Disentangling The Deities

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My previous post about Western pantheistic mythology generated quite a few comments. I want to try to offer a bit of background information that might clarify some things. This subject deserves much more extended treatment than I am going to give it here, but hopefully it will provide a reasonable starting place.

My take on the Bible, and Judeo-Christian mythology in general, is completely different than anything I’ve found in the mainstream or even the mainstream fringe. When I started looking into J/C mythology I threw away everything I ever knew about it — I mean everything, I would on occasion spend weeks trying to identify whether what I thought I was reading was actually there, or whether it was something I was projecting onto the text. This has become an ongoing process for me whenever I delve into the mythos.

It’s also been extremely important to find accurate translations & extended explanations of biblical Hebrew. This language does not function even remotely like English, and there is simply no way to translate it with precision in the absence of cultural context. I’ve relied a lot on the endlessly compelling Abarim Publications website for this information, and in particular the Names of God section of the Names Vault.

I should also give credit to Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael for putting me on this quest in the beginning. In the novel, Ishmael shares an interpretation of the Cain & Abel story in which Cain represents up-and-coming, agriculturally-based civilization wiping out the shepherding cultures, represented by Abel. I don’t know if Quinn knows this, but the Cain & Abel story has ever been a skull-cracking problem for even the most learned theologians because it simply makes no sense in the context of any Christian theology. This presentation is the first I’ve ever seen that actually makes perfect sense. And upon inspecting it further, I discovered that this particular lens brings all kinds of things into focus that Quinn evidently missed, perhaps because he escaped having the Bible jackhammered into his head the way I had growing up.

In my reading and researching, there are a few fundamental things I’ve realized about our conception of Judeo-Christian mythology that are just completely wrong.

1. The original creation-force in Genesis, Elohim, is not the same concept Christians worship as “God” today. (And maybe Jews too, but I don’t know.)

Elohim is the first name of God used in Genesis, and it is mysterious because it is plural, while God is actually one. It’s a mystery, but as Arie explains at Abarim Publications, “Though certainly much debated, this Name (still most probably) has to do with the first God-experience that people had; awe or fear for the powers of nature,” and that, “Bottom line: the Name Elohim has something to do with powers: The Powers That Be; The Many Powered.”

After further reading and meditation, I concluded that Elohim has more in common with Wakan Tanka and the Tao than with any anthropomorphized, personified deity projection. Some level of understanding of Wakan Tanka is especially helpful here. From the link above, a quote from a Lakota medicine man named Lame Deer:

You can’t explain it except by going to the circles within circles idea, the spirit splitting itself up into stones, trees, tiny insects even, making them all wakan by his everpresence. And in turn all these myriad of things which make up the universe flowing back to their source, united in the one Grandfather spirit.

Plural, yet one. I believe this is much closer to the original concept of Elohim than a white-bearded white dude on a throne. In fact, I don’t even think the word “God” applies to Elohim. English doesn’t have an equivalent word.

2. Elohim’s evolution runs in tandem with the line of paganism’s evolution. Though intertwined, they are distinct, and both Biblical literature and the archaeological record demonstrate periods of disentanglement. Elohim mythology is fundamentally separate from civilization’s mythologies.

With the rise of civilization and its pantheons of pretend gods that don’t actually exist, the name Elohim changed, and continued changing, in what I believe was a reaction by the ancient proto-Hebrews to distinguish Elohim and themselves from these.

The difference between the two is that the Elohim concept dates back to the paleolithic, prior to the advent of farming, and is fundamental to an animist worldview. The proto-Hebrews tried very hard to maintain this worldview and developed shepherding, as opposed to farming, as their primary subsistence strategy. Shepherding is in some ways similar to nomadic hunter-forager subsistence — it is essentially a domesticated version of following game from place to place throughout the year, and as such, would have no reason to view themselves as separate from nature the way farming cultures did.

That notion of separateness underlies farming cultures and places humans in a competitive relationship with nature rather than a dependent one. The same singular-plural Spirit that was once viewed as the source-of-all now becomes an adversary, and requires equally nebulous, farming-friendly “spirits” to ensure the nature Spirit doesn’t ruin the harvest. Over time those natural processes that could be ported to agriculture — fertility, growth, rebirth and the like — got pulled from their places on the other side of fence, placed in an imaginary spirit realm, personified, named, and eventually became the pantheons associated with early farming civilizations.

Much of the Old Testament is devoted to the problem of keeping the ancient Hebrew culture true to its original concept of God, e.g., Elohim, in the face of tremendous cultural, political, and military pressure from the civilizations growing ever larger in the Mesopotamian region. The books of the Prophets are filled to overflowing with admonitions to stop worshipping “false gods,” “false idols” and the like specifically because they are not real. For example, Jeremiah 10:4-5 (NIV):

(4) They adorn it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so it will not totter.

(5) Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field,
their idols cannot speak;
they must be carried
because they cannot walk.
Do not fear them;
they can do no harm
nor can they do any good.”

I have written about real vs. not-real elsewhere. Nature and our connection to it is real; and I contend that the Elohim-Tao-Wakan-Tanka animating force of nature is real. Farming and civilizational developments are not-real to the degree that these are separated from nature. The pantheons that arise from farming and civilization are equally not-real. Elohim mythology could not be more separate from civilization’s pantheistic paganisms.

3. Christianity is not and has never been a development of Elohim mythology. It is Roman paganism, plain and simple.

Everyone knows Emperor Constantine got saved in 312 AD, and from that point forward the names of Catholic (which means universal) deities got plastered over preexisting pagan deities & holidays until the whole empire was officially Christian. All major Christian holidays were originally pagan. A lot of minor ones, too, especially those named after Catholic saints. We celebrate Halloween because the European pagan subjects of the Holy Empire wouldn’t give it up.

Imagine you’re a Roman soldier fighting under the tutelage of the deity Mars. Then one day you hear that the deity is now called Jesus. What exactly has changed?

Imagine you’re a Roman general suppressing insurrections and expanding the Empire’s territories for the glory of Jupiter. Then one day you find out you’re now doing these for the glory of God the Father. What exactly has changed?

So far as I can tell, all Christianity and the Catholic Church (since it was the only church until the Reformation) managed to do was thrust Roman paganism forward through history under another set of names. None of it — including later Protestant Christianity — has anything whatever to do with either Jesus or Elohim. I don’t care how much ink has been devoted to Christian theology by learned scholars and wise men. I don’t care how complex and Christianly-symbolic the liturgy. Nowhere in Christendom does anyone even attempt to tease apart this conflation of Roman pagan deities from Christian names — until they do, Christianity will always be Roman paganism by another name.

4. Jesus was an anarcho-primitivist dropout and a memetic mutation

Everything Jesus did and said was in opposition to civilization and empire. He walked away from a lucrative career and hit the road on foot to tell people that life in civilization is fucked up, that they can find abundance and joy outside of it, that the meek and the poor shall inherit the earth, that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Any reading of any gospel — Nicene-approved or otherwise — comes down to basically the same philosophy: there is safety in dropout mode; there is danger in embracing civilization’s honors; heaven and eternity are already here on earth for those who choose it. This makes perfect sense in light of the original Hebrew concept of Elohim: “…the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.” (Gospel of Thomas)

What I personally find inspiring is that the things Jesus taught are practically a road map for extrication. Had his message not been so violently oppressed, then absorbed into the mainstream culture and rendered impotent, it may have triggered a sizable dropout movement within the Roman Empire. TPTB have held this memetic mutation at bay for two millennia, but it’s looking more and more attractive to us here on the brink of global collapse. Downsize, trust the land, gifting as a form of economy, all of this is evident in Jesus’ teachings.

There’s a reason the meek shall inherit the Earth. I would say almost anyone on the extrication path chooses “meekness” precisely because we have a better chance of inheriting the Earth in the end. We get it.

Concluding notes. This already got quite a bit longer than I expected and I’m nowhere near done hashing through this. For the time being I am going to post this, and pick back up after the weekend.

Sidebar: since it’s Easter weekend, last year’s Easter post might be worth a read if you haven’t already.

05.18.2012 Continued

The following is an addendum to the above. I had originally planned to do an entire new post, but I only got one more item before I realized that everything else I had to say was a rehashing of what I’d already written. So, instead of a brand new post, I’m tagging it onto the end of this post.

5. Elohim mythology — and Jesus’ teachings, by extension — do not encourage or condone coercive, political religion over all the world. This is an artifact of imperial paganism that got carried forward in history along with the underlying pagan mythologies. Elohim mythology & Jesus’ teachings encourage extrication from empire, not establishment of it.

This goes along with #4 from my previous post. One of the most eye-opening unlearning experiences I ever had with regard to this subject came during an email exchange with an Orthodox Jewish gentleman, whose name I now forget because it was so long ago. He explained to me that the Ten Commandments were part of the original legal covenant of the Jews with their God, and were never intended for Gentiles. The only laws intended for Gentiles were the seven Noachide laws. These are super basic laws that anyone with a shred of common decency and compassion probably follows anyway.

It was quite a light bulb moment and brought into focus numerous things that Jesus taught to both Gentiles and his fellow Jews. The entire reason the ancient Hebrew culture came into being was to separate from the pagan civilizations springing up all over Middle East, and to remain true to the original Elohim from the Garden. As a Jew, this cultural separation would have been central to Jesus’ identity; as a prophet, teacher, messiah or what-have-you — or even as just a really really smart guy 2000 years ahead of his time — he understood the wisdom of remaining separate, of not being brainwashed by civilization’s stories.

This theme of remaining separate carries through the entire Bible, all the way through to the end of Revelation. It is always a small contingent who separate, everyone thinks they’re crazy, then when TSHTF their separation is what saves them from the disaster that befalls everyone else.

Now, there are indeed places in the Old Testament where the Israelites go on the warpath and kick the living shit out of some culture or other that was minding its own business. I would have to go back and trace this out to be certain, but if memory serves, this kind of behavior comes about only after the Israelites had spent many generations in captivity as slaves to the Egyptians. Their own culture had been decimated; what they knew from civilization got incorporated into their own culture. The nature of the ancient Hebrew God seems to change in conjunction with the level of the Israelites’ exposure to civilization. This is not an excuse, just an observation of the effects of Elohim-paganism entanglement.

(On a side note, I am in fact aware that no archaeological evidence exists for the Hebrew enslavement by Egyptians or their subsequent exodus. The important point is what can be learned from the mythology. If the archaeology supports, or denies, the mythology, so much the better.)

43 Responses

  1. Sandra says:

    I like it. ;-)

  2. Eric in Kansas says:

    Wow Paula – this is good! I have often wondered what Jesus was up to. I’ve read a few of the various biographies out there, and don’t really believe any of them, though I favor A.N. Wilson’s:

    http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-A-Life-A-N-Wilson/dp/0449908070

    at least for the youth and early career part. His idea of a cryptic death cult was too far for me, but I like your idea that Jesus was trying to take people back to the pre-agrarian. That would be an excellent way to make himself dangerous to the Romans, the quislings, AND the priests.
    I also like the idea of the Hebrew religion/worldview evolving to become more similar to the surrounding civilizations, while still maintaining their sense of being different.
    Is there a good translation that uses the different names in the text? It would be interesting to see where elohim fades to YHVH.
    Stories that come to mind : Jacob vs Esau, Jesus vs. the fig tree, John the baptist and the honey & locusts.
    Thanks.

    • Paula says:

      Thanks Eric! The Abarim Publications site has an excellent discussion of YHWH here. He says: “God’s Name changes from Elohim to YHWH Elohim in Genesis 2:4 and the reason for this change is examined in our article on the Chaotic Set Theory.”

      He goes on to say basically that YHWH was a language development that set the ancient Hebrews apart, because a) it is composed entirely of vowels, and Hebrew was the first language that developed vowels; and b) the word is literally unpronounceable, and its meaning is equally vague. My favorite possible translation that he lists is: “the one ever coming into manifestation.”

      I haven’t read the Chaotic Set Theory article in a really long time, so I can’t remember now how it ties in. It’s gotta be fascinating though — everything at that site is!

  3. Ted says:

    I think you have a unique take on it, but I don’t think you are totally alone. I think Jaques Ellul and Walter Wink, just as two examples, have a similar take in Jesus as you. There have been lots of traditions over the years under the heading of “Christian anarchy” and also “liberation theology” There are Quakers, the Christian element in the Peace movement, abolitionsists, the anabaptist tradition, with Mennonites, Amish and so forth, plus elements of gnosticism, Phillip K Dick’s experiences etc.

    I think various strains of what is recognized now as “fundamentalism” goes back a long ways too but possibly there has been a long standing dialictic going on from the beginning.

    • Paula says:

      There are certainly lots of interesting strains of Christianity, but so far as I know, none piece together the anarcho-primitivist critique of civilization with both Genesis and Revelation. It’s entirely possible it’s out there, I just haven’t come across it. The closest thing I’m aware of is PKD’s experiences — he experienced quite viscerally the promise of salvation from empire-civilization, e.g., the Black Iron Prison. I really wish I still had my copy of the Exegesis so I could pick out some of this stuff. I believe his experiences foreshadowed what ours will be in ways we don’t yet understand.

