Spidey the Mystic

Spidey the mystic


cropped-screen-shot-2017-03-13-at-4-09-41-pm.pngWarning: Spoilers ahead! If you haven’t seen the latest installment in Marvel’s Spiderman franchise, Far From Home, you may want to put off reading this post until you have.

Thanks to those of you who attended our last book club discussion of Faith Beyond Belief. Not everyone loved the book, but we had a robust discussion. While I don’t presume to speak for everyone, this post is my best attempt to summarize the ideas that were discussed along with my own response to the book.


In her book Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind, Margaret Placentra Johnston uses Peck’s 4-stage theory of spiritual development as a backdrop against which to present the real stories of people who lived out a god-related twist on the classic Myhrvold drama:

Boy meets god

Of course, the stories were not all about boys. They summarized the experiences of men and women from a range of belief systems, including Mormonism, Islam, and Catholicism, among others. Johnston then used the stories to illustrate key transitional moments in the lives of these individuals, highlighting their progression through Peck’s stages of spiritual development.

What are Peck’s stages of spiritual development?

For those readers who are not in-the-know, here is a quick summary of Peck’s 4 stages, from youngest to oldest (in terms of the age of greatest prevalence):

  • Lawless: Most common in early childhood, this stage is characterized by a lack of principled ethics, where choices are driven by one’s own desires.
  • Faithful: Most people reach this stage later in childhood. It is characterized by black-and-white moral reasoning and blind belief in authority figures, usually out of fear or desire for a promised reward.
  • Rational: In heterogenous religious communities, most reach this stage in late adolescence or early adulthood; in more homogenous religious communities, many reach it later or not at all. This stage is characterized by skepticism and questioning, and much more nuanced moral reasoning. Rational individuals don’t accept things on faith; they require logic and reason.
  • Mystic: Not everyone reaches this stage. Among those who do, it is rarely before mid-life. People in this stage retain their skepticism, but they begin perceiving patterns in nature and developing a deeper understanding of good and evil. Mystics focus on loving others, losing their attachment to the ego, and forgiving their enemies.

The author also maps these stages to the theories of others, including James Fowler. (For those familiar with Fowler’s Stages of Faith, Peck’s “faithful” stage maps to Fowler’s stages 2-3; his “rational” stage maps to Fowler’s stage 4; and his “mystic” stage maps to Fowler’s stages 5-6.)

What does this have to do with Spiderman?

The newest installment in the Spiderman series serves as a useful narrative for understanding Peck’s mystic stage. The villain in the movie, Mysterio, is a highly intelligent inventor and former employee of Tony Stark (who died at the end of the prior Marvel movie). Mysterio is angry at Stark for, among other things, giving stewardship over some fancy piece of tech to the teenaged Spiderman. Mysterio manipulates Spiderman into giving him the tech, which he then uses to create holographic illusions (using pre-programmed drones equipped with holographic projectors) to depict monsters attacking major European cities. The depictions fool everyone. These attacks are followed by further illusions of Mysterio battling and beating the monster. Mysterio does this to persuade the world to see him as a hero.

In the end, Spiderman discovers his mistake and realizes that he must battle the powerful Mysterio, even though he knows that he too is vulnerable to being fooled by the illusions. Spiderman realizes that he can’t rely on his eyes and ears if he is going to win. He must rely on his Spidey-Sense, which is humorously referred to throughout the movie as his Peter-Tingle. (“Don’t call it my Peter-Tingle,” he tells Aunt Mae.) Ultimately, in a scene that is reminiscent of the use-the-Force-Luke TIE-fighter scene in A New Hope (where Luke puts aside his visual sensor and relies on his feelings to destroy the Death Star), Spiderman also has to rely on what seems like a vague, supernatural tingle. In the final fight, his eyes and ears tell him (and the audience) that Mysterio is dying on the floor in front of him, but it turns out to be an illusion. Spiderman surprises us all by reaching up to grab the gun that an invisible Mysterio is actually holding to his head.

Through the lens of Peck’s stages of spiritual development, we can consider both Luke and Spiderman in these scenes to be ignoring their objective (i.e., “rational”) senses and relying exclusively on their “mystical” senses.

Why didn’t everyone in the book group love the book?

Not everyone agreed with the premise that there is a more “advanced” stage of spiritual development beyond the rational stage. I thought this idea could be illustrated by seeing how the Spiderman drama does not have to be seen through the mystical lens. It could be viewed from the rational perspective. The rational person would say that there are scientific explanations for every observable phenomenon. This would include both Mysterio’s holographs, which are produced through the known and quantified (in the movie universe) forces of technology, and Spiderman’s Peter-Tingle. The rational person might point out that the only reason that Spiderman’s Peter-Tingle could be characterized as a sort of supernatural phenomenon is that it is not yet understood as a scientific, measurable phenomenon.

The idea that one man’s science is another man’s supernatural phenomenon is nicely addressed by the hilarious (though potentially offensive to the delicate reader) memes that flooded the internet after the Insane Clown Posse released a song extolling the wondrous “miracles” that are evident in the world — wonders that defy all explanation — such as magnets and rainbows.

To the rational individual, any seemingly supernatural phenomenon will really have scientific explanations. For me, this tendency to explain things with science is useful. But, I admit that it caused me some disappointment when George Lucas demystified the Force in his prequel The Phantom Menace. In that movie, the Force was revealed to be nothing more than microscopic “midichlorians” in the blood of potential Jedi masters like Annakin and Luke Skywalker.

Where do I stand on the idea of a “mystic” stage?

It’s important to keep in mind that these models for faith development are really just constructs — that is, human creations that aid us in our understanding of complex phenomena that are not directly measurable in and of themselves. That said, I lean toward the idea that there is a stage beyond the rational stage as described by Peck. I believe that the rational stage is a transitional stage characterized by grief and anger over having previously allowed feelings to manipulate and shape our worldview. In this window of grief, we temporarily reject all appeals to feeling as flawed, and we attempt to rely exclusively on rationality. We will begin to transition beyond this stage, into Peck’s mystic stage (Fowler’s stage 5), when we begin again to re-integrate feelings into our way of understanding the world.

I don’t believe that the “mystic” stage represents an abandonment of rationality, an idea that is confirmed by Peck’s definitions. Rather, it represents an integration of rationality and feeling, improving humans in two ways:

  1. Feelings can help us bridge the gap between the known and unknown, and
  2. When feelings and reason are in alignment, humans are more successful in their endeavors.
Bridging the gap between the known and unknown

As much as I love science, and as much as I believe that every observable phenomenon will eventually have rational explanations, I also know that there are plenty of things that don’t yet have them. For those things, making use of unexplained phenomena may only be available to those who are open to the mystical.

For example, consider the placebo effect. Science currently cannot explain mechanisms by which the placebo effect works, even among those who know that they are taking a sugar pill. Sure, at some point there will likely be neuroscientific studies that can characterize and quantify every last mechanism by which a sugar pill can improve someone’s depression, but right now it is only an apparently irrational observable phenomenon.

My personal theory is that the mechanisms of the placebo effect will ultimately be revealed to coincide with the mechanisms by which things like prayermeditation, and mindfulness also enable humans to access an as-yet-uncharacterized power for self-healing. Once that power is adequately characterized by science, innovators will likely develop ways to make that power more accessible to all of us. Until then, because they may be the only ones open enough to the unknown to give such strategies a try, that power may only be available to the mystics.

Consider Luke Skywalker in A New Hope. When he went into his TIE-fighter battle to destroy the Death Star, he didn’t know about midichlorians as a scientific explanation for the power of the Force any more than the rest of us did in 1978. However, that lack of knowledge did not stop him from being able to access the power of the Force. If he had been too rational, he might have rejected the idea of an apparently supernatural Force granting him telekinetic powers (and more), and the power of the empire to destroy whole worlds might have gone unopposed. (One shudders at the thought!) It’s because he was open to the possibility of something that seemed irrational to him (and to the audience) — because he was a mystic — that he was able to use his feelings to bridge the gap between the concrete/known and the as-yet unknown power of the midichlorians.

Similarly, Spiderman was also able to access his Peter-Tingle to help him take down the powerful Mysterio only because he believed in a seemingly irrational phenomenon.

So, for every potential unexplained phenomenon, until we have rational explanations for them and until technology advances sufficiently that we can all access the powers they contain, perhaps the mystic path can enable us to access powers that we don’t yet fully comprehend.

The importance of aligning reason with feeling

Personally, I don’t actually believe in human rationality as a saving grace for humanity. That’s because even the most rational of humans has great difficulty seeing beyond their own enormous cognitive biases. Most of us believe that we are thinking our way through this existence, but I believe that we humans are mostly just feeling our way through life.

Jonathan Haidt has a useful analogy to describe how two parts of the human brain work together — the emotional and the rational parts. (Again, these are just constructs; we don’t really have two brains, one observably emotional and the other observably rational.) In this analogy, the human brain is like an elephant and rider. The elephant is the two-ton emotional mind that does all the heavy lifting, and the rider is the little hundred-pound guy on the elephant’s back who is, presumably, doing all the planning. In his analogy, if the human wants to go in a particular direction, he is only going to get there if the elephant wants to go there too.

For example, when I was 22 years old and my first child was about to be born, I was considering going back to school the next semester and embarking on a years-long educational journey that would span the next ten-plus years. I knew that it was a pathway to greater financial security for myself and my family. But as I discovered in the subsequent years, if I didn’t feel like slogging through a series of educational programs for more than a decade, I was not going to be successful. In fact, I almost quit more than once in the years that followed. If I had not been able to align my feelings with my rational goals, then I would have quit. By the time I finished my post-doc at the age of 35, I knew that what it had required more than anything else was motivation, which is all about feelings.

