Last night was new moon, and once again Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster showed up at my door to lead me into the desert, to our new discussion club, which we had named Trans-Consciousness Only, because we comprise a variety of conscious types. Our roster includes one plain human (me), one combination animal/deity (Betty the Coyote Creator Goddess), one combination human/deity (Jesus), one plain animal (Robert) and one fictional character (Gandalf from Lord of the Rings).
Betty, our chair, brought us to order and read the minutes of the first meeting. She asked for comments, and Robert said:
I think we need to change our name. We did not discuss Trans-Conscious topics at all last time.
I agree, Gandalf said. Why don't we just call ourselves the New Moon Club? Then we won't have to worry about what to talk about.
All voiced assent, including Betty, though she continued:
I'm fine with the new name, but ironically my topic for tonight is a trans-conscious one: The nature of the divine, as perceived by the not-divine. First, though, I'd like to ask Robert a question.
Fire away, said Robert.
Robert, dear, you appear to acknowledge that Jesus and I are deities, but do gila monsters employ the concept of deity?
Robert spat, thought a moment, then replied:
No, but they feel that they are part of a force, or forces, that extend beyond their bodies and lives, and that these forces may be akin to what humans perceive as "gods."
What's the difference? I asked.
The difference is that gilas are not cut off from these forces. They feel part of a sustaining flow. Humans are cut off from their sustaining flow - they receive it indirectly. It is mediated before they derive its nourishment. The mediators become gods, perceived as cosmic and mighty because of their key positions. What they might be from other perspectives is almost entirely hidden from humans, in fact it is generally forbidden to know. This explains your periodic confusion in our group, Harry.
I must say, I replied, I was rather surprised by the colloquial manner in which Betty and Jesus communicate with us. Jesus and Betty, do you have another aspect, an all powerful one- what our scriptures might call, in the archaic sense, "terrible"?
In my case, answered Jesus, it depends whom you ask.
I can be pretty terrible, answered Betty, depending on what I need to do. This brings me back to my topic. Humans, in their fear and confusion at what life has dealt them, have conceived "gods"- their term for forces they can't understand or manipulate- as vastly powerful, a comforting idea for humans, as it removes their responsibility for anything. The ancient Egyptians were among the earliest and most forceful in this effort. However personal and accessible gods had been for prior humanity, the Egyptians turned them into monumental and distant forces, to whom an individual human would normally be a cipher. An exception was made for royalty, because the pharaoh and royal family were half-god.
Pharaoh worship was one of the great human scams, a real pyramid scheme! added Robert, then turning to Jesus: Sorry, Jesus! I wasn't indicting all mortal/god combos!
Did I just hear Robert apologize for something? asked Betty.
No offense taken, Jesus said, There is no one left who believes that pharaohs were part god, so now they are not. Lots of people believe in me, though, and that makes me real.
Same here! piped Gandalf.
I'm sorry, I dissented, I'm still not clear about the reality of fictional characters. I don't even like the part in Peter Pan when everyone has to believe in Tinkerbell or she'll die.
Why not? asked Betty, What if no one believed in you, Harry. Would you still believe in yourself? Would you continue to exist?
I confessed I was not entirely sure.
On the subject of how humans perceive the divine, I've been reading a fascinating book called "The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve," by the human Stephen Greenblatt, professor of history at Harvard. Much of it concerns the Middle East, from the time of the Babylonian Captivity of the Hebrews, around 600 BCE, to the destruction of Israel and its Second Temple by the Romans, and the rise of Christianity. This was a period of general collapse of ancient religions. Greenblatt describes an environment where the old gods were battling for believers, for ratings, you might say.
Betty, Robert interjected, I've been reading the book too. Humans were waiting to be told which gods were speaking to them, and what the gods were saying. They were waiting for humans to tell them these things. They were not, as their ancient ancestors often were, receiving divine communication directly.
Yes, said Betty, It was the rise of the priesthood.
Gandalf added: I have studied human history as well and am also reading the Greenblatt book, and I can confirm Betty's and Robert's reports. I was quite struck by Greenblatt's version of the birth of monotheism. Betty, would you please review that?
Of course, Gandalf, Betty replied. When the Babylonians conquered the Hebrews it was considered a triumph for their god, Marduk, because gods were commonly rated by how well their adherents waged war. It was a challenge for the Hebrews to depict their god, then called Yahweh, as a winner after the 70 years of Hebrew captivity, followed by their release as a gift from a new ruler, rather than the result of their own military force. The Hebrews' answer was to re-define Yahweh as the only god, so that, for instance, Marduk would be a mere local incarnation.
True that, said Jesus.
The exaltation of God was so intense that the Hebrews felt a great anxiety when, on Yom Kippur, they stood in a conceptual confined space with God (as many Jews still do), believing that He could see every atom of their composition.
Robert asked, Does the human worshipper probe God's composition as well?
I'm not sure that's possible for a human, I answered.
