect with some other sense of Unity in a solid and tangible way, but that the Thing that is Everything - Godhead - must be experienced personally, and any meaning must be gleaned by direct experience, as anything else cannot approach the truth of it. If an image or message does seem to point to some truth, then that truth must be understood fully inside the context of the message's layers of purported intent, the medium, and all that.
Again, as with the first, we are commanded that this be so. How terribly counterproductive if the aim now is to inspire people to seek for themselves a sense of spirit, a personal connection with feelings and notions of morality and ethics, wonder, awe, and the utter poignancy of life - let alone how we might approach issues of death and dying. That we even have issues about death and dying is surely a great piece of evidence for our need to pay attention to matters apart from material concern - for Spirit, etc. There is however a clue to be had when we use the wider translation of "images of everything are false representations". It says essentially that everything in existence, in 'heaven', on earth, and 'below' share one singular characteristic - that you can't know them except by personal, direct experience. This is powerful evidence too for a Oneness as Divinity.
I have spoken already of two points in evolution. That first I referred to was the codification of monotheism, the addictive thought experiment that there is a singular deity responsible for this thing we call existence. The second I speak of is what I believe to be happening around about now.
It's been called things like 'the rise of secularism' or the 'death of the religions' but I see no clear evidence of either of these things being things in themselves. They're almost like pictures of the thing I am thinking of. I'm talking essentially of a rise in the actual number of people seeking and (importantly) actually experiencing the sort of direct-connection experience of Oneness (I'm gonna call it this from now for shorthand) that is genuinely life-changing and which tends to leave people far better equipped to be content in life and make good fellow citizens besides, regardless of the way they found this experience.
Certainly, some find it via a traditional spiritual path, but I cannot recall any such reported time when someone got there by study of and adherence to sheer dogma. Mysticism and direct revelation have played an important - but historically fraught - part in the world's religions, yes. The limitation of codified religion in this is that it is so small in scope of potential experience. There may be fuzzy concepts like The Holy Spirit, but one never fully escapes dualistic thought (reminding us again of that thought crime perpetrated by Rene Descartes) inside a religion. That there is a here and now and also a 'there' and 'then' after death. Most people I know who report the sorts of teeny (or massive) glimmers of enlightening experience tend to not be quite so narrowed to such concepts.
How is this different from before, how is it an evolutionary step? I think it's that once we were in such a state as a species that being led in our thoughts, being commanded morally, and in certain social disciplines, was a valid and probably most efficient way to move forward for the betterment of our kind. That such phenomena as the emergence of enduring ruling patriarchies were just logical symptoms of this requirement for most of us (not all, note) to be shown, led, made to feel safe and trusting of things beyond our control. Now though, the wealthy (by which I mean one who has food, clothing, water and shelter - you know, wealthy) can control so much themselves, or at least have been able to until very recently, but more importantly all of us, even many of the very poor majority of our brethen can see clearly what life looks like - the picture of life - for others, for those with more personal control, and we want that feeling. We discover quickly that beyond a certain point (food, water, shelter, social choices), nothing material brings us an increased sense of control or happiness, and neither increasingly do the messages of command from on high have any resonance or relevance to our inner search. We are, all of us, seeking direct experience without rules, constraints, priests or dogma as intermediaries.
It matters not what this Oneness is, whether it is some numinous other-seeming as yet immeasureable Thing or whether it's just a ubiquitous species-wide quirk of neurotransmission equipment or whatever. What matters is that pretty much everyone seems more than ever to be needing it, and either seeking it directly, or showing such fierce resistance to it that it gives the game away.
Of course, whatever I say will just be a picture of the thing. But I encourage you to look around at your fellow beings, and see afresh the need in so many people's eyes for this lacking meaning, which once we filled so well with religious praise, adoration and supplication. Look at the hand-on heart fervency of the Religion Of America, that famously One Nation Under God. Remind yourself of every news clip you've seen of men in various Arab countries these last years performing violent acts (with a sense of righteousness or otherwise) or even just firing off weapons into the air joyfully, all shouting as a mantra, over and over again, the deeply incongruous phrase "Allah'u akhbar". "God Is Great". These images that point to realities well past their time, and which many of us perhaps recoil from occasionally, or better still feel deeply compassionate around. Think of the whole OWS and other nascent Occupy events, even as seen just through the sensationalist media services - the steadfast refusal to codify a single best way forward. The anti-dogma movement. This is the part that really inspires those who are already on song with this individual Oneness thing (to pardon my seeming oxymoron there please) and really niggles those stubbornly clinging to the sort of worldview that requires An Answer. That requires the Right Answer. That needs things to be True For Everyone and The Way It should Be. All the thought-pattern descendants of the monotheistic moment those millenia ago, I think.
Or perhaps you disagree.
(Speaking of beyond death, here's something that I still presume will happen after mine, in the not-too-distant future. If there is to be some accidental headstone to my Natural Burial, it would be cool if it were one of these. You can still help here if you like.)