Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Mary and Lilith As Yin and Yang: How Religious Literalism Holds Us Back
Call it a twisted sense of humor, but I recently decided to purchase rings symbolizing both Lilith and the Virgin Mary. I'm in a jewelry phase at the moment, and when the rings arrive, I plan to wear them on the same hand.

Weird as it might seem, it makes sense in a yin/yang sort of way, inasmuch as Mary is a symbol of goodness and light while Lilith lurks in the dark. In Taoist philosophy, which I'm quite fond of, light can't exist without darkness. They're two sides of the same coin. Too often, we want to embrace one side of the dichotomy and pretend we can dispose of the other. To me it seems far healthier to acknowledge that both light and dark will always be with us. The best we can do is allow both light and dark to have their place while we do our best to roll with the changes. 

I've been thinking a lot lately about how the Gnostics wrestled with these very questions. For those unaware, the Gnostics believed that the material world was something like a prison for our souls that can't find their way home to the Monad, the One True God. The God of this world, the Demiurge, is either an ignorant or a malevolent deity, depending on which Gnostic tradition you ask. And it's the Demiurge's flaws that allow suffering to exist in our realm of existence. Our job in this lifetime is to cultivate the spiritual knowledge that will allow our divine sparks to escape their human cages and return to the Source when we die. 

Incidentally, according to the Gnostics, Jesus emanated from the One True God to help our souls make the journey back home -- which makes a lot of sense, when you think about how his message of love and forgiveness is at such sharp odds with that of the jealous, spiteful, vindictive, murderous God of the Old Testament. 

Indeed, this Source, the One True God, is not an anthropomorphic being at all, but rather a pure light, a wellspring of creation unknowable to the human mind. This concept is not so terribly different from the Tao, the unknowable empty vessel from which all things arise, or from the Kabbalistic concept of Ain Sof, the infinite source of being from which God eventually took form. 

To the Gnostics, the farther removed we are from the Source, the more things break down, like a radio signal that weakens over a long distance and eventually degrades into static, with only a few stray snippets able to cut their way through. It was in this compromised environment that the flawed Demiurge was able to arise. (There's much more to the story of the Demiurge and his origins. I'm just relating what's relevant to this discussion.)

In separating the Demiurge from the One True God, the Gnostics end up with a tidy way of dealing with the Problem of Evil -- namely, how can suffering exist in a universe created and overseen by an all-knowing, all-loving God? When the God of this world screwed things up from Day One, you no longer have to twist your hands in anguish over why things are the way they are. 

But more to the point, it allows you to let go of the anger you might hold toward a God that's supposed to love us but seems to be absent when we need him most. When you see innocent children suffering and dying, wives losing husbands, grinding poverty, injustice, and never-ending war, you can ask why God allows it all to happen, you can rage at him for doing nothing -- or you can come to terms with the reality that an omniscient, omnibenevolent God can logically not coexist in the first place with a world in which suffering exists. 

At least the pagan gods were flawed like us. They never claimed to be perfect, all-knowing, or all-loving. The Bible God's arrogance of claiming to be perfect, all-knowing, and all-loving was the whole problem in the first place.

I'm not saying a god of some kind doesn't exist. That's way beyond my pay grade. But I am saying that the perfect God of the Bible logically cannot exist in our imperfect world of suffering. Neither could true free will exist, because an all-knowing God would always know what choice we were going to make -- which in turn would make sending souls to eternal torment in hell an unethical and unjustifiable act. It turns God into the sadistic monster that the Calvinists always made him out to be.

Religious literalism tends to cause a lot of problems, to put it mildly. If we can simply let go of our psychological need for a literal deity that demands our worship, we can begin to understand spiritual beings as something like archetypes of our own personalities. Rather than live in anguish over whether you're going to burn in hell for accidentally violating some obscure divine law that displeases the Lord, we can take a healthier approach by thinking of divine beings as human ideals that we can strive toward in an attempt to better ourselves.

That's where Mary and Lilith come in. Consider the two figures. Mary was my guiding light all through my Catholic years, and she never really went away even in my deepest explorations of paganism. She was the unconditionally loving mother that I never had and that I imagine most of us long for. I needed her to be real for precisely that reason. But whether she actually is real is a point that long eluded me. It's the ideal she represents that really matters.

Once you arrive at that point, you can stop putting divine beings on pedestals and excusing their shortcomings. Because let's face it: In Mary's case, she also symbolizes blind faith and unquestioning obedience, neither of which is a particularly attractive trait -- not to mention that those traits have also been far too convenient for the men who have run the church through the centuries. Don't be an uppity woman, they'll say. Be like our Blessed Mother -- meek, mild, subservient, and submissive. Paul told you to cover your head, sit down, and shut up. Know your place and do as you're told.

Lilith, on the other hand, has literally been demonized for her refusal to submit and obey. Yet all she ever wanted was to be treated as an equal. In Jewish folklore, Lilith was Adam's first wife, formed from the dust of the earth just as Adam was. And when Adam insisted that she submit to him, she refused and fled the Garden. And just out of that simple act of standing up for herself and demanding equality, she became mythologized as a succubus who preyed on babies and children, seduced innocent men, coupled with demons, and in some stories became more or less the Queen of Hell.

I refuse to see her that way, because to me it plays right into the hands of the men of the church who wanted to slander her simply for being a woman who stood her ground. That's not how a woman is supposed to act, they would say. She was supposed to submit and obey. Mary submitted and obeyed, and the church lavishes praise and glory on her. She did what she was told. Lilith didn't, and she's essentially characterized as a female Satan for it.

I think both figures have important lessons to teach us. There's no question that the world could use some of Mary's maternal love. But it also needs people who dig in their heels and stand strong on principle when the world has gone insane and expects you to fall in line without question. 

I feel a lot like Lilith these days. Even though I'm not a woman, I can sympathize with her struggle to be listened to, to have powerful people gang up and you and tell you how wrong you are, to stand up in the face of fearful, obedient zombies who cling to their unreflective groupthink and always try to tell you what to do, even when their demands and expectations grate against every fiber of your being.

But most people would be appalled at the idea that Mary and Lilith both have something to offer us, and so as usual I'm left to dream up my own spiritual mindspace. It would be nice some days if I could uncritically accept the beliefs of some church or temple or coven, so I'd have someone to share the journey with. I'm sure things would be much easier if I could accept rather than question dogma. But I've never been good at blindly following orders and imitating what other people do. So perhaps I'll always possess a restless, wandering Lilith spirit.

If so, then so be it. I can still yearn for a Mary World of motherly tenderness and compassion, and I can do my best to bring a Mary Spirit to those I love and want to protect. But I can do that while holding to my Lilith Spirit that won't budge when principle is involved.

Both perspectives are important, and it's a dualistic illusion that we have to choose one or the other. We're all Mary and Lilith at different times in our lives, and that's OK. After all, the most important lesson divine beings can teach us is not how to follow rules, be good, and earn a heavenly reward if we get lucky, but how to navigate this often difficult and frustrating world.

In short, the gods show us how to be human -- with all the good and bad that being human brings along with it.

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