Biblical Series II: Genesis 1: Chaos & Order by Dr. Jordan Peterson
I thought, this time, that I would actually cover some of the Biblical stories, hopefully a number of them. As I said last time, I'm going to go through this as fast as I am able to. I want to do as complete a job as possible. Of course, the probability that I’ll get through the entire Bible is very low, but we’ll get through a lot of the major stories and the beginning of it. That’s a good start. Assuming that this all goes well, maybe I’ll try to do this same thing again in the fall, or next year—assuming that everything is still working out properly next year. It’s a long ways away.
All right, I guess we’ll start. Last week I talked to you about a line in the New Testament that was from John. It was a line that was designed to parallel the opening of Genesis. It’s a really important line. I thought I would reemphasize it, because the Bible is a book that’s been written forward and backwards in time—like most books, because if you write a book, of course, when you get to the end, if you’re a writer, you can adjust the beginning, and so on. It has this odd appearance of linearity, but it isn’t linear. It’s like you’re God, standing outside of time. That’s your book, and you can play with time anywhere along it. The people who put the book together—or the books together—took full advantage of that. It gives the story odd parallels in many, many places and this is one of the major parallels—at least from the perspective of the Christian interpretation of the Bible, which, of course, includes the New Testament.
So there’s this strange idea that Christ was the same factor, or force, that God used at the beginning of time to speak habitable order into being. That’s a very, very strange idea. It’s not something that can be just easily dismissed as superstition, partly because it’s so strange. It doesn’t even fit the definition of a superstitious belief. It’s a dream-like belief, and what I see in many of the ideas in the Bible is these dream-like ideas that underlie our normative cognition and that constitute the ground from which our more articulated and explicit ideas have emerged. This idea’s so complicated that it’s still mostly embedded in dream-like form, but it seems to have something to do with the primacy of consciousness. This is one of the biggest issues regarding the structure of reality, as far as I can tell, because everyone from physicists to neurobiologists debate this. The stumbling block for a purely objective view of the world seems, to me, to be consciousness.
Consciousness has all sorts of strange properties. For example, it isn’t obvious what constitutes time, or at least duration, in the absence of consciousness. It isn’t also easy to understand what constituted being in the absence of consciousness, because it seems to be the case—well, if a movie is running and there’s no one to watch it…I know it sounds like the tree in the forest idea, but it’s not that idea at all. If a movie is running and no one’s watching it, in what sense can you say that there’s even a movie running? Because the movie seems to be the experience of the movie, not the objective elements of the movie. There’s something about the world—at least insofar as we’re in it as human beings—that is dependent on conscious experience of the world. Now, of course, you can take consciousness out of the world and say, well, if none of us were here, if there was no such thing as consciousness, then the cosmos would continue running the way it is running. But it depends on what, exactly, you mean by the cosmos when you make a statement like that. There’s something about the subjective experience of reality that gives it reality, and since we’re all pretty enamoured at our own consciousnesses—although they’re painful, because they define our being—it’s not unreasonable to give consciousness a kind of metaphysical primacy.
It’s a deeper idea than that because there’s physicists—and they’re not trivial physicists—like John Wheeler, who believes that consciousness plays a constitutive role in transforming the chaotic potential of being into the actuality of being. He’s not alive anymore, but he actually thought about it as playing a constitutive role. Then, from the neurobiological perspective, from the scientific perspective, consciousness is not something that we understand. I don’t think we understand it at all. It’s something we can’t get a handle on with our fundamental, materialist philosophy, and I don’t know why that is. It’s quite frustrating, if you’re a scientist, but it isn’t clear to me that we’ve made any progress whatsoever in understanding consciousness, even though, well, we’ve been trying to understand it for hundreds of years, and even though psychologists and neurobiologists and so forth have really put a lot of effort into understanding consciousness from a scientific perspective in the last 50 years.
Anyways, what it seems to me is the idea that God used the word to extract habitable order out of chaos at the beginning of time, which is roughly the right way of thinking about it. It seems to me deeply allied with the idea that what it is that we do as human beings is encounter something like the formless and potential chaos. I mean, we’re not omniscient and we can’t just do whatever we want. That’s always what we’re grappling with, and somehow we use our consciousness to give that form. This is how people act. If you look at how they regard themselves, it’s how they act, because you say things to people like, you should live up to your potential, and you make a case that there’s something about a person that’s more than what is that yet could be if only they’d participate in the process properly. Everyone knows what that means, and no one acts like a mystery has been uttered when you say that.
You can see a situation in your own life that’s full of potential. You’re often extremely excited when you encounter something that’s full of potential, because what you see is something that could be. You see a future beckoning for you that could be if only you interacted with it properly, and it activates your nervous system in a very basic way. We even understand how that happens to the degree that we understand how the nervous system works. The systems that mediate positive emotion are governed, roughly, by neurochemical dopamine, which have their roots way down in the ancient hypothalamus, a very, very archaic and fundamental part of the brain that responds to potential, or the possibility of accruing something new and valuable. It responds to potential with active movement forward and engagement. And so we’re engaged in the world as potential, and it looks like consciousness does that.
This is the main idea that it think has been put forth in Genesis 1. From what I gather, there’s always three causal elements that make up being at the bottom of world mythology. One is the formless potential that makes up being once it’s interacted with, and that’s generally given a feminine nature. I think that’s because it’s like the source from which all things emerge and rise. It’s more complicated than that, but then there’s some kind of interpretive structure that has to grapple with that formless potential. I think that’s the sort of thing that’s alluded to by Immanuel Kant when he was criticizing the notion that all of information comes from sense data, which would be the pure empirical perspective. When you encounter the world, you encounter it with a cognitive structure that already has shape. It’s already in you, this structure. Without that a priori structure, you wouldn’t be able to take the formless potential and give it structure. It’s akin, in some way, to the idea of God the Father, and I’ll try to develop that idea more. It’s the notion that there’s something in all of us that transcends all of us, that’s deeply structural, that’s part of this ancient evolutionary and cultural process, that enables us to grapple with the formless potential and bring forth reality, roughly speaking.
And then there’s the final element, and that element seems to be something like consciousness that actually inheres in the individual. So it’s not only that you have the structure: it’s that the structure has the capacity for action in the world. It’s like you’re this spirit that gives the dead structure life. As far as I can tell, the Trinitarian notion that characterizes Christianity is something like formless potential—which is never given a status of a deity in Christianity—and then the notion that there’s an a priori interpretive structure that’s a consequence of our ancient existence as beings. The notion of a structure goes back as far in time as you can go. Then there is the idea of a consciousness that is the tool of that structure. It interacts with the world and gives it reality. That’s the word, as far as I can tell.
The notion is that there’s a Father, and that’s the structure, and there’s a Son that’s transcendent and characterizes consciousness itself. It’s the Son, the speaking of the Son, that is the active principle that turns chaos into order. It’s such a sophisticated idea. There’s something about it that’s, at least, phenomenologically accurate. You do have an interpretive structure and you couldn’t understand anything without it. Your very body is an interpretive structure. It’s been crafted over, let’s say, three billion years of evolution. Without that, you wouldn’t be able to perceive anything, and it’s taken a lot of death and struggle and tragedy to produce you, the thing that’s capable of encountering this immense chaos that surrounds us and transforming it into habitable order.
There’s the idea, too, of course, that’s deeply embedded in the first chapters of Genesis, which is a staggering idea and certainly not one that’s likely, that human beings, both male and female, were made in the image of God. That’s a very difficult thing to understand, partly because the God that’s referred to in those chapters has a polytheistic element, although it’s an element that's moving rapidly towards a unified monotheism. But it’s not also obvious to me why people would come up with that concept. I don’t really think that, when we think about each other, we immediately think God-like. The notion that every single human being, regardless of their peculiarities, strangenesses, sins, crimes, and all of that, has something divine in them that needs to be regarded with respect, plays an integral role, at least an analogous role, in the creation of habitable order out of chaos. That’s a magnificent, remarkable, crazy idea. And yet we developed it, and I do firmly believe that it sits at the base of our legal system.
I think it is the cornerstone of our legal system. That’s the notion that everyone is equal before God, which is, of course, such a strange idea. It’s very difficult to understand how anybody could have ever come up with that idea, because the manifold differences between people are so obvious and so evident that you could say that the natural way of viewing human being is in this extreme hierarchical manner, where some people are contemptible and easily brushed off as pointless and pathological and without value, and all the power accrues to a certain tiny aristocratic minority at the top. But if you look at the way that the idea of the individual sovereign developed, it’s clear that it unfolded over thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of years before it became something firmly fixed in the imagination. Each individual has something of transcendent value about them. Man, I tell you, we dispense with that idea at our serious peril. If you’re gonna take that idea seriously—which you do because you act it out, because otherwise you wouldn’t be law-abiding citizens—then you act that idea out. It’s firmly shared by everyone who acts in a civilized manner. The question is, why in the world do you believe it? Assuming that you believe what you act out, which I think is a really good way of fundamentally defining beliefs.
That’s the idea, that there’s this God of tradition and structure. That’s God the Father, who uses the Son, which is more of an active force and, primarily, something that’s verbal. I think that’s extremely interesting, because it’s associated not with thought, precisely, but with speech. I think the reason for that is that there’s something to speech that’s more than mere thought. I think part of the reason for that is that speech is a public utterance and, at least in principle, speech is something that is shaped by the existence of everyone else across time. When you speak, your speech is put forward in the world as a causal element. It’s also subject to criticism and cooperation and mutual shaping. So there’s an idea here, too, that the cognitive processes that brings habitable reality out of uninhabitable chaos has this collective and public element, which is part of the reason, by the way, that I'm an advocate of free speech, let’s say above all.
It is the case, for example in the Canadian Bill of Rights, that every single right has equal value. That’s the theory. It’s an idiotic theory, because it’s absolutely impossible for a large set of rights to have absolutely equal stance. That cannot happen. There’s no way that can ever work, but that is the legal judgment. I think it’s a huge mistake. Free speech has this divine quality, let’s say, that you can’t escape from. It’s the thing that manufactures everything else. I do think that the dream—that you could think of as encapsulated in the stories in Genesis—is the dream by which human beings dreamed up the idea that we would now consider consciousness. It took us a long time to figure out the word consciousness. It’s not like it’s bloody obvious. Who knows how many thousands of years, or who knows what struggles we had to undertake, to abstract out something like consciousness, and how we had to represent that dramatically, or symbolically, or in a dream-like fashion, before we could actually formulate the term and localize that to some degree. It’s very sophisticated.
John makes the case that there’s an emanation of God, or an element of God, that the transcendent consciousness acts directly and in a sort of living way with the underlying potential of the world. I think that is phenomenologically accurate, and I do think that’s the way we regard our lives. When you think about it, we tend to think that what you encounter when you are looking at the world is the material world, but that isn’t how you act. You do act as if you’re in a place of potential and also in a place of potential that you can actually transform, which is extraordinarily strange, because we do treat each other as if we’re capable of bringing new forms into the world in some permanent manner. We treat each other as if we have free choice and free will. Perhaps we don’t, but it’s certainly the case that societies that are predicated on the idea that we don’t, don’t do very well, and societies that are predicated on the idea that we do, seem to do a lot better.
People tend to get very annoyed at you if you treat them like they’re automatons that lack free will. There’s something that people find very, I would say constraining, slave-like, about that: the demand that you don’t have actual autonomy and, even worse, that you’re not responsible for your choices. It’s an insult to someone to suggest to them that they’re not responsible for their choices. To do that to someone from a legal perspective, you have to argue something like diminished capacity: you’re mentally ill, or you don’t have the intellectual capacity, or you were addled by some substance, or you had a brain injury, or something, and that’s why you’re not responsible for your actions. Otherwise, part of the respect that you give to another human being is the assumption that they’re responsible for their actions. If you do something bad, then you’re responsible for it. But part of that, too, is that, if you do something good, you’re also responsible for that. That also seems necessary because, I mean, it’s gotta be more annoying than anything else you can imagine to strive virtuously to produce something of extreme value and then to be treated as if that was a mere deterministic outcome, and that your actual choices had nothing to do with that. People find that sort of thing extraordinarily punishing. I know that there are debates about all of these things, and debates about free will, and debates about the nature consciousness, but I'm trying to take a clear look at how people act, how they want to be treated, and then to trace it back to these old ideas to see if there’s some metaphysical connection.
All right, so here’s how the book opens: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters." This is a hard narrative section to get a handle on because, in order to understand it properly, you have to actually look behind it. There are a lot of pieces of old stories in the Old Testament that flesh out the meaning of these lines. I can give you a quick overview of it. One of the ideas that lurks underneath these lines—although you can't tell, because it's in English. You have to look at the original language, and, of course, I don't speak the original language. I’ve had to use secondary sources, too bad for me. But the "without form and void," and the deep idea—you see, that's associated with this notion of endless, deep potential. For example, words that are used to represent "without form and void" are something like—I’m going to get this partly wrong—tohu wa-bohu. Another one is tehom. It’s important to know this, because those words are associated with an earlier Mesopotamian word, which is Tiamat.
