The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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It’s all make believe

September 3rd, 2003 · No Comments · christianity, culture, history, metaphysics

With my first experiences with neo-pagan ritual came a series of doubts and inner debates. These early contacts with were my catalysts in a major restructuring of how I viewed myself and the world around me. I think back on some of these early conflicts and sometimes I’m able to draw a line from that early doubt, through the information I’ve collected and absorbed, to the (sometimes unexpected) stand on the topic I take today. For example, I had a problem at first with practicing a “made up religion”. I felt that ancient, honored religions had cachet simply because they were so old. I was raised in a faith older than anyone I knew, older than the country I lived in, older, even, than any other club, business, or organization I could name. The tenants of that religion (as I was continuously reminded) were the underlying timbers that framed our entire society. Anything not handed down from the priest, or the bishop, or the god of the bible was “made up”: worthless, possibly evil, potentially satanic!

I was in college when this conflict appeared, and I dispensed with it quickly, having made the realization that all religions were, at one time or another, made up: invented, engineered, devised. My glorious realization brought along its ‘queer eye’ friend – as long as I’m making it up from scratch, I may as well only make up things I like. I gleefully made a point to officially disinclude YHWH from my pantheon (boorish, self-centered, and violent), and there was much rejoicing. I took on a whole new pantheon, made up ritual, meditated and prayed, pursued magical practices, studied mysticism and the divinatory arts: in short, went whole-hog pagan. And I have to say that I’m glad and proud I did. I got past that early block of “but it’s made-up, it can’t have value” to the realization that what I create has value because I created it.

And then I went back and studied the religion I was raised under with new eyes. Immediately after embracing the pagan mindset, and for some years after, I held an almost violent grudge against Christianity (and public schools, as well, but that’s another story). After having been disassociated from the church for nearly two decades, I can finally say that I no longer hold a grudge, and can cheerfully accept Christianity for what it is. This attitude stems not from the healing sands of time, but from the enlightening sparks of history. I learned about where Christianity (and Judaism) came from, and how religion was considered and practice in other times and in other cultures.

It took a long time to work my way back to Christ, so to speak, for all the convoluted meanderings, political machinations, and violent uprisings that characterize the history of the church. (Actually, I started at Genesis and worked my way to Vatican II, but it’s more poetic the other way.) A lot of times, I thought I had lost my way: the players all behaved strangely, and it was rare to read about someone who was actually religious. I knew who this Jesus guy in the bible was, but what did he have to with the god on the cross that I always heard about? The more I learned about the pre-Christian pagan practices (especially in Rome), the more confused I became: everyone willingly traded in all that color and joy for this morose morality play and a dead guy on a stick? Who thought that was a great idea?

Seriously. One of my main questions after leaving the church was, how in the world did this stilted, guilt-ridden fossil ever get so popular? I was studious, even as a young altar boy, and I did try to discover the answer “from the inside.” What I usually heard was stuff like “people saw the power of God and believed” or “that’s how God wanted it to be,” and similar blather that always sounded like bullshit to me. Those priests would always talk and talk about the power of God and he did this and that, but when you ask why he would allow pain and suffering in the world if he’s so powerful and kind, and you get “mysterious ways” or “that’s God’s plan” or billy-clubbed into unconsciousness by an on-the-spot reading of Job by the four least literate members of the church (and the priest reading God’s parts, natch).

Everything about Christianity, the dogma, the , even the hierarchical structure was made up or “borrowed” over some thousand years. Jesus, however, wasn’t a Christian, nor was Peter, James, or (obviously) Judas. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John weren’t Christians, for that matter, Paul really wasn’t either. While a big chunk of the early theology was drawn from the hallucinations of Paul, and most of these men died as martyrs (we’re told), these men were all Jews, and Christianity wasn’t created by any of them, most certainly not by Jesus. Christianity was created by the Roman Emperor Constantine and his pals, and it continued to make and remake itself over the next 1700 years. Whatever self-proclaimed Christians before this time thought they were doing is irrelevant beyond whatever part of it was reflected in the canon of theology and ritual of the Roman Church. The Roman Church isn’t even exclusively borrowed from Judaism, but freely cribbed from Mithraism, Isis cults, Greek fertility cults, Persian mysticism – a who’s who of late Roman paganism.

(So what made Christianity so popular? Old stories about funny people? The imposition of guilt and threats of doom? Hallucinogenic sacraments? How about the Imperial threat of death? As in, “Your temple of ‘whatever’ is now a Christian church and you’ll follow our rules or everyone dies.” Suddenly, it all made sense.)

Okay, so Christianity is no great well of truth, I knew that early on, that’s why I got out. But surely there was some seed of divinity at the start. Perhaps there is some great divine truth in Judaism that Christ was trying to share. Although there is a lot of neat stuff in Judaism, in its many forms, it too was made up and too frequently was simply a political tool in the hands of arrogant, impulsive men. I had this mistaken notion that the Judaism of the Bible was some singular, constant thing that people today worshiped as Jews just as they did in the Bible. But they don’t. Judaism today is a lot closer to Christianity than to any Biblical form of Jah-worship. For one thing, you just don’t see any burnt offerings at the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem because the Romans tore that temple down two thousand years ago.

Read the Bible, it’s all there: God is very explicit towards the end of Kings. If you’re not worshipping Yah with burnt offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem, you’re not a very good Jew. Of course, early on, God wasn’t that particular about where you burnt his offerings, just so long as something got torched. Setting things on fire went over great with Jah from the get-go, it was his particular sign and covenant. Remember the burning bush? The towers of smoke and flames? But you go to any Jewish temple today and ask them when the sacrifice will be burned and all you’ll get some funny looks. The rabbi might laugh and give the date for the kosher barbeque. Don’t expect any high ritual then, though.

So the Biblical Judaism, that was Great Truth, then? Ummm… no. It was made up, too, and from perhaps more sources, and certainly with much less organization, than Christianity. What we know from the Bible about the actual religious practices of the Canaanites is slim. It’s pretty clear that no one in the bible would have understood monotheism the way it’s practiced today. It’s even difficult to figure out exactly where the “Israelites” come from and who they are. There’s a metric ton of genealogies, you’d think every Jew from Adam to Adam Sandler was kept track of, yet there’s also a lot of hand-waving and poof, these people over here are Jews, too, oh, and so are these as well.

The Babylonian exile was clearly a transformative point for the creation of Jewish identity, as those who returned from exile successfully hijacked the local culture for their own. Those who lived in Canaan and worshiped Jah before the rise of neo-Babylonia had rich, fulfilling pagan practices. They worshiped local gods and national gods, male and female, animal and human. Their culture was a mixing of Egyptian, Greek, and Assyrian and they adopted elements from all of these neighboring pagan societies. Jah was only one of many gods, part of this pantheon or that, the son of this god or the father of that one. Jah was frequently married to a goddess and sometimes fathered, not Jesus, but Baal! (All depending on which town or village you happened to visit.) Temples to Jah have been found all up and down the Littoral, even into Egypt and Turkey. He was never exclusive to Jerusalem – even in the days of Hezekiah and the consolidation of all Jah worship to Jerusalem, Samaria had an active temple to Jah.

And what about the great fathers of the faith? Abraham, Israel, Moses? Abraham was an Amorite, as was Jacob. Moses was an Egyptian. Even if all those stories are to be believed in the slightest, the facts of the racial or social makeup of Saul or David, Elijah or Esther can only be guessed from the political situation at the times of their presumed existence. Egypt was the singular dominant force, culturally, economically, and militarily for centuries. Greek domination was nearly as long lived. Whatever might have existed culturally in Canaan “originally” was either brought in from settling tribes or one of the major dominant civilizations. Before the Exile and the mythos of Jewish history was compiled, it really makes no sense to label anything as ‘Jewish’. Judaism was made up from elements of disparate cultures, and then, after the destruction of the 2nd Temple, was made up again.

All of this isn’t to say that there is not or was not any value in Judaism or Christianity, but rather to point out that someone, somewhere had to decide at some point that divinity would be honored in some specific way, and it’s certainly within your power to decide how you are going to appreciate the divine and the sacred in your life. Further, it’s within your power to decide what is divine and what is sacred. This is the keystone to building your own religion.

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