Manufacturing the Aspects of Deity

Posted: April 5, 2010 in Braak
Tags: , ,

This is something else that I’ve been puzzling over.  What are gods for?

I don’t mean the big One God, or the elemental gods that run volcanoes and hurricanes and things like that.  I mean, specifically, the smaller, specific, totemic gods.  The Coyotes, the Mercuries, the Heimdallrs.

So, okay, let me digress for a second.  You know how we tell kids that they should always “be themselves”?  All the time, from Kindergarten on through College, the most important lesson we have for our kids is that they should “be themselves.” 

I think that’s weird.  First of all, what does it mean, “be yourself”?  Who else would you be?  Second of all, what if you’re a huge douchebag?  Isn’t the problem that we have with douchebags the fact that they are always themselves?  Wouldn’t the entire world be better off if they tried to be someone else?  Third, and finally, how do you know who you are when you’re in Kindergarten?  What kind of self do you have at age (uh…five?  How old are Kindergartners?)…at that age that’s so great it should be preserved against all obstacles?

Your mind doesn’t even finish developing until you’re in your twenties.  When you’re a teenager, you are actually clinically insane.  That is the worst time to be yourself!  It’s especially bad if, when you go through this insane period, you decide that you’re going to “be yourself” — that is, a completely insane idiot — for the rest of your life.

Kurt Busiek wrote a comic book called Arrowsmith that was not particularly noteable, but it had a scene in it that stuck with me in a peculiar way.  In it, the main character (Fletcher Arrowsmith) has begun hanging out with the High Society, and he tells his friend that he feels weird — like he doesn’t fit in, like he’s just pretending to be one of those people.  And his friend tells him (something like):

“Of course you are.  Pretending is how we become new people.”

This struck me, because it expresses our “selves” not as a fixed identity that needs to be preserved, but as a mutable construction that not only grows and changes throughout our lives, but that we have an active hand in shaping.  We actually decide who we want to be, and then pretend our way through to it.

So, second digression:  Grant Morrison — mad genius comic book writer and post-modern thelemic magician — advocates individuals creating a personal pantheon of deities, as a method of communicating with particular aspects of the individual consciousness.  Aleister Crowley, for all the cosmological and biblical symbolism he piled onto his ideas, was essentially doing the same thing.  Thelemic magic is not a tool for reshaping the universe by magical forces; it is a tool that, by using resonant symbolism, can be used to reshape the individual’s psychology.

Both of these guys also understood an experience, however, in which a person selects or finds or is given a personal deity.  A single form or concept that is one’s own unique connection to the universe.  Perhaps, more accurately:  our unique window through which we view the universe.

But perhaps even MORE accurately:  not a window at all, but a scaffolding of the self; a structure upon which we can build our selves, or a mold into which we can grow.  This, I think, is the purpose of the totemic god — it is a social system designed to answer the existential anxiety that we suffer as we grow up and are faced with the question:  “How do you decide who you are?”

I suspect there are many ways in which we have done and still do this, and some of those ways worry me.  Choosing names for ourselves (or having names chosen for us, both of which have different kinds of merit), for example.  Idolizing heroes or celebrities or fictional characters.  Those are all probably okay (mostly).  But branding, too — as we build our identities, we often decide who we are according to what we like.  The absence of our modern totemic deities permits room for simplified commercial totems to occupy space in our psyches.

That wouldn’t be so bad, I suppose, except for the fact that brands as totems don’t give us much in the way of direction (if we accept the two major questions that all human beings have to answer:  “Why am I here?” and “What do I do now?”, the hope would be that all pertinent psychic development goes towards answering one of them).  Except to buy more.

This still doesn’t answer the existential dilemma, though, of what you should do if there’s no reasonable totemic deity available.  What if you don’t like any of them?  Do you just make one up?  As I mentioned earlier, there’s merit both to choosing a name for yourself and for being given one; in the same way that it doesn’t count if you give yourself a nickname, there’s something that seems to me to not really count if you choose a deity for yourself.

But then, we don’t live in a society that really assigns that sort of thing, anymore.

Maybe I should just get really high and have a vision of Batman, or something.

  1. Moff says:

    As much as I know you enjoy Batman, I’m not convinced he’s the right personal deity for you. Or, frankly, for anyone.

