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I wrote a guest post on Tim’s blog, LDS & Evangelical Conversations. Go read it!

http://ldstalk.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/for-this-purpose/

So while I don’t subscribe to the Mormon Plan of Salvation anymore (I don’t even use those terms), I do believe that God set the events of creation in motion with a specific end in sight. And while I don’t know how meticulous of a Providence I believe in, I am definitely not an Open Theist.

In any case, I’d like to talk about what “Heavenly Father’s plan” for mankind really is. So, with that in mind, my question is, what is the purpose of life, and how does your answer square with the Bible?

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Let’s talk about the Bible, fratres et sorores.

Luke 17:20-21 says,

20. And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:
21. Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

This passage comes from the end of a big section of the Gospel of Luke that contains things Jesus taught on the way to Jerusalem, in the transition between his earlier Galilean ministry and the final road to his Crucifixion.

For the sake of context, verses 20-21 are the lead-in to a longer sermon about the coming kingdom:

22. And he said unto the disciples, The days will come, when ye shall desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and ye shall not see it.
23. And they shall say to you, See here; or, see there: go not after them, nor follow them.
24. For as the lightning, that lighteneth out of the one part under heaven, shineth unto the other part under heaven; so shall also the Son of man be in his day.
25. But first must he suffer many things, and be rejected of this generation.
26. And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man.
27. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.
28. Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded;
29. But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.
30. Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed.
31. In that day, he which shall be upon the housetop, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away: and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back.
32. Remember Lot’s wife.
33. Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.
34. I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.
35. Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
36. Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
37. And they answered and said unto him, Where, Lord? And he said unto them, Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together.

What I really want to focus on, though, is that bombshell in verse 21: “for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you”.

So think about it, chew on it, put it in your gospel pipe and smoke it for awhile, and then come back and leave a comment about it. Feel free to let your theology hang out boldly, whatever kind of a dox it is. I’ve got a follow-up I’ll post once we get some ideas in the air.

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Born 11/11/11. Middle name (one of them, at least) Apollo. Baby and his mom, my beautiful and sexy wife, are doing great, but c-section recovery can be a bit harrowing, so they’ll be in the hospital for a few days while I herd our other two here at home.

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By Drew at Toothpaste for Dinner.

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Kate Douglas has written an article for the New Scientist on what the “ideal religion” would look like:

What form would the ideal religion take? Some might argue that instead of redesigning religion, we should get rid of it. But it is good for some things: religious people are happier and healthier, and religion offers community. Besides, secularism has passed its zenith, according to Jon Lanman, who studies atheism at the University of Oxford. In a globalised world, he says, migrations and economic instability breed fear, and when people’s values feel under threat, religion thrives.

Jacobs lists off four categories or basic functions of religion (sacred party, therapy, mystical quest, and school) and describes how most of the existing world religions do one of these very well and ignore or fail to excel at the others. Jacobs’s ideal religion would excel at all four:

While each appeals to a different sort of person, they all tap into basic human needs and desires, so a new world religion would have a harmonious blend of them all: the euphoria and sensual trappings of a sacred party, the sympathy and soothing balms of therapy, the mysteries and revelations of an eternal journey and the nurturing, didactic atmosphere of a school.

Numerous festivals, holidays and rituals would keep followers hooked. “Rites of terror” such as body mutilation are out – although they bind people together very intensely, they are not usually compatible with world religions (New Scientist, 19 December 2009, p 62). Still, highly rousing, traumatic rituals might still feature as initiation ceremonies, because people tend to be more committed to a religion and tolerant of its failings after paying a high price for entry.

The everyday rituals will focus on rhythmic dancing and chanting to stimulate the release of endorphins, which Robin Dunbar, also at Oxford, says are key to social cohesion. To keep people coming back, he also prescribes “some myths that break the laws of physics, but not too much”, and no extreme mysticism, as it tends to lead to schisms.

With many gods and great tolerance of idiosyncratic local practices, the new religion will be highly adaptable to the needs of different congregations without losing its unifying identity. The religion will also emphasise worldly affairs – it would promote the use of contraceptives and small families and be big on environmental issues, philanthropy, pacifism and cooperation.

I’m not sure about downplaying the value of mysticism or the necessity of pacifism, but the interesting thing (as pointed out by Sannion over at the House of Vines) is that Jacobs has basically described ancient Greco-Roman pagan religion.

As Apuleius Platonicus pointed out, Jacobs’s description is lacking in a few other areas as well. Such an ideal religion ought to honor human sexuality and celebrate reason and learning.

But these are honestly quibbles that could be worked out in the long run, or better yet, there would just be room within this kind of big-tent religion for different viewpoints. Most importantly, however, as pointed out by paosirdjhutmosu is that this kind of article and this kind of thinking undermines the notion of religions progress that people like Rodney Stark sell so hard, and that so many people seem to accept as a given, the idea that the course of human religious history has somehow been a linear progression from a darker mirror to a clearer one, and that therefore modern religions are necessarily better than older ones. Like all notions of progress, this is an extremely suspect assumption, with very little to back it up other than plain-old-fashioned massive bias in favor of the current status quo. Now must be better because it’s now. That’s nonsense. Social and cultural change happen for a host of reasons, and there’s nothing in the process that makes sure that the end-product is more functional or healthier for human beings.

I don’t think articles like this are going to turn people towards the old gods in massive numbers or anything, but I like that we see this kind of thinking more and more.

I also definitely want to point out that while this “ideal religion” describes ancient Greco-Roman polytheism fairly well, it wound not specifically have to be Greco-Roman polytheism. I for one would gladly welcome an open, mystical, transcendental, green Christianity with room to give proper honor to saints, angels, ancestors and local kindred spirits of the earth.

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Before you dismiss this post as just being about music and not spirituality (again), hang with me for a few minutes, because I’ll get there. “Pancho and Lefty” is a song written by Townes Van Zandt, one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and like Jim Morrison, one of the tradition of young musicians who bit into something too intense somehow, too young, something too big for them to handle, and it raged through them, used them up, and left them dead too soon. If you haven’t listened to Townes Van Zandt much, shame on you.

This song is the kind of song that worms its way into your head and just gets more interesting the more you think about it. The lyrics have a gloss of conventionality, but it’s a trick–Van Zandt wrote a song that comes across as simple but is anything but. Once you get past the impression of the words, you see that the songwriting is far more complex and poetic. This is not a generic ballad. This is something interesting:

Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath’s as hard as kerosene
You weren’t your mama’s only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dying words
That’s the way it goes

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose

Lefty he can’t sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty’s mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain’t nobody knows

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he’s growing old

A few gray federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him go so wrong
Out of kindness I suppose

Most interpretations of this song that I have encountered seem to assume that it is about two different people: Pancho, the Mexican bandit who is betrayed and killed by one of his own men, Jesse James-style, out in the desert, and Lefty, the one who killed him, who fled Mexico and settled down to an ordinary life in Cleveland, Ohio.

But I think they’re wrong. That’s much too easy, and it’s also not clear from the lyrics. Nobody heard his dying words. His death was told of by the poets, not the witnesses. Pancho “died” out in the desert, after a hard outlaw’s life, and then, from nowhere, this Lefty flees to Ohio. What’s Lefty fleeing from? Where did Lefty come into the picture? Was anyone chasing Lefty? Was anyone after him to get revenge? Does Lefty live his life nervously like the Ford brothers, reviled for killing a popular outlaw? The song says nothing about that.

That’s because Lefty is Pancho. Pancho let the poets tell of his death because it was the only way out. And he moved to Cleveland and lived under an assumed name and spent the rest of his life living in a cheap hotel with his demons and his regrets, wondering who he is and what could have been. And if anyone could have tracked him down, nobody tried too hard. They let him go because it was enough.

So what’s spiritual about this? Why does this matter? The thing is, this story is mythology. It’s not non-fiction, but there’s a bite and a life to it that crackles with something more than just a made-up story. It might not have actually happened, but it’s certainly true.

Wrapped up in this mythic ballad is some powerful stuff about strength, manhood, what it means to be human and alive, and living life close to the quick. More importantly, it’s about the hard choices that lead a man to give all of that up, and what’s left when he does, for better or for worse. There’s an authenticity to Pancho and Lefty that radiates significance because at the end of the day it cuts into the heart of the big things, the raw, the stuff that makes us remember we’re alive. And I say this over and over again, but that’s what spirituality is really about: making sense of mortality.

And then there’s this, from an interview with Van Zandt: “I realize that I wrote it, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It came through me and it’s a real nice song, and I think I’ve finally found out what it’s about.” This song came to him from out of the blue. He put it to paper but he didn’t make it up. Don’t believe in the Mousai? This stuff comes from somewhere. Someone out there is trying to tell us something important and they are using people like Townes Van Zandt to do it.

Chew on that while you listen to a live version the song:

And then there’s the popular version by Willie Nelson and Merle haggard. Listen to it, too:

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(from a recent post I put up at Burning at the Stake)

I’m definitely an unabashed tarot enthusiast, although I am not necessarily that experienced or that knowledgeable. My understanding of the nature of the tarot is that there’s nothing magic about it–the cards only have significance we give them. Their usefulness and power lies in their powerful symbolism and the resulting ability to cause us to think about things in new ways, to see new relationships between ideas and currents in our life, and and thus make connections that we might not have been able to make without them.

I think the symbolism of the tarot is, if not universal, at least close to universal, at least for people coming out of a western-civilization cultural context. The images in the Rifder-Waite deck are simple and poignant, and deal with archetypes, emotions, and values that embedded in our psyche.

Tarot cards are not primarily used to tell the future, but to evaluate the present (and by understanding the rpesent, to see where all of this is coming from and where it is probably going). When I do a tarot reading, the relationships between the cards in their various positions suggest relationships between ideas or experiences in the subject’s life. The connections themselves are as archetypical as the images on the cards, and as such they are universal enough to have some likelihood of sparking some sort of recognition of “aha” moment. In other words, by reading the cards and attaching their symbolic meanings to specific experiences, people, or ideas in your life, the relationships suggested by the position of the cards suggests relationships between those concrete experiential phenomena that you simply may not have considerd before. As such, there is a good possibility that seeing the “pieces” of your life arranged in a new way will give you insight into what is really going on in your life and in your mind.

Nothing magical or supernatural about it: nothing but psychology at work.

On the other hand, I do not necessarily discount the possibility that there may in fact be more involved than that. If I believe in a god or gods or some kind of cosmic unity, even a basic fundamental connectedness, then there is no reason why the will of God or the connections in the fundamentally connected universe couldn’t play out in what cards you draw and where you place them. Or in the conclusions and interpretations you give them.

I’ve done enough readings that were disturbingly spot-on that I think there is definitely something of value to the tarot. On the other hand, I’ve done a lot of readings that just didn’t “click.” Probably more of the latter than the former. And if/when the tarot is emrely serving as an analytical lens, it stands to reason that there wil be at least as many “misses” as “hits.” But even the misses have value: by considering these symbols and relationships and concluding that what I am seeing in the cards at the moment is not relevant or instructive or providing me with insight, I still reap the benefits of having considered new possibilities. The fact that I ultimately chose to discount the possibility considered does not undermine the value of considering the possibility in the first place.

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There’s an excellent opinion piece at the New York Times by Sean Kelly on polytheism’s place in walking the road between Fanaticism and Nihilism.

Drawing heavily on Nietzche, Kelly discusses the waning role of objective, monotheist religious consensus in defining our social norms. We are quickly reaching the point where it is difficult for a rational, educated critically-thinking person to believe that a single, objectively knowable, unified supernatural moral order emanating from a single, all-powerful sovereign creator god is an unquestionably correct foundation to build society and give human existence meaning. Certainly we are past the point where a majority of people in our society can confidently claim that. On the most basic level, we are simply confronted too often with the reality of good people who believe different things to maintain the fantasy that there is only one true way to be good and right.

We are often cautioned by the religious that the alternative to monomorality is nihilism: if there is no sovereign god to set the rules, define meanings, reward the good and punish the evil, then there are no rules and there is no morality and we will have no choice but to descend into chaos and madness and a violent maelstrom of murder, cannibalism, rape and suicide until we are utterly annihilated.

And while the extremes of that scenario are unreasonably alarmist, I think the concern that nihilism is the alternative to monotheism is a legigimate concern. Particularly for a society that has held onto a dichotomy-worldview for centuries. When you have grown up believeing that the only alternative to the God of Israel os meaninglessness and despair, it is easy to slip into meaningless and despair when you lose the God of Israel. While this does not necessarily mean an orgy of destruction, it may mean depression and moral loss. While believeing in nothing may not mean you go on a killing spree, it is sort of easy to start justifying lesser immoral and even evil self-serving deeds.

So what’s the alternative?

Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived. The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events. But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped. Indeed, when taken up in the appropriate way, the commitments that animate the meanings in one person’s life ─ to family, say, or work, or country, or even local religious community ─ become completely consistent with the possibility that someone else with radically different commitments might nevertheless be living in a way that deserves one’s admiration.

Kelly goes on to describe this way of life that finds meaning and fulfillment in “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” polytheism, and I think he is not wrong. Melville may not have been describing the Olympians, but I think he was only a stone’s throw from them. When we sacralize the fundamental mysteries and values of human experience–which is what Melville was talking about and what I understand to be the essence of real paganism–it honestly does not matter if we name them or not.

I believe that the gods are real personalities that have some kind of existence of their own. But I think that reality is not actually very far removed from the pieces of human existence that those gods are related to. In other words, while I do not believe that Aphrodite is merely a metaphorical anthromorphization of human love, I do think there is a fundamental closeness and a fundamental union between Aphrodite the goddess and the emotional experiential phenomenon of love. There’s a blur at the edges where the real gives way to the super-real, and somewhere within those borders we find the gods.

And while I think that a person can find happiness and meaning in “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country” as things in themselves, I think that the desire to engage with those things in a sacred way, to relate to the things that are most important and give our existence meaning in a way that is transcendant, because those very things by their very natures straddle the line between immanent and transcendant. They seem weightier than other things. Human intuition senses enhanced meaning and wants to make contact with it in some kind of fitting way.

Thus, I believe that Melville’s polytheism is a road that eventually leads to some kind of real polytheism. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with the New Age movement. It doesn’t even need to be connected with ancient paganism, although I suspect that at least connecting this new polytheism to the old polytheism, those gods of old that have held such power over our imaginations for so long despite the intellectual monopoly of monotheism, would yield an incredibly rich spiritual harvest, and might be the kind of thing that happens inevitably.

I think that this kind of Melvillian polytheism is probably developing spontaneously anyway. People increasingly identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and I think that identification has nothing to do with belief in a supernatural otherworld that exists in tandem with the physical world and everythign to do with an intuitive recognition that there is profound meaning and spiritual sustenance to be found in the fundamentals of human experience. Whether we worship a pantheon of gods or not, we as human beings experience the transcendent all the time. Life and death are everywhere, and I believe that there is an intuitive need to sacralize it somehow. Believing in the gods, engaging in spiritual practices and theology gives us a way to talk about that and a way to interact with it within a structure, and ultimately to develop a deeper connection to those things we feel that we feel; are important. But even without that structure, the fundamental recognition of meaning and fulfillment in basic human existence is still a thoroughly pagan experience.

As a side-note: Hrafnkell wrote some commentary on Kelly’s piece from a heathen perspective over on A Heathen’s Day. You should check it out.

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Outgoing Florida governor Charlie Crist has hinted at giving Jim Morrison a posthumous pardon for his Florida indecent exposure conviction.

I’d rather see Jim Morrison pardoned than acquitted, honestly. An aquittal would be an attempt to legally say “Jim Morrison did not do that,” and I don’t think that’s right. Jim pushed the boundaries intentionally. It’s what he was all about, the influence of Dionysus, the god who steps over the boundaries and pushes us through–breaks on through, even–to the other side.

As human beings and as a human society we have a deep need for that kind of channeled transgression. We need rules and order to survive and prosper, but we also need a way to break through and shatter those rules completely, to remind us of who we really are and what is really going on. We have to be able to grapple with darkness, to embrace the shadow side of our existence, to shake off constraints and boundaries. Pushing us to our limits, pushing us past those boundaries in every way, is what Jim Morrison’s life was all about.

And so I say hell yes he exposed himself on stage. I say hell yes he simulated fellatio. And good, and well done, and do it again.

But he should be celebrated, not condemned. If our society expressed through the state can not understand the context and the importance of Dionysian transgression, and the role it plays in keeping us sane and healthy, then we are all Pentheus, and we are setting ourselves up for a violent and savage downfall.

So nothing could be more appropriate than a pardon. Try him if you want, convict him if you must, but punish him? Smear his name? Nonsense. We’re not talking about a pervert in the parking lot, we are talking a high priest of Dionysus, a prophet of the God Who Comes. Jim Morrison brought the law of liberation written on tablets of vinyl. I can think of few better ways to honor him than to wipe his name clear.

So, hail the Lizard King triumphant! Euoi!

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