Tiamat was a dragon-like creature who represented the salt water. Tiamat had a husband named Apsu. Tiamat and Apsu were locked together in a kind of sexual embrace. I would say that's potential and order, or chaos and order. They were locked together, and it was that union of chaos and order that gave rise in the old Mesopotamian myth, the Enuma Elis, to being, to the old Gods first, and then, eventually, as creation progressed, to human beings themselves.
There's this idea lurking underneath these initial lines that God is akin to that which confronts the unknown, carves it into pieces, and makes the world out of its pieces. The thing that it confronts is something like a predatory reptile, a dragon, or a serpent. I think part of the reason for that—and this is a very deep and ancient idea—is that…This is where it gets so complicated to do the translation. It’s partly how human beings created our world. We went out beyond the confines of our safe spaces—let's say our safe spaces defined by the tree or the fire—and we actively voyaged outward to the places that we were afraid of and didn't understand. We conquered and encountered things out there: animals, mammoths, snakes, and predators of all sorts. It was as a consequence of that active, brave engagement with the terrifying domain of what we did not understand that the world, in fact, was generated. That idea lurks deeply inside the opening lines of Genesis.
It’s a profound idea, in my estimation. I think, also, that the way our brains are structured—and this is something that I’m going to try to develop more today—is the ancient circuits that our ancestors used to deal with the space beyond the home territory which they had already explored. Unknown territory is characterized by promise, because there are new things out there, but also by intense danger. We’re prey animals, especially millions of years ago when we were very young. We had to go out there and encounter things that were terribly dangerous. There was a kind of, let's say, paternal courage that went along with that. It was the spirit of paternal courage that enabled the conquering of the unknown, and there’s no difference between the conquering of the unknown and the creation of habitable order.
The thing is that, as our cognitive faculties have developed to the point where we’re capable of very high levels of abstraction, the underlying biological architecture has remained the same. For example, when you’re having an argument about something fundamental with someone that you love, you’re trying to structure the world around you, jointly, to create a habitable space that you can both exist within. You’re using the abstracted version of the same circuits. You're using the same circuits that our archaic ancestors would have used when they would have went out into the unknown itself to encounter beasts, predators, and geographical unknowns. It's the same circuit. It's just that we do it abstractly now instead of concretely. But, of course, it has to be the same circuit, because evolution is a very conservative force. What else would it be? This is also why I think it’s so easy for us to demonize those people who are our enemies. Our enemies confront us with what we don't want to see, and, because of that, our first response is to use snake detection circuitry on them. That accounts for our almost immediate capacity to demonize. There’s a reason for that. It’s not a trivial thing. First of all, it's a very fast response. And second of all, it's a response that's worked for a very, very, very long time.
One of the variants of the hero—and I would consider a variant of the hero like a fragment of the picture of God—is the heroic warrior who slays the enemy. Of course, that's not precisely a politically correct representation of a hero in modern times, and no wonder, but it's still something that you go watch in movies all the time and admire. It’s one of the most—how many plots are there? Romance and adventure, that’s about it. Most of the adventure genre is, well, there’s some enemy that’s lurking in some form—it could be human, it could be alien—and someone rises up to go and confront it and maintain order. There's no getting away from that story. If you don't have that in your own life, you play a video game where that's happening, or you watch a movie where that's happening, or you read a book where that’s happening. It captures you, even if you're atheistic and your only religion is Star Wars. It still captures your imagination. You act like someone who’s possessed by religious fervor when you line up for three days to be the first one into the theatre—and all the while claiming that you’re atheistic to the core.
It’s hard to get a grip on what "without form and void" exactly means. I can give you another kind of example of how you would experience the formless chaos of potential in your own lives, and even how the order that you currently inhabit can dissolve into that. In Dante's Inferno, he outlined the levels of hell. Dante was trying to get to the bottom of what constituted evil in this representation. It's a work of psychology, and he’s thinking, well, there are various ways to behave reprehensibly, but there's a hierarchy of reprehensible behaviour, and there's something absolutely the worst at the bottom. Dante believed that it was betrayal. I think that’s right, because one of the things that enables long-term, peaceful cooperation between people is trust. I would also say that trust is the fundamental natural resource.
There's been some very good books written on the economic utility of trust. Societies where the default economic presupposition between trading partners is trust tend to be rich, even if they don't have any natural resources. You can see that, for example, with what happened with eBay, which I think was kind of a miracle. What should have happened with eBay was that you sent me junk and I sent you a cheque that bounced, and that was the end of eBay. But that isn't what happened. The default transaction on eBay was so honest that the brokers—you could hire brokers, to begin with. I can't remember what they were called, exactly, but you could pay someone a fee so that they would guarantee the transaction. You wouldn’t send me junk and I’d actually send you a payment, and we’d pay 10 percent for someone to guarantee that. The default trade was so honest that those things vanished right away. That meant that all this frozen capital, roughly speaking, which were all the junk that people had lying around that someone else might want, instantly became money. The only reason that worked is that people trusted one another. Trust is an unbelievably powerful economic force, maybe the most powerful economic force.
Anyways, part of the reason for having a relationship predicated on trust is that trust is what enables us to look at each other without running away screaming. What I mean by that is that, if I trust you, then I don’t have to take into account how complicated you are, because you’re horribly complicated. A chimpanzee full of snakes: that’s what a human being is. As long as you’ll do what you say you’ll do, then I can take you at your word, and your word simplifies you. You can take my word, and my word simplifies you, and then we can act like we understand each other, even though we don’t.
But then, if that trust is betrayed, then all the snakes come forth very, very rapidly. All of you, I suspect, have been betrayed in one way or another. If you're in a relationship with someone and you trust them, then you make certain assumptions about the past, and you make certain assumptions about the present, and you make certain assumptions about the future, and everything’s stable. You’re standing on solid ground and the chaos—it's like you're standing on thin ice. The chaos is hidden; the shark beneath the waves isn't there. You’re safe; you’re in the lifeboat. But the instant the person betrays you…If you're in a intimate relationship and the person has an affair, and you find out about it, one moment you're in one place where everything is secure, because you predicated your perception of the world on the axiom of trust, and the next second—really, the next second—you’re in a completely different place. Not only is that place different right now, but the place you were years ago is different, and the place you're gonna be in the future years hence is different.
All of that certainty, that strange certainty that you inhabit, can collapse into incredible complexity. If someone betrays you, you think, well, ok, who were you? Because you aren't who I thought you were, and I thought I knew you. But I didn't know you at all, and I never knew you. All the things we did together, those weren’t the things that I thought were happening. Something else was happening, and you are someone else, and that means I'm someone else, because I thought I knew what was going on, and clearly I don’t. I’m some sort of blind sucker, or the victim of a psychopath, or someone who’s so naive that they can barely live. I don't understand anything about human beings, and I don't understand anything about myself, and I have no idea where I am now. I thought I was at home, but I’m not. I’m in a house, and it's full of strangers. I don't know what I’m going to do tomorrow, or next week, or next year. All of that certainty, that habitable certainty, collapses right back into the potential from which it emerged. That's a terrifying thing. That's a journey to the underworld, from a mythological perspective.
That is really something worth knowing, because journeys to the underworld are extraordinarily common in mythological stories—like the hobbit going out to find Smaug, the dragon, and get the gold, is the journey into the underworld. Journeys to the underworld happen all the time. Modern people don't understand what the underworld is, except that we’ve all been there and we go there all the time. We go there every time the solidity and stability of the world, that we’ve erected at least partly through our speech, is shattered because some sort of snake appears. That's another way of thinking about it. It’s a really good way of thinking about it, because no matter how carefully constructed a little habitable area that surrounds you, there's always something you didn't take into account. There’s always something that can pop up its head and do you in, and make you aware of your mortality and age you, or even kill you.
That's the permanent situation of life, which is part of the reason why I think the story of Adam and Eve is archetypal: it's because we do inhabit walled gardens. A walled garden is half structure and society, and half nature. That’s what the walled garden is. A walled garden is a place of paradise, warmth, love, and sustenance, but it's also the place where something can pop up at any moment and knock you out of it. I think part of the reason that story exists at the beginning of this collection of books is because it explains the eternal situation of human beings. We’re always in that situation. We’re in a walled garden—or we bloody well hope we are—but there's always a snake. It’s even worse because, if there is a snake, we’re exactly the sort of creatures that are going to do nothing but go and interact with that snake the second that we can manage it. It’s definitely the case that, if you want a human being to muck around with something, the best thing to do is to tell them not to ever do it, not to have anything to do with it. This is, of course, something you know if you have teenagers, or even children, or if you know anything about yourself or your partner.
These stories are trying to express what you might describe as an unchanging, transcendent reality. It's something like what’s common across all human experience, across all time. That’s what Jung essentially meant by an archetype. You can say, well, we tend to think what we see with our senses is real, and of course that’s true. But what we see with our senses is what’s real that works at the timeframe that we exist in. We see things that we can touch and pick up. We see tools, essentially, that are useful for our moment to moment activities. We don't see the structures of eternity, especially not the abstract structures of eternity. We have to imagine those with our imagination. That's partly what these stories are doing. They’re saying, there’s forms of stability that transcend our capacity to observe, which is hardly surprising. We know that if we’re scientists, because we’re always abstracting out things that we can’t immediately observe. But there are metaphysical, or moral realities, or phenomenological realities, that you can't see in your life by observing them with your senses. You can imagine them with your imagination, and sometimes the things that you imagine are more real than the things that you see. Numbers are like that, for example.
There’s endless examples of that. I would say—and this is also a good way of thinking about fiction—a good work of fiction is more real than the stories from which it was derived. Otherwise it has no staying power. It’s distilled reality, even though, in some sense, it never happened. It’s like, well, it depends on what you mean by "happened." It’s a pattern that repeats in many, many places with variation. You extract out the central pattern. The pattern purely never existed in any specific form, but the fact that you pulled the pattern out from all those examples means that you extracted something real. I think the reason that the story of Adam and Eve—which we'll talk about in quite a bit of detail today—has been immune to being forgotten is because it says things about the nature of the human condition that are always true.
I can give you another brief example. People have a lot of guilt. There’s a line in social psychology that claims that most people feel that they're better than other people. I just don't buy that. That isn't what I’ve seen in my life. Maybe I’m a bit biased because I’m a clinical psychologist and I see more people who are overtly suffering, maybe, than people do in general. Although, I'm not so sure about that, because you don't have to scratch very far beneath the surface of most people’s lives before you find something truly tragic. And I don't mean the sort of tragedy that you whine about. I mean, your mother has Alzheimer’s, or your best friend committed suicide, or you have a close relative with cancer, or you have a sick child. There’s something wrong with you, because almost everyone has at least one really terrible thing wrong with them. If you don’t, hey, you will.
That tragic sense of being is there with people all the time. It’s also the case that, in my experience, I rarely meet someone who says, hey, I’m doing everything I possibly can. I’m a hell of a guy, and I can't see how I could possibly improve. You meet someone like that and you think they’re narcissistic, and you’re right. Most people don't feel that way. They feel like they could do a hell of a lot better than they are. They’re quite acutely aware of their faults, and they don't feel that they're what they should be. What happens in the story of Adam and Eve, as well, is that, when people become self-conscious—at least that's how it looks to me—they get thrown out of paradise. Then they’re in history, and history is a place where there's pain in child birth, where you’re dominated by your mate, and where you have to toil like mad, like no other animal, because you’re aware of the future. You have to work and sacrifice the joys of the present for the future, constantly, and you know you’re going to die. You have all that weight on you, and to me, again, that’s just…How can anything be more true than that? As far as I can tell, that’s just how it is, unless you're naive beyond comprehension. There's something about your life that is echoed in that representation.
We’re such strange creatures. We don't seem to really fit into being, in some sense, and that’s also what's expressed in the notion of the fall. The existentialists said that people feel like they have a debt that they have to pay off to existence for the crime of their being. Maybe it's because we’re acutely aware that we have to offer something of value to people around us, so that they can tolerate us while we’re going about our business. But it seems deeper than that. It’s that human beings seem to exist in a post-cataclysmic world. That’s exactly what's represented in Genesis. It's very interesting because, in the Adam and Eve story, there's two catastrophes. There’s the catastrophe that occurs when Adam and Eve wake up—which we’ll talk about in detail—become self-conscious, and know that they're naked. "Their eyes are opened." That’s the terminology that's used, and to have your eyes opened means to have an increment in consciousness, essentially, because eyes are associated with consciousness for human beings. We’re intensely visual animals, and so the metaphor of having your eyes opened is the same as the metaphor of coming to consciousness.
As soon as Adam and Eve come to consciousness, they realize they're naked, and the classic interpretation of that is that it has something to do with sexual sin. I don't believe that. I don’t believe that's what it means, although there are elements about that that are relevant. It's more like a dream that you’re naked on a stage in front of people. That’s not a sexual dream, unless you're some kind of strange exhibitionist, right? You want to cover yourself up and get the hell off that stage as fast as possible. To be naked in front of a crowd is to have the judgement of the social world focused on your self-evident inadequacies. That makes people self-conscious, and that's a real human state. It’s associated with neuroticism in the Big Five trait model.
People don't like that at all: they don't like having their fragility and vulnerability exposed to the group. It's one of the two major fears of people. One is social humiliation, and the other is something like mortality and death. Your typical agoraphobic, for example, gets to have both those fears at the same time, because she—it's usually a she—tends to believe she’s going to have a very spectacular and exhibitionistic heart attack in a public place and make a terrible fool of herself while she’s dying. That's a good example of the two archetypal fears that characterize human beings.
I said that I’d try to approach these stories as if I didn't know what they were about, because that seemed right to me. Everything about them is mysterious. Why we have them is mysterious, and what the hell you’re all doing here is mysterious. Carl Jung was very, very helpful in this. He faced these stories with a beginner’s mind and presumed there was something to them that he didn't understand, given that they were at the very bloody bottom of our civilization, which is historically perfectly clear. They came out of the mists of time, and he wasn’t satisfied with the Freudian idea that God was just the Father—the Marxist idea that religion was the opiate of the masses. It's like, if religion was the opiate of the masses, then communism was the methamphetamine of the masses, I can tell you that.
You’ve been betrayed by someone, and so you fall into that underworld of doubt about everything. It's a serious place, to be in that underworld, because not only do you not know where you came from, or who you are, or where you’re going…That’s bad enough. That’s the underworld itself, but there's a subdivision of the underworld, the worst suburb, which is what I think hell is, essentially, from the metaphysical perspective. If someone really cuts you off at the knees, especially if they do it in a malevolent way…If you're gonna be betrayed, and you really want to be betrayed properly, you want to be betrayed by someone who’s really out to hurt you. They weren’t just being stupid. They were after you, for whatever reason. You plunge into that underworld space, and that’s also when you start to nurse feelings of resentment, aggrievement, murder, and homicide—and even worse.
If people are betrayed enough, they start to obsess about the utility of being itself, and perhaps go to places that no one would ever want to go, if they were in their right mind. They develop and nurse fantasies of the ultimate revenge. That's a horrible place to be. That’s hell, as far as I can tell. That’s why hell has always been a suburb of the underworld: if you get plunged into a situation that you don't understand, and things are not good for you anymore, it’s one step from being completely confused to being completely outraged and resentful, and then it's only one step from there to be really looking for revenge. That can take you places that, merely to imagine properly, can be traumatic. I’ve seen that happen with people many times. I think that anybody who uses their imagination on themselves can see how that happens. I don't imagine there's a single person in the room that hasn’t nursed fairly intense fantasies of revenge, at least at one point in their life, and usually for what appear to be good reasons. It’s no picnic to get betrayed, that’s for sure. It can shake your faith in being. But, if it shakes it so badly that you turn against being itself, that’s certainly no solution, that's for sure. All it does is make everything that's bad even worse.
"And God said, let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness." That’s another fundamental separation: light, and darkness. Those are, in some sense, two of the fundamental elements of our conscious being. When it's light, we’re awake and conscious, because we’re diurnal animals. When it’s night, well, then we’re asleep. Our existence is bounded by light and darkness. We’re up and alert when it's light. That's partly because we’re highly visual animals—unlike most animals, because most animals use smell. We use vision. We’re very strange that way, and vision is associated with enlightenment, illumination, the breaking of the dawn, the coming of the new day, and all of that. For light to be created is associated, in some sense, with the emergence of conscious being. That’s another echo of that notion. The particular phrasing of the story, also, is important because it’s, again, that God "said." That’s the use of the word, or the active element of the structure that gives order to chaos. It's like the spirit of the structure manifests itself and produces the fundamental divisions of experience. That’s what’s being represented here.
"And God separated the light from the darkness. God call the light day, and the darkness he called night." And, again, the fact that things are named is also very important. You see this later with Adam, because God gives Adam the job of naming all the animals. It’s sort of like the animals don't actually exist until they’re named. That's another indication of the authors of the Bible attempting to come to terms with the fact that our cognitive faculties and our ability to speak have something to do with the way that we cast chaotic potential into actuality. We can't really get a grip on something before we have a name for it, which is why, for example, you all have names. Everything that you encounter has to have a name, because before it has a name, it's just part of the blurry background. You could say it exists before it has a name, and that's true, but it's also true that it doesn't exist before it has a name. As soon as you give something a name, its nature changes. You’ve transformed it into something that's not so much mere potential anymore. It’s, at least, on its way to being actuality, and to being a tool. And so the act of naming is repeated continually in the first chapters of the Bible. The reason for that is this continued emphasis on the importance of consciousness, conscious articulation, and speech.
Speech is really something that does separate us in an important way from animals. We haven’t got very far teaching animals how to speak. The best we’ve managed, so far, is with grey African parrots. There's one of them that got up to a four-year-old level. That’s mind-boggling, because how big is the brain of a parrot? It’s like that big, and that bloody thing could talk, so that shows you how much we know about brains. We tried to teach chimpanzees to talk. They could kind of get somewhere with sign language, especially if you started when they were young, but they don't have the capacity for language like we do. They were never able to really pass it on to the next generation, which is, obviously, a critical element of really having that ability.
As human beings, we’ve used our linguistic capacity to parse up the world in a new way, and to conceptualize it in a new way. You can say that we’re just like ants, on this little, trivial planet out on the edge of one of a hundred million galaxies, and that what’s happening here has no cosmic significance, but that’s an arbitrary proposition. We’re very complicated things, and whatever’s going on, on this planet, has to do with conscious reality. The transformations of consciousness, for all we know, might be the most important things that happen everywhere.
There’s no reason to consider consciousness a trivial phenomena. It’s taken 3.5 billion years for you to develop the brain that you’ve developed. Human beings are amazing creatures. Just a casual walk through YouTube, and all those crazy kids that climb cranes and do that..what’s that called…Yea, parkour. Man, that stuff’s unbelievable. Human beings are crazy, crazy animals. There's almost nothing we can't do. I’m very loathe to assume that the transformations of consciousness that are described in the early stories in the Biblical accounts are somehow cosmically trivial. It doesn't strike me that way, and it's certainly not self-evident. Even if they are cosmically trivial, and the rocks don't care what you think, well, who cares what the rocks think? First, they don't think, so I don't see why that's exactly relevant. Even if it’s all the same to the cosmos—which is something that I doubt—it’s certainly not just all the same to you, because your consciousness has a quality, and it matters.
Heidegger is a philosopher whose writing influenced me post hoc. I recreated some of the things that he had talked about in the ‘30s before I knew much about him. But one of the things that Heidegger said was that the fundamental element of human being, of human phenomenology, was care. He said that's the basic essence of your being, that you care about things, either negatively or positively. To not care about something, or to hate it, is still to be involved in care. Even if the cosmos itself is neutral with regards to our existence, we’re not. And we’re the only things that we know of that are conscious, and so, well, we might as well go with that. There’s no reason—see, I can't help but think that the constant attempts by people to trivialize the nature of their own consciousness has a dark side. I'm a psychoanalyst, so I always think that way.
First of all, if you as a being don't matter, then you don't have to do anything. It's a great justification for total lack of responsibility, and that really twigs something for me. People who are bent, let’s say, or vengeful, or angry, are always looking for a reason why they don't have to be responsible for anything. Plus, it’s a lot easier. The notion that consciousness is trivial immediately allows you to wander down that path, and so I’m skeptical of those claims. I also think there's a deep hatred of humanity that underlies those claims, as well.
I’ve heard that radically clueless environmentalists say things like, "the planet would be better off without people on it," which is something that…You just cannot say that. If you say that and listen to yourself, you should go to a monastery for like three years and never say a word, and have a shower every 10 minutes until you’ve learned your lesson properly. You can't utter a more genocidal phrase than that. And, of course, you always do it in a display of your care for the world. It’s like, well, if we just didn't have any people…Well, we’ll just line them all up and shoot them with machine guns. It’s really sickening. It’s appalling, and there's a hatred for humanity that's at the bottom of it. You can kind of understand why, because we’re messy, we don't clean up after ourselves, we’re like raping the rainforests and that sort of thing. But I do have some sympathy for people, because we’re hell on mother nature, but she certainly returns the favor.
That's a good thing to remember. A lot of what we’re doing is just bloody well trying to exist with a relative minimum of pain. We’re doing our best to get as good at doing that as fast as we can. That’s not an easy thing. There are lots of us, and life is bloody complicated. Again, if you scratch just beneath the surface of people—and this is something that’s always, to me, been kind of a miracle—you find they're out doing their job, and maybe they’re doing a good job at it, like some emergency room nurse. God, there's a job for you. Or maybe they work in palliative care. You talk with them and you find out that they’ve got like four serious problems in their family, and maybe they’re diabetic, and yet they haul themselves out of bed in the morning and go take care of dying people. It’s like, good God! People deserve a bit of respect for struggling forward and not always trying to make the planet a worse place when they’re beset on all sides, constantly, by an unending series of tragedy. You’d think we could have a little bit of sympathy for ourselves as a consequence of that. We’re not all rapacious, greedy monsters who are bent on just devouring everything in our path. It's a little bit more complicated than that.
Let’s go to the next part of this. "And God said, let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters. And God made the expanse, and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day." That doesn't make any sense at all, really. I think I told you a little about this before. The world that’s being created, in this particular account, is a phenomenological world. There’s a disc of land, because if you go out in a field and you look around, you're on a disc of land. That’s pretty obvious. And then there's a dome on top that’s more or less held up by the mountains. Rain comes down, so there's water above the dome. Where else would the rain come from? Underneath the ground, there’s fresh water. You can drill down and find that. And then, around that, there’s salt water. That’s the world. It's kind of an empirical world, because if you’re a child and you just go out in a field and look at the world, that’s sort of what it would be like. And so that’s the world that’s been created.
One of the things that is worth thinking about—this is something Carl Jung was very interested in—is that these old descriptions are half geographical and empirical—based on observation—and half psychological. One of the things Jung was interested in, for example, was astrology, but mostly for psychological reasons. There are stars up in the dome, and then, when you look at the stars, you can imagine the shapes of the stars. That helps you orient yourself, because as soon as you can see shapes in the the stars, you can recognize the constellations, and you can orient yourself at night. But then the constellations become Gods, say, and then the Gods turn into a drama. The drama comes from within. It’s the projection of imagination. When Jung was analyzing astrology, he was analyzing psychology. He saw the astrological narrative as the projection of the human imagination onto the cosmos. The same thing is the case with these stories. The world they describe is not the natural world, like a scientist would describe it, because these people weren’t scientists. They didn't have the technology and the tools. For them, it was the world. For us, it’s the way they saw the world.
We share that psychology, to a large degree, with those people. It's interesting to know what the geographical substrate is, so that you kind of understand the stories. I like this picture. From a psychological perspective, it's a very famous picture. Basically, what you have here is the world as we know it. There’s the dome with the sun and the moon on it, and the stars. If you look outside what you know, then you’re out into this cosmic space. Those are like the wheels of the planets and the music of the spheres. That’s the ever-present explorer who’s gone beyond the domain that he can understand and is peering out into the unknown. It's a psychological picture, because you do know some things, and then outside of that there are things you don't know. When you’re feeling brave, you put a foot or two out where you don't understand. There’s frontier everywhere. If you’re feeling heroic and you want to do something for the world, and you want to expand what you understand, you poke your head through what you know and you take a look at whatever structure is out there.
He’s pretty smart, because most of him is still where it’s safe. I would say that’s a good thing, because if you jump right out there, well, then maybe you fall off the edge of the earth, and I wouldn’t precisely recommend that, especially if you do it accidentally. To me, this is a recreation of the Daoist yin and yang symbol—serpents, really—with the white paisley, here. That’s what you know. The dark paisley, there, is the unknown. The right place to be is right on the line between them, because you’ve sort of got one foot where you understand. That gives you security, but it's kind of dull because, hey, you know everything that's going on. That isn't what people are like. They don't want just security.
I love what Dostoevsky said in Notes from the Underground. It’s a great, great book. It was an early criticism of the notion of a political utopia. He said, look, if you gave people everything that they wanted—they had nothing to eat but cake and nothing to do but sit in warm pools and busy themselves with the continuation of the species—the first thing they would do was go half insane and smash everything up, just so that something they didn't expect would happen, so that they’d have something interesting to do. It's so right. The utopian notion that if you just had all the material stuff you wanted that you’d be…Well, what would you be? What would you do? You’d just sit on the couch and watch TV? I mean, you’d be…I don’t know what you’d be. You’d be cutting yourself just for entertainment in no time flat, and that's the sort of thing that people do.
We’re not adapted for security and utopia. We’re adapted for a certain amount of security, because we are vulnerable, but mostly we want to have one foot out where we don't know what the hell is going on. That’s where you’re alert and alive and tense, and with it. I believe that it actually has something to do with the hemispheric structure of the psychology of your brain, because the right hemisphere looks roughly adapted to what you don’t know and the left hemisphere—this is an oversimplification, but a useful one—is adapted to the world that you do know. The right place for you to be is halfway between them, and you can tell that.
You know that sense of active engagement you have in the world when things are working well for you? You’re alert and on top of things and engaged, and you don’t have much of a sense of time. The sense of the tragedy of life sort of recedes. That’s when you’ve got one foot where it’s secure and one foot out in the unknown. Your brain signals to you that you're in the right place by making what you’re doing meaningful. That sense of meaning is actually a neurophysiological signal that you’ve got the forces of the cosmos properly balanced in your being at that moment. That’s why it feels so good. What else could it possibly be? Our brain is capable of looking beyond our vision. That’s what it’s for. There's no reason to assume that that sense of engagement is anything but a real signal. You can reduce it. You could say, well, the problem with being where you know—only—is that you don’t know everything, and that's going to be a problem in the future.
The problem with being where you know nothing is that it’s just too much. You go into panic mode because anything can happen there, and you can’t handle it. You’ve got to mediate between those two things. You want to be secure enough so that your physiology isn’t revving out of control, and you want to be out there in the unknown enough so that you keep updating yourself constantly, constantly, constantly. That’s the place where information flow’s maximized. You know that because that’s where you are when you're having a really interesting conversation with someone, or you’re gripped by a book, or you’re really into a movie—or maybe something that you do apart from your work, or maybe even in your work. You're into it, and that’s because you are in the right place at the right time, and your whole nervous system is signally that to you. I would say that’s the sort of place that you should be all the time. Of course, you can't be, because no one’s perfect. But that’s the recreation of paradise on earth, something like it. You are in the right place at the right time, when that is happening—subject to certain restrictions that we can talk about later. Well, that's what this guy’s doing. That's what I would say is akin to the action that God is taking when he’s transforming the chaos of potential into habitable being. It’s the sort of thing that human beings are supposed to act out.
"And God said, let the waters under heaven be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear. And it was so. God called the dry land earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called the seas. And God saw that it was good." Well, that's an interesting thing, too. There’s a play written by a German named Goethe. I can never say that properly. It’s Johann von Goethe. I can't say it, but he wrote this play called Faust. He wrote one part of it when he was quite young, and he wrote Faust II when he was quite old. He has a character in there, Mephistopheles, and Mephistopheles is the devil. He actually has the devil explain himself, twice, basically using the same words, which I really like. It was very profound, and, basically, Goethe’s Mephistopheles says he’s the adversary of the word. That’s a good way of putting it, because that’s how it works out mythologically. He’s the figure behind the snake in the Garden of Eden—which is something we’ll talk about more—but he has a sophisticated philosophy. He’s not just some random troublemaker. He’s got a deep philosophy, and his philosophy is quite straightforward and compelling. It’s compelling, and people are gripped by it quite often—far more often than they think.
His philosophy is, well, look around at the world. It’s like Ivan Karamazov, in The Brothers Karamazov, when he’s trying to disabuse his younger brother of being a Christian monk. Mephistopheles says, look at the world. I mean, you look around the world, it's nothing but a blood bath. It’s suffering everywhere. Everything eats everything and people die terribly. They’re cruel to one another, and the whole mess is nothing but a constant hall of terrible carnage and ruin and wreck. He says, you’d be better if it never existed at all. That's a very interesting idea, and I’ve seen that in people many times. That’s something that comes to mind when someone is in the depths of despair. They’ve been betrayed, and they wander into the wrong division of the underworld. If you have a very sick child, for example, or maybe your whole family is suffering, as whole families do sometimes, an idea’s going to come to you: good God, who put this mess together? Is it really worth it? Is it really worth the suffering? Suicidal people say, no, enough of this.
You have to be pushed a long way, generally speaking, before you’ll actually commit suicide. You have to be in very, very desperate straits. Your answer under those conditions is that being is such that it would be better if it had never been. It's a very terrible philosophy, I believe, because I think what happens, if you act it out, is that you make the very things that led you to despair far worse. If it's reasonable to draw logical conclusions that suffering should justify your desire to make being end, the answer to that can't be to produce more suffering. That just doesn't make sense. My observation has been that people who act out the Mephistophelian philosophy inevitably make suffering far worse. That raises the other spectre of, well, do they want being just to cease? Or are they just out for bloody revenge, at any cost? My conclusion has always been that the true motivation is, I’m going to make everyone suffer as much as I possibly can before I say goodbye to this place. If you read the writings of the kids who shot up the Columbine High School, they’ll tell you exactly that. That’s precisely and exactly what they concluded, and then acted out.
But, in this, God says that it was good. I’ve thought about that a lot, because the question is, well, is something better than nothing? That's a really good question. I’ve thought about two things in relationship to that. One is, maybe it depends on how it is that you are, right? It could be that there are ways of being in the world that justify the world, and there are ways of being in the world that make the world unbearable. I believe that the narrative that runs through the Biblical stories is precisely a dialog between those two types of being. The optimistic part of the story is that being requires limitation and suffering—there's no escape from that—but there are modes of being that allow that to be, perhaps, even more than tolerable. Perhaps there are modes of being that allow that to be good.
It's a straight and narrow road; it’s a very difficult road to tread. I think that's possible. I’m not an optimist by nature, but that's one of the things that I’ve conceptualized and read about that I actually find plausible. It’s certainly the case—everyone knows this—that there are ways that you can act to make things worse. Everyone knows that. And so, if that's the case, there has to be the opposite, right? There has to be ways you can act that can make things better. Obviously, you can act in ways that make things way worse. The question is, are there ways that you can act that make things really much better? I think that’s the question: can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we have the being that requires limitation and suffering and also simultaneously transcend that by our mode of being? I believe that the Biblical stories are one of the human imagination’s best attempts to address and answer that question. That’s what the entire story is about. The first of it is the catastrophe of the collapse of self-consciousness, and the entrance of humanity into history. The rest of it is, ok, now we’re in history; now we know that we’re going to die, we know about our mortality, and we’re conscious of our own being. Is there a mode of acting in the world that allows that to be justifiable? Or, maybe even more, that allows that to be triumphant? Maybe it’s worth finding out.
That’s the other thing that's so interesting: you’ve got this short time on earth, and there's lots of things that are very, very difficult to contend with. You have the problem of tolerating yourself, even, and all your insufficiency. One of the things that seems to be the case is that, if you adopt a sufficiently profound mode of being, if you attempt to do that, then the mere act of lifting up that weight is enough to justify the fact that you’re insufficient and mortal, and bound by tragedy. I believe that, and I believe people believe that.
If you watch how people act, they look for people they admire—and they do admire people. It’s a natural phenomena, and you see it starting with children. Children admire, and then they imitate. We look to people who seem to be able to bear the burden of being in a heroic manner. There’s something inside of us that calls to that, makes us want to mimic that and to follow it. I think that’s the deepest and most profound of instincts. I think it’s right, and even if you’re not so convinced on the positive end—because it's more difficult to be convinced of the positive—you can certainly be convinced on the negative end. There are ways of being that are so brutal and so reprehensible that merely to read about that is enough to traumatize you. I think that, if you’re a person who hasn’t lost their soul completely, you can't help but shudder away from stories like that.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was the person who did the most to unmask the absolute horrors of communist totalitarianism. He believed that Nuremberg's judgements were the most important event of the 20th century. That was the judgement at the end of World War II that there were certain actions that no one was to undertake, no matter what their cultural background was. They were, let's say, crimes against humanity—that there was such a thing as universal evil. You can debate that—and people certainly have—but the problem is, if you debate that, then you have to say that there are conditions under which the sorts of things that happened, say, in the concentration camps—which would be the gassing of children after their torture, and their forcible removal from their parents, and all the terrible things that went along with that—is just ok; it’s just an opinion; it's just something that happened, and there are circumstances under which that's justifiable. There’s no transcendent good and evil underneath that argument; it’s only a matter of practicality. It seems to me that that’s not the right conclusion to draw. That’s how it seems to me, and that’s what Solzhenitsyn concluded when he looked at the Nuremberg trials.
The notion that it was good…Well, even if you don't believe that—because it's not as good as it could be—I would say it’s incumbent on you, as someone who participates in the process of furthering creation, to act as if it could be good, at least, and to further that with all of your efforts. Partly because, what the hell else do you have to do that could possibly be better than that? What could possibly justify your existence more than that? And you know perfectly well that, if you have any sense at all, if you think clearly about it at all, that that’s what you want to see in everyone else. You’re desperate, and maybe you're cynical, and now and then someone appears that acts, at least momentarily, like a light in the darkness. That lifts your spirit up and gives you a little bit of hope, and maybe helps you continue on. That's obviously a call to being. It’s a statement from your own soul that says, that’s how you should be. Maybe, then, we get a chance to participate in what is good.
"And God said, let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to it's kind, on the earth. And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to it's kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day." I like that. These old pictures are interesting, because if you look, here, you got this halo around God’s head, and you’ve got this split, again, between day and darkness. God’s right on the border between the two. That’s the sun. A halo is the sun—or the moon, sometimes. It’s like a coin: you have the queen’s head on the coin, and that’s the queen on the moon. It’s silver, and it's a symbol of value because the queen is sovereign and the moon is the sovereign of the night sky. Gold, of course, is the sun. Gold is pure because it doesn't mix with other metals. It shines like the sun, so it partakes of the sun. God partakes of the sun, because there’s something about whatever he represents that's associated with consciousness, illumination, and enlightenment. It's that force of illumination and enlightenment that's right on the border between these two sets of phenomena, and that’s kind of what that picture’s trying to represent. It’s a metaphor—that’s one way of thinking about it—but it does, again, allude to the underlying idea that there’s something about consciousness that’s integral to being itself.
"And God said, let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years." That’s a remarkable bit of writing, too. You just think about how bloody long it took our cavemen ancestors to look at the night sky and start to figure out that there are repeating patterns, across years, that enable them to mark the seasons. I just can't imagine how they figured that out…the degree of careful observation that it took…I mean, we know people figured that out a long time ago because those great megalithic monuments, like Stonehenge, seem to be astronomical observatories. You see the same thing with the pyramids. People were looking at the damned sky, trying to figure out—looking at God, because, you know, that’s kind of what you’re doing when you’re looking at the night sky: trying to figure out the regularity, order in the universe. That’s all compacted into this little line.
"And let them be for signs and for seasons—be oriented by the stars." Amazing. "And let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth. And it was so. And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night." So there’s an idea of sovereignty there: that there’s an analogy between the ruler and the heavenly bodies that light up the darkness. That’s a really interesting idea, too, because it took us a long time to come to terms with—as I mentioned last week—the idea of sovereignty itself, and to decide what constituted valid power. It's not power: it's authority and competence, and not power. It’s not dominance, either. It’s more sophisticated than that, because the people that you want to rule aren't people who have power. Power just means I can hurt you, and you can't hurt me back. That's not what you need from a ruler, even though it devolves into that from time to time. What you want is the kind of wisdom that illuminates the darkness. To associate the sovereign with the heavenly kings of the light is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, from a metaphoric perspective. That’s an ancient, ancient idea, and another example of how we’re grounded in a dream.
"And God set them in the expanse of heaven to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that is was good." Another emphasis on the fact that something is better than nothing. Maybe you could consider that the declaration of the cosmos is something like, well, it’s better that there's something than nothing. How do you know that? I guess the answer to that is there's something instead of nothing. I know that’s not proof, but it’s still a remarkable fact that it happens to be the case, and no one does know why that is. Maybe we should go along with it, see what we can do with it, and see how we could make it better. We certainly could make it better if we were really committed to it, and we shook our resentment, and our anger, and our hatred. I know there’s reason for all of that, because people do suffer terribly, but God only knows what being could be like if we all contributed to it to the best of our ability. God only knows what we could conquer, and what sort of magnificent cities we could produce, and what things we could eradicate from the suffering of the world.
There’s this guy I read about—this is amazing. I don't remember his name, but he found out about this worm that was called the Guinea-worm. The Guinