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.

 

 

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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.

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.

Did Akhenaten invent Monotheism?

The first evidence we have of Israelites in Canaan is approximately 1200 BCE and in the opinion of non-religious scholars of the Bible, the earliest passages of the Old Testament do not date any earlier than about 950 BCE.  So a sceptical mind might well consider the stories of the Exodus and before to be mere myth or legend.

So what can we make of the Exodus story?  And what are the real origins of the Israelite people and the Jewish faith?

It is quite plausible of course that the stories the Israelites told about their origins may have contained grains of truth carried down orally from generation to generation.  Certainly there were nomadic movements of people in the area, including from Mesopotamia to Canaan.  So the movement of an ancestor of the Israelites from Sumer to the area west of the Dead Sea (such as depicted of Abraham in Genesis) is not entirely unlikely.  Also there were people from Canaan that moved into Egypt (the Hyksos, who formed their own dynasty during the second intermediate period of Ancient Egypt’s history are one such example of this), so it is also not implausible that the story of Jacob and his sons settling in Egypt during a time of famine may have a grain of truth to it.

But in terms of the Exodus story and the dawn of the Israelite faith there is another explanation that I find intriguing and satisfying to the point of believing that it might be the most probable theory of Israelite origins.

Almost immediately the New Kingdom of Egypt expanded its territory and influence into Canaan, which reached its fullest extent  during the reign of Thutmose III (1479-1425 BCE).  This Egyptian presence in Canaan declined during the 19th Dynasty, such that by about 1200 BCE the Egyptian Empire was effectively no more.

The timing of these events is revealing.  The Exodus is  traditionally supposed to have occurred some time between 1350 and 1200 BCE.  That the Israelites were apparently leaving Egypt to wander in the desert for 40 years and then conquer Canaan during a period when Egypt actually ruled Canaan, seems extraordinary, as does the fall of the Egyptian Empire occurring roughly around the same time that we first find evidence of Israelites in Canaan.

Add to this the fact that one pharaoh in particular (Amenhotep IV or Akhenaten) instituted an unusual religious reform in Ancient Egypt, of devotion to one particular Egyptian god (Aten, the sun disc) and it is hard not to draw an extraordinary conclusion.  Akhenaten reigned roughly from 1353-1334 BCE and during his reign Egypt also lost ground in the region of Canaan to their rivals the Hittites.  Some restoration of fortunes took place during the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE) but Egyptian presence in Canaan was basically in decline following Akhenaten.

Although the Ancient Egyptians soon returned to the polytheistic worship of traditional gods soon after his reign, could it be that Akhenaten’s reforms were actually the first example of monotheism that the world had  ever seen?  Could it be that, with Egyptian presence in the region at the time but their influence  and hold in Canaan declining soon after, some inhabitants of that land were influenced by Akhenaten’s reforms and religious ideas into creating their own form of monotheist worship?

And more interestingly still, could it be that the Exodus story is actually a metaphor for all this taking place?  Maybe the Israelites were never in Egypt at all.  Maybe they “came out of Egypt” in the sense that they were delivered from Egyptian domination in their own land during the rise of a new monotheist belief, which in turn inspired the beginnings of their own faith?

I find this idea hard to resist and it’s my own personal explanation for the origins of the Israelite people.