Friday, March 12, 2010

Don’t Look Back…

Religion has so much to offer me, though not salvation, or ethics, or community. No, religion provides me the creative fodder I need to write. I like to take a fresh look through new, child-like eyes at religious ideas left unexamined.

Why does heaven have pearly gates? I don’t mean, why are they pearl (though that is its own question). Rather, are there drifters loitering outside trying to get in? Why not build heaven in a nicer part of the universe, away from the riff raff? What if the gates are not to keep people out, but to keep people in…

But I have largely grown bored with Christian mythology. There’s only one god, and the angels are pretty ho-hum. So long ago, I moved on to other religions. As it turns out, most religions believe in some form of reincarnation. The idea of the soul returning to Earth after death was described by the Greeks, Romans, and several Eastern religions.

Plato relied heavily on the idea of the “transmigration of souls” (metempsychosis, which was introduced earlier by Orphism and Pythagoreanism). This idea was essential to Plato’s conception of knowledge. Plato believed all souls spend time in another plane of existence, inhabited by what he called perfect forms. There, our souls soak up knowledge like a sponge. It would be akin to your soul being plugged into an encyclopedia.

The soul then drinks from the River Lethe (meaning “forgetfulness” or “concealment”), causing us to temporarily forget, and we are born again as a baby. To Plato, nothing is ever “learned” during life. Instead, we merely “remember” or “recall” during our mortal lives the things we knew as immortal souls. In Plato’s estimation, we are all repositories of infinite knowledge, waiting to be unlocked. The very Greek word for “truth” was “aletheia,” meaning “unforget” or “unconceal.”

This is a romantic notion, but it is never enough for me to hear a story. I have to think of ways to add on to the established ideas. Moreover, other religions which espouse reincarnation have completely different dogma regarding the cycle of the soul. However, all of these models had a few things in common:

1. The soul is eternal
2. The soul is indivisible
3. The role of gods in the entire cycle is ambiguous

The first two points create a great crisis of internal logic, and this is already assuming the existence souls and the occurrence of reincarnation. There are almost 7 billion people. Right away, we have to assume animals and humans are coming from the same reincarnation pool or someone, somewhere is creating human souls from scratch. If the latter is true, then some souls are older (and therefore “more eternal”) than others.

If we’re using the same souls as animals, there are a lot of souls waiting to get back to Earth, because the number of animals in the wild who have died is greater than the population increase of humans and our domesticated animals (whose population also rises and falls with our own). That is, unless we can be reincarnated as microscopic life… in which case the calculations are too difficult for me to do, as there are trillions of non-human microbes living inside just one human body. And what about plants?

Why not simplify the whole matter and say that souls are divisible? My body may be like a glass, and my soul the water inside it. The glass was made recently, but the water always existed. When the glass breaks, the water won’t disappear; it will evaporate into the clouds or run down a drain or into the soil or trickle into a larger body of water. The exact glass of water can never be re-assembled again. I imagine that is a far more likely scenario than a soul being able to maintain itself as a whole.

Of course, the soul need not do anything. One should not forget the gods when discussing religion. What is their role in all of this?

Since religion is supposedly revealed by the gods, and the role of the gods is largely ignored in all reincarnation systems, I have come to the conclusion that the only logical explanation is that the gods are taking advantage of our souls somehow. The simplest solution is that they are eating our souls, perhaps this is even what gives them immortality, though I would not be surprised if the human soul is far less powerful, and is used for something rather frivolous (perhaps getting high).

Is it so crazy to assume the gods are exploiting the human soul? If we are their creation, and if the apple indeed does not fall far from the tree, it seems not only possible, but likely. Human beings think nothing about whom they hurt, why should the gods be any different? Quite frankly, we may be nothing more than cattle to them. Really puts the “fishers of men” and “shepherd” metaphors into context…

When someone asks me what happens when we die, I optimistically suggest that it will be like before we were born: nothing to us, but exciting for everyone alive (we get his stuff!). This is quite optimistic, at least when compared to my proposed scenario in which the soul is consumed by gods and shat back to Earth. I can’t know what happens when we die, but I find it very intellectually lazy of people to assume it’s either heaven and hell, or nothing.


  1. The gods aren't ignored by religions with reincarnation. The Hindu belief and some mystical teachings in Judaism is that reincarnation is needed to purify the soul. The more pure you get the better your reincarnated state is. Once it reaches the best possible state, you no longer need to be reincarnated and you get to unify with god which is the highest pleasure a soul can receive.

    Buddhism ignores the gods mainly because it holds that all you need is to purify yourself to stop reincarnating and you don't need to worship the gods for that. It's also not clear that Buddhism agrees that the gods created reality

  2. It is my understanding that the gods themselves seem to play little role in the prescribed reincarnation processes, and yet gods are so often ubiquitous in all supernatural activities, though I am aware of tales of evil spirits in some models which lead souls astray after disembodiment (I'm thinking specifically of Tibetan Buddhism, but I imagine it is not unique to this sect).

    After unification with god, what then? Is one lost completely in the awesome presence of the divine? The idea of being absorbed into a greater being seems to fit into my model...

  3. Ah! It's Spinoza!

    Ginx.... just hit up Google and read Spinoza's Ethics.

    Tibetan Buddhism has a lot of syncretism with the native Bon religion. To get to the heart of ancient Buddhism, I would start with the Theravada texts.

    But Spinoza.... boy, oh boy. I'm not talking about the Blogger Spinoza either.... Spinoza is geometry meets metaphysics.

    "After unification with God, what then?" The question does not compute. If God is pure Actuality - what else is there? The question is like asking.... "after becoming complete, what can I add?" Does not compute. Completeness is essentially complete - if we can add anything to that, it ceases to be Completeness.

    Back to reading Rebecca Goldstein.... :-)

  4. Ah yes, like "Anything you add to the truth subtracts from it."

  5. Let me know if you decide to check out Spinoza.... He's slowly working his way to my most favoritest philosopher ever - which is ironic considering his emphasis on objectivity and impersonality.

  6. I have not read anything he wrote, but I have read about him, mostly in relation to pantheism and Jewish/Christian theology. Is there anything he wrote you recommend?

  7. "Is one lost completely in the awesome presence of the divine? The idea of being absorbed into a greater being seems to fit into my model..."

    It's more like going back to the source. Originally you had one mind/consciousness. Then It became divided into many (subjective experiences). eventually it will return to one. At that point there is no experience anymore since you need two to experience (object/subject)

  8. I agree with your premise as feasible and logical, but I find it undesirable. I highly doubt that non-being is bliss (though I know you did not claim this specifically). At best, non-being is a lack of suffering, but it is also a complete absence of joy. I like passion, and I can imagine my soul will be coming back here, even if invited to unite with the source (and we all know I wouldn't be extended such a courtesy, anyway).

  9. Okay to clear up some things.

    For Spinoza - start with the Ethics. It's his magnum opus on metaphysics. I don't know that he can properly be called a pantheist, .... I could elaborate, but reading the Ethics is a better way than going by secondary sources.

    As far as being absorbed in a greater being being non-blissful (moksha, nirvana) - it is the highest bliss. I think a lot of it is the confusion caused by translation.

    Since I am most knowledgeable about Buddhism I will talk about Nirvana, but I imagine it describes Moksha as well (dissolution into the Divine).
    What is extinguished in Nirvana? Greed, anger, and delusion - the source of suffering.

    To say that Nirvana is to cease to exist is not accurate - but to say that Nirvana is a continued existence of the ego self is also not accurate. The ego self is the artificial identity construct we make for ourselves that sees Ginx as a permanent, unchanging essence - and because this is not true and in accord with the way things are - suffering arises out of this view.

    I think the reference to non-being being non-existence stems from our inability to see outside the Ego. Moksha is not ceasing to exist - it is the highest form of existence.

    Going to Hinduism....
    Imagine Atman as the part of Ginx that is uncreated and Pure - but that Atman is covered by delusions stemming from an falsely constructed ego that prevent you from uniting to Brahman (ultimate reality, God). When those delusions that arise from the ego self bring forth anger, greed, and hatred - Ginx experiences suffering. But having banished anger, greed, and hatred by purifying the mind - all that remains of Ginx is Atman, and no longer is there a divide between Atman and Brahman. Reality is experienced purely and blissfully, without the suffering caused by delusion. The artificial ego construction that we name "Ginx" ceases to exist - but what you really are (Tat Tvam Asi) is allowed to flourish.

    Ever wonder why Buddhism is big on Lotuses? They are like our Pure Nature.... the muddy waters their seeds fall in is like our ego self, full of delusion and impurity. But that seed ripens within the swamp, and out comes a beautiful flower. It's like our Pure Nature arising out of the delusions caused by greed, anger, and ignorance.

    Eh, I hope I didn't botch that too badly.
    But as for Spinoza, start with the =Ethics.
    I would post an online link, but I prefer to read print because online hurts my eyes. I am sure you can find it on google.

  10. I never thought of the pearly gates as prison bars.

    I guess God's gotta keep you from escaping heaven once you find out souls are on the menu for dinner.


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