Robert continued, From a gila perspective, it would be uncomfortable to be in a closed space with any conscious entity, god or otherwise, if your goal is to penetrate the soul of the "other." Do we want to see too closely into anyone's soul?
Indeed, said Betty, As above, so below. Have we done with my topic?
I would just add, said Robert, how fascinating some of the contenders for Most Powerful Religion were during the period Greenblatt writes about.
Yes, said Gandalf, There was a version of Genesis in the Dead Sea Scrolls, with quite a few adherents- but suppressed by the thought police of the time- in which the God who expelled Adam and Eve from the garden is an intermediary, answerable to higher levels of divinity. In one version, the serpent is Jesus, telling Adam and Eve that it is human destiny to attain knowledge of good and evil.
Jesus, I asked, Which version is true?
You won't like my answer, Harry. The version you believe is the one that is true.
Robert spat but said nothing.
I replied, How can that be? Are you saying that reality is just according to what's in each person's head? That would mean that if I ask you, "Jesus, are you the serpent or not?", you would tell me that whatever I think about that is true?
No, I'm not saying that it's either inside or outside your head; I'm saying that if you believe it, it is true.
I stared blankly, not even pretending to understand.
Betty said, Harry, remember in the book where Greenblatt writes about the early Christian scholar, Augustine, when he was fourteen years old and got an erection while standing naked in front of his parents?
Yes- I couldn't get that scene out of my head, and I tried.
His father was overjoyed that his son was a man, but his mother was grief stricken by the meaning of Augustine's erection: Her son would think with his dick, just like all the other male dummies (Santa Monica, California is named after her, whatever that tells you). Which parent expressed God's will, Harry, the father or the mother?
You're going to say it's the one I believe it is.
I wouldn't put it that way.
Because it would upset you. I need a way to phrase it that won't upset you.
While you two are counting angels, let's not forget Greenblatt's account of Rabbi Eleazar, medieval Talmudic scholar, who postulated that before God and Adam could assess whether Adam needed a female human companion, Adam first had to have sex with each kind of animal just in case his true companion was already in the garden. The rest is history.
Silence enveloped the group.
All right, said Betty, Let's move on. Who else has a topic?
Let's talk human politics, I said.
I'm in, said Robert.
Possibly you've all heard of Steve Bannon?
I have, Gandalf said, I try to stay familiar with pop culture.
What about him? asked the ever skeptical Robert.
Well, I continued, he's gone from sounding either silly or incomprehensible to almost making sense.
All ears were on me, as this was news.
I read his comments on Breitbart News (this elicited groans from Robert). Breitbart is the organ of the most angry of our right wing, who are about as angry as the most angry of the left wing. But in spite of its bias, or because of it, Breitbart carries information, some of it verifiable, that is not reported elsewhere. For instance, a piece titled, "Bannon warns against trusting Silicon Valley elites" [10/17/17] conveys ideas of his that hadn't been published before. Listen to this [as I dug a printed copy out of my pocket]:
“The reason we need populism...is that there are bigger and more crucial decisions coming down the road in the next ten or twenty years: the convergence of biotechnology, artificial intelligence, the computer chip. There are going to be decisions in front of mankind in the next twenty years that man’s never had to face before. If you think that the elites that got the world into the situation that it is today are going to make the right judgments twenty years from now, you’re sadly mistaken.”
Cries from our group: No way! That's got to be fake news!
I don't think it's fake news, I argued. What strategic advantage would Bannon or Breibart gain from talking about AI and biotech?
Sounding smart?, asked Robert.
Perhaps, I replied. In the article, Bannon blames the internet companies for the trends threatening humanity with extinction. Here's more:
“It’s folks like you that have to tell Google and Microsoft, 'This is not a science experiment, this is not an engineering exercise.’ You’re free men and women in the greatest republic of the history of the earth. Why are we nationalists? It’s not ethnonationalism; these guys can run that drill all they want. It’s economic nationalism. It doesn’t matter what your race is, your ethnicity, your gender, your religion, your sexual preference, it doesn’t matter. It does not matter. As long as you are a citizen of this republic, that’s what matters. Economic nationalism is what binds us together. ”
So sad, said Gandalf, Your only prominent figure who has gone to the heart of the matter is...well....a blowhard.
Robert said, Bannon's specialty is to target upset people who do not feel represented by government, promise them that a certain individual will represent them like never before, get that individual elected, watch that individual flail about in vain attempts to live up to impossible promises, blame everyone else for delays and the eventual collapse of the dream, and finally walk away with a big "fuck you" to all concerned- on to the next gig.
Jesus asked, How does Bannon suggest you deal with this technology that poses an existential threat to you?
As usual, I answered, he designates enemies, who, as it happens, are businesses which do not support his political allies. Here's more from the article:
"Bannon previously warned against the dangers of large Silicon Valley companies encroaching on citizens’ everyday lives. In July, Bannon reportedly suggested that companies such as Google and Facebook should be regulated in a similar manner to utilities, arguing they have become so essential to the Internet and to the everyday life of many U.S. citizens that they should be regulated as a natural monopoly."
Betty sighed, Oh my god Harry, what a waste of time! The internet companies don't know what to do about the coming changes, any more than anyone else does. They need guidance, and a social direction. Government hasn't figured out how to do that, so Bannon takes the default mode and demonizes the companies. Harry, your species is under increasingly poor management!
I can't disagree, I said.
Robert spat and spoke: My topic tonight is related to Harry's. If humans knew they were about to be replaced by a new model, they would be rebellious, to put it mildly. The goal of the media is to put the AI and biotech revolutions on back burners, far behind hurricanes, terrorist attacks and political scandals, occasionally highlighting a cute and clumsy robot trying to tie its shoes, rather than the robot you will face, who will charge you with joy and gratification, then sing you to sleep. Primetime news will not deliver adequate warning, because if it did your politics would be exposed as irrelevant, purposely designed to lead nowhere. Bannon pretends to be the herald of AI and biotech, and maybe he is, but he is not the one you need.
To re-phrase this in sports terms (which I'm trying to learn), said Gandalf, could we say that in order to distract people from what promises to be a corporate end-run around humanity, very intense distractions will be required, for instance wars.
Exactly, Gandalf! Robert exclaimed. That is why news must be manipulated, and people's perceptions controlled. Which brings me to my topic: This week's obvious manipulation across all media, involving a particular news story.
I knew right away which story Robert was talking about: That's right, Robert. I'm glad you brought this up. Last week we heard about the fall of Raqqah, in Syria, a final stronghold of ISIS [Robert nodded]. Reporting went quiet on Raqqah for a few days in deference to other stories, and then, on the same day, Tuesday, October 17, every news outlet- ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC, PBS, NPR, all the wire services and newspapers and even many local news shows reported that although Raqqah had fallen, ISIS will regroup and return. Even the New Yorker Magazine, master of English, recently recast as a receiver of Trump-scoops, echoed the topic in that week's issue [10/17/17, Robin Wright, "The ignominious end of the ISIS caliphate"]:
"The current caliphate may have collapsed, but serious dangers lie ahead, because the tensions and drivers that produced ISIS loom even larger today than when it emerged."
You got it, Harry, said Robert. Leaving aside questions about the accuracy of the story, it's interesting that every media outlet got a signal at the same time, from somewhere, to run it. Who gave that signal? And why?
Wow, said Gandalf, Remember the Star Trek where Captain Kirk, Spock and everybody are captured by evil creatures with giant brains who use the Enterprise crew as chess pieces?
Gandalf, you are not reassuring, I grumbled.
General laughter ensued.
Sorry, continued Gandalf, If I may, I'd like to contribute a bit of news I gleaned from the newspaper covering our neighbor, the San Fernando Valley.
You must mean the Los Angeles Daily News, I said.
Indeed, said Gandalf, unfolding the very paper, squinting at the page, This is from last Tuesday, again October 17, "The Universe Yields Stellar Secret." Anyone know the story?
I do, said Robert, a human science buff, Apparently humans have actually seen, in a sort of first hand vision, the collision of two neutron stars. They did this by tracking gravitational waves as well as electromagnetic frequencies such as visible light.
Yes, said Gandalf, It's quite a feat and very interesting. I bring it up tonight because, interesting and exciting as it is, what, actually, is the point of this achievement for a human race that is watching itself go to hell in a handbasket?
Gandalf, I protested, surely you know the point! What has been the point of millions of people reading and watching "Lord of the Rings"? Entertainment, momentary diversion. The story itself hasn't changed anything. Although the retirement looks great, I have to say.
You're right on that last point, Harry, said Gandalf, And I will certainly accept the idea that watching two neutron stars collide offers a sort of balm for it all.
Gandalf is not into space travel, said Robert, since he's already got his "space" in Middle Earth [Gandalf nodded]. I critique the human urge to travel space. Humans see landing on Mars as a possible escape from earth. That's not the proper motivator. A gila monster would want to go to Mars as an extension of the bliss here.
Brilliantly put, Robert! said Betty, I'm glad I haven't eaten you. To end on a possibly positive note, Harry, what do you propose as a corrective for the current human chaos?
Well, I answered, I think we should look at the internet companies, including the ones demonized by Bannon, as the source, potentially, of wisdom. I don't mean the wisdom of realizing that endless scroll-down is addictive, or that your refrigerator can order milk, or that you can monetize information, but some other kind of wisdom, maybe yet to be expressed. The major internet companies are poised to be financial and intellectual centers of leadership, alternative government, should traditional government further weaken. How about this: I will believe that there is wisdom to be found in internet companies, and it will be true because I believe it!
Betty laughed; Jesus and Gandalf nodded; Robert spat.
I think that does it for tonight, friends, said Betty. Until next new moon!
We trudged our separate ways over the desert.