The problematic nature of Cultural Appropriation arguments

It’s hard for me to write about this because I am white.  By which I mean that it is all too easy to dismiss  my objections to and criticisms of the idea of cultural appropriation as a typical white person’s attempt to deflect from or argue away any accusations of unconscious racism.

However I am quite willing to accept that our culture’s history and the racism that underpins it may well have filled my subconscious mind with certain stereotypes or racist assumptions that I might need to work on weeding out from my brain.  I am willing to do this self-reflection and have already worked on altering some messed up thinking that managed  to worm its way into the darkest recesses of my mind.

I am however one of the least racist white people you will find.  This has actually been observed and commented on by people I have interacted with from  other cultures.  I am not as distant and aloof as other white English people might be to people from other ethnic backgrounds, I freely mix with people  of all races and nationalities without it even occurring to me to feel any differently about that than I do about mixing with other white people and I certainly hold no views at all about any culture  being superior to any other culture.  I see value and worth in all cultures, and I believe that there is much we can learn from each other to the enrichment of us all.

But I do feel that there are some valid criticisms to be made about this “cultural appropriation” thing.

Cultural appropriation is the idea  that a dominant culture (such as white, English speaking, American or European culture) steals or “appropriates” aspects of other cultures as a kind of cultural imperialism, reinterpreting them and repackaging them for white consumption with little regard for the cultural context of their origin or for giving due respect to the cultures from which they came, and that this serves to exploit, stereotype and even erase other cultures, which is obviously a bad thing.

Put like that, in a complex, nuanced and caveat filled way and the conversation makes perfect sense.  People have  complained about globalisation and cultural imperialism for a long time and it’s a conversation worth having.  The dominant culture goes over to other cultures and suppresses them, replacing their cultural artefacts and ways with our western values and consumerism, then we have the gall to take their stuff and repackage it for our own, devoid of context and meaning and sometimes even in openly mocking and disrespectful ways.  Yeah, fair point.  That is an outrageously shitty thing to do.

But from that sensible position we have somehow got to the point of criticising any artistic borrowing or influence from other cultures, suspicion and mistrust of any westerner who is honestly inspired by other cultures, and bullying hippies for wearing dreadlocks.  And that is when I feel the need to take a step back and say “hang on a minute!  Is this really about  protecting marginalised cultures from western imperialism anymore, or has it actually become about a damned if you do but damned if you don’t attitude towards white people’s opinions of other cultures?”  And in the manifestations of these discussions around cultural appropriation I feel there is often an insidious and hypocritical tendency towards an incredibly racist way of framing the issue.  Not just racist towards whites either but racist in its very interpretation and way of looking at the world.

Let’s startwith the sensible stuff.  Mocking stereotypes of ethnic groups or nationalities is not ok.  I have a problem with those Halloween costumes too.  We were aware of this way back in the 90s, 80s, possibly even the 70s too by the way.  There is a long history of white culture mimicking other cultures in disrespectful ways.  Even if it’s not outright mockery but simply stereotyping, it’s still not ok.  Any right thinking person knows this and has known it all along.  We didn’t need the words “cultural appropriation” to express how shitty and inappropriate that is.  And we still don’t.

Also when a company that is run predominantly by white westerners takes something that is associated specifically with another culture and imitates it, repackaging it for a mostly white consumer base and selling it for a profit, that is pretty shitty economic exploitation at the expense of other cultures and it does contribute to cultural erasure.  Not good.

Again though, this is something we’ve known about and been concerned about for a long time.  We didn’t need the buzzwords of “cultural appropriation” to talk about it.  We might have referred to it as cultural imperialism or something.  I’m not too sure.

But there are a whole host of problems with the “cultural appropriation” conversation as it is currently framed.  One of these is when it comes to art.

I am a writer of fiction and I am all too familiar with the double bind of being a white author who tries to write stories that are sensitive to and inclusive of other demographics than my own.  What exactly am I supposed to do here?  Am I supposed to write only about white people of European descent, because I have no right to write about other cultures?  But then I would receive criticism about being white-centric or Euro-centric in my writing, just as a man who only writes male characters might be accused of being sexist.  But if I include people of other races and cultural backgrounds then I open myself up to the criticism of cultural appropriation, especially if I do a poor job of it.

Don’t get me wrong.  Knowing your shit is a very important attribute for a writer.  We should research everything we write about to ensure our writing is believable and accurate.  But it’s hard for a struggling writer and none of us are perfect.  Even with the best research in the world we will still make mistakes sometimes.  And there can be a very real desire to incorporate things you have been inspired and influenced by.  I have long been fascinated by certain eastern spiritual traditions and consequently often want to write about people of a South Asian ethnicity and Indian cultural background for instance.  Am I not allowed to, even though I ache to write about Hinduism and Buddhism for example?  I have often been economically challenged enough to have rarely travelled outside the United Kingdom, a situation that condemns me to only write stories set on present day Earth if all the action takes place in England!  The need to write good, believable material already places limits on my art.  Must I also refrain from ever writing about any culture but my own?

The situation is if anything even worse when it comes to visual art or music.  Can’t artists be inspired by styles that originate from cultures other than their own?  Even if they really immerse themselves in it, mix with, collaborate with and learn from those who are from those cultures?  In light of many of the examples of work that attracts the criticism of “cultural appropriation” you’d think not.

What about on a personal level?  I commonly hear that  if someone is going to be inspired by things from cultures other than their own and wish to incorporate those things into their own lives then they’d better know everything there is to know about that culture and place it in the correct context.  Really?  It’s never appropriate for example when a religious practice, belief or idea takes a new form in a different cultural context?  But that sort of thing has been going on for the entire history of the human race.  It’s how religions grow and adapt to different situations and even learn from each other.  Someone can’t integrate a style of art or a type of clothing and appearance into their lives without  becoming an expert on the culture from which it originates?  I understand how inappropriate it could be to take an item of clothing that has sacred significance (eg. native american headdresses) and use it for trivial fashion, but in the vast majority of cases it is ridiculous to insist someone become learned in a particular culture  just because they want to enjoy one particular cultural artefact from it.  What if we took that approach to cuisine for example?  Oh, I’m sorry, you can’t eat that curry unless you know everything there is to know about the Vedas, the Gupta Empire and the colonial rule of the British Raj.

Another problem with the whole cultural appropriation discussion is that it often ignores the very real benefits of cultural exchange, including and even especially situations where the dominant culture has found influence and inspiration from other cultures.  History is a melting pot of culture and every time one society has dominated another society, the dominant culture  ends  up incorporating and learning from the societies it has oppressed.  Maybe this is karmic balance or something; an unexpected positive outcome from an otherwise negative situation.  The point is that if we start worrying too much about “cultural appropriation” then we are actively working to suppress this positive consequence.

One particularly enlightening example of this is in the history of popular music.  White artists ripped off black american blues  artists during the rock and roll years.  It continued into the 1960s and beyond actually.  But in the process rock music was born.  Whole generations of white music fans were influenced, directly or indirectly, by music originally invented by poor black musicians.  It was bad news for the black artists of the day of course, who were often struggling to make ends meet while white artists took their songs all the way into the heights of the pop charts.  But this newfound respect for music rooted in the struggles of black americans probably didn’t hurt the next wave of black musicians, the soul artists of the 60s and 70s to find their own success in the pop charts.  Thus began a cultural feedback loop that eventually resulted in the huge success that hip hop and RnB artists enjoy today.