      • Ted says:

        Well, I don’t believe it could be said of the /Christianities I listed above that their Christianity is “Roman Paganism Plain and Simple”

        What do you think of J.RR. Tolkein’s Mythology? Its been called a Christian Allegory, though he didn’t claim that. But somehow in my mind it seems related to PKD’s Religious experiences/accounts?

        Mordor and the Black Iron Prison seem to have many paralells, and both seem related to Industrialization./

      • Ted says:

        Basically what I am saying is if your take on Hebrew/Christian mythose is 100% totally unique to you then….I mean…If there are are similar strains elsewhere historically its much more likely you are onto something.

        I think you are onto something. Not that you aren’t unique with a unique take on it, but religious myth is a pretty large scale collective thing. You are working with a shaping something that exists in the collective consciousness. That’s your medium.

      • White Indian says:

        An anarcho-primitivist, anti-hierarchical exegesis of the Bible has been the thrust of Mennonite theologian Ched Myer’s work.

        Note the following superb essays:

        “Anarcho-Primitivism and the Bible.” In Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, 56–58. London: Continuum, 2005.

        “The Fall.” In Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, 634–36. London: Continuum, 2005.

        http://www.jesusradicals.com/theology/ched-myers/

  4. Ted says:

    BTW, love the PKD quote!

    Guess what! my wife and I are living in a cabin in the Adirondacks this summer and doing an internship on Organic Gardening, with a couple that raise 80% of their own food. We will be living in the Wilderness and going to a pretty cool Liberal Presbyterian Church. So we won’t have to be hermits!

  5. Gail says:

    this article is wonderful. it touches upon several themes that i’ve explored over the past few years, and is perfect timing in a sense. i’m currently finishing up the last book in the ishmael trilogy (don’t know what took me so long to finally read these!) and have been deep in thought about the implications of quinn’s view of the cain and abel story, as well as his thoughts about the tree of knowledge of good and evil. what you’ve written is just continued confirmation of the things i’ve been thinking and feeling. thank you. :)

    • Paula says:

      Thanks Gail! I didn’t actually agree with Quinn’s take on the two trees because it doesn’t align with Genesis mythology. In Genesis, Adam and Eve by no means thought they had acquired special knowledge. The story is very explicit that they knew they had fallen, and were suffering for it. But the two trees are highly symbolic and it’s one of the things I haven’t quite figured out how to articulate yet. They are VERY important in the story, to the point that the Tree of Life makes a reappearance in Revelation after the apocalypse, when everything is restored. Personally, I think the Tree of Life represents what we might call “sustainability” — eating of it bestows “eternal life,” but nothing can live forever if it isn’t “sustainable,” right? So in some way, the Tree of Life is tied to humans’ homeostasis with the environment, while the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil is some kind of taboo against the cognitive shift that originally spawned farming > settlements > cities > empire. But that’s as far as I’ve gotten with the Trees.

      • Mark says:

        As for the trees. I haven’t read Quinn’s books so forgive me if I repeat his take on the subject. I was raised in the Methodist church and never ever heard this interpretation before reading it in a book by Joseph Campbell.
        The tree of knowledge of good and evil: Once having eaten this fruit, one becomes aware of the world of duality. At once a blessing and a curse, since the way back to wholeness must then be found.
        The tree of life is the cross, and the fruit of the tree of life, is of course, the body of Christ, represented in the communion rite. Hence one gains immortality by acceptance of the myth and participating in the ritual.
        Sorry if I am repeating Quinn or obvious teachings of other sects. It was a revelation to me at least.

        By the way, Paula, thanks for expounding on this subject, I understand your earlier post better with this extra material.
        Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, etc. for me represent self-realized or enlightened beings. There are always some of these extraordinary people alive at any given time, don’t you think?

  6. leavergirl says:

    “What I personally find inspiring is that the things Jesus taught are practically a road map for extrication.”

    I wonder how many people are noticing now… :-)

  7. Brutus says:

    Glad to see you have returned to this line of inquiry, which is what drew my attention to you via your guest post at Ribbon Farm. I can add little to your thesis (since I don’t study this stuff) except to say that I’ve read other explorations of how our words no longer mean what they used to and that modern translations from ancient languages, typically Greek and Latin but no doubt Hebrew as well, fail to capture the sense or spirit behind the original concepts. Homeric epics considered in such a light have a very different character than the adventurer/superhero treatments we see these days.

    • Paula says:

      I couldn’t agree more, especially when it comes to Hebrew. This language so fascinates me that I occasionally consider taking classes to learn it, so I can then go on to learn Biblical Hebrew. I know I keep linking to Arie’s site, but if you’re interested in an explanation of how Hebrew works and why it’s so hard to translate, check this article. In essence, Hebrew indexes things according to their behavior, while English indexes things according to their appearance. So for example, we would consider a cow and a horse to be similar; but to a native Hebrew speaker, the horse would be more akin to a bird, because both are flighty and swift.

      This has real consequences when it comes to translating obscure concepts like “God.” In our language, understanding “God” means knowing what it is in a static sense. But in Hebrew, understanding “God” means knowing what it does in a dynamic sense. This little tidbit of information opens up a whole new way of seeing Old Testament descriptions of God. For example, Psalm 8:3-4 (NIV):

      (3) When I consider your heavens,
      the work of your fingers,
      the moon and the stars,
      which you have set in place,
      (4) what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
      human beings that you care for them?

      Statically, these verses bring to mind a Giant Designer Beyond The Sky, directing this and that according to some plan, who is so gracious he allows himself to be bothered with humans. But dynamically, these verses speak more of vast ongoing manifestation, with humans being so small in comparison we should get lost but we don’t. From the same words, two very different views of God: the first God is an asshole; the second God is simultaneously very huge yet human-small, almost holotropic even. It changes the whole meaning of the Bible, and I find that endlessly, supremely fascinating!

      • Daniel says:

        Based on what you have written here, I suspect you would find traditional Jewish interpretations useful in your work, especially the esoteric writings that are now public. A book such as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s The Thirteen Petaled Rose describes the ever-manifesting nature and emanation of Eyn Sof (the mystical divine name, meaning Without End), and Jews read the different names as representing different qualities or activities of the divine. From my studies, I would agree with you that the traditional understanding of the divine is much closer to what is found in a book such as the Tao te Ching than the misleading anthropomorphic residue left over after children experience weekend religious school. There are good reasons why it is forbidden to make divine representations of any kind.

        I tend to be suspicious of the idea of a single “Judeo-Christian” mythos – the rest of Judaism went in a rather different direction (and even multiple different directions) than the Christian offshoot. Jews and Christians simply read the TaNaKh differently (an excellent book on this is Stephen Wylen’s The Seventy Faces of Torah). Perhaps in the Renaissance, or in the early modern period, the term “Judeo-Christian” makes more sense, once many Christian scholars started learning Hebrew and Aramaic and conscientiously studying not only the TaNaKh in the original but also what the Talmud and Midrash had to say, and not simply to find justifications for persecutions but in a genuine spirit of learning.

        This is a great blog, by the way.

        Yours in searching,
        Daniel

        • Paula says:

          Daniel, thanks for the recommendation I will definitely add that to my list. I am very interested in esoteric Judaism but as a total newb it’s impossible to know where to start. This could be a great starting point.

          I do realize there are many, many variations on the Judeo-Christian theme, and I take them all seriously unless they are quite obviously nutso. But underlying all of those is a core set of memes, and that foundation is what interests me, and the multitudinous structures it can support. That is a mighty strong foundation! It can be useful and even inspiring to us here on the brink of collapse.

          • sbeer says:

            two other books worth checking out are “The Ecology of Eden” (forgot the name of the author, but it’s a great book) and “The Beginnings of Wisdom” by Leon Kass. Both are a sort of anthropological-philosophical reading of the old testament.

  8. Joel says:

    “the Catholic Church…was the only church until the Reformation”

    I think they might have deceived you on that point.

    The Desert Fathers were essentially a dropout movement. There have been many waves of re-emergence and re-cooption of their ideas.

    Separate from all of that, there are three continents one can walk to from Mesopotamia; you might say the Eastern Orthodox is as Roman, in its own way, as the Church of Rome, but there are also independent traditions of Coptic and Ethiopian Christianity out in North Africa, and another independent tradition of Syriac Christianity in India, that would probably be offended to hear that they are all the same church.

    There has also been a lot of fighting within Europe to quash system-breaking heresies, many of them Gnostic like Bogomilism and Catharism. These may not have been anarcho-primitivist movements, but they also definitely didn’t work to continue the Roman Empire.

    • Paula says:

      ah, you are right. I should clarify — the Catholic Church was the only *official* church until the reformation. The so-called “heresies” are where the really interesting gold lies hidden! :D

  9. sbeer says:

    Actually, in gematria (the system of assigning each letter a numerical value and adding up the letters in a word) the gematria of elohim is equal to the gematria of “hateva” which means “the nature”. In Judaism, Elohim is understood as a manifstation of restraint and impersonal rules (like the laws of nature), while YHVH is the manifestation of mercy and is usually more personal.

    • Paula says:

      omg that is awesome. Thank you for sharing! This info is going to stick in my head forever.

      I do wish it was possible to get the Jewish perspective to circulate among political Christianity. This is just so much better than the punishing sky god with a lightning bolt.

      • sbeer says:

        What, you mean there are people who actually believe there’s a guy in the sky with a lightning bolt? I can’t think of a single orthodox Jew who thinks that. I also find it funny that Christians make such a big deal over evolution, because all the Jews I know take it as a given.

        Actually, coming from the Jewish side, I think there is a lot Judaism can learn from certain branches of Christianity, especially early Christianity and the anarchist and pacifist branches. One of the main things that keep me from being a Christian is that I don’t think Jesus rose from the dead. But if I had lived back when he had taught he would probably have been my rebbe.

  10. rune says:

    I’m not so sure that shepherders have no reason to view themselves as being in opposition to nature… the flocks have to be protected from all the other animals who want to eat them, after all. That right there puts the shepherders in conflict with all the predators in the area.

    • Paula says:

      Predation has always been a part of nature, even paleolithic tribes had to deal with that. But it was still part of the larger whole, which is where the break with nature comes in — civilization assumes itself separate from nature, whereas I don’t see how a nomadic shepherding culture could ever come to that conclusion.

      • rune says:

        What I’m not seeing is a clear dividing line that shows where a society stops thinking of itself as being part of the world/nature and starts thinking of itself as being separate from it, based on behaviors.

        HG tribes have to protect themselves from predation, shepherders and agrarians and husbanders also have to protect “their” animals and crops. This creates a bit of a schism right there – us vs IT. On the other hand, an agrarian is just as reliant on nature as a forager, and so I can also see how that might not be such a schism.

        The more I look at this, the less clear it gets. Perhaps the issue is one of specialization; for forager bands who consume a very wide variety of foods and live in a variety of settings, a lack or problem in one area is not such a big deal. But to a people who rely very heavily upon one crop, animal, or environment, to have problems with that would be very stressful indeed.

        Ultimately, *why* does civilization assume itself to be separate from nature? Perhaps the question is wrong, though. Perhaps *what civilization is* is the assumption of being separate from nature. That would pretty much suggest that it’s a trauma response.

        • Paula says:

          rune wrote: “What I’m not seeing is a clear dividing line that shows where a society stops thinking of itself as being part of the world/nature and starts thinking of itself as being separate from it, based on behaviors.”

          Honestly, I’m not sure that clear dividing line exists. I’m sure that in most instances it’s a long, slow process, and cognitive archaeology is such a new field that it’s still getting its legs. Personally, my view is that we know we are living separate from nature now; we have evidence that we didn’t in the past; somehow this problem came about, and somehow we need to fix it.

          The lack of scientific knowledge about our shift into separateness leaves little to go on for such a gigantic issue. But what we do have is our mythology. This can tell us a lot about ourselves, and even if we never do get the nitpicky line items right, it can go a long way toward providing us with what we need to know to proceed.

          rune wrote: “Ultimately, *why* does civilization assume itself to be separate from nature? Perhaps the question is wrong, though. Perhaps *what civilization is* is the assumption of being separate from nature. That would pretty much suggest that it’s a trauma response.”

          I think you’re right on the money with this. I think civilization began — Western civilization, anyway — as a trauma that prompted intensification of horticulture to the point that it became agriculture; civilization grew from there with PTSD (or some culture-wide version thereof) as its unconscious driving force.

          There’s archaeology to suggest that the rapid climate change of the Younger-Dryas stadial provided an environmental trigger for this trauma. (I have links for this somewhere I can track down if you’re interested.) And while that may prove to be true, our mythology focuses quite explicitly on a self-chosen cognitive shift which it refers to as “the Fall.” Mythologically speaking, “the Fall” was the trauma, and understanding the nature of this trauma in mythological terms would be, in my opinion, a major step in the right direction.

          (Interestingly, the Fall story remains something that I continue to think about. I haven’t gotten it fully unpacked yet, it’s so dense.)

          • Brutus says:

            Paula sez: … we know we are living separate from nature now; we have evidence that we didn’t in the past; somehow this problem came about, and somehow we need to fix it. The lack of scientific knowledge about our shift into separateness leaves little to go on for such a gigantic issue ….

            I wouldn’t rely too heavily on scientific knowledge to provide any sort of worthwhile understanding of what it means to be living within nature or why we turned away from it. Such an embedded reality isn’t at all how science “knows.” Even as we discuss this, we’re looking in from the outside, as none of us computer users can really be said to be living within nature. The humanities provide better clues.

            and: I think civilization began — Western civilization, anyway — as a trauma that prompted intensification of horticulture to the point that it became agriculture; civilization grew from there with PTSD (or some culture-wide version thereof) as its unconscious driving force. There’s archaeology to suggest that the rapid climate change of the Younger-Dryas stadial provided an environmental trigger for this trauma.

            I don’t necessarily disagree with this, but I wonder just how possible it even is to know what sparked the shift. In traditional archeology, evidence is left by hard matter, not soft stuff, so for instance, what survived in the fossil record for us to rediscover were mostly bones and teeth. I find it rather exciting that what survived for cognitive archeology to rediscover were myths and stories, but I fear they may be extraordinarily soft, weak indicators of how people thought and behaved day-to-day. Every time I see a sword-and-sandals epic in the movies, the characters speak and act like 20th-century men and women, especially with respect to romantic love interests, which is a emotional complex that didn’t develop as we now understand it until the Middle Ages. This fundamental anachronism goes unnoticed by almost everyone.

            In fact, it’s difficult for us to peer back to a period as close as the 1950s and fully understand things like nuclear angst, McCarthyism, the paranoia that launched the Cold War and intelligence/security/surveillance state, or life before TV. Thought-travel back 6,000 years or more seems to me highly conjectural, and the best living remnants (indigenous peoples) are inevitably being transformed by contact with civilization.

  11. Rob says:

    Paula,

    Great post- love this stuff. As a sorta Christian, most recently part of a Mennonite Congregation, I appreciate what Ted mentioned about the similar strains of alternate Christian historiography. This also resonates with my affinity for Judaism in a way; maybe I just had some sense that there’s something going on in those Old Testament books that was important. Anyway, lots to think on. Cheers!

  12. James says:

    Interesting post. Interpreting ancient languages and religions is quite the fertile ground for differing opinions. I personally believe that “Elohim” as a term points to the idea that an early group of Jews were polytheists (as Elohim is plural). This falls in line with the fact that they lived amongst polytheists in Canaan. It’s very possible a group of Jewish people were worshiping Ba’al, but were eventually overtaken by the group who worshiped Yawheh, and who eventually put together the Old Testament, refining it to reflect their monotheistic beliefs. Well, that is my take on things anyhow.

  13. Paula – this is exactly how I read Jesus too – going into the wilderness, the emphasis on giving up wealth, the lilies in the field. It’s all diametrically opposed to what it takes to make it in civilization.

    I’m not so sure about the meek inheriting the earth though – it’s been a couple of millenia, the meek have been waiting a very long time.

    • Paula says:

      Stuart, good to see you :) My take on the meek inheriting the Earth is simply that people with nothing invested in the system have nothing to lose when it collapses. The poorest peoples in the world are in a much better position to get through decline precisely because they are poor. Their lives won’t really change all that much compared with your standard American. They have indeed been waiting a very long time, but at some point, the unsustainable simply must go away.

  14. Bruce says:

    Your post adds further to my own belief that what Jesus was trying to convey to this followers was something more akin to Buddhism or Taoism, which predate “Christianity” by at least 500 years. Since the Levant was a crossroads of trade routes from the East and Africa, there is no reason to believe some of these ideas were not finding there way into the region at the time.

    In reading the new testament, I can find no place where Jesus actually says he is God. He couldn’t. As a Jew in the context of Jewish society, to claim to be God would be blasphemy and he probably would have outraged enough of his followers to be stoned to death on the spot. So he never actually said he was God. But to say that “I and the Father are one” makes perfect sense if by “The Father” he is referring to Elohim-Tao-Wakan-Tanka.

    Instead, like all prophets and spiritual leaders must, he could only point in the general direction of what he perceived as the underlying spiritual reality through parables. And it makes sense that what he was pointing at was closer to an earlier conception of Elohim-Tao-Wakan-Tanka than anything that Christianity claims as his teachings.

  15. Kelby says:

    Can’t tell you how glad I am that I discovered this blog and found that someone else is trying to put together these puzzle pieces! I was raised loosely as a Christian and moved away from the faith, though I now find myself deeply fascinated after having read Quinn’s work and starting to weave together this anarcho-primitivist connection.

    I think you’re right in associating God with the Wakan Tanka and the Tao, though I would add that there is also a surprising resonance with science. Science has had a hell of a time trying to disentangle materialism/objectivity/reductionism from subjectivity/holism, and I am really starting to believe that it is a fool’s errand and represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the natural universe/God in much the same way that animism and pantheism are probably one and the same.

    I find it fascinating that some of the more holistic concepts that are starting to emerge from science are represented metaphorically in the Bible. I would argue that the opening verses of Genesis paint a picture of the universe that falls right in line with chaos theory and systems dynamics. Fundamental to complex systems is the notion of bifurcation, or splitting, and we see repeated splittings over and over and over again (iterations, another central theme of chaos theory) in the beginning of Genesis. What this suggests to me is that the universe basically takes the shape of a fractal, a mathematical model that is whole and bounded by self-limiting laws, yet is also infinitely complex (consider how the concept of self-limiting laws ties into things like gravity and natural selection). God is a whole and is also reflected in each of the parts of the whole, at every level.

    I think what science is missing the most in all this is a concept of subjectivity or agency playing a role in the cosmic drama of the universe. God takes the form of an “Ultimate Agent” who shapes the universe with laws and breathes life into it at all levels, from the tiniest little bug or mote of dust to the human to the most massive star. Agency is perhaps missed the most in modern understandings of evolution, and I feel like Lamarck may have been on to something with his concept of inheritance (some scientists are beginning to take note of this and reconcile it with Darwinian evolution).

    To tie this back into the Bible and an anti-civilization understanding, I think Jesus’s death is ripe with metaphor in two ways. For one, death among populations is the fundamental mechanism of natural selection, which would act on hunter-gatherer societies much more strongly than any civilized society. Natural selection is the only way for living creatures to progress along God’s intended path further into infinite complexity and abundance, though this does not rob any creature of agency (I hesitate to use the word “progress,” though, for it doesn’t really get at the core of what I intend).

    Secondly, Jesus’s death is meant to liberate us from the fear of death, for death only sees our limited, “through a glass darkly” sense of agency be subsumed by God’s agency, and death also returns our body to the earth to be used as more life, our debt paid in full. The modern obsession with separating the spirit and body, or mind and body, fundamentally misses the point – the are one and the same, bound up and tangled together in union with the universe in a way that we can’t possibly hope to understand and can only describe in the most circumspect terms.

    I completely agree that agriculture is the root of civilization, which is a fundamentally unsustainable form of human society, but I think you go too easy on pastoralism. Pastoralism still involves domestication, which I believe to be the root of the problem. Some folks like John Zerzan trace the root of the problem even further back, to the beginning of symbolic thought in human societies – art, language, time. To Zerzan, these things are representations that get in the way of unmediated contact with reality and start the descent into alienation and domestication. I’m still chewing on this idea and I’m not sure that I agree, but it’s a compelling argument, especially considering that symbolic thought appears to be absent in all the other creatures on earth except humans.

  16. Ted says:

    The Noachide movement is kind of strange, IMO. Its like wanting to be patted on the head by jews for being a “righteous gentile” even though you can’t be a jew because you weren’t born a jew.

    There are apparently many gentiles attracted to this arrangement.

    I saw an orthodox Jew once proseltyzing other jews to participate in some type of festival. He would first ask people if they were a Jew and then if they admitted they were he would go into his spiel. He didn’t ask everyone, it seemed. If it turned out they weren’t he would completelt disengage and move on to the next person.

    He asked me and I said no I am not. I almost wished I had said Yes. Because I was interested in what he was talking about, but not being a Jew he had no time for me.

  17. Fox says:

    A very interesting article indeed Paula. Ive been very interested in Animism and all religion for a number of years now. There is a question i would like to ask you with reference to your statement that the surrounding civilized religions had pantheons of invented deities. Its unarguable of course but im wondering what your opinion is of all the various figurines that date back prior to the advent of mass agriculture. Im particularly thinking of those that date back to the upper paleolithic which one can only assume were produced by hunter-gatherer tribes. Its well known of course that the Goddess followers have attributed these to goddess figurines which taken as a plausible theory would mean that some HG tribes obviously had a belief system of either a) female (and a small number of male) deities or b) decided to anthropomorphize their animistic belief. Just a few thoughts but they have been niggling away at me since i read (numerous times!) this excellent article. F

  18. Brian Bowman says:

    Paula, you rise above even learned theologians in your understanding of the divine.

  19. [...] seeking whomever it might devour. Moreover, this despotic power must be firmly aligned against Elohim, a.k.a. Source, a.k.a. Nature (capital [...]

  20. […] I wrote about how Jesus was “an anarcho-primitivist dropout and a memetic mutation,” which he definitely was, but I have long thought that there must be something fundamental to […]

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