  2. braak says:

    There’s a kind of interpretation of Batman that I like — the Omnicompetent Man (like Odysseus, who is Skilled In All the Ways of Contending), but I tend to agree that Batman, generally, should not be adopted as anyone’s personal deity.

  3. Moff says:

    This is an interesting question. First, I have a more basic one, though: Coyote, Mercury, Heimdall, etc.—are they actually totemic gods? I always classified them as symbols of an aspect of life, and thought of totemic gods as less powerful entities, animal helper spirits and the like.

    Anyway, there’s a lot of complicated stuff here. I do think self is mutable, and that you have to “become” a new person if you want to really live (and that “pretending” is how you do that); but I’ve always harbored an instinct that there’s an immutable kernel inside each of us that is The Self, as it were. So basically, you have this Self, with certain consistent qualities, and the personalities you learn to wear and shape are different lenses into and out of it. I don’t know how one would prove such a hypothesis—certainly I think the empirical evidence suggests that most people are, at heart, basically the same from childhood onward until they die; but all you need is one major conversion or overhaul to falsify the whole thing.

    I certainly choose totems that reflect who I think I am, or who I want to be: U2 has been the main one even over the last decade, as I’ve gotten considerably less worked up about the music I listen to (and as they have arguably gone from an envelope-pushing mainstream rock band to a much less envelope-pushing mainstream rock band). I’m nowhere near as passionate about them as I was in college (which I think is healthy, just as it was healthy for me to be so passionate back then), but they serve as a sort of shorthand for a lot of what’s important to me: straightforward, archetypal structure in art; optimism as a superior choice to negativism; social justice and religion that centers on genuine, difficult love; the notion that art and commerce are not mutually exclusive.

    And when I think about it, I know some of that stuff was present in me long before I started listening to U2 (for one, it just was—I was there, I remember; and for another, how else would the band have resonated with me in that way?), but I have no idea how much my fandom developed those qualities and how much they would have developed on their own.

  4. Moff says:

    Oh—and when people say, “Be yourself,” I think it’s a practical warning not to all-out prevaricate—because you’ll piss people off and, more important, you’ll end up unhappy—that’s sort of cloaked as weird hippie-dippie feel-goodery.

  5. rodriguez says:

    I think that my kids were themselves from age 6 months on. They certainly had a self to be true to (or not) by kindergarten.

  6. Dmart says:

    When you’re a teenager, you are actually clinically insane.
    I know this is totally tangential, but: cite?

  7. rodriguez says:

    that’s not to say that I don’t agree with this, I do:
    “selves” not as a fixed identity that needs to be preserved, but as a mutable construction that not only grows and changes throughout our lives, but that we have an active hand in shaping.

    but I also think there is a little glimmer that is present and unique almost from birth. I think we are very much our physical selves, including those who think of their mind as their selves. I don’t know if that unique glimmer may be limited to purely physical things, like a way to smile.

  8. rob says:

    I think that no part of the Self is immutable but very much goes immuted. I would love to chat about this sometime. You’re a pretty great blogger by the way.

  9. braak says:

    But that’s the real question isn’t it, Moff and Rodriguez. How would you know? The way that you present yourself governs the way that other people treat you–and the way that other people treat you is the way that you determine how you should be. Even a small lean one way or another is going to create a cycle that leads to the “creation” of an immutable self (as, I assume rob means, the elements of self become “immuted”) that begins from early enough on as to be indistinguishable from something that you were born with.

    Of course, you probably are born with preferences and inclinations one way or the other–a kind of jury-rigged “self” hacked together from bits of your parents’ genetics. But how essential is that to who you are? How hard is it to change? Obviously, if you spend twenty-five years building an identity on the foundation laid when you were six, it’s going to be tough to dig in and tear it up; practically speaking, this is essentially an immutable core. Though there have been certain notable cases in which human beings changed their personalities dramatically–I’m thinking of one, (possibly) apocryphal case about a guy on the road to Damascus. What the hell was his name? Maybe that kind of stuff doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen without a stroke or a nail in your brain or something like that.

    Of course, I don’t believe in ineffable or immortal souls. But if I did, I’d have certain problems with the idea that the soul in any way reflects or is reflective of the personality. If the soul is really made of a transcendent substance, then it’s not going to be the same thing as our feelings (which are really just chemicals) or our preferences (which are genetics) or our beliefs (which are long-held habits). If there is a soul, it must be more than biology, and therefore more than whatever we know to be a product of biology.

    That’s me, though; I’d be a poor Christian, because in my conception of a souled universe, even Adolf Hitler’s immortal soul is pure. There couldn’t ever be “bad” souls–just good souls that are covered with the putrid gunk of bad psychology and experience.

    Anyway, I figure Heimdall must be a totemic god, because what part of life is he meant to govern? What else is he? The god of standing on important bridges? Even then, though, if you think about it: some gods are gods of elements, and some are gods of aspects of human life. Devoting yourself to, or even leaning towards Mercury-as-God-of-Commerce in your worship is, essentially, choosing Mercury as a representative entity of oneself. Totemic spirits aren’t helpers in a practical sense, they’re helpers in a spiritual or psychological sense: the totemic deity is a representative of a perspective, and receiving “help” from the deity is a way of using that fixed perspective to lend insight into your own problems (“What Would Heimdall Do?” Well, he would stand the FUCK on that bridge.)

    This is all especially troubling to me, because I’ve always felt like I was particularly disappointed by the fact that we no longer live in a world in which your society or your tribe or your clan has fixed identities to hand out. “Be whatever you want to be!” the world tells me, and my whole life I’ve always thought, “but, they’re all the same. Each one is equally valid. How am I supposed to decide?” Consequently, my personal identity is distracted and inconsistent.

    I’m sure other people have that problem, too, and I’m sure they go to lengths to solve it. I’ve just always had the impression that whatever vocation it is that I’m ideally suited for, it’s one that nobody particularly needs. (Actually, I know that Thorton Wilder had a similar problem, which is why the first chapter of Theophilus North is EXACTLY WHAT’S IN MY BRAIN.)

  10. Moff says:

    Well, for one, I wouldn’t take it as a given that feelings are just chemicals, preferences are just genetics, or beliefs are just habits; and you’re really just reducing very complex concepts to overly simple terminology—which is fine in some conversations, but not this one. I mean, before you can determine that, say, “happy” is a chemical, you have to determine what you mean by happy, and figure out whether there’s any objective definition. Like, I feel kinda happy when I feel melancholy! What’s that about?

    In theory (like, really unfeasible theory), I suppose you could run experiments using twins or clones or something where you manipulated their brain chemistries, or observed their preferences, or raised them in similar or different ways, and then if the same material inputs still resulted in different outputs, you’d have some idea that there was some kind of immutable, unique “base” self that responded to the inputs.

    I don’t know what to tell you about finding your identity—personally, yours seems pretty solidly defined to me. And anyway, if they’re all equally valid*, at least there’s no wrong answer?

    *Another thing I’m not sure of.

  11. braak says:

    Well, if brains are functional objects, then the things that they do must themselves be physical, functional conditions — habits of function, structural elements, or chemical habitats. Obviously, also sometimes in combinations. Because seriously, what else could beliefs be?

    I guess they could proceed from the soul, but this becomes astonishingly problematic as something that, by its nature, can’t be measured. Moreover, if it’s genuinely intangible, how can it interact with things like genetics or chemicals?

    The soul, after all, is immortal, and manufactured before birth; if beliefs proceed from the soul, does that mean that some souls are manufactured…what, incorrectly? Why wouldn’t beliefs be consistent, then, unless some souls were built to fail from the outset?

  12. Moff says:

    Well, I dunno what else they could be—I mean, that’s the question, right? I’m just saying, in (highly unfeasible) theory, there’s a way to find out.

    Or, another answer—going way out on a limb here, because I don’t know much about either neuroscience or physics: Is it possible that the electrical and chemical impulses that constitute the working brain are a result of some interaction on the quantum scale and, by definition, therefore not measurable in a sense beyond probability?

    Either way, yeah, it’s problematic if you can’t measure it. But the fact that it’s problematic has nothing to do with whether it might be the case or not.

    Regarding souls: I don’t really think descriptions like “before birth” are useful when dealing with That Which Exists Beyond Space and Time. That’s not meant to be a dodge. I just really don’t think they’re useful. I have no problem with the idea that a “soul” bursts into being at the same time the physical life-form does. I also have no problem with the idea that souls are all different. (In my own, probably heresy-rife take on Christianity, I like to imagine them as—metaphorically—itty-bitty fragments of God, each one a unique snowflake unto itself.) Anyway, though, I don’t see why each soul couldn’t be manufactured correctly, but then subjected to experiences that warped it; in fact, that seems kind of like what Christianity and other religions (and Yoda) say is what happens.

  13. braak says:

    Well, that’s why I’m saying I would be a poor Christian. If the soul is timeless, it must necessarily exist outside of time both before and after its existence temporally; if it’s a fragment of God how can it be warped by base matter? This doesn’t make any sense toe me; I don’t have a problem understanding it as being occluded by dirty experience, but I can’t accept a world in which God sends fragments of Himself out there knowing that they’re going to get fucked up beyond repair.

    Also, I’d be a Jedi heretic, because I don’t actually believe that there is a Dark Side of the Force; I think that’s a metaphor for a dark aspect of human consciousness that makes use of the morally-neutral Force in “dark” ways.

  14. Moff says:

    Well, the point of Christianity is that they aren’t fucked up beyond repair. But my catchall response to questions about God’s motives is that He moves in mysterious ways. Seriously, I think the question of how the immaterial might meet the material is interesting (and I don’t have a good answer right now!), but the question of why to me has always been, like: I’ve been alive 33 years and haven’t even visited Asia. Ultimately, the reasons the Omniscient Maker of All Creation has for what He’s doing are probably beyond my ken. Maybe if I get a better computer.

    I sorta think the Force exists simultaneously with how it’s used, if that makes sense. Like, yes, it’s about the intent of the consciousness using it; but also, the more you use it Darkly, the more it itself makes itself available to you in Dark ways. But I may be saying the same thing you are in a more complicated way.

  15. braak says:

    Except, many forms of Christianity demand a kind of point of no-return — that is, it’s possible for a soul to be so fucked up that it wouldn’t be repentant, at which point it would be essentially beyond repair; since no one can repent for you, and your will to repent is a product of who you are and how you lived, it’s entirely possible that you’ll end up at the judgment unrepentant. For all practical purposes, this soul is damaged beyond repair.

    The Why of God is always interesting. I figure if there is a God, and he didn’t want me to wonder why He does what He does, He’d have designed the universe in such a way that I wouldn’t want to know about it. Or not. Who can say? I can’t. It does seem a little unfair that God sets the rules omnisciently, but makes me operate in them…uh…topisciently, I guess.

    I think talking about the Dark Side of the Force is just misleading in general. Certainly, using the Force in Dark ways makes it easier to use it that way, but the Darkness is nonetheless a part of the user, not a part of the Force itself.

  16. Moff says:

    Is it just part of the user? I mean, if so—if it’s not sort of an objective reality, like the caloric content of french fries is—then why does it have the same sort of effect on everybody, the way eating too many french fries does?

    I think God is very down with wondering. I just also think that for whatever reason, He went ahead and built a universe constrained by space and time, and the unalterable consequence of that is that we, as part of it, can’t much comprehend anything beyond it. I guess it’s kind of unfair, but when you consider that He could have just not made us at all, it doesn’t seem so bad.

    And I don’t really buy into the no-return notion; I have a lot of issues with the whole idea of a Judgment Day, as do many of the Christians I know. Even pulling straight from Christ’s words, I think the only thing he says is unforgivable is to believe there’s anything impossible for the Holy Spirit—i.e., to believe there’s anything that can’t be forgiven. Yeah, I guess a soul could get to a point where it would believe itself irredeemable, like in Book 4 of Sandman, but I think that’s problematic in the context of a Judgment Day. Either you believe you’re irredeemable and don’t care, but then are Confronted With the Majesty of God—and what? That doesn’t change things? Or you believe you’re irredeemable and do care, and feel guilty, in which case then the Majesty (and concomitant Mercy) of God is even more affecting.

  17. braak says:

    Well, the important part of that scenario is that not everyone eats too many french fries. The Dark Side of French Fries is not that there’s a part of French Fries that are bad, but that there’s a part of you that’s a glutton. But that’s me; I’m a Unitarian Jedi Apostate. Which, if it’s not something that exists in the Star Wars Universe, is something that bloody well ought to.

    As for god and the immortal soul, I don’t know; all the ways seem equally valid to me, because I don’t believe in souls in the first place. I think if I did believe in a soul, I’d have to believe that Nurture is swept away by the majesty of God, leaving behind only the soul’s immortal nature, which can comprehend God and his infinite mercy, and can therefore be forgiven. The other alternative is that it’s possible to live to wicked a life that the soul is literally warped beyond repair.

    But okay, so, Hell must be a pretty empty place, because no soul is beyond God’s mercy. To say God only grants His mercy when he’s asked I think is to weaken God; I forgive people whether they ask me to or not, and if I can do that, then God should be able to do infinitely more. We can talk about “Free Will” but is there really a free choice that any of us is given? Are we really given the power to choose between right and wrong?

    I’m not sure we are; I think the only true, free choice is one that we make with full knowledge of everything, which we can never have. We can never choose the right thing, only the rightest-seeming thing. Consequent to this, we are constrained by our personal ignorance, madness, experience, and chemicals. And consequent to THAT, everyone should be forgiven, but most especially those people who are the most wicked, as they are necessarily the most constrained.

    Again, if I believed in that sort of thing.

  18. rodriguez says:

    I’ve always felt that hell must be empty also. Lately I’ve read a really great book that argues the opposite: Hell by Robert Olen Butler.

  19. Moff says:

    Yeah, I sort of wonder if hell isn’t empty, too. Actually, I wonder if it exists at all.

    I dunno, man. You seem fairly intent on drawing a very clear delineation between where God ends and the material universe begins. I get that—I know it’s pretty traditional theology—but I have come to think it’s a perspective informed by, you know, what McLuhan would call the typographical/visual paradigm. “A place for everything, and everything in its right place,” and all that.

    I really do question the notion of hell for exactly the reason you mention. And of course I’m going to say that everyone can be forgiven, but I also think for it to be meaningful, the forgiveness needs to be accepted, which is an internal process, a matter of free will inasmuch as our will is free. Too, I have no argument with the idea that the most wicked are the most deserving of mercy, and I don’t think Christian theology does either; that’s pretty much the parable of the prodigal son.

    But I think you’re making a leap when you say that since we can only make the rightest-seeming choice, we should all automatically be forgiven. Because we don’t always make the rightest-seeming choice. Frequently, I have a choice to make, and I know what the rightest-seeming choice is—and I make a different one, usually because I’m feeling lazy or selfish or just don’t think it’s that big of a deal (which are all more or less the same thing). That’s not a constraint, just a challenge.

  20. braak says:

    I don’t know, I’ve got to work with what I’ve got, here. If Heaven, where the soul ends up, is actually eternal and outside of four-dimensional space and time, then the soul necessarily must exist both before and after its birth in a three dimensional world. If it is eternal, then it can’t change, because it doesn’t exist within time. Is there a clear distinction between the spiritual and the material? Not necessarily, I guess, under this cosmology, but the transfer of influence can only progress one way–while people can be made better because of their soul, their soul can’t be made worse because of them. There’s a lot of ways to understand this, I suppose; if you wanted to understand the soul as an aspect of God that He uses to experience the Universe (and, presumably, himself), or to understand the experience of being other than himself, that’s fine, that makes sense to me. So does the idea that the soul can be covered up by bad experience, that the soul is the source of virtuous behavior, and only healthy and virtuous action can permit the personality to give way to the soul.

    But it’s hard for me to accept the idea that, when the eternal, immortal soul leaves the four-dimensional world, it can take any four-dimensional stuff with it. Moreover, I’m not sure why it would bother, because i can’t think of what any of that stuff would be good for in Heaven.

    As to whether or not you always make the rightest-seeming choice, and why you don’t, that’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I mean, why don’t you do it? Because you’re selfish or lazy, sure, but why are you selfish or lazy? Do we live in a world of causes and effects? Is the universe deterministic but seemingly subject to choice and will, or is there genuinely free will? I don’t know. Obviously, it depends on your perspective. I think we’re probably less free, in general, than we imagine that we are.

    I mean, let’s say that I am lazy, and that’s why I don’t do more good things. But I recognize that I’m being lazy, and I decide not to be lazy about those things–where does that come from? I mean, plenty of people are lazy, recognize that they’re lazy, and decide to stay that way; what is it about me that caused me to value this choice above some other choice?

    Plainly, if all effects are the results of causes, then all causes must be the consequence of the First Cause.

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