There are other examples.  The UK rave scene of the early nineties saw drug culture embrace a whole slew of sounds that originated in the clubs and underground scenes of people of colour, incorporating dub reggae bass, hip hop breakbeats and Chicago house music into a crazy, drug fuelled mix that was UK Rave.  Cultural Appropriation?  Well, maybe at first but it soon grew into a multi-racial  scene, allowing the  growth of another subgenre of electronic dance music to emerge, that of drum ‘n’ bass, which despite its heavy reliance on ragga and hip hop influence remains to this day a truly multi-racial  scene.  Would such a melting pot of influences even be possible today with all this hand wringing of concern over cultural appropriation?  Yet, surely the scenes of early nineties rave music and the drum ‘n’ bass that followed it are the absolute epitome of a post-racist utopia of bringing everyone together as equals in one place.

We have to be careful here not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  The history of colonialism and cultural imperialism has been a history of European cultures travelling overseas and imposing their own cultural values and lifestyles onto the people they oppressed.  As a history student I have read the highly offensive words of some of those conquerors, the patronising  and condescending attitudes they had  to other cultures, many of which in my view have deep and profound wisdom to offer the world (eg. India) and so it broke my heart to read it.  Yet today we have white westerners converting to Hinduism, learning from Buddhism, wanting to take part in African music, dance and fashion, inspired by the art and film of Japan etc.  Those insulting and condescending attitudes have faded.  White people want to learn from other cultures.  We want to enrich our lives  with the many gifts that other cultures have to offer the world.  This is a good thing!  We are swapping our arrogant pride for humility and respect.  And it breaks my heart that the  current trend is to spit it back in our face.

If you’re really concerned about cultural erasure then perhaps  you might want to think about  embracing your own cultural heritage and educating those who naively take it on in a half-hearted or ignorant manner.  Promote your culture and reach out to those who want to appreciate it but don’t know quite how.  What you don’t want to do is assume that all white people are racist, arrogant bigots who just want to rape and belittle your culture for shallow reasons.  Some will be like that, sure.  But there are many others who genuinely want to learn and participate.  Don’t throw up a wall.  Build a bridge.

There’s a danger here too with the whole “you can’t appropriate from the dominant culture” thing.  Technically it is true because cultural appropriation refers to the specific situation of cultural erasure and cultural imperialism.  But if you are selling the idea that it’s ok for people of other cultures to borrow from the dominant culture but it’s not ok for the dominant culture to be inspired by other cultures, then you are actively contributing to cultural erasure yourself!

You may be genuinely inspired by Christianity and western technology for example, or you may just be trying to fit in to gain respect from the dominant culture.  But if you are going to reject your own cultural heritage and then insist that westerners who are inspired by it have no right to it, then you are actually encouraging the death of your own culture anyway.  The ending of the patronising attitudes and insulting claims about  “savagery” of previous centuries of white conquerors, to be replaced by a respect and interest in other cultures fuelled by a lack of faith in our own (many people of European descent are abandoning Christianity in droves for example) is actually the antidote to those years of colonial oppression.  We were wrong.  There is much to learn from other cultures.  Let us learn.  Let us participate.  Especially if you don’t have as much interest in keeping your own cultural traditions alive.  Culture isn’t racial and it shouldn’t be racially segregated.  It’s a bunch of ideas, beliefs and ways of living your life.  It doesn’t really belong to anyone.  You don’t want it to be watered down and erased?  Then embrace and promote your  own culture.  And if you’re  worried about your  own people losing interest in your traditional, cultural  ways, then why would you want to reject anyone who honestly wants to learn about it and incorporate it into their own lives?  Welcome us into your tribe as honorary members, reach out to us, embrace us and teach us to do it right.  Our skin colour shouldn’t act as a barrier to our inclusion because that would be the very definition of racism.

There is a whole host of racist assumptions behind a lot of arguments about cultural appropriation actually.  For starters, why is no one talking about white on white cultural appropriation?  Is the assumption that “white, western culture” or whatever is a cultural monolith, a homogenous entity?

Because the discussion often takes place between Americans, a lot is made of cultural appropriation of Mexican or Latin Amerian cultural artefacts.  But in the UK, where I’m from, we often view Italians, Spanish etc as white too.  This shows how subjective the whole matter of race can be.  And let’s not forget that the first European peoples to conquer and subjugate other cultures were in fact Spanish and Portuguese.

And what of white societies that have historically been conquered and suppressed by other white societies?  What of the Irish, who have been subjected to racism, stereotyping and mockery by the English in centuries past?  What of the Scottish, who have often felt ruled over by the English?  Why do cultural appropriation arguments never cover the appropriation of Scottish tartan or Irish St. Patrick Day celebrations?  Could it be because the Scots and Irish don’t actually care about those things and are proud to see their heritage kept alive?  Or could it be because the people talking about cultural appropriation are actually racist enough to believe that it only matters when it’s happening to brown, yellow or black people?

In fact there is another problem here of white people talking over people of other cultures.  And I’m not talking about the people who are criticising the argument against cultural appropriation.  I’m talking about the people making the argument.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have witnessed a person from a particular culture that is apparently being “appropriated”, whether they are African, Asian, Latin American or whatever, explaining that it doesn’t bother them at all and that it keeps their cultural traditions alive etc, only to be shouted down by a crowd of white people being offended on their behalf.  They get told that it doesn’t matter what they think, they are only one individual person, there are other people from their race that are offended by cultural appropriation etc etc.  Hang on!  Isn’t that textbook whitesplaining?  In fact why are so many white people being professionally offended on the behalf of people of other races?  And to do that and then have the gall to shout down the opinions of someone who is actually of that race…  Well, I’m gobsmacked by the hypocrisy of it all to be honest.

And another thing that is racist about cultural appropriation arguments is the assumption that you can even know what culture or race someone belongs to anyway.  Are we all race realists now?  Do you not know that throughout history people have had sex with and got pregnant by people of other races and cultures?  How can you honestly say that someone who appears to be white doesn’t have any Indian blood, African blood, Chinese blood etc?  How could they honestly say so?  I seem to have the impression that I am purely and completely a mixture of English and Scottish but for all I know I have all sorts of other bits and pieces of mixed race in my genepool.  I just don’t know my family tree well enough or have any awareness of my family history beyond three or four generations to say definitively that I know I have no African, Indian or Jewish blood in me.  I could have all sorts of traces of ethnicity I don’t even know about!

The problem here is that we are making all kinds of assumptions, setting up all sorts of racist divisions between people in the name of apparent tolerance and progress in racial relations, but in practise are doing little more than policing art and self-expression, bullying well-minded people and hypocritically engaging in the same things we condemn.  And it concerns me.

This can result in some particularly mean and unintended consequences.  Take for example the way certain brands of radical feminist use the cultural appropriation argument (appropriate it?) to attack transgender people.  “You are appropriating femininity and female identity” they tell us.  Well, firstly that seems a strange argument to make when you are also claiming femininity is forced on women.  So it’s not exactly a “culture” you made for yourself anyway, is it?  Secondly you need to make a bunch of sexist assumptions that there is some inherent difference between men and women, and that you can assume things about people based on their biology, before you can even make the argument that it is even possible to steal culture from another gender.  Erm… gender is not race.  They are not equivalent by a long shot.  But that’s a topic for another time perhaps.

In the meantime perhaps we should be very careful about assuming things about people based on their skin colour, policing artistic expression too tightly or claiming that culture is owned by anyone instead of being a positive boon for the whole human race.

And by the way, despite the trend of hippies wearing dreads being more to do with marijuana usage and an appreciation and respect for Bob Marley, dreadlocks didn’t originate solely in Africa you know, but also popped up independently in India, Ancient Greece and among the Vikings.  Besides, the Rastafarians got the idea of dreads from a verse in the Bible about the Jewish custom of not cutting the hair.  There’s no excuse for being historically stupid, OK?

