Thursday, February 25, 2021

Church of the Black Sun, Part 5: Centering the Feminine for a Better World

Follow the links to parts 123, and 4

Now that I’ve put some distance between myself and the church, I find to my surprise that the Christianity-related image that has stuck with me the most, aside from many depictions of Mary that still resonate with me, is Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa. The 17th-century marble sculpture, which sits today in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, was based on a passage from Teresa of Avila’s autobiography.

I mentioned Teresa earlier. She was always one of my favorite saints, not only for her deep intellect and striking spiritual insights, but also for her headstrong will that gave her the resolve necessary to endure the challenges of the ongoing Spanish Inquisition, the Catholic church’s identity crisis in the face in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, and her own critics. No shrinking violet, Teresa undertook reforms of her order, seeking to root out corruption in the ranks, and her written works earned her no small amount of consternation, as it rankled (male) church leaders that she taught others so with such persuasion, eloquence, and force when women, especially nuns, were expected to be obedient and submissive.

She was such an irritant, in fact, that the papal nuncio to Spain famously referred to her as a “disobedient, contumacious woman who promulgates pernicious doctrines under the pretense of devotion, who left her cloister against the orders of her superiors, who is ambitious, and teaches theology as though she were a doctor of the Church, in contempt of St. Paul, who forbade women to teach.”

That’s some serious shade. But Teresa would posthumously get the last laugh, as Pope Paul VI actually named Teresa the first female doctor of the church, in 1970.

Her written works are classics of Christian theology and spiritual mysticism, and it was probably the latter that got her in trouble with the inquisitors and church leaders most of all. Perhaps it was understandable that her many claims of rapturous spiritual experiences were often met with skepticism, but Teresa wouldn’t have been Teresa without them. Consider, for example, the passage from her autobiography that inspired the Bernini sculpture, in which she envisioned an angel in her presence:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

Now look at the sculpture again. Teresa is shown reclining, her head tilted back, a bare foot dangling free beneath her, and one hand attempting fruitlessly to grasp at something solid to hold her up, as a cupid-like creature with a mischievous grin prepares to impale her with his spear of divine love (ahem). With her eyes closed, her lips parted, and her shimmering vestments suggesting the quivering of her body, Teresa is quite plainly experiencing a spiritual orgasm.

I’ll grant to the skeptics that the whole passage that inspired the sculpture could be dismissed as the neurotic ramblings of a sexually repressed nun. To be sure, Teresa was a troubled woman in some regards, having suffered from poor health most of her life and no doubt being scarred by what she suggests was a sexual relationship with a older female relative when she was a teenager. Some have twisted her writings to paint a picture of Teresa as something she clearly wasn’t, perhaps ignorant of her struggles. (Or perhaps not.)

But putting all that aside, the erotic trance she wrote about suggests to me the shattering orgasmic potential of the spiritual experience. The spiritual life, after all, doesn’t have to be a sterile drudgery of reciting rosaries, confessing sins, and trying to bear the weight of crushing guilt. Anyone who practices tantra, yoni worship, or any such intimate practice can surely tell you of the ecstatic heights one can reach by blending spirituality and sexuality. The experience, as Teresa of Avila expressed in her own way, is obviously both liberating and transcendent.

The concept of yoni worship in particular is commendable for its elevation of the female and its regenerative powers. Strongly associated with Shaktism, a sect of Hinduism that envisions creation and the godhead as inherently female, yoni worship is itself a tantric practice, centered on the female genitalia as the symbolic source of the universe. By extension, then, women are themselves worshipped as an embodiment of the sacred feminine — a human expression of the goddesses that brought the universe into being.

yoni yantra, a symbolic representation of the female.

In such ceremonies, the yoni is bared, either symbolically or physically. Not only is the revealed yoni said to radiate healing and protective powers, but its exposure also alludes to the joining of male and female sexual fluids, which themselves are believed to hold a sacred essence when commingled.

This is serious stuff, though, not intended to be a sexual free-for-all with some spiritual mumbo-jumbo tossed in. In fact, yoni worship is not intended to be performed at all in front of men “still possessed by their animal nature.” It is quite literally a worship of Shakti, the feminine essence and creatrix of the universe, often as represented by a woman in the ceremony. The Yoni Tantra accordingly makes it clear how women are to be regarded:

Women are divinity, women are life, women are truly jewels.

Women are heaven; women are dharma; and women are the highest penance. Women are Buddha; women are the sangha; and women are the perfection of Wisdom.

Liberation is achieved through enjoyment. Happiness is gained through enjoyment. Therefore, by every effort, a sadhaka should become an enjoyer. The wise man should always avoid blame, disgust, or shame of the yoni.

I have no doubt that Aleister Crowley and his left-hand peers were aware of such Eastern exotic practices when they created the sexually charged practices of their own rituals. The obvious difference is that, wereas the yoni is revered as a healing source of life in Indian practices and a man's "animal nature" has no place in the ceremony, full female nudity is a central aspect of left-hand ceremonies that celebrate carnal indulgence. As mentioned, in left-hand practices, a naked woman becomes the altar itself.

Left-hand ceremonies by design lack the reverence of something like a yoni ritual, being as they are an affirmation of indulgence over abstinence. And it is probably for that reason that the female nudity that figures into left-hand ceremonies has long been a point of criticism.

Now, granted, if you’ve ever seen pictures of Anton LaVey at his ceremonies, dressed up in his ridiculous devil-horned Halloween-ish costume, while an abundance of naked women swarm around him, you could argue that he was just exploiting women for the sex — and for all I know, you could be right.

An elaborate case of trick-or-treat play-acting to get the girls? Only Anton LaVey knows what his intentions were, and dead men tell no tales. Source: YouTube screen shot.

But whatever LaVey’s intentions, it doesn’t detract from the fact that many who have participated insist that such ceremonies still serve to elevate and glorify the feminine. As one female practitioner said of the naked-woman-as-altar tradition:

A nude female altar is the symbol of the Earth Mother — the embodiment of creation. […] It’s only “seedy” to those that are repressed enough to find the female body “seedy.” […] To be the physical representation of the human race’s lustful desires in that moment is a powerful feeling.

The experience afforded me the opportunity to explore some doubts and insecurities about myself and my body that I might otherwise have never addressed, subsequently releasing them. That is the very definition of liberation.

So whether it’s a LaVeyan celebration of the pleasures of the flesh or the sacredness of an Indian tantric ritual, the end result is in either case a ceremony in which the woman at the center of the service is being, in some manner, worshipped. Men, accordingly, would do well to remember that the woman, by virtue of being the object of worship, is ultimately in charge of such rituals. The point, after all, is to center and elevate women, not to use them to indulge our physical desires. 

If we take this approach seriously and extend it beyond the context of a spiritual ceremony, truly centering women as both our spiritual superiors and the symbols of life-giving power with which we yearn to merge, we would almost certainly make our world a little less messed up than it is. Not that women are inherently better than men, and not that some women on a case-by-case basis aren’t awful people, but our world is being torn apart by the heat of anger and violence, and if we were to prioritize traditionally yin values like nurturing, care, empathy, compassion, and love above the conflict and hate that rule in today’s environment, we might just be able to turn things around. Men have mostly been in charge of things for millennia, and let’s face it — we haven’t done a really great job.

William Moulton Marston had that same idea in mind when he created Wonder Woman in the 1940s. A man ahead of his time, Marston once said that “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.”

Think of Diana Prince’s monologue from the end of the excellent 2017 Wonder Woman movie to get an idea of what that kind of world and its enlightened leadership would look like:

I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light and learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. A choice each must make for themselves. Something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know that only love can truly save the world. So, I stay, I fight, and I give, for the world I know can be. This is my mission now. Forever.

Sounds great, if it’s not too late to turn the tide.

Incidentally, the scene where Wonder Woman emerges from the World War I trench to take on German fire is truly one of the great moments in cinematic history. Who wouldn’t be proud to be led by a brave, strong, and beautiful leader like that?

In conclusion, we can pivot back to the Hindu tradition and perhaps strive to make these female-centering lines from the Shaktisangama Tantra something like a prayer or meditation for our life and times:

Woman is the creator of the universe,
the universe is her form;
woman is the foundation of the world,
she is the true form of the body.

In woman is the form of all things,
of all that lives and moves in the world.
There is no jewel rarer than woman,
no condition superior to that of a woman.

Indian tradition, particularly Shaktism, points us strongly toward this power of the feminine, an aspect that seems equally ignored, misunderstood, and abused in the Western world. In Shaktism, for instance, maleness is the foundation on which the feminine creates and animates life. The male is static, undifferentiated consciousness and eternity, the base raw material of existence, but it is the female that gives it purpose, vibrancy, color, and beauty. If the male is the rugged bones and sinews of the body that build a firm foundation for a being to exist, then the female is the soft flesh and blood that impart life, beauty, individuality, and meaning to each being. The male likewise is the foundation, beams, and girders that give a house its form, but the female beautifies the exterior and fills the interior with nurturing and love, transforming a house, a mere shell of a building, into a home, where life plays out and love flourishes. 

Notably, this view of Shakti is not so different from the Jewish concept of shekinah, the manifested feminine energy and presence of God. One might say the shekinah is the feminine soul of the divine, without which God could not create. And perhaps, then, Sophia is its personified manifestation.

Thus, the feminine need be neither antagonistic toward the male nor subservient to it. Rather, each has a vital role to play, and each supports the other. As much as Lilith has become something of a feminist icon in the modern age, to read her as a rejection of the male is to misunderstand how the sexes ought to work together. Inasmuch as Lilith represents the rejection of patriarchal dominance over women, though, she is a powerful icon indeed, one worthy of our embrace. Men and women alike might do well to view her as a reminder that no one owns us and we are all autonomous and equally created creatures. But men in particular can see her as a reminder that women are not to be regarded as inferiors or mere "helpmeets" or reduced to sexual receptacles for our carnal pleasure, but rather as something like goddesses come to Earth — those who create life, those who give life its form and purpose, those without whom life would be colorless and meaningless... indeed, without whom life would not exist at all. 

So let’s hear it for the Church of the Black Sun, with Wonder Woman as our honorary high priestess. My church will be a church of two, if I’m lucky, and if it ever takes shape. But it will nonetheless be my statement of how to build a better world. I fully encourage all people to build their own churches that speak to their own hopes and desires.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Church of the Black Sun, Part 4: The Sacred Feminine Reigns

Follow the links to parts 123, and 5

So far, we’ve covered two of the three axioms of The Church of the Black Sun. The first was an acknowledgment of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s observation that truth is a pathless land — it’s up to you and no one else to climb the mountain of truth. The second was that it’s OK to embrace the darkness when it visits your life. The image of the Black Sun is a striking symbol of the power of the dark’s ability to overtake the light, yet it’s not something to fear or run from, for we can learn important things about ourselves under the shadow of the black sun, perhaps even enduring a painful purification that leads us toward self-improvement.

Now, let’s move on to the third point — one that’s almost certain to generate both positive and negative reactions.

Church of the Black Sun Axiom No. 3: The universe is feminine. Deal with it, guys.

Cover image of The Feminine Universe, a book by Alice Lucy Trent.

Look up at the night sky. The vast space between the stars appears as an endless dark void. We may think of that empty space as a kind of meaningless blank, a great nothing. Yet it’s that very dark void that makes the creation of the stars you see possible.

To use an analogy more familiar to everyday life, think of a cup. The cup holds your favorite beverages, but it’s only the emptiness of the cup that makes using it possible.

In Taoist philosophy, the Tao is referred to as a Great Mother who gives birth to all things and nourishes all life, without making distinctions. All things come from the Tao, and that is only possible because the Tao itself is a vast empty vessel, a fruitful womb of endless creative potential.

The principle of yin and yang helps us see things in terms of male and female characteristics, and how they fit together and work in unity toward whatever common purpose. Yin is associated with femaleness. Places that are cool, dark, and damp. Hidden things. Valleys and caves. Things that are soft, yielding, and flowing in nature. Yang, meanwhile, is associated with maleness. Heat and light. Prominent features like protruding rocky mountains and tall, erect trees. Things that are hard, strong, and penetrating in nature.

Think of any characteristic that you associate with maleness or femaleness, and the concept of yin and yang covers it. Yang maleness is assertive and aggressive; yin femaleness is withdrawing and nurturing. Yang is the essence of the hunter, explorer, and conqueror. Yin is the essence of the keeper of hearth and home. Men are from Mars; women are from Venus. You get the idea.

It almost becomes a caricature of the sexes, but the point is not to say that men are or should be typically “male” in every way, nor need women pursue perfect “femaleness.” Rather, the point is that men and women tend toward yang and yin characteristics, respectively, which is what makes men and women complementary, but there is nothing wrong with seeking a greater equilibrium of yin and yang tendencies within ourselves. Men can also be nurturing, for instance, and women can also be assertive.

And yet it is only women whose bodies grow new life, give birth, and feed their young. Without women, the human race would die. And likewise, without the life-giving empty vessel that is the Mother Tao, all of creation would never have come into being. Even our planet that sustains us is our Mother Earth, symbolized as the goddess Gaia, and seen in her full splendor as Mother Nature.

Let’s face it, guys: Women simply have the upper hand on us. Every woman is a microcosm of the creative power of the universe. The Sufi mystic Rumi said it well:

Woman is a ray of God, not a mere mistress,
The Creator itself, as it were, not a mere creature!

Women are the darkness, the valley, the cave, the womb from which we emerge into new life, and the enveloping earth in which our bodies fertilize her soil after death. From her we emerge, and to her we return. Thus is the universe itself feminine — on one hand a dark and mysterious void, but on the other endless, limitless, fruitful, and full of wonder.

And so we return to the imagery of the eclipse. In most cultures, maleness has been associated with the sun, radiating heat and light, and femaleness with the moon, receiving the light of the male and illuminating the dark. The moon may be the “lesser” of the two heavenly bodies, and yet when their paths cross, the female engulfs the male and casts the heat of day into the cool of night. The feminine overtakes the masculine. Like yin and yang, a solar eclipse is a joining of male and female energies, and yet the “lesser” and “weaker” feminine prevails, darkening the day, the smaller light obscuring the greater one.

Put in different terms, women only let us men think we’re in charge. When they want to expose their power, they can and do — and there’s little that we men can do about it.

There’s no shame in acknowledging this. Being biologically connected to the lunar cycles, for example, women are in greater harmony with the rhythms of nature. Women are also the passageway to life and immortality. They are thus in tune with the spiritual and natural worlds in a way that men innately can’t be.

Indeed, women are the default of the human race. Men are, in essence, a genetic mutation that exists so that women can propagate the species. However, in theory, the genetic material of two women could be used to create new life — the offspring would always be female, granted, but the potential is there — so as technology advances, there could come a day when men are rendered biologically irrelevant.

My theory is that less secure men throughout history have known all these things about women, fearing their near-supernatural powers, and chose to subjugate them for that very reason. That’s not to say there was ever an era when women widely ruled over men, and in fact evidence of a preponderance of early matriarchal societies is scant, despite claims to the contrary. Yet we can still piece together clues that do suggest that a more female-centric vision of spirituality and the cosmos once existed and for whatever reason has been lost.

Take, for example, the figure of Sophia, the personified Wisdom of God in the Bible.

Sophia icon by Betsy Porter.

Remember the verse during the Creation story in Genesis when God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”? Who do you suppose God was talking to? If God created us male and female in the divine image, what do you suppose that says about the nature of God? Does it mean God had a co-creator? Well, let’s look at a passage from the Book of Proverbs, and you tell me what you think:

The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. 

When there were no watery depths, I was given birth, when there were no springs overflowing with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth, before he made the world or its fields or any of the dust of the earth. 

I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. 

Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.

Sophia was there at the beginning, when the earth was still a formless void, before the waters and mountains were created. Hmm.

The books of Wisdom and Sirach, included in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles but not in the King James and most other Protestant translations, reveal far more about this mysterious character. Take this passage from Chapter 7 of Wisdom:

Whatever is hidden or plain I learned, for Wisdom, the artisan of all, taught me.

For in her is a spirit intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, agile, clear, unstained, certain, never harmful, loving the good, keen, unhampered, beneficent, kindly, firm, secure, tranquil, all-powerful, all-seeing, and pervading all spirits, though they be intelligent, pure and very subtle.

For Wisdom is mobile beyond all motion, and she penetrates and pervades all things by reason of her purity.

For she is a breath of the might of God and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled can enter into her. For she is the reflection of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the power of God, the image of his goodness.

Although she is one, she can do all things, and she renews everything while herself perduring; passing into holy souls from age to age, she produces friends of God and prophets, for God loves nothing so much as the one who dwells with Wisdom.

For she is fairer than the sun and surpasses every constellation of the stars. Compared to light, she is found more radiant; though night supplants light, wickedness does not prevail over Wisdom.

That’s practically a love letter, to she who is called “a breath of the might of God.” Might Sophia, then, have been the one to breathe life into creation and humanity, after God had given it shape? And would that make Sophia the Holy Spirit? Many people have made that very argument over the ages. Even Jesus, in the lost Gospel of the Hebrews, is said to have referred to “my mother the Holy Spirit.” 

Sophia says she makes herself known to all who seek her out (see Wisdom 6:12-16, for example). So why do we hear so little of this divine being, who is mentioned more than all but four characters in the Old Testament?

Well, that takes us back to where we started, regarding the seeming erasure of the Sacred Feminine in the Western religious traditions. Catholic author Joyce Rupp suggests that Sophia was well known to early Christians but that as the institution of the church grew, Sophia faded into the background for a number of reasons. Among those reasons were Sophia’s uncomfortable similarity to goddesses being worshipped at the time, including the Greek deity of the same name, and the emerging patriarchal structure of the church that still exists today.

And then there were the Gnostics, who placed Sophia in a prominent context that told a very different story. To the Gnostics, Sophia in ignorance birthed a malevolent deity, the Demiurge, who then became the God of this world and revealed himself through the writings of the Old Testament. To make a long story short, this mythology was the Gnostics’ way of explaining why the world is in such a sorry state. The “real” God, the source of goodness, light, and love that Jesus pointed toward, is a different deity far removed from us, while we’re stuck with a spiteful, petty, vengeful, wrathful, evil fuck-up who thinks he’s God. Our job, according to the Gnostics, is to escape from the prison of the Demiurge’s world and reunite with the true God.

The Gnostic view explains a lot about why things are the way they are, when you think about it. But you can also see why early Christians would have wanted to distance themselves from such a theological viewpoint.

Then there’s the story of Lilith, who also got an unfair bad rap.

Lilith, John Collier, 1889.

Lilith doesn’t appear in the Bible by name. Perhaps inspired by earlier regional mythologies, Lilith emerged from Jewish folklore, where her primary purpose appears to have been to address the discrepancies between the two creation stories in Genesis

In the early medieval text The Alphabet of Ben-Sira, we ecounter Lilith as the first wife of Adam. Created out of the clay just like Adam, she was his equal in all ways — and therein lay the problem, as you can just imagine. When she refused to be subservient to Adam — and it seems all she actually wanted was to be on top once in a while — she dumped him and left the Garden. Adam, meanwhile, asked God to create for him a new partner — this time not an equal made from the clay, but a creature taken from a piece of his body, and thus inferior and obedient to him. He wanted a companion, but one that would know her place. And that’s how we ended up with a man named Adam and a rib named Eve.

Lilith’s legend grew more rich and complex over the centuries, but it also grew darker. In some tales, she is depicted as the mother of Cain, the world's first murderer. After leaving Eden, she was said to have coupled either with numerous demons around the Red Sea, or with Samael, an angel of death who was something like a precursor to the Grim Reaper but over time became identified as a servant of the devil. 

Lilith likewise was transformed over time into a vampiric demon who would steal babies' souls in the dead of night (perhaps a primitive explanation for SIDS), while her own demonic offspring would seduce men in their sleep, to steal their seminal fluids to create even more demon-children. 

Certain legends depict her as possessing a lower half made of flames, and according to some Arabic myths, the unholy copulation of Lilith and Samael created the race of djinns — the beings made of smokeless fire that emerged from Islamic mythology.

And to think poor Lilith took all this crap from writers across the ages just because she wanted to ride cowgirl in the Garden once in a while.

Lilith's sigil.

Well, Lilith eventually gets her revenge. Depending on the legend you read, either Samael took form as the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden, and Lilith, wanting in on the action, joined with Samael in a kind of kinky supernatural threesome; or Lilith herself was the serpent that seduced Eve and in turn persuaded Eve to seduce Adam. 

So Lilith was demonized (literally) for having the gall to demand equality of the sexes, while docile and submissive Eve was blamed for the fall of humankind. (And for what? The sin of not being blindly obedient?) Whatever they did, women couldn’t catch a break. The apostle Paul told them all to cover their heads, sit down, and shut up, while many of his contemporaries in the early church regarded them as no more than untrustworthy temptresses, using their feminine wiles to seduce men into sin.

That probably explains why the only woman the church ever chose to revere was one regarded as a sinless virgin. She wasn’t like all those other loose and lustful women. She was a mother without having to engage in any defiling sexual behavior. Placed high up on a pedestal, she was safe.

I don’t blame Mary for the way she’s been depicted, though. It’s not her fault. And I can scarcely criticize, as Mary was the only thing that kept my faith alive for many years. Maybe it was because I never had a great mother figure, and I took solace and refuge in a female archetype that I could regard as offering me the kind of unconditional motherly love that I never got to experience.

To that extent, I still find Mary an attractive spiritual figure. Everyone needs a compassionate mom once in a while. But it hasn’t been enough to keep me in the Christian family. 

Besides, if any goddess archetype resonates with me these days, it’s Hekate. She’s someone you don’t want to fuck with, and she’ll show you tough love if that’s what she thinks you need — but she’s also known for the intense love, deep loyalty, and fierce protection she shows to her spiritual children.

Yin and yang, a good, healthy balance.


In the final part of this series, I’ll talk a little bit about how we can integrate our spiritual celebration of the feminine with an embrace of feminine sexuality, while being mindful of letting women set the rules. And we’ll also see how Wonder Woman figures in to all this.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Church of the Black Sun, Part 3: On Colors and Symbols

Follow the links to parts 124, and 5

In the classic film The Matrix, Morpheus, leader of the resistance against the machines that enslave humanity, holds one pill in each hand. One is red, the other blue. He tells Neo, the One who will save the world, to pick one:

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

The idea is that the blue pill keeps you asleep, happily unaware of the fact that you’re no more than a battery powering a massive artificial-intelligence program, while the red pill awakens you to the ugliness of your reality.

For obvious reasons, most people choose the comforting blue pill. Only those who refuse to be controlled and are willing to fight their oppressors take the red pill.

In real life, the blue-pill people are those who go about their daily lives unaware of how the media, politicians, teachers, corporations, all institutions of power feed them propaganda to control the things they think about. The blue-pillers are told what to buy, whom to love and hate, how to vote. They’re instructed to support the troops, to obey the cops, and to think that paying taxes is patriotic.

The blue-pillers are the people who obsess over celebrities, watch TV news, envy their neighbors’ stuff, and choose religious and political tribes as if they were football teams to root for.

Red-pilled people, in stark contrast, have seen through the hoax. They see who controls us and are wise to how they do it. They are the ones who rebel, who disobey, who question the status quo. And those who get too far out of line are generally crushed by those in power, lest the red-pillers wake up more of the blue-pill masses. Because if the people ever realized that we have more in common than we know, that we’re being kept at each other’s throats to take our eyes off our real oppressors, and that we vastly outnumber those in power, the whole Matrix would come crumbling down.

But sometimes, being red-pilled leads to something more ominous. When you realize just how powerful the system is, and how the vast majority of the population remains compliant, obedient, and ignorant, you may not see any way out. You see only despair. That’s when you become black-pilled.

Now, a certain subset of people have re-centered the pill-color discussion to refer to male-female relations — in particular, “involuntary celibate” men, or incels, use the pill colors as a stand-in for what they think women owe them. I’m not going to waste my time talking about that, because when taken from the original film context, that’s not what red and blue pills signify. Your pill color simply describes your state of social awareness, and how you deal with what you know. Hence, blue pills are the bliss of ignorance, and red pills reveal the ugly truth behind the fake scenery.

Frank Zappa, pre-Matrix, once put a fine point on it:

When you see the brick wall, you’ve been red-pilled. If you choose to fight back against the illusionists and try to tear down the wall, you remain red-pilled. But if you feel overwhelmed by the power of the evil controlling the masses, you exchange your red pill for a black pill. Nihilism and misanthropy become your guiding forces. You become a hardened cynic, laughing at the absurdity of the world but feeling helpless to do anything about it. You feel alone, like you’ve been sucked into a black hole.

And that’s why the imagery of the black sun resonates with me these days.

The Nazis sullied the symbolism of the black sun in much the same way they did the ancient swastika. Their interpretation of the symbol is not what I refer to here. The image of the black sun dates to at least the days of medieval Europe, when it became emblematic of the alchemical process of human transformation — symbolically transforming lead into gold.

Nigredo, the blackening, was the first step in the process of a transformation, a spiritual death of sorts, leading to the further steps of albedo, the whitening or purification; and rubedo, redness, the end of the process in which one is born anew. Some alchemists added an intermediary step between albedo and rubedo: citrinitas, yellowness, signifying the rising of a new sun.

So there is hope, even in the midst of nigredo, when all has gone black. The death and rotting away of the old self is painful but necessary if one wants to be reborn into a higher self. Or, as the yin-yang symbol reminds us, there can be no light without dark.

The alchemists were big on esoteric visual symbolism.

And so one may choose to remain in the dark for some time, until one feels comfortable moving on to the next phase. Because the imagery of the black sun felt so powerful to me when I encountered it, I decided this is where I belong at this part of my spiritual journey, with a world that looks so very bleak.

I’m not sure where the power of the black sun hit me first, but it was before the current darkness grew around me. For example, I remember being intrigued by the Soundgarden song “Black Hole Sun” not just for its musical genius or its lyrical mystery, but also because the paradoxical title triggered a vivid image in my head of sunlight doing battle with an endless void of darkness.

How ironic, then, that Chris Cornell said the title was basically a fluke, coming from a time he misheard the words of a news reporter. He said the lyrics were likewise mostly nonsensical:

“That's the biggest hit we've ever had,” he says, “and lyrically it’s probably the closest to me just playing with words for words’ sake, of anything I’ve written. I guess it worked for a lot of people who heard it, but I have no idea how you’d begin to take that one literally.”

Cornell said the title came before the words, so I think his title must have set a dark mood in his mind as he sat down to write. When Rolling Stone asked him about the line “times are gone for honest men,” Cornell’s reply from 1994 was practically a prophecy for today’s world:

It’s really difficult for a person to create their own life and their own freedom. It’s going to become more and more difficult, and it’s going to create more and more disillusioned people who become dishonest and angry and are willing to fuck the next guy to get what they want.

When further asked if he was a fatalist, he replied:

If you look at things realistically, yes. It’s going to get worse before it’s going to get better.

Many years later, an obscure retro-progressive-rock outfit called Astra led off their debut album with an instrumental tune called “The Rising of the Black Sun.”

That same record included tracks called “Ouroboros” and “The Dawn of Ophiuchus,” both serpentine celestial names that tie in with the idea of the black sun as an ending of a cycle. Ouroboros, in particular, is an ancient symbol of the circle of life, death, and rebirth, depicted as a serpent eating its own tail. And at least one occultist has tied the constellation Ophiuchus — the 13th astrological sign to sidereal astrologers — to the appearance of a black sun signifying the fiery end of the age. So I think Astra were on to something with the tunes on their magnificent record.

In any event, the image of the black sun keeps recurring for me. For instance, I was recently reminded of Edward Abbey’s novel Black Sun. It was a term he used often in his writing, and in the case of his novel, I think it refers to the sense of emptiness and dread the protagonist feels when his young lover comes into his life, engages in a whirlwind romance with him, and then disappears without a trace.

There’s the slightly goofy Order of the Black Sun, whose members take nihilism to the level of an organized religion. Their core belief seems to be that since all the stars will eventually flame out and darkness will ultimately prevail in the universe, then we ought to embrace both the inevitability and power of the darkness and walk in the “shadow path.” To them this appears to mean building one’s physical strength and preparing to be a foot soldier in the coming Armageddon. They also seem to have a penchant for fascism and political strongmen in pursuit of their goals. They sound scary, but they appear to be, in the words of Douglas Adams, mostly harmless.

For example, I couldn’t help snickering at a passage in the Order’s book, imaginatively named The Book of the Black Sun, wherein the members discuss killing a deeply depressed man they encountered, reasoning that they’d be both doing him a favor and making a worthy sacrifice to the darkness. But then they all rationalized their way out of their plot, arguing that it would be too risky, because what if they left evidence behind? Yeah, you guys sound really tough. Also, they appear to have based their imagery and their own internal language on the Sith Lords from Star Wars. I’m not kidding.

Anyway, they do talk about the importance of keeping memento mori around, an idea I’ve long endorsed. So you take the good with the bad. Here’s a paragraph from their website:

The Dark Side disciple should keep certain symbols at hand — black suns, skulls, black robes, etc. — as reminders that he will die. Indeed, these symbols are a reminder that everything in existence — ourselves, our friends and families, our tribes, our races, our civilizations, our species, our planet, our sun, our galaxy, our entire universe — is doomed to destruction. As the ancient Chinese sages said, when asked for a saying that is true in all times and places: “this, too, shall pass”. Nothing in this world is eternal. The fate of everything is Darkness. Nothing can escape its destiny in the Void of the Black Sun.

In any event, I thought that a Catholic nun, Sister Teresa Alethia, made the idea of memento mori just as appealing in her book Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Lenten Devotional. Even though I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, I find her reflections on the fragility of life and the finality of death to be consistently thoughtful, deep, and penetrating, carrying forward a long tradition practiced by many Christian thinkers and contemplatives who came before her, including St. Teresa of Avila, who kept a skull on her writing desk, and St. John of the Cross, he of the “dark night of the soul.” You don’t have to go all Sith Lord to make an impression, after all.

Teresa of Avila, wondering how that bird got in here.

Finally, there's the power of the eclipse. 

And everything under the sun is in tune
But the sun is eclipsed by the moon.

— eternal pessimist Roger Waters

My family and I went to Oregon to see the full solar eclipse in 2017. It occurred on my daughter’s birthday — talk about auspicious signs! — and it was one of the most powerfully moving spiritual moments of my life. I’ll never forget the odd shadows that the fading light cast off the leaves of the nearby trees, or how the birds seemed restless, perhaps wondering why they had to settle in for the night so quickly. The air cooled, an eerie twilight settled over us, and the soft chatter that had been going on all day in the small city park suddenly stopped as day was cast into night. It was remarkable, and it mesmerized all of us. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

It was a day with a black sun.

The 2017 solar eclipse, as seen in Oregon.

I have to confess that eclipses are one of the few things that still make me think there might be a Divine Architect out there who set all this in motion. Just think about it: If the moon and sun were any larger or smaller than they are, and if their distance from each other were any different than it is, a total solar eclipse could never happen. The conditions for them to occur just happen to be absolutely perfect from our vantage point here on Earth. What are the odds? Astronomical, I’d say. (Sorry.)

A while after the 2017 eclipse, I stumbled across a piece of jewelry online when I’d been looking for some other esoteric religious symbols to wear as a necklace. It was — you guessed it — a depiction of an eclipse, with the corona shooting out from behind the moon that conceals the sun’s face. It’s a beauty, and I wear it every day. It’s my own personal black sun.

Shout out to Symphony of Symbols on Etsy.

And we’re still not done talking about eclipses and darkness, which tie in to the third and final axiom for The Church of the Black Sun.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Church of the Black Sun, Part 2: Who Knows What's Good or Bad?

Follow the links to parts 134, and 5

In Part 1 of this series on spiritualism in dark times, I talked about my personal lifelong journey, which began with my need to question the Catholicism I was raised in. As I traveled other paths later in life, I only found more questions and few answers. It seemed that I was never going to be able to live according to the untested tenets of someone else’s truth. As Jiddu Krishnamurti expressed nearly a century ago, truth is a pathless land. No one can make the journey for you.

According to many, my parents included, questioning the dogma you were raised in is practically a sin. And yet it is often those who question established dogma, religious or otherwise, that end up advancing humanity for the better. In the words of Frank Zappa, progress is not possible without deviation. Although traditions and rituals are important to social stability, simply doing things because “that’s the way they’ve always been done” is a pretty lousy justification, when you get down to it.

Change for its own sake is no better, of course. But I think the bottom line is that we’re too often afraid of change and too comfortable in our set patterns and habits, and it’s good to challenge our own viewpoints once in a while. We may not like where our own challenges take us, but that shouldn’t stop us from facing change, if it turns out that change is for the best.

That’s the subject, more or less, of today’s post.

Church of the Black Sun Axiom No. 2: It’s OK to embrace the dark.

Most of us are conditioned from a young age to embrace the “good” and shun the “bad.” But who knows what’s good or bad, as an old Taoist tale reminds us?

“Good” and “bad” are ultimately just labels we place on things as a shorthand way of describing how events affect us from moment to moment. In one circumstance, breaking your leg is good if it means you’re passed over for compulsory military service. In another, breaking your leg is bad if it means you’re going to miss that concert you’ve been waiting for months to see.

See? It’s all relative, isn’t it? Even out of the most horrible events, “good” things can emerge; and out of the best things imaginable, “bad” results can manifest.

We live in a world that deals in binaries. Black and white, good and bad, no middle ground to speak of. You’re either with us or against us. But what if life isn’t really like that? What if the world is really made up of unending shades of gray? We like the idea of clear-cut black and white options because it gives us the illusion of control, certainty, and “rightness” in a chaotic universe.

But what if the idea of black and white is just a comforting myth? What if Jesus was not God incarnate, but just a guy with a really enlightened mind and a superb ethical system for people to follow? Likewise, delving deeper into biblical lore, what if Lucifer was just a poor schmuck of an angel who got tired of being told what to do and chose to assert his independence from tyrannical rule? What if he was just framed by the winners to look like the bad guy, the rabble-rouser who wanted to upturn the goodness of the divine order?

Puts everything in a different light, doesn’t it?

And this is where we return to Taoist thought, where the famous tai-chi symbol symbolizes the eternal dance of dark and light. Yin and yang are not just “good” and “bad,” but fluid states of being that complete each other, interpenetrate each other, and can never be independent of one another. There can be no dark without light, no male without female, and indeed no good without bad.

Another way of looking at yin and yang is the concept of right-hand and left-hand spirituality. Practitioners of one path tend to see the other as misguided and foolish, and most of society would tell you to gravitate toward the right-hand paths and shun the left-hand ones. But who knows what’s good or bad? So let’s dig a little deeper.

The right-hand paths are the ones most people follow. They’re the mainstream religions like Christianity and Buddhism, but also “new age” religions like Wicca. What they all hold in common is an attempt by the practitioners to open themselves up to something larger than themselves, to seek union with divinity, and to cultivate a certain type of mental discipline that often manifests either in self-improvement, selflessness for the betterment of all, or a combination of the two. By adhering to ritual, prayer, and other habitual rules, practices, and methods, you refine and purify yourself, making yourself smaller, to turn yourself outward from the primal desires of your own ego and aim your energies toward making the world a better place. In short, you direct your spiritual energies toward the light that dispels the darkness. This is the stuff that martyrs and saints are made of.

The left-hand paths, in contrast, would tell you that the darkness has an unfair reputation — that as emotional beings, we naturally have egoic desires, that it is healthy to have them, and that it is therefore foolish, even dangerous, to suppress those desires. We may claim to be altruistic to a fault, but when push comes to shove, it will always be in our nature to look after our own needs before anyone else’s. The left-hand path would tell you that there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s not selfish or cruel. It’s just the way we’re wired. More than that, our self-interest is an evolutionary trait that has allowed us to survive as a species. That doesn’t mean you can’t find it in your heart to love others. It just means there’s nothing wrong with prioritizing yourself — and that sensory indulgence toward that end isn’t a sin.

Right-hand culture tells us that left-hand paths lead to destruction. Remember the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, when kids were supposedly being told to kill themselves by hidden messages in metal music, and tales spread of rampant child abuse and human sacrifices taking place in secretive Satanic rituals? Well, just like the moral panic we find ourselves in currently, most of it was overblown bunk, a way for scared people to exert control in a time of social disruption by identifying a scapegoat to “other” their problems and anxieties onto.

Prominent left-hand practitioners have never done anything to dispel fearful people of these notions. Aleister Crowley, in fact, played them up, in part because he was a showman who loved the attention, but also to get a rise out of people and to challenge stultifying social norms and taboos.

Social norms, to people like Crowley, forced people into a false conformity that blocked them from achieving their full human potential. It should therefore be no surprise that the essence of Thelema, the philosophical occult school Crowley founded, was simply this:

“Do what thou wilt” shall be the whole of the Law.

To clarify, though, Crowley didn’t take this edict to simply mean “do whatever you want,” because doing whatever you want may not be in tune with your True Will, which is your inmost purpose and ultimate destiny in this life. And people can’t access their True Will until they’ve cut through the delusions of who they think they are, which means we first have to cast aside the masks and façades we create for ourselves, either for the sake of social propriety or because we’re afraid to confront who we really are, at a granular level.

Crowley and the symbol of Thelema (center, black, intermingled with others).

This observation is similar to the Buddhist concept of challenging ourselves to see what our “I” really is, once we confront the fact that everything we call “I” is in constant flux, with nothing permanent to cling to.

That’s a terrifying idea to come to grips with. I had a spontaneous flash of it at a very young age, and it’s haunted me ever since. But in Crowley’s view, once we put in the work to discover our True Will, we end up being completely free, no longer resisting but becoming part of the natural flow of life. According to Crowley, we suddenly find joy in living, because we’re no longer motivated by outside expectations but by what we were always destined to do. If your friends and family think you’ve become a wacko in the process of this self-discovery, that’s on them, not you. The important thing is that you’re now living according to your true self, whatever that might look like.

If you think this sounds similar to Krishnamurti’s idea that truth is a pathless land and no one can climb the mountain of truth for you, I’d say you’re right. (See Part 1 for more on that.) In both cases, you’re shedding yourself of your mental dependence on others and pursuing the only truth that can ever be authentic to you and your unique situation.

The left-hand path doesn’t seem so scary when you regard it from this angle, does it? Even when you look deeper into things like Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible and the modern Satanic Mass that he popularized, you find that it’s all essentially a parody of mainstream religion, built on a foundation of libertarian thought and intended to shock and outrage those in “polite” society, while encouraging adherents to indulge their sensual desires equally as much as mainstream religions tell their followers to resist. Sex, for one thing, is both pleasurable and a celebration of life in the eyes of the left-hand practitioner, not something dirty and shameful, as many right-hand practitioners have been conditioned to believe.

Thus, you really do have left-hand rituals that indulge in sexual acts, desecrate objects that most people would find holy, and include a communion-like feast featuring Crowley’s “Cakes of Light,” with semen and vaginal fluid baked into the dough to symbolize the life-giving union of male and female.

But no sacrifices of virgins, babies, or goats. Sorry.

And yes, because I’m sure someone is thinking it, I’m well aware that there have been sick and twisted people who have actually engaged in ritual abuses in the name of Satanism. But that’s as much of a perversion of so-called Satanism as clerical sexual abuse is a perversion of Catholicism. Inflicting involuntary pain and suffering on another being is not supposed to be a part of either the left-hand or right-hand path.

The funny thing is, most Satanists don’t even believe in a literal creature called Satan. They’re basically just trolling mainstream religion by flipping Christian imagery on its head to make a point about how you have to let go of your need to live by somebody else’s dogma, to liberate yourself, to be a free person in both body and mind. Their methods may be somewhat childish, but there you have it.

Besides, I can’t really think of any downsides to having a naked woman as the altar in your religious ceremony, with the option of having other naked women assisting at the service. 

Illustration from the Missa Nigra, or Black Mass.
Your mileage may vary. But more on that later.

And note well that I’m not even bringing up all the “black magic” crap that left-hand people like Crowley love to go on about. Whether it’s Wiccan “magick” or the devilish black arts, I think most of that stuff is either wishful thinking or just a bunch of scary incantations intended to spook the normies. “When you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance,” they say, “baffle them with your bullshit” — and I think that’s what a lot of all the hocus-pocus talk boils down to.

Consider, for example, that Crowley claimed to be possessed by an Egyptian deity when he dictated The Book of the Law to his wife. Sure, Al, if you think that gives the book more authority, or makes it sound more impressive, or whatever.

My focus is on tangible self-improvement in the here and now, or at least the ability to relax and enjoy life a little bit, rather than making everything a deathly earnest life-or-death spiritual battle.

The point that I want to get across is simply that it’s OK to embrace your left-hand side, as it were. You can’t be all goodness and light all the time, because sometimes you just had a shitty day and you don’t feel like smiling back at the person passing you on the street, or making small talk with your partner, or playing with your kids. And that’s OK.

Sometimes you might just be bitter toward life in general. I’d say that’s where I am these days. Achieving a balance that doesn’t swing too hard in either extreme is surely the healthiest place to be, but everyone knows that’s easier said than done. The stories we hear of the perseverance of the saints in the midst of great tribulation and suffering can be inspiring, but at the same time, most of us aren’t even close to being saints.

Besides, all the happy-clappy, bells-on-your-fingers, dancing-with-a-tree pagan-lite spiritual stuff that’s been in vogue for years now just kind of turns my stomach. It all seems so shallow and fake. Do a few potions, burn some incense, and leave an offering for your favorite Celtic nature deity, and your life will be all better. It trivializes the pantheons and caricatures the gods and goddesses that held deep meaning to the ancient peoples who worshipped them.

In practice, these pseudo-pagans treating the deities like personal wish-granting genies who will lead you to goodness and light are no different from Christians who pray to God or the saints for a favor, even as the pseudo-pagans criticize devout Christians for clinging to their superstitions.

But here’s the thing: What if they’re both wrong? What if the gods just don’t give a shit? What if they don’t care about your kid’s cancer or your impending foreclosure? What if we’re all here on our own, left to figure things out by ourselves?

That seems far more likely than wishing it were otherwise, and you don’t even have to contort your theology to explain how an all-knowing and all-loving deity could allow so much needless suffering in the world.

With all that in mind, we’ll talk next time about blue, red, and black pills, and the symbolism of the Black Sun itself.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Welcome to the Church of the Black Sun

Follow the links to parts 2, 3, 4, and 5

In my nine years of blogging, I’ve written mostly about three topics: current events and politics, music, and religion and spirituality. It’s the last of those three that I’d like to explore over the next few days.

In recent weeks, I’ve felt an itch to go back to church. Not so much because I believe in anything the church teaches anymore — at least not on a literal level — and not out of any sense of obligation or guilt. I think it’s just that I’ve always felt a pull toward the spiritual life, and since church was one of the few things that brought me some peace and stability in my formative years, I’m sure I have a predisposition to find comfort and meaning there as an adult.

I’ve been in and out of church for most of my adult years. The familiar stories, the rituals, the traditional annual rhythms of the church calendar, the ethical teachings, the beautiful church architecture, the rich history, and the gorgeous singing all combined to put me in a warm, fuzzy place for a little while every week.

I’ve read stories of atheists who attend church because of the peace it brings them, and because they believe in the importance of ritual and tradition. There’s something to be said for that as our society becomes increasingly unmoored from anything that could prevent it from spinning off into chaos.

But while I’m not an atheist, I also don’t know if I could fake my way through a service every week, being surrounded as I would be by throngs of true believers who would want to have earnest religious conversations with me that I couldn’t relate to if I were being true to myself.

That’s what put me in the mind to lay out some thoughts here. Maybe some of them will resonate with you, but this is a thought experiment more than anything else.

First, a fun fact about me: I’m a mail-order minister. All that means in a practical sense is that I can legally marry people. But I’ve always had an interest in running my own little chapel, even if no one else ever attended. I have shelves and shelves of books dealing with religion and spirituality, both mainstream paths and obscure ones. I’ve been studying independently for years. I have a head full of knowledge. But I have nothing to apply it toward.

What am I supposed to do with that? Well, that’s where The Church of the Black Sun comes in.

My spiritual journey has been a lifelong adventure to say the least, full of highs and lows, lots of questions, a few revelations, and more dead ends than I can count. And much has happened over the past year to lead me to at least three significant conclusions. I don’t know where they’ll lead me, but at least they provide a basic blueprint for navigating the present moment.

Let’s begin.

Church of the Black Sun Axiom No. 1: Truth is a pathless land.

His mind is not for rent
To any god or government.

— Rush, “Tom Sawyer”

Many years ago now — I no longer remember how — I came across the writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti. Plucked from obscurity as a boy in India, K (as he was often called) was groomed to become the “World Teacher,” in essence a messiah for the modern age. His mentor, Annie Besant, was the head of the Theosophical Society, a religious organization that blended esoteric Western teachings with traditional Eastern ideas. She established The Order of the Star as a vehicle to prepare K for his role as a contemporary savior.

Except that things didn’t turn out as expected, because K himself blew up the order with a speech before 3,000 onlookers on August 3, 1929. The nature of his own spiritual revelation gave him no other choice, as he came to believe that truth can’t be found through a guru such as the one he was being prepared to become. In fact, he argued, it can’t be found through any means external to oneself, because then you’re just buying into someone else’s story and not living your own truth.

Here’s how he explained it on that fateful day:

I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. If you first understand that, then you will see how impossible it is to organize a belief. A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do, it becomes dead, crystallized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others. This is what everyone throughout the world is attempting to do. Truth is narrowed down and made a plaything for those who are weak, for those who are only momentarily discontented. Truth cannot be brought down; rather the individual must make the effort to ascend to it. You cannot bring the mountaintop to the valley. If you would attain to the mountaintop you must pass through the valley, climb the steeps, unafraid of the dangerous precipices. 

In other words, no one else can put in the hard work for you to discover truth. Once you hand over the job to someone else, you submit to that person’s creed, which means you end up handing over your mind as well. Group creeds become ideologies to be imposed on their members, and often on others outside the group. By definition, this replaces an authentic search for truth with the imposition of rigid dogma. When you look at our modern world and see the often fanatical devotion people give to their political tribes, you can see that K was absolutely correct. The same, then, applies to all religious sects, and to any group where you have to sacrifice your conscience and your freedom of thought to be accepted into the tribe.

Truth, then, can only ever be an individual pursuit, and K decided to devote the rest of his life to helping free people from the bondage of dogmatism.

I do not want followers, and I mean this. The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. I am not concerned whether you pay attention to what I say or not. I want to do a certain thing in the world and I am going to do it with unwavering concentration. I am concerning myself with only one essential thing: to set man free. I desire to free him from all cages, from all fears, and not to found religions, new sects, nor to establish new theories and new philosophies.

[…] Because I am free, unconditioned, whole — not the part, not the relative, but the whole Truth that is eternal — I desire those who seek to understand me to be free; not to follow me, not to make out of me a cage which will become a religion, a sect. Rather should they be free from all fears — from the fear of religion, from the fear of salvation, from the fear of spirituality, from the fear of love, from the fear of death, from the fear of life itself.

I’m sure K was aware of the irony that he, the consummate anti-guru, spent the following decades speaking before thousands of enthusiastic people who reverently hung on his every word, only for him to tell them, over and over again, that they needed to look to themselves to find their truth — not to him, and not to anyone else.

As someone who’s never been able to fully hand over the sovereignty of his mind to any tribe, party, organization, or creed, even on occasions when I almost wanted to, I instantly found K’s words resonating with me upon discovering them. They aren’t easy words to follow, because even misfits like me want to feel a sense of belonging to something. I think we all do at some level. But that approach isn’t likely to bring us happiness.

I was aware of K’s words even as I tried to force Christianity back into my life as an adult. It was never an easy thing to do, because I have a hard time taking things on blind faith or accepting other people’s teachings without subjecting them to my own scrutiny. My first job was in journalism because I had the kind of brain that wanted to get at the facts, independently of how I felt about things or even wanted them to be. I even showed signs of that mindset as a kid, when I had an endless number of questions about what I was expected to believe — to the great exasperation of my parents, who just wanted me to sit down, listen to the priest, and trust his authority.

When no one could answer my questions about Christianity to my satisfaction, I drifted off in early adulthood into Buddhism and remained there for a good 15 years. But it eventually proved to be as much of a spiritual and philosophical dead-end for me as Christianity had been. At least Christianity was part of my cultural milieu, so I eventually decided to give it another try — first through the lens of the Quakers, who have a contemplative tradition much like the Buddhists.

A typical modern Quaker meeting. Image from Transition Quaker.

Quakers gather quietly in a circle, in an unadorned meeting space. When the Spirit moves you, you rise, address the congregation, and sit back down, after which the meeting continues in silence until someone else rises to speak. Sometimes, no one ever speaks and the meeting passes in complete silence. I’ve been to a few of those, and the feeling of a spiritual presence is especially palpable when no one breaks the quiet. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it yourself.

But when it became clear that the Quakers had drifted from their Sermon on the Mount-centric religious views and become something more akin to a far-left political action group with a thin veneer of spirituality drizzled over the top, I moved on again. Quakers have always been politically active — in fact, they were leaders in the Abolitionist movement and helped win political protections for conscientious objectors to war — but when the people who rose to speak in many of the meetings I attended seemed apologetic even mentioning religion and sounded like they’d gotten their virtue-signaling talking points straight from the DNC, I could no longer relate.

To give you an idea, the last Quaker meeting I ever attended had a quote in the weekly bulletin from John Woolman, an 18th-century Quaker, with era-appropriate references to the deity as “he” replaced with a multiple choice “he/she/zir/they.” Bye-bye, Woke Quakers.

So I kept seeking, but I also found no satisfaction in the mainline Protestant denominations. Some were flaky left-liberals like the Quakers, some held on to wacky Calvinist theology, some were too emotional and evangelical, and some seemed to just enjoy bashing Catholics and anyone else who wasn’t a member of that particular sect.

I absolutely adored the beauty and tradition of Orthodoxy. But it’s not easy to break in to Orthodox communities, especially those that cater to specific ethnic groups. I always felt like an outsider looking in at Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, since I’m neither Greek nor Russian.

So eventually, I came back to Catholicism, almost by default. I still didn’t really believe, but I resolved to take the teachings on faith the best I could and immersed myself in the comfort and familiarity of the reverent Catholic rituals I’d grown up with. I even got my daughter on course to be baptized.

But then the COVID hysteria hit good and hard, and rather than welcome people in with open arms — just as Jesus fearlessly welcomed the sick when no others would go near them, reminding us as Scripture does over and over to “be not afraid” — our churches instead shut the people out before the lockdowns even went into effect. It was as if the bishops couldn’t wait to be rid of us. At first I sought out an Orthodox church as a replacement, but then the Orthodox churches closed too.

That whole process revealed to me, more clearly than even the Catholic priest abuse scandals had, where the church’s priorities truly lay. It told me loud and clear that those in charge of the church didn’t really believe the words they preached every day. It was all just hot air, the perpetuation of ancient myths to mollify the public and keep the institution alive.

I loved the Orthodox liturgy so much that if I ever did go back to church, I’d probably give Orthodoxy another swing. Likewise, I still admire the ethical teachings of Jesus as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, and one reason I was attracted to the Quakers, as well as to Anabaptist sects like the Mennonites, was that they put the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount at the center of their theology — as it should be, in my view. Anyone can profess belief, but how do you demonstrate your beliefs in everyday life in your interactions with others? That’s where the rubber really meets the road. How well you live out the Sermon on the Mount is pretty much a litmus test for how well you succeed in being Christ-like in this lifetime.

But the superstitious bullshit that makes up so much of the Bible and church theology is just that, and it deserves to be treated accordingly, especially when it’s either used to emotionally abuse people into living their lives in perpetual fear, or weaponized to judge and persecute nonbelievers. Little wonder that Thomas Jefferson cut and pasted the Gospels into a new version of the Bible that kept Jesus’ teachings intact while excising the rest that served no practical purpose.

One of Jefferson’s sourcebooks for cutting up the Gospels. Image source: National Museum of American History, by way of Flickr.

Jefferson probably would have admired Krishnamurti, for Jefferson himself once spoke of the importance of following one’s own muse, rather than give one’s mind over to someone else’s agenda:

I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.

Or as Noam Chomsky put it plainly, in more recent times: “I was never aware of any other option but to question everything.”

In Part 2, I’ll talk more about the importance of questioning what you’re told, and why it’s OK even if your examination of the way things are leads you to a dark place.