Part of why I like Haidt’s analogy is because of the sheer size difference between the elephant and the rider. Personally, I think that it illustrates the relative magnitudes of energy spent thinking versus feeling in the minds of most humans. It may be hard for us to see, given the extent to which we culturally glorify science and reason, but it probably isn’t unfair to say that the average human mind is more than 99% emotional and less than 1% rational. (And yes, that even includes Richard Dawkins.)

In fact, it may even be valid to question whether we are rational agents at all. The idea that humans are capable of rationality may be a cognitive bias in itself. That’s because some neuroscience research validates the conclusion that Haidt’s elephant is really making all of the decisions, and his human rider is just sitting up there making up stories to persuade himself that the direction he’s taking was his idea all along.

Either way, I don’t believe we can simply ignore feelings in our way of understanding the world. If we choose to try, then we are allowing ourselves to be completely blind to what may be the largest influence on our worldview. Our rationality may help us to understand some objective truths, but unless we can feel our way toward them, then we may not be able to make use of them. To be effective in any potentially rational enterprises, at a minimum, requires us to align our thinking and our feelings.

Where do I position myself on Peck’s spectrum?

If Peck’s model is a useful map of faith development, then I would probably plot myself somewhere between the rational and mystic stages. I don’t think I’m quite fully in the mystic stage as defined by Peck because I have not yet truly forgiven myself and others for being so biased. I am still working through quite a bit of grief and anger about the human inability to see clearly.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’m fully in the rational stage. I’m not sure I was ever really there because I never stopped incorporating feelings into the construction of a new worldview after my faith deconstruction. It may be because I work in science (again, I believe in science) that I can see how foolish we are to rely so heavily on rationality. This mistrust of the human capacity for reason draws me toward the mystical stage out of hope that there are forces out there that we don’t yet understand. I hope for the unknown because, for me, none of the forces that I do currently understand appears to be sufficiently oriented around drawing humans closer to a culture of love, peace, and harmony.

Myths to Live by

Gods churn 2


cropped-screen-shot-2017-03-13-at-4-09-41-pm.pngThanks to those of you who attended book club last month. Based on a consensus among attendees, we have decided to modify the reading schedule for the remainder of the year. The corrected schedule can be found here. In a nutshell, book club members suspected that the book The Shallows would be too similar to Amusing Ourselves To Death, and opted to skip it. Next month’s book will be Faith Beyond Belief, and we’ll meet on June 15th at 7 PM.


As always, we had a wonderful discussion, though it was sometimes only marginally related to the book, Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By. A lot of us had a hard time reading it, especially under time pressure, which mostly seemed to be due to Campbell’s tendency to not say what he means. Campbell uses myths to hit his conclusions home — metaphor — rather than just saying what he means directly and in English.

For example, in the first chapter titled “The Impact of Science on Myth,” Campbell makes the case that science undermines our cultural religious beliefs, but that we should persist in it anyway. He says that science undermines belief by giving us concrete explanations for phenomena that previously required magical explanations. In doing so, he posits that the moral fabric of our society is threatened. That’s why, he says, we have so much badness in our current culture. To clarify, the “current culture” that Campbell was referring to is the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when our society’s discourse tended toward angsty disarray over fears of the changes that the the civil rights and women’s movements were anticipated to bring us — which may or may not have been realized, depending on your particular bias. Of course, fifty years later, this is still the big fear that most religious authorities are still harping on about.

Although Campbell is a great advocate for science, rather than rejecting that theory outright, Campbell ends the chapter in the telling of the Samudra Manthana, a Hindu  origin myth. In the story, the  gods and the antigods all agreed to set aside their differences and join forces in the churning of the primordial Milky Ocean, with the goal of harvesting the secrets to immortality. They used Mount Mandara as a churning rod and the serpent Vasuki for a twirling-cord, and they started stirring away. The first thing to emerge from the Milky Ocean was a gas that was so toxic that it threatened to destroy all of creation. Fearing destruction, they immediately stopped churning, and then approached Shiva  for protection. Shiva was powerful enough to swallow the toxic gas, enabling the gods and antigods to get back to work, stirring the cosmic waters, until they yielded up all manner of good things.

From this, we are supposed to understand that Campbell’s opinion is that we should keep right on churning — keep pursuing and relying on scientific explanations for observed phenomena — until we get past the era of toxic effects, and we can begin realizing the benefits of science move fully. Campbell’s style is to never quite make those points explicitly, and so his text requires a close reading and analysis. This can be a challenge for casual readers (like us).

The beginning of a much larger work

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The take-home message in the book Tribe by Junger is that modern societies are really really bad because we don’t feel enough of a sense of community, which is really really important to humans. (Surprise!)

The author illustrates this premise by showing us how happy Native American hunter/gatherer societies were before they were mowed down (and out-bred) by the comparatively more miserable but higher-tech Europeans, by showing us how happy people are in times of catastrophic disasters like wars and earthquakes (Londoners loved the Blitz), and by showing us how miserable our returning veterans are because they don’t feel useful or valued by society. (Frankly, neither does an increasing proportion of non-Veterans feel useful or valued. That’s what it means to be disenfranchised.)

I don’t disagree with any of it. In fact, I’ve actually read it all before: in Guns, Germs, and Steel by Diamond; in Sapiens by Harari; in Genesis by someone claiming to be Moses; and even in The Feminine Mystique by Friedan, where the emphasis was not on the misery of men, but the misery of women.

My theory is that the reason this book is so short is because it is only the premise of a much larger work that the author is, apparently, still working on. I kept waiting for him to propose solutions, but – spoiler alert – he has none. As I read about the utopia of early Native American societies, I thought for a minute that he was going to come out in favor of becoming hunter/gathers again,1 but he didn’t. That kept happening to me. I kept asking myself: Is he pro-war? Is he pro-veteran? Anti-veteran? Anti-welfare? He has no solutions to propose.

Somehow, we are just magically supposed to care about each other more, to stop speaking of others with contempt, to quit tolerating it when greedy financiers steal money from our retirement accounts, to demand that CEO’s quit taking a disproportionate share of the profits, to do a better job of honoring veterans, such as by hiring them and not giving them benefits (unless they really really need them), etc. But, none of these “suggestions” is a solution. Each is really just a restatement of what we already know is a completely intractable problem.

In order to solve these problems it will require us to become, suddenly, very wise, and very capable of achieving a considerable amount of consensus – to an extent that is likely impossible to achieve with our under-funded (anemic) education system, our tightly-gerrymandered oligarchy “democracy” (that prevents us from having anything that a majority of us supports), and our large population of theocracy-seekers whose belief in a type of cosmologically evil boogeyman prevents us from recognizing the evil in ourselves.

Maybe I’m a cynic, but frankly, if the problem requires a greater level of understanding than can be communicated with a pithy internet meme, we are doomed.

Consensus simply ain’t happenin’.


1 Too bad. This is a great idea, one that would bring humans a lot of peace and happiness — but only until the food-producing societies decide they want our land.

On being a woman in a universe ruled by the god of male supremacy

Photo for blog


The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.
When he prepared the heavens, I was there.
I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him.
Blessed [ashre] is the man that heareth me.

                                              — Proverbs 8


I came across Joseph Campbell’s book of lectures on the goddesses at a time when I was in a faith crisis precipitated by the realization that my participation in a religious organization with an all-male priesthood had caused me to internalize misogyny that I had not previously been aware of.

How I discovered my internalized misogyny

One of the (many) moments that helped me discover that I had internalized misogyny was when I was sitting in Relief Society (RS) and our president was showing a video of an interview with Marjorie Hinckley, the late wife of one of our former ‘prophets,’ Gordon B Hinckley. The interview revealed her to be witty and clever, every bit as sharp as her beloved husband, and very much his equal. As I watched, I asked myself, how had this woman lived and died and I never knew how terrific she was?

The answer came to me almost as quickly as I asked it: because our religious culture does not regard women, especially women over 30, as having anything of value to offer (except, perhaps, their ability to bear children, take care of children, and cook for others). My first thought was curse the patriarchy! But then, as I continued to watch and I saw that she was a white-haired grandmother with pearl earrings, I realized that I, too, would have had the same thought. probably thought that she had nothing of value to offer. In that moment I dissolved into tears; that was the first time I realized that I had internalized ideas that diminished me. Someday, I too would be a grandmother with pearl earrings, a grandmother with nothing of value to offer.

How I had internalized misogyny to begin with

My understanding of this concept was enhanced later when my husband began to watch the series Law and Order: SVU on Netflix during his morning workouts. My husband loves crime shows, and this one had several seasons, so he was excited to have something entertaining to watch in the mornings when he was on the elliptical. I don’t much care for crime shows, so I didn’t watch it with him. I just continued to go about my morning dress and grooming routine each day in preparation for work. However, after a few weeks of this, I began to become conscious, every morning, that there was some woman’s dead body that was serving as the basis of my husband’s morning entertainment. (For those of you who don’t know, ‘SVU’ stands for ‘special victims unit,’ and the ‘special victims’ are the victims of sexual violence. More often than anything else, these victims are women or girls.)

After a while, I said something to my husband about how I didn’t really care for the show. He said he understood because, as a clinical social worker, he had taken a training on sexual violence against women, and he understood that there were arguments about this show, good arguments on both sides. On the one hand, yes there is a lot of sexual violence against women. But, on the other hand, the show’s narrative was about how our society abhors these crimes — that’s why the fictional detectives were so committed to finding the bad guys. And, in one sense, I knew that this latter argument is true. If I sat down with my husband and watched one show in isolation, I would see that, yes, sexual violence is regarded as a terrible thing, yes the victims are treated with compassion and humanity, and yes the good detectives are showing our culture’s abhorrence of such things. However, each morning I still had to encounter some dead woman’s brutal and violent murder, which did seem to normalize violence against women. It made violence against women seem, somehow, just background noise in our society.

As the weeks went on, and as my husband continued to work his way through the seasons, I finally figured out how I could help him to understand my complaint. I asked him to imagine that he lived on an island, and that every morning on that island a dead woman’s body washed up on the shore. (I chose this particular image because it did feel to me like a dead woman’s body was washing up on the shores of my consciousness every morning.) I said, imagine that every morning you have to make a decision about how you will deal with that reality. You might decide to drag the body to some burying ground every morning. You might decide to cook and eat the flesh. (I hope not!) You might decide to ignore the body and leave it there, letting bodies accumulate on the beach over time, and eventually avoiding that part of the island. You might make any of those choices, but every day you would have to make a conscious choice about what to do about the fact of the daily dead woman.

Then I asked him my key question: What would you begin to think that the universe was trying to tell you about women? His immediate reply was ‘that they aren’t very important.’ And, that’s when he began to understand what I was telling him. It’s also when I began to understand how I had unconsciously internalized beliefs about women that were demeaning to me. It may be true that an overt message we are receiving, based on the story’s narrative, is that we think that violence against women is bad. But the backbone of the show, week after week, is a new act of violence perpetrated against a new woman every week; This illustrates that the other message that you begin to receive is that violence against women seems normal, that it’s entertaining, and maybe even that’s what women are for. You most likely would not even be conscious of the fact that this is the message that you are internalizing, which probably makes it even more insidious.

I then applied the same logic to what had happened to me over the years in my religious practices. Year after year I had attended church meetings in which the leadership was all male and in which women weren’t even allowed to pray for many years. When our church had biannual conferences, the lineup of speakers was dominated by men. When there were sessions for women only, men spoke, but in the meetings dedicated to men, no women spoke. All of the decisions about the church were made by men. The calling of males to the highest leadership levels were life-long, while the callings of women to the highest leadership positions that women can occupy (leadership over the auxiliary organizations for women and children) were made for a comparatively short term (about 2 years). Males in the highest levels received six-figure ‘stipends,’ while women in the highest levels (to which women could be called) received no stipends at all. Every woman serving in any capacity in the church answers to a long line of men above her; for many years, no man answered to any woman. (Arguably, that may still be true.) While it’s true that, on the overt level, I was being told repeatedly that we care about women by men speaking over the pulpit, on most other levels I was being told repeatedly that women don’t matter.

Why is god’s order patriarchal?

My journey to understand that led me, first, to ask why a benevolent god who regards me as having as much worth as any of his other children would ordain a social order that diminishes women. I turned first to the scriptures, but I quickly realized that there was very little in them about women. Most of the women in the lives of the men in our church’s canon are invisible, or they are the victims of violence, or they are mentioned (along with animals) as the belongings of men. Consequently, I had always read the scriptures as if I could look through the eyes of the protagonist and internalize the protagonist’s experiences as if they applied to me. But then I began to realize that this may have been the wrong way to approach the scriptures. Maybe some of the stories applied to me, but maybe others were meant only for men, and I had somehow failed to get the secret decoder ring that told me which ones.

I then looked in other places in our ‘approved’ church repertoire: church magazines, the teachings of church leaders, and manuals for teaching. The answer was not in there. That’s when I started looking outside of the church’s ‘approved’ information sources, such as Mormon Feminism, When God was a Woman, Women Who Run With the Wolves, The Feminine Mystique, and this book by Campbell. I also began interrogating myself about my own experience with the ‘divine,’ and I was able to come to the following answer to the question ‘Why would god ordain a social order that diminishes women?

The short answer is that he wouldn’t. Only man would demand such a social order. The longer answer comes from a careful reading of history, theology, mythology, sociology, and psychology. Organized religions have always reinforced somebody’s power. In the case of the Judeo-Christian religions, that that power has often been patriarchal. This is evident when we discover how our cultural myths, particularly the Judeo-Christian myths, were built upon prior myths. For example, the story of Cain and Abel is about the tension between the agricultural and herding societies, which were encountering each other in the historical era during which the bible was written. Campbell said that Cain, a farmer, represented the agricultural society and Abel, a herder, represented the herding society. They each brought their offering to the male god, and that god preferred the meat to the grains. Cain then killed Abel out of jealousy. Campbell said that this was basically a rewrite of an older myth in which the two offerings were presented to the goddess, and she chose the grains over the meat. The biblical rewrite was about setting supreme the male god of the herding society and erasing the goddess altogether. Campbell gives many more examples of the ways that the bible erases, demotes, or evilizes the goddess, reinforcing the power of the herding society over the agricultural society and reinforcing the power of men over women.

What’s true about the feminine divine?

The other question I asked on my journey to process the misogyny I had internalized during my participation in a patriarchal religion, was this: If god were a goddess, what would that look like? I asked that question because of the unsatisfying answer that I’d heard bandied about in Mormon lore every time that the question of why we don’t know our heavenly mother came up. The typical Mormon answer was that god loves his wife so much that he wanted to protect her from the pain his children would cause her if they knew about her existence. After all, you see how they take his name in vain? This is an unsatisfying answer that simply doesn’t make sense. Where in nature is there anything like that? In nature, most living beings are much more likely to be cut off from their fathers than they are to be cut off from their mothers. What mother hasn’t been hurt by her children? It’s simply an implausible explanations. (Not to mention that it’s infantilizing to women.)

One thing that I came across in my search was this fascinating article by a Dan Peterson, a well-respected Mormon apologist. In that article, Peterson explains that a story in our very own Book of Mormon suggests (if you believe the Book of Mormon to be a ‘true’ historical account) that Nephi understood more about the divine feminine than do modern Mormons. His statements that Jews in 600 BC, Nephi’s era, were still highly likely to be practicing the old goddess religions, in addition to the new father-god religion, corroborated statements made in When God Was a Woman and in this book, Joseph Campbell’s Goddesses. Peterson also explained that Asherah and the feminine divine were personifications of the divine attribute wisdom (see Proverbs 8:22-34).

Joseph Campbell’s lectures were very helpful to me in answering this question about the feminine divine. At first I was a little put off by the idea that the only thing that seems to be divine about women is their life-giving capacity, but then Campbell pointed out that the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ constructs are man-made, and the gods and goddesses are ways that we make sense of powers that are in ourselves and in the world. Women are not meant to be wholly defined by our understanding of the goddess. The truth is that these stories are meant to be understood as metaphors about the powers that are in ourselves and in the world. To interpret them literally is death.

Most of the answers

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The Crucible of Doubt by Givens and Givens is a terrific book for anyone who is struggling with doubts about the LDS faith. It covers a lot of areas where questions commonly arise, such as how a benevolent and omnipotent God could allow so much suffering, how a person can continue to participate in a religion despite the flawed leadership and despite the frustratingly dogmatic and uncritical ways that members often express belief, and how belief is a choice that we can make even if we don’t experience the transcendent affirmations that are the hallmark of ‘testimony’ in the LDS church. Everything they say is terrific, but where they lose me is in failing to recognize that continued participation means having to swallow — and financially ‘sustain’ — a whole lot of stuff that is rather unpalatable, especially the idea of a divine mandate for male supremacy.

Maybe they’ll cover that in the next book.

Simultaneously enjoyable and agonizing

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The Power by Naomi Alderman was a simultaneously enjoyable and agonizing bit of feminist literature. Alderman illustrates for readers what it is like to be a woman in today’s world by flipping it on its head and imagining a universe where women are becoming the dominant sex, thanks to the development of a new biological power that renders men’s greater average muscular strength to be irrelevant. Because of its graphic descriptions of some terrible human atrocities, this book is sure to terrify anyone with a reasonably developed sense of humanity. But it will be particularly terrifying to men’s rights activists (MRAs), who are likely to miss the point completely. The point is that all of the terrifying things that are happening to men in this book are things that are currently happening to women all over the world, and yet most of us are just going about our business as if it doesn’t matter. Maybe we should be tearing it all down, as the MRAs in this book try to do.

The bizarro Alderman mirror also introduces some interesting feminist concepts. For example, her story suggests that women are not actually the more innately gentle and kind sex, as has been posited by the ‘benevolent sexists’ who think it helps women to put them on a pedestal. This book takes the position that women have only committed fewer atrocities than men because they have lacked the power to commit as many. As for benevolent sexists, popularizing a narrative in which women are supposed to be better than the typical human actually hurts women. That’s because, once a woman is revealed to be an ordinary flawed human, we perceive it as depravity when we contrast it against our image of what women are supposed to be. We are prevented from having empathy for flawed women, and because they’re all flawed, we have difficulty seeing all women clearly. (This is why we can’t tolerate flawed women, and yet we bend over backwards to regard even the most morally-vacant men as heroes.)

Her story also suggests that the reluctance of people today to believe that there ever could have been a place and time in which there could have been a matriarchal order is more a result of our tendency to look at archeological evidence through the lens of our current culture than it is a fact of history. In truth, several authors have pointed to other evidence:

  • In When God Was a Woman, Stone gives the archeological evidence suggesting that early agricultural societies worshipped a supreme mother goddess and her husband, a male god, was secondary. (Interestingly enough, in some of these societies, the male god was killed for the sins of his people every year and then resurrected by the goddess 3 days later.)
  • In his lectures on myths about the goddesses, Joseph Campbell corroborates many of Stone’s conclusions and points out that the Old Testament is replete with stories about the tension between two societies: the goddess-worshiping agricultural societies and the god-worshiping herding societies. (For example, the myth about Adam and Eve is a story about the agricultural revolution, the adoption of farming, and the evilization of the goddess religion’s symbols and the demotion of their goddess.)
  • In Guns Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond points out how male-supremacist societies came to dominate the earth over the last 2-3 thousand years. The presence of domesticated milk-producing mammals enabled them to wean their children years earlier than societies without them. This resulted in a change in the birth interval that led to the herding societies’ ability to out-breed everyone else and, consequently, to spread their god around the world. (Knowing this, it’s interesting to re-read the Bible’s myth on the agricultural revolution and note the curse that the god will ‘multiply’ Eve’s conception.)

I gave The Power 5 stars on goodreads. It’s true I have a tendency to rate books higher than most of my more critical friends, but I love books and I give a high count of stars to any book that helps me develop a greater understanding of my experience. (That’s ‘education,’ as John Dewey and Tara Westover say.) This book certainly did that. That said, Alderman does a great job of keeping the action moving. She adds her opinions to our culture’s ongoing conversation about male-supremacy without once lapsing into a long and boring treatise about her philosophy (à la Ayn Rand).

One

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Native Son was a terrific book by Richard Wright that does an excellent job of artfully illustrating the ways that all humans are connected. One common criticism of this book is that it tackles racism by using, as its case study, a murderer and rapist. However, that is an unfair criticism of the book. There are plenty of books that combat racism by giving examples of exemplary people of color; that’s not what this book is trying to do. The goal of this book is to illustrate how everyone unwittingly contributes to the violence and hate for which the main character was condemned. The author does this deliberately by using a main character that is so repellingly ‘other’ to most law-abiding readers that we won’t be distracted by the character’s best qualities. Any good qualities that the character might have had are irrelevant to our shared humanity. In that way, this author has set out to accomplish a remarkable feat, and he has succeeded.

I recently had a conversation in which an associate told me about her ‘christian healthcare club,’ which she described as a way of sharing risk only with her christian friends who she “…knows will take care of themselves.” (It struck me as bizarre that she took it as a premise that christians are healthier than non-christians, but I’ve since learned that there are a lot of publications in christian periodicals about christian-funded research that shows that they are.) I told her that I hoped her christian friends wouldn’t let her down, but something about that conversation continued to bother me many months later. I was able to process part of it when I wrote my post on Fowler’s Stages of Faith, but this book helped to put it further into context.

The problem with the christians-only healthcare club is that it is based on the premise that we can shut out the suffering of others. She is trying to cordon-off her wallet from others’ ailments. She doesn’t want her premiums to go up because (as she sees it) they don’t have the light of truth to guide them on the path to greater health. So, by joining a christians-only healthcare club, she can meet the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to be insured, while not sharing risk with those who she perceives as ‘other.’

Here’s the problem: if we exclude people who are ‘other’ from our healthcare plans, then they have to go somewhere else. As that happens, those ‘somewhere elses’ become increasingly expensive, and soon we have a lot of unhealthy and uninsured people who are feeling disenfranchised. If we are lucky, then the government will step in and provide coverage for those individuals, but then it hits us in our tax budget. If we still insist on trying to shut out the suffering of others, then we might be grateful for partisan gerrymandering that enables the votes of the ‘other’ to count less than ours, so that their voices matter less, and then we can insist that those people don’t get government-sponsored healthcare coverage, further disenfranchising them. Of course, the next step is that disenfranchised people, people who don’t have a voice or a stake in our society, become increasingly angry, increasingly vocal, and ultimately (as we saw in the French revolution), violent. In that case, instead of spending that money on sharing in a risk pool with the ‘other’ or on contributing to a public solution to our healthcare crisis, we will be spending that money on steel bars for our windows, security systems for our houses, guns for our ‘self defense,’ and armed guards for our schools. And all of this because we couldn’t see the ways that we are all connected.

My associate can shut her door to the suffering of others, but then it will come in through her window. She can shut her window, but then it will rise up through the floor like an overflowing septic tank.

I think this is what Jesus was trying to tell us when he said that we should care for the orphan and the widow and that we should take care of the ‘other’ (as in the story of the Samaritan). I think most of us misunderstand it. The most common interpretation of those teachings is that caring for others should be voluntary, rather than a tax obligation. (This is the most common reply that my christian friends give me when I point to Jesus’ teachings as the reason why I vote with the Democrats on things like welfare: it should be voluntary. I can’t find where Jesus said that it in the New Testament. But, frankly, we all know it’s a cop out. These are people who just don’t want to be connected to the ‘other’ in any way.)

But, that’s the wrong interpretation of what Jesus was trying to say. He wasn’t saying ‘hey, it would be really nice if we were all one,’ he was saying that we are one. It is fact. It is a law as immutable as gravity. We might try to live as though we were not one, but if we do we will be ignoring the proverbial lighthouse and breaking ourselves against the rocky shore of our shared humanity.

We are one with the christians who sit next to us on the pews. We are one with the people in our community who mow their lawns on Sundays. We are one with the homeless in our city. We are one with the homeless on the other side of the world. We are one with the Muslims, the Jews, the Hindus, and the Buddhists. We are one with the atheists and agnostics. We are one even with the racists and the sexists. We are one.

Until we can realize that truth, that we are one, then we will continue to be unwitting creators of all the violent forces that we fear.

Thine own understanding

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“I believe finally, that education must be conceive as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.”

                                                           — John Dewey


One of the most interesting themes touched on in Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover, who was raised in rural Idaho by survivalist parents, is the question of how much we can trust our own memories, reasoning, and interpretation of ideas or events. In the story, the author recounts having been frequently injured by an abusive brother and neglectful parents who repeatedly put her in harm’s way and prevented her from having the types of experiences that nourish one’s sense of self. It seemed that the biggest obstacles that she encountered in her efforts to become an autonomous adult were the barriers to trusting her own interpretation of events, even in the face of rejection by her family.

As a woman who was raised in the same religious tradition as the author, I am very familiar with the experience the author described of second-guessing herself and rewriting her story when others disagreed. In our religious tradition, one way that we are discouraged from thinking for ourselves is by frequent use of the Proverb that says “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). That scripture kept occurring to me as I read about how her parents repeatedly encouraged her to set aside her own narrative and embrace theirs. I too have repeatedly been told to do this. For example, I have often been told to trust in my parents with all my heart and lean not unto my own understanding, trust in my bishop with all my heart and lean not unto my own understanding, and to trust in the brethren with all my heart and lean not unto my own understanding. Each of these, I was told, were the mechanism by which ‘the Lord’ was talking to me. I was almost 50 years old when I began to realize that my ‘own understanding’ was really all I can lean on. The biblical statement seems to be one mechanism by which those who rule and run religious organizations reinforce their own power. (For more on this idea, see Chapter 3, “Of Canons and Cannons: The Use and Abuse of Scripture” in Givens and Givens The Crucible of Doubt.)

Many who belong to and participate in these large religious organizations may feel that their leaders have only the most benevolent intentions, and perhaps that is sometimes true. Nonetheless, the fact is that their leaders are only human beings who have their own biases and conflicts of interest. Consequently, even if you trust that your leader is acting in accordance with their own best intentions, you can’t tell when they are lying to themselves. On the other hand, each of us has an inkling when we are lying to ourselves, and with careful practice, we can learn to interrogate ourselves with brutal honesty. That is the pathway to discovering truth. It’s not by allowing others to tell us what to think and how to interpret scriptures, myths, those little moments of transcendence, our memories, history, and literature; it’s by deciding for ourselves how to interpret those things. That’s what it is to become an adult. The author calls it “education.”

On subjective realities

Sapiens

Sapiens was a terrific book; like Guns, Germs, and Steel, it’s a book every human should read. That said, I found Harari’s perspective on human history to be quite disorienting. The most troubling part was the realization that a lot of what we build our lives upon and take for granted as objectively true is actually only subjectively true: that is, true only because most people believe in it. For example, money, democracy, the free market, the United States government, human rights, justice, equality, and many other things would all simply disappear, would cease to have any power, if we all just quit believing in them.

This is an especially disorienting idea in this era where we are beginning to see such a divide in the subjective realities held as “true” by people in our population. I’m sure that the reality as seen by a Fox News viewer is quite different from the reality that I perceive. Regardless of who is “right” and who is “wrong,” complete fictions have incredible power if enough people believe in them. The suffering and murder of untold millions can be attributed to various shared “subjective realities.” Human belief in things is so powerful that we should be especially cautious about what we choose to believe in. We should probably be picky enough to only believe in the most benevolent of forces, irrespective of any presumption of “truth.” In fact, humans are probably not very reliable interpreters of objective phenomena, so belief is a very dangerous thing indeed.

That said, I think it’s impossible for humans to give up the desire to know what’s true. And, as I read about the “fictions” and “subjective realities” the author spoke of, I can’t help but think of the imaginal nature of science. John Snow “imagined” that cholera was caused by microscopic organisms that reproduced in the gut and caused a fatal diarrhea a whole decade before we could visualize microorganisms. That was a “fiction” that had tremendous power to explain observed phenomena and to stop a cholera epidemic. Similarly, we still can’t visualize the orbitals of atoms, but our model for them is a “fiction” that nicely explains the observed behavior of chemicals.

The question I’m left with after reading the book is this: Just how powerful is the human capacity for belief? Shared “subjective realities” seem to make things materialize in our world. Is that true only as long as the “subjective realities” are consistent with “natural laws?” (If that’s a thing.) Or does the power of the collective imagination of Homo sapiens actually CREATE what we call “natural laws?”