Now for some woo

Week 6 of Lunar Wisdom’s Mystical Seekers Year has some difficult questions (for me anyway).

Supernatural forces???  The atheist in me wants to scream “there’s no such thing, you loony!”

But then she gave the example of the Holy Spirit in Christianity.  She also mentioned Fae.

I too was raised  Christian.  Perhaps that explains why I automatically associate any “supernatural” forces with deity.  In my answers to the questions on deity I discovered that I do believe that nature or the Universe can be interacted with as a reservoir of love and wisdom, and that this passive force of love and wisdom feels kind of feminine.  I’m reminded of the way wisdom is personified in the Old Testament and referred to as She.  I was always taught that this was the Holy Spirit.

So I think possibly this is one aspect of the supernatural for me – the feminine force of love and wisdom that we can connect with.  Is this deity or separate?  Well, I feel that it is a personal form of the All, and so that would make it an aspect of deity.

The mention of fae reminds me of another way that my spirituality could point me towards “supernatural forces”.  I’ve long enjoyed the metaphor and the concept of the faerie folk (you may have guessed from my name) and I suppose this represents the wild mysteries of nature.  I also symbolise this as deity (the antlered god Cernunnos) but when I think of the wild mysteries of nature as a deity, it feels like a distant and uncaring god, awesome and powerful but to be admired from a distance.  Yet when I enter a natural space I often feel a sense of connection, and although what I connect with feels wild and mysterious, unconcerned with the affairs of human beings, nevertheless it feels like something that you can interact with, almost intimately sometimes.  Is this the fae?  Is this a strange, otherworldly, supernatural presence in nature?

The atheist in me still screams out that this is delusion and make-believe.  And I do feel it is poetic, a romanticising of nature, for sure.  I certainly don’t believe that winged, eldritch but vaguely humanoid creatures are buzzing around in the forests.  I wish faeries and dragons literally existed, I really do.  But unfortunately they don’t.

Yet the fae can perhaps symbolise this reachable but ultimately wild and mysterious force of nature.  And in that sense, it is possibly separate from deity too.

 

 

Life and purpose

Week 5 of Lunar Wisdom’s Mystical Seeker’s Year has some very difficult questions.

How do you show or express your appreciation for life?

Is all life sacred to you?  If not, how do you determine what life is sacred and what life is not?  And what do we mean by sacred?

And what is your purpose for living?  What are you doing here?

My initial reaction to these questions is to say “I don’t know”.  But I’ll try to answer them as best I can at this stage of my life.

I show or express my appreciation for life mainly through creative activities, by learning new things and by trying to be a loving, compassionate person.

I guess I think all life is sacred because I think all things are connected and it does us well to try to live harmoniously as best we can.  However I think this means showing the proper respect to our fellow living beings, including animals and plants.  This means not showing unnecessary cruelty to living things and refraining from destructive actions to the environment as a whole.  However when dealing with animal life I think it is also important to acknowledge that there is a natural balance and that it is part of nature to consume other animals for food (animals also do this, it is natural and part of the way nature functions) and also to protect ourselves and our territory from pests for example (animals also defend their territory from threats).  So it does not necessarily follow that respecting life and nature involves never killing.  Death is part of the natural order.

Obviously when it comes to our fellow human beings we should aim to act compassionately and only resort to violence in self defence or defence of others and only when absolutely necessary.

Life being sacred then only means that we should respect our fellow living beings by not causing unnecessary harm.  Unfortunately though harm is sometimes necessary and it’s important not to be too naive about that.

My purpose here?  I think it is to experience and to learn, then to pass on what I learn and what wisdom I gain to others.  This ties in well to my creative talents.  Through the things I create I can pass on what I have experienced and learnt.

As for “connecting the dots” from previous weeks, I think I can discern a common thread through all the weeks so far.  Deity is connectedness.  It exists both as an impersonal force or energy and also a kind of wisdom and love that we can “plug into”. We can view it in the abstract or through the symbols and metaphors of personified gods.  Life’s purpose seems to be experience and growth.  I think so far it is fitting together nicely and a clarity is coming forth from my answers to these questions.

Deity and meaning

Week 4 of Luna Wisdom’s Mystical Seeker’s Year has some interesting questions about meaning and purpose.

  1. Is the Universe meaningless or does it hold a meaningful structure, as in the concept of a Cosmos?
  2. Does deity have a purpose or agenda, and if so, what is it?
  3. How much influence does deity have on Earth, over human beings and what  goes on here?

 

Despite feeling pressure to conform to the atheist cry of “of course not!” or my existentialist tendency to insist that we make our own meaning in life, when I reflect on the spiritual side of me and the relationship I have to nature/the Universe I have an embarrassing tendency to feel that there is some sort of structure or meaning, even if it is only a sense of growth and revealed truth.

Let’s back up and answer the questions properly and in order.  Is the Universe meaningless or does it hold a meaningful structure?  Well I do think there are principles at the heart of all things, Universal principles that underpin the structure of reality.  Obviously every physicist would agree with me but I’m not just talking about physical laws.  I’m talking about concepts that seem vaguely spiritual but actually make a lot of sense when you think about it (even possibly to an atheist).

One such principle is truth – knowledge, wisdom, truth – they are out there and if you ask questions and search for wisdom and knowledge then you will find it.  The Universe will reveal its secrets to those who search.  This may sound mystical or poetic but surely every scientist believes this, or they wouldn’t bother doing science as there’d be no point.

The other principle underpinning all things is that things end up where they fit.  The scientific version of this is natural selection, but it holds true for physical laws also.  It also makes sense to apply it to human affairs, which is where it seems to be a spiritual principle.  But basically things either work or they don’t.  Things either fit or they don’t.  When things don’t work, or don’t fit then they eventually cease to be because what cannot be obviously cannot be.  Things that work tend to carry on existing precisely because they work so well.  Things that don’t work so  well eventually get superseded by things that do work or they simply break and cease to be.

This is why it is foolish to wonder why our physical laws work so that the Universe can survive or life can arise.  If the Universe ceased to be or it was a dead and lifeless Universe then we wouldn’t be here  to wonder about it.  This is known as the Anthropic Principle.  Also it is foolish to marvel at how well-designed living things seem to be.  Poorly designed creatures soon die out and only the ones who function well continue to exist.  This is Natural Selection.  I believe this is true of human affairs too.  A dysfunctional relationship or a job where you don’t fit (eg. are not very good at) – both those situations cannot survive for long.  But jobs that you excel at or relationships that function well, these things will survive.  The good news about this is that eventually people end up where they fit for the simple reason that you can’t remain in a situation where you don’t fit.  There is a general principle I believe in here.  What works remains, what doesn’t work ceases to be.

So there is a kind of meaning to the Universe.

But does deity have a purpose or an agenda?  Is it trying to achieve anything?  Well, deity for me simply is the Universe.  And the Universe isn’t necessarily conscious. It’s more a kind of energy we can tap into, and we sometimes find it helpful  to  personify it as something more personal (because WE are personal beings).  I believe then that it’s not planning anything as such.  Truth, and growth seem to be its main purposes.  The truth is out there if we seek it.  And growth is a natural reaching for what works over what doesn’t, a meaning that we share with all things.  So those are the purposes of deity.  Truth (and strength and love), passively held out for us to make use of when we need them.  And growth towards better things, an unfolding of purpose perhaps, that the Universe enables and takes part in without really knowing ahead of time where it will all lead.  This is the mystery and the wonder of all things.

So how much  influence does deity have here on Earth and with human beings?  It passively waits and unfolds and reveals its secrets to those who seek but it does not directly influence or direct anything.  And that to me is truly beautiful.  If we wish to personify that with  intention and personality, we could say that it is unconditionally loving, respecting of our personal choice and freedom and passively, beautifully available to all who would tap into and make use of its gifts.

Wow, I can see now why I would understand deity as BOTH distant, unfeeling and impersonal and YET ALSO loving, wise and something we can have a relationship with.  It kind of makes sense now.

Relating to deity

My answers to week 3 of The Mystical Seeker’s Year.

The first questions are to do with whether you give deity a human-like form or personality, or whether it is more like a force or energy.  Also, whether the form of this personified deity, or the kind of energy is masculine, feminine or genderless.

This, for me, is complicated.  I both recognise deity as an abstract force AND I like to indulge my desires to personify the spiritual with representations and forms.  The abstract force seems genderless and sort of distant.  But I also recognise forms.  These can be gods or goddesses.  I feel a strong connection to the feminine and so recognise many powerful goddesses in my personal devotion, such as Aphrodite and Athena.  When I try to personify the wild mysteries of nature, some of that distant, unfeeling but awe inspiring and powerful presence, I do often picture the antlered god Cernunnos.  When I reflect on the aspect of nature that I feel I can connect with and feel a sense of nurturing and love from, then I do feel that this energy is feminine but I am also capable of seeing this feminine force as an abstract energy and not personified either.

So my answer is complicated.  I recognise both a genderless force or energy, and this represents power, mystery and also wisdom and insight and it’s kind of impersonal.  But it is somehow also capable of manifesting as a feminine force of compassion and nurturing, and I can have a relationship with that.  When I indulge in my poetic desire to connect with symbolic representations of the divine, and picture deity in human-like form, I often picture the mysterious and powerful antlered god, or I connect with strong goddess figures like Athena or Aphrodite.

In answer to the next question, I try not to relate to deity as a parent figure.  The impersonal aspects of deity (the genderless force and the antlered god) are neutral or distant.  The feminine force feels nurturing, so I suppose you could say it is an idealised form of mother.  Certainly that fits the whole “mother nature” thing, and I can sort of relate to that.  However that’s not related to my actual  mother and I think that sort of concept could easily turn unhealthy, especially if your relationship to your parents was less than ideal.  Athena however does remind me of my actual mother, which put me off of her at first.  But I realised those qualities of wisdom and strength that she represents were qualities I sorely needed, and yes my mother was strong, intelligent and honest, so I suppose Athena does represent some of that.  Aphrodite feels somewhat like a lover (but not exactly, deity is deity after all) and it was important to have a strong, powerful goddess who was also sexual because I have a lot of problems in my sexual life and I desire strong, powerful women, so I felt like I needed a goddess to bring those needs to.

The whole complement or opposite thing, with regards to the gender of deity is a little hard for me to answer because although I was born physically male I am transgender.

Finally the question about names and labels.  I talk a lot about nature or The Universe when describing deity in the abstract.  I do not yet have a name for the nurturing, feminine energy as I have only just discovered it during the course of all these questions.  The personified gods that I honour of course have names – Aphrodite, Athena, Cernunnos.  There are other deities I have had an interest in – Shiva, Hermes, Dionysus, Odin, Thoth.  These did not come to mind when contemplating my relationship with deity and the answers to the previous questions though, which is interesting.

I get confused when answering these questions whether to focus primarily on my abstract concept of deity or to also acknowledge my indulgence in symbolism and my interest in these historic deities, which has made my answers kind of complicated.  But both sides of my spirituality seem important to me, so whatever.

Origin and attributes of deity

I am responding to questions in Lunar Wisdom’s Mystical Seeker’s Year on Youtube.  This is my response to week 2.

The question of whether humans created deity or whether deity  created humans is a complex one for me.  The polytheistic deities that I feel can help our human minds to connect with our own spirituality are not literal beings but symbolic in my view, so those gods were of course invented by human beings.  But the mystical All, that pantheist deity that I sense in nature and the cosmos… that is a more complex question.

I do not believe it created us as such.  I think, if it exists, that it is a presence within nature itself.  It sort of emerges from within the Universe, or is a principle of the Universe itself.  But I do not believe in a Creator or a designer.  I think that conflicts with scientific evidence.  We emerged from a process of evolution and natural selection.  But if there is some real presence or essence of deity within nature itself, then obviously that existed before we did and was not at all created by us.  However it is possible that the cosmos really is impersonal and unfeeling, and this concept of connectedness or a spiritual presence we can connect with, is really just a product of human consciousness, something we need for our own psychological reasons.  That doesn’t make it useless and I have a pragmatic approach to spiritual matters.  These concepts have worth on a human level, and can help us gain perspective, hope and wisdom and help us to navigate our lives in an ethical and psychologically healthy way.

On the other hand it is also possible that the Universe is far stranger than we give it credit for, and that, being part of the Universe, we can have a kind of relationship with what exists and really plug in to an interconnectedness that can have an uncannily beneficial effect on our lives.  All we have to do is open ourselves to it and connect.

So there’s a bit of a question mark in my heart when it comes to this question.

As for the attributes that deity has:  I believe it is non-judgemental, it is a force of connectedness, it is creative, it is mysterious, subtle, complex, there is insight and wisdom in nature, there is a kind of compassion, albeit a passive, hands-off kind of compassion, a gentleness, a patience almost.

As for the question of whether these attributes fall into one category.  What is interesting is there is a kind of tension here between two, maybe three different ideas of deity.  We have the distant, cold, impersonal force of nature.  Then we have a gentle, patient reservoir of wisdom that wants to help but perhaps has a lightness of touch about it.  There is possibly a third set of attributes here too – the creativity, the mystery, the slight weirdness about nature/the Universe that confounds our expectations, that perhaps “plays” at creating without much caring about the outcome.

However it’s easy to see how this is all just different ways of describing and thinking about nature, lending credence to the idea that this is a human conception and interpretation of something that in its own nature might not even be a deity anyway, but simply the cold, mysterious cosmos.  In desiring to connect with the All, we seek compassion and wisdom, but in its own nature it is unfeeling and distant, and somewhere in the middle of all this we can rationalise it as a playful, reckless and slightly weird creative energy that cares little about the outcome of its actions but just creates for the joy of it.

I guess I am an atheist.  I just like to be poetic about it.  Like I said, spirituality is pragmatic for me.  It is human nature to desire to interact with the Universe in this way, to dream up our own spiritual symbols and metaphors.  But that doesn’t mean we should reject this impulse.  I think we can and should embrace it.  I think it is healthy to do so, as long as we also realise that this is not the realm of literal fact but simply our own emotional  yearning for a deeper spiritual connection and understanding.

The Nature of Deity

I’ve been a spiritual seeker all my life.  I was raised Christian, flirted with Occultism and New Age ideas in my late teens, took a passing interest in Hinduism and Buddhism in my early twenties, became a panpsychist pantheist in my late twenties and early thirties, became an atheist in my mid thirties and then regained some kind of spirituality, including flirting with Hinduism and Paganism, even though remaining something of an agnostic.

Having become interested in paganism recently but still not sure where exactly I fit in (if anywhere), I’ve decided to question myself on spiritual matters with the aid of Lunar Wisdom’s Mystical Seeker’s Year series on Youtube.  Here is the first one, which I am responding directly to in this blog post.

The questions asked in that first video are all about the nature of deity.  Here are my thoughts.

To me deity, or spiritual force, is connectedness.  It is the sense in which we can connect with the Universe and take part in and gain sustenance from something larger than ourselves.

I am both a pantheist and a polytheist.  The pantheist part is more “real”, more the way I literally see deity.  The polytheist part is more symbolic.

The Pantheist deity is obviously immanent, not transcendent, because that is what pantheist literally means.  But this “spiritual force” or “presence” of inter-connectedness is a bit abstract for the human mind.

The polytheist deities are a practicality.  They help the human consciousness connect with the abstract All.  Weirdly, because they are ideas only, they are sort of transcendent and not immanent.  But they help the human mind get a grasp on spiritual matters and find spiritual sustenance and wisdom in a way that can perhaps be difficult when concentrating on an abstract force of connection, of nature itself, or the Universe.  Even though it is that pantheist spiritual force that is immanent in and through everything and so can powerfully influence a person’s life.

As for how does deity manifest.  I think deity is manifest primarily in nature, and therefore through our nature too and being a force of connectedness, it is also manifest in our interactions and relationships with each other.

6 dimensions to my gender confusion

“Gender confusion?”  I hear you ask.  “But I thought you’d worked out that you’re a trans woman?”

Well, I think it’s important to be honest and I’d be lying if I said that I never doubted or questioned and that my feelings about gender were always straightforward.  I think in many ways we’re all a bit confused about gender.  And I wanted to share the complicated thoughts I’ve had today about my feelings with regards to gender.

I’ve managed to break down those thoughts and feelings into six different things.  Firstly there is what I like to call the big, horrible thing.  It’s not necessarily anything to do with gender as such but it is something that has contributed to my pain and been a driving force behind my desire to question my gender identity.  Then there are the three things that are definitely related to gender identity and that make a certain course of action (gender transition) seem like a sensible option for me.  Then there’s the fun matter of clothing and make up, which is of course gender expression and not necessarily indicative of gender identity.  Finally there is the matter of what-I-think-I-am, which although it is often lifted up as the be-all and end-all of gender identity is I believe a little bit philosophically problematic, as words and  concepts are always tied up with beliefs and philosophies (what you think those words mean) and so may not be as revealing as we’d like to believe.

Let’s look at the big horrible thing first.  I have certain needs and desires with regards to sex and romance.  I am primarily attracted to women and it is women that I need and desire these things from.  Yet if I identify as a guy I would be forced to call these needs and desires “role reversal”.  For most of my life, including when I identified as a guy, I wanted, needed, desired to be in the conventionally female role and for my female sexual partners to adopt the conventionally male role.  This undoubtedly makes being a man very painful and difficult but it is not necessarily indicative of gender identity.  However it has shaped my life with a lot of pain.

I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough about this matter.  I’ve realised that whether I identify as a guy, a woman or somewhere in between that nevertheless these needs of mine are something I cannot help (they are how I’m wired) and that they are totally ok.  Yes, it sucks to be physically male and attracted to women but desire the women in your life to take the lead, initiate sex, be strong and protective, sweep you off your feet, ravish you, penetrate you etc.  It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a woman (although you could conceivably make some point about mating instincts and biology if you wanted).  But whether a person who feels this way is a man, a woman, in between or neither it should be seen as totally ok to be that way.  So in interest of healing I need to remind myself of that.  I can’t help it and it’s ok.  And yes, we should challenge stupid gender roles that attempt to constrict people’s life options and make them feel they are wrong for desiring what they desire.  I hope to still be able to challenge the idea that men have to be a certain way, should be a certain way in their romantic and sexual relationships.  I can still rage against how much this particular thing sucks for those born male.  And I will.

But there are three things that probably do indicate that I’m a trans woman and certainly indicate that gender transition is right for me.  Those three things are: preferences for gendered words and pronouns, feelings about my body and what I can only call “self image”.

I’ve discovered in recent months that on the rare occasion when people gender me as female that it feels comfortable, right and honouring to be referred to in those ways.  Well meaning friends call me “missus” or “madam” sometimes.  I was referred to as “that lady over there” once in a cafe.  People use “she” and “her” pronouns of me on occasion.  I’ve been called “Ms Kim”.  This always feels right, whether I’m dressed male or female.  On the opposite side, terms such as “man”, “fella”, “sir”, “dude” and even “mate” and “he” tend to grate on me.  Some of them always have, even way back when I identified roughly as a “guy” (for some reason the word guy doesn’t bother me as much).  You could make the point that the reason some words feel better than others is to do with whatever associations and ideas you attach to those words, so that it doesn’t actually indicate anything about your gender but only what you think about your gender.  That certainly seems accurate as far as it goes.  But if a person prefers to be referred to as a woman then it definitely seems like the best course of action for that person to legally and socially transition to being a woman.  It’s straight forward really; pure pragmatism.  If that’s the issue then this is the solution.  It’s hard to argue with that kind of logic.

Then there is the complex matter of how I feel about my own body.  I’ve also only truly discovered these feelings in recent years.  But if I’m honest many of these feelings go back to my youth, to puberty and my teens.  I just didn’t consciously accept it, I argued it away and suppressed it.  One thing I’ve never had a particular problem with is my genitals.  Yes I don’t like to use them as nature intends in the bedroom but I’ve always been fond of masturbating and of having them touched, sucked, played with by partners.  When it comes to genitals though I have discovered the opposite matter.  I envy pussy.  When I include having a pussy in my sexual fantasies, wow it is sexual dynamite.  To feel someone inside me, to have a sexually sensitive hole to be penetrated in, whether with dildos, fingers or a sexy big toe, that sounds like heaven.  Anal is so uncomfortable and icky really.  Ok, with plenty of lube and the right person it could be ok.  But to be penetrated in a way that feels like when my genitals are being stimulated.  Wow, I want that.  I want that so badly!

Then there is body hair, facial hair, body shape, chest, weird little things like the muscles on my arms or how narrow my waist is.  I’ve had complicated feelings about all of that all my life.  I hate my body hair.  I’ve started to hate my facial hair too.  My chest looks wrong, my body shape is wrong, I should have more delicate arms and wider hips.  I do want a body that has that hourglass shape.  Even a large woman’s shape, where the majority of the fat is on the chest and the hips/bum would be preferable to my fat male shape.  Small or moderate sized breasts would definitely be preferable to my flat male chest.  My boobs look best to me when I’m hot so  that the nipples swell and the boobs look a bit flabby.  That’s when I look at them and say “ooh, I’ve got boobies”.  Then they go all flat, the nipples shrink and I just don’t find them as attractive.

It seems clear to me, in that exact same pragmatic way, that these are things I could change with hormones.  My facial hair I could change with electrolysis or laser hair treatment.  I already remove my body hair regularly with an electric razor.  Simple really, if that is the problem then this is the solution.  HRT for me.

But the core of the issue when it comes to gender identity is what I call “self image”.  Who do you see yourself in?  What set of human beings do you feel the most kinship with?  Who are your role models?  What do you want to see when you look in the mirror?

The truth is that I am more likely to see myself in women than in men.  Even men who crossdress or wear make up, I might see that they deal with similar issues to me but I’m aware on some level that I’m not like them.  Of course I can see myself in trans women sometimes but I almost always feel like I’m on some kind of wavelength with cis women.  I feel the most “kinship” with women.  I don’t know a better way of putting that.  It’s an odd feeling to truly explain to someone but it is what it is I guess.  Consequently the people I want to look up to and emulate are often women, with the occasional feminine man (eg. Eddie Izzard) or geeky character (the Doctor or Peter Parker/Spiderman).

And what do I want to see in the mirror?  An attractive young woman.  Ok, I’m neither slim nor young anymore.  But a lot of larger, middle aged people get that.  But I do think it is relevant when considering gender identity that I really do want to see a young, attractive woman in the mirror.  Not a young, slim man (like I used to be) but a young, attractive woman.  Quite possibly  I have always desired that.  Maybe I just didn’t fully realise it when I was young because I was suppressing the desire or something.  And it’s not just about clothing and make up.  I want my face to look like a woman’s face, my body to look like a woman’s body.  I want to see a young, attractive woman in the mirror.  And I mean that in every sense.

But what about clothing and make up?  Well, obviously that is to do with gender expression and doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about gender identity.  People crossdress after all.  I’m actually fairly androgynous in style.  I don’t wear dresses, tights or high heels.  I wear jeans and t-shirts, boots or trainers.  But I like to wear boots or trainers marketed at women.  I like to adorn my appearance with necklaces.  I like to wear nail varnish, eye make up, lipstick.  I like to wear my hair long.  I like to wear knickers and even socks that are marketed at women.  I even like to wear women’s deoderant (it smells much nicer than men’s).

Some of these manifested in my teenage and young adult years, such as playing with lipstick and nail varnish.  The desire to wear make up has never really gone away and the more I have opened my mind up to wearing “women’s” clothes in recent years the happier and happier it has made me.  It may be gender expression, it may not indicate what gender I am but it has been an important way for me to feel more happy and joyous and to keep the constant pang of misery at bay.  For that reason long may it continue.

Finally I want to look at the matter of what gender you think you are.  This is lifted up as the absolute decider on gender identity.  You are what you identify as.  If you think you’re a woman, you’re a woman.  If you think you’re a man, you’re a man.  If you think you are neither or in between or both then you are non binary.

But I have a problem with this.  Words, concepts, labels – these are very dependent on how we interpret them.  It sort of begs the question really.  What you think you are very much depends on what you think those words and concepts mean.  In other words it is to do with what your personal philosophy about gender is.

This isn’t good enough.  When I “thought” I was a man was I really any different to how I am now?  If I think I’m non binary sometimes but think I’m a woman sometimes does it really mean that my gender changes?  Or is it more likely that a person can be confused or closeted about things?

What we think is shaped by how we interpret the world and the subject of gender.  It cannot then be a reliable or accurate way of deciding what your gender identity is.

For what it’s worth I often have a detached feeling towards this philosophical level of gender identity.  Do I really have a strong sense of myself as a woman?  No, not really.  But then I certainly don’t have any kind of sense, strong or otherwise, of myself as a man.

When pressed on this matter I will claim that I don’t feel especially gendered on the inside.  I feel kind of genderless.  What do I think I am really?  I think I am a human mind of no particular gender that has been forced into a world that makes a big, big deal about all this gender stuff and bombards me with it every day so that it makes me feel like screaming at the insanity of it all.  For that reason I have often identified as genderless, agender, non binary or genderqueer in the past.  But is this an accurate picture of my gender identity or just a reflection of my personal philosophy about gender?  I have a Buddhist kind of detachment from words and labels sometimes and I feel like saying (in the style of the 10th doctor) “wibbly wobbly, gendery wendery”.  But does that really say anything at all about what gender I really am?  Isn’t it a reflection of what I feel and think about the subject of gender, a stance on the matter, rather than any kind of objective truth about my gender identity?  If a person thinks they are a man or a woman on the basis of their genitals, does that necessarily mean that they are a man or a woman on the inside?  What if I swallowed radical feminist ideology whole and started saying I’m a feminine man because a man is an adult human being with a penis and testicles?  Would that really change who I am or just mean that I had been convinced of the philosophy that genitals=gender?

I think what people are trying to refer to when they speak of an “internal sense of gender” or a “feeling” or a “knowing” of what gender you are, is that “self image” I spoke of.  It’s a weird sense of kinship or otherness with regards to one gender or the other, a tendency to see yourself in one gender or the other and a desire to see a person of a certain physical gender when you look at yourself in the mirror.  It connects very strongly with how you feel about your own body.  Perhaps it even connects with what words and pronouns you prefer or what sexual and romantic instincts reside in the wiring of your brain.  Who knows?  What I do know is that I am transgender because there are real issues and problems I have and the only real solutions to them is to transition socially, legally and with hormones.  There’ll always be a slight tendency towards a kind of non binary philosophy about gender though.  Maybe on some level I will always be slightly non binary too.

I was thinking of a term for this, something that can refer accurately to being philosophically non binary but pragmatically a trans woman and I came up with the word “femqueer”.  I like it actually.  I like it a lot.

The problem is that a lot of people focus too much on words and labels.  But I feel a Buddhist kind of detachment is helpful when it comes to these largely external and illusionary things.  The radical feminists are probably right that a lot of our problems about gender stem from the faulty concepts and ideas that society tries to bombard us with all the time.  It can be nice to be called by the right words, words that seem to honour you for some reason.  But it’s not words or concepts that mean I need to transition.  It’s more pragmatic than that.

I feel more woman than man, and I need to transition to feel comfortable.  But there’ll always be part of me that when I feel confused or exasperated by the subject of gender will want to wave my hand dismissively and say “wibbly wobbly, gendery wendery”.

New Language for Sexual Orientation?

Lesbian identified radical feminists often verbally attack transgender women who identify as lesbian, even claiming that the female partners of trans women aren’t really lesbian either.  Men who are primarily attracted to pre-op or non-op trans women because they have a preference for penis but also a preference for feminine appearance are often criticised and labelled “tranny chasers”, with even the trans women they are attracted to worrying that such men are “creepy fetishists”.

The intersection between gender identity and sexual orientation seems to be a minefield of controversy and confusion and with the growing numbers of people identifying as having a non-binary gender identity there is also another problem with the terms we use to identify sexual orientation.  If the matter being communicated is whether I am attracted to men, women, both or neither then what exactly does my own gender have to do with anything?

I know that the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities are very important resources of support and community for people.  I certainly don’t wish to undermine or invalidate anyone’s struggle or need for a community.  But I do think that maybe it’s time we looked at the way that we talk about and think about sexual orientation and try to invent some new terms to describe it.

The point of  identity labels, or any words for that matter, is to communicate information in as concise and clear a way as possible.  It is becoming painfully obvious that the old labels of gay and straight, and maybe even bisexual, are woefully inadequate in doing so.  They over simplify  a complicated matter because if gender is complicated then so is sexual orientation.

The root problem underlying much of  the controversy about sexual attraction with regards to transgender individuals is that gender identity and sexual attraction aren’t really on the same page.  This isn’t a result of society but actually just a particularly tricky result of biology.

Gender identity can conflict with biological sex in some individuals, and it’s not really anything to do with outward appearance or social stereotypes.  Biology is not just about anatomy, it also includes instinctive behaviours.  And guess where those behaviours are contained?  That’s right – in the brain.  Plus brains also have a way  of telling us what our bodies should be like.  This is why you know where your arm is, even when you’re not looking at it, and also why amputees get phantom limb syndrome.  Transgender individuals have a brain that is telling them they should be physiologically the opposite sex to what their bodies really are.  It’s a kind of glitch of nature.

That gender identity can be completely within the person’s own mind though.  A trans woman does not have to be feminine or behave according to female stereotypes, and pre-transition she will not even be physiologically female either.  Ok, so her instinctive behaviours will leak through, making her seem to be a little unusual for a man and causing her much grief and personal distress living as a man.  But nevertheless gender identity is a different thing to gender expression or to biological sex, so her identity might be somewhat invisible to those potentially attracted to her.

But do you see where I’m going with this?  People are not sexually attracted to gender identity as such, they are sexually attracted to gender expression (outward appearance), sexual anatomy or a mixture of both.  Some people prefer penises, some people prefer vaginas and some people don’t mind what someone has between their legs.  Some people can only ever be attracted to feminine presenting people, some people can only ever be attracted to masculine presenting people, while other people don’t much mind either way.

All of this means that the language we currently use to describe sexual orientation is actually overly simplistic and not sufficient for capturing the true complexity of the situation.

For example I am what I might be tempted to call femsexual or femmesexual.  Despite some very rare exceptions I am generally only sexually aroused by feminine looking people or at least androgynous looking people.  Meanwhile I don’t really care whether they have a penis or a vagina.  I can have fun with both.  This might seem simple.  When I was a guy I was straight.  Now that I’m transgender I should identify as a lesbian.  But that apparent simplicity is deceiving.  I can be sexually aroused by a crossdressing man for example and almost never attracted to the most butch looking women.  It’s not gender identity that affects my sexual arousal, it’s gender expression.

Other people have a preference for sexual anatomy and can be totally flexible about outward appearance.  And although I don’t in any way condone the anti-trans rantings of certain radical feminists I do understand some of the frustration they express that their sexual preferences are being silenced in the midst of the admirable and well-meaning attempts to validate transgender identities.

Maybe it’s time to rethink how we refer to sexual orientation then.  Unfortunately I fail to come up with attractive sounding and easy to use language however.  Femmesexual (or femsexual) sounds reasonably nice.  But Mascusexual just sounds weird and awkward.  Phallosexual might sound kind of cool, if a little vulgar, but Vulvasexual doesn’t really sound very nice for some reason.  Stringing them together also sounds clunky and awkward.  There was a time in my life where I was one of those people primarily attracted to pre-op or non-op trans women and I could’ve described my sexuality as Femphallosexual.  But it’s awkward and long winded to describe things that way and those compound words sound kind of ugly.

Perhaps there’s no need for referring to every aspect of sexuality in a single phrase.  You could refer to each matter individually.  No one feels the need to add whether they are submissive, dominant, vanilla or switch to their sexual orientation labels after all.  You could say “I’m submissive and I’m gay” for example.  So why not say something like “I’m submissive, femsexual and also phallosexual”?

Perhaps someone with more expertise about language could come up with better sounding terms than the ones I have suggested above.  But I really do think we need to think about this.  Words are supposed to aid communication.  It doesn’t help if the terms we use tend to confuse more often than clarify.

Or of course we could do what people are already doing and use the old language while also understanding that people can mean different things by the words gay, lesbian or straight depending on whether it is physical anatomy or gender expression that is the defining factor for desire and arousal.  I really wish the trans-hating radfems would at least take that on board and that my girlfriend has as much right to call herself a lesbian as they do.  And for that matter, so do I.

Who invented Christianity?

In 1999 I came across a book called ‘The Jesus Mysteries’ by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.  It was the first time I’d come across the idea that maybe Jesus never literally existed and that much of his story was taken from pagan sources.

Following that idea (which I initially dismissed) I started to really pick apart the Jesus story, and much of the New Testament, critically examining it and trying to figure out what I thought really happened during the origins of Christianity.

It was a puzzle I had already been picking at, partly because I could no longer believe in a literal incarnation of God (it didn’t make logical sense to me) and yet continued to be fascinated by the Gospel story.  So I was desperate to figure out what really happened.  If, as I believed at the time, Jesus’s original message had been so badly distorted then when, how and why did that happen?

Following the influence of the ‘Jesus Mysteries’ book I had a whole bunch of new questions.  Did Jesus exist?  Was the Gospel story a mixture of rehashed mystery religion myth combined with the Messiah prophecies of the Old Testament?  How could it involve so many apparently real people (John the Baptist, Simon Peter etc) if it was completely fictional?  Was Paul the first gnostic?  What did Paul believe and what was he up to?  How did gnosticism relate to the truth or fiction of the Gospel story?  How did the more literal form of Christianity evolve?

Over the next few years I pieced together my own interpretation of the origins of Christianity and the content and historicity of the New Testament.  I remained convinced that there must be some sincere attempt to tell a revealed truth at the heart of the New Testament writings, so I remained open to any spiritual insights I might stumble upon in my own search for truth.  And eventually I arrived at a conclusion that still informs my understanding of what really happened.

I want to share that conclusion with you now.

Years before I stumbled upon the ‘Jesus Mysteries’ idea I had already been impressed by the myth of Osiris in Ancient Egypt.  Isn’t it weird, I thought, that the Egyptians also had a dying and resurrecting god?

And I have since learnt that indeed the Ancient world was rife with such deities.  There was Attis, Adonis, Mithras, Dionysus – lots and lots of dying and resurrecting deities.  Usually they seem to represent the changing of the seasons, the way life dies in the winter and is reborn in the spring.  But they also often formed the basis of what are known as “mystery religions”.  In those religions, the worshippers underwent a kind of death and rebirth of their own, in elaborate and secret rituals that resulted in a kind of spiritual rebirth, an awakening of new understandings.  Some of the ideas and rituals of those mystery religions seem to eerily predict the practises and beliefs of early Christianity.  There were even baptism-like rituals and meals of bread and wine.

My current belief about the Gospel story however is not that it is totally fictional, but rather that real events may have had mythical stories tacked onto them.  There were many Messiah type figures who revolutionary Jews latched onto in attempts to liberate themselves from the yoke of their Roman overlords.  It was the attempt to thwart a zealot uprising that caused the Romans to destroy the Temple of Jerusalem in 66 CE after all.

But why would followers of a Jewish Messiah choose to include Mystery religion beliefs and pagan stories in the creation of a new faith?

The place we need to look to understand the  origins of Christianity is I believe in the writings and activities of the apostle Paul.  The oldest writings in the New Testament are after all the letters of Paul.

Paul was a troubled man I believe.  He was in his own words “zealous” in his Jewish faith but he also proudly believed in his status as a Roman citizen.  It is my opinion that he was seriously conflicted within himself.  Partly he admired  Hellenistic society and culture very greatly.  But he also felt an enormous pressure to be a good Jew.  He probably was the kind of person who didn’t do things by half.  If there were aspects of Greek or Roman culture that inspired him, or even myths that he found genuinely insightful, then he would want to embrace and celebrate his Roman citizenry.  But if he was going to be a Jew then he must stick rigidly to the codes and beliefs of his faith, becoming almost militant about it.  So these two sides of him were in conflict with one another.

He speaks in his letters many times of the “church in Jerusalem” and clearly this group of believers (including James and Peter) predates his own mission.  It was them he was sent to persecute and it was in the action of doing so that he received his great revelation that caused him to go off into the desert alone to work out just what it was that he had come to believe.

So who were these believers in Jerusalem?  What did they believe and what were they doing before Paul came along?  And what was Paul’s great revelation that changed everything?  And how did he arrive at it?

It is my belief that the “church in Jerusalem” was a group of what I might call “symbolic messianists”.  Let me explain.  It has become apparent to me in my own studies of the Old Testament scriptures that there is more than one possible interpretation of the Messiah prophecies contained therein.  As well as a literal new King of Israel, there is hidden among the prophecies a prominent idea of God becoming the new King of Israel.  It is in passages that suggest this that we also read about the Law being written on the hearts of the people.  Could it be that the promised Messiah was actually symbolic of a spiritual awakening, a change in the hearts of the Jewish people so that they don’t need the laws of the Torah anymore, or a literal King to liberate them, but that the law would be written on their hearts and God would rule over his people?

Could it be that there was some figure in 1st Century Palestine, almost totally obscured by the miracles and myths of the Gospel story but still dimly visible within those pages, who although technically a Messiah figure chose to reject the political element of his mission in favour of a spiritual revolution, a winning of hearts and minds and a far more expansive ethical and theological vision than mere political revolution?  Could it be that he met an untimely end and that his followers, desperate to figure out what just happened, came to read their scriptures in a new way and saw the more symbolic reading of Messiah prophecies that is hiding within the pages?

And when Paul was riding out to persecute them it may not have been because they were troublemakers as such, but instead because they were “bad Jews” in his more zealous eyes.  Perhaps he was weighing up their outrageous beliefs in his mind when suddenly his conflicted sentiments and loyalties came crashing together in a glorious synthesis of new ideas and beliefs.  This revelation changed everything and was so monumental and unsettling that he had to  mull it over in solitude for a long time before returning with his new revolutionary theology.

So what was this new belief?  What did Paul actually believe?  It is curious that the historical Jesus never really surfaces in the writings of Paul but the Christ he promotes seems to be an almost entirely spiritual entity.  It is worth bearing in mind also that Jesus is actually the same name as Joshua, the Old Testament figure who actually led the Israelites into the “Promised Land”.  The Hebrew name Yeshua (Jesus) is an alternative spelling of Yehoshua (Joshua) and Joshua son of Nun (who led the Israelites into Canaan) is actually referred to as Yeshua in some later parts of the Old Testament.  Christ is also a Greek word that literally means Messiah.  So Jesus Christ can also be rendered Joshua Messiah.  I sometimes find it useful to think “Joshua Messiah” when I read “Jesus Christ” in the New Testament, just to try and shake away the baggage of a conventionally Christian reading of the text so that a fresh  new light might possibly be thrown on it.

Anyway it certainly seems likely that Paul is promoting the idea of a symbolic Messiah and he  seems to include many mystery religion, almost proto-gnostic ideas in his portrayal of his “Joshua Messiah”.  The full combination of mystery religion god and Jewish Messiah in the Jesus narrative only really arrives with the Gospels of course, but some of the seeds are already there in the letters of Paul.

But you can’t really realise what all the fuss is about or why the New Testament writers are so enthused and excited about this spiritual renewal until you grasp what is really meant by the idea of redemption and atonement.

When you combine the ideas of a dying and resurrecting god with the Jewish Messiah a remarkable new concept of God emerges.  It is not so unfamiliar really as it is a core tenet of the Christian faith.  But even this fundamental idea often gets lost in modern day Christianity and I think a belief in a literal incarnation of God in the historical person of Jesus actually serves to obscure this deep meaning at the heart of the Christian faith.

I had my own moment of revelation when I was figuring out  the origins of Christianity, my own “road to Damascus” moment if you like, when suddenly the message I had been told by Christians all my life took on a new significance and meaning for me.  It goes something like this:

God, according to Judaeo-Christian belief, is good.  But because he loves us he has granted us Free Will.  But this means that evil can happen in the world.  In effect God gives up some of his goodness, he sacrifices his true essence, he symbolically offers himself up to die.  So that we may live!!!  Now one thing I’ve learnt from life is that the whole point of Free Will is so that we can learn and grow.  The whole point of being able to make mistakes is so that we can learn better.  And a morality arrived at by learning from our mistakes is far more real and worthwhile, far more valuable, than one merely learnt by rote.  You will always doubt and wonder why you are being good if you do not understand the reason for it.  But make mistakes, get things wrong, and then learn from your mistakes.  Then suddenly you do not doubt anymore.  You know why things are right and wrong.  You have experienced it for yourself.  This process of learning from our mistakes is what allows God to be resurrected from death.  And it is also the process by which we die to our former selves and are spiritually reborn.  This is the very message of Paul’s letters.  I’m almost paraphrasing him!  And this is why the Law is no longer necessary.  It really is as if the Law is written on the hearts of the people.  Through this process of spiritual renewal, of dying and resurrecting, we are reborn anew in the spirit and no longer need rigid codes because we have an ethical code written on our hearts.

Perhaps this is an unorthodox or radical interpretation of Paul’s theology.  But it really does seem to be contained in the texts of his letters.  It’s not a million miles away from what he is actually saying!  And I can feel his enthusiasm about this new idea.  He is inspired and excited, committed to spreading this good news.

So what went wrong?  How did this exciting vision of new life in the spirit, of unity between Hellenistic myth and Jewish morality, of a true and life changing ethics and spiritual insight become twisted into a guilt tripping worship of a man as literal incarnation of God?  How did the passion and radical energy of the movement become stifled by conformity, hierarchy and feelings of guilt and unworthiness?  Why did literal belief in mythical events take over from symbolic insights and understandings?

Well I think the message Paul was preaching may have been a bit too subtle and nuanced for many of the people he converted.  Most of the people he reached in Asia Minor, Greece and Rome were simple folk, not very educated and they also were not as knowledgeable about the Jewish faith and scriptures as Paul was.  Most of Paul’s life he was struggling against zealous Jews (including some of the “Church in Jerusalem”, such as James) who found it utterly offensive that he was teaching people that they didn’t need to follow the laws of the Torah.  But as he struggled against those heavily Jewish elements in early Christianity it’s possible he became blind to the poison spreading amongst his gentile converts.

There may be early signs of what was happening from the things he is arguing against in his letters to the Corinthians.  But these simple gentile folk, who knew virtually nothing about the Old Testament scriptures, may have confused the mythical Jesus that Paul was talking about with stories about a literal person whom the Christians from Jerusalem had followed.  The Gospels may not have been simply a creative synthesis between the two, with full knowledge of the many-layered narrative that is being spun.  Maybe Matthew and Mark were like that.  But by the time of Luke’s Gospel I think it is clear that there is a very real confusion between mythical metaphor and literal historical truth.

Before long the mythical Jesus  of Paul’s theology became synonymous with a real flesh and blood human being.  God was believed to have literally incarnated as a man.  Others who accepted Paul’s original vision of a symbolic, spiritual Messiah began to convolute the message with heavy pagan philosophy, piling myth onto myth, complication onto complication until the simplistic beauty of the original message was also lost.

In this way Gnosticism was born as well as “literal incarnationism” (if I may coin a term) and the original message was lost.  On the one hand you had Gnostics claiming that the Old Testament God was evil and that matter and the flesh is corrupt, following a neo-platonic philosophy of disembodied rational forms or ideas.  On the other hand you had a belief in a God-man who you could never be anything like, a continual need to repent and ask forgiveness for your sins to a God that died for you so you’d better be grateful for it and behave yourself, all tied to a hierarchy of priest and bishops.

The rest is bloody history.  The literal version of Christianity worked its way up into the higher echelons of Roman society until Emperor Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Then the persecution of heretics and Gnostics began, followed by the Middle Ages, the Crusades, the Reformation, burning of witches etc.

It’s a shame when good things get ruined by the pettiness of the world.  Genuine insight and spiritual enlightenment can be so easily stifled by the narrow mindedness and lack of vision  of far lesser human beings that come later.  A lot of religions reveal a similar sad tale.

It’s why I do my best to remain detached from them.  I simply straddle the divide between atheism and theism in my own agnostic pantheist way and pick whatever pieces of wisdom seem best to me, whether they originate from Pagan myth, Hinduism, Buddhism or even the Bible.  I’m no Christian.  I haven’t been that for a long time.  But that was my own personal interpretation of what I think might have happened during that 1st Century CE in the New Testament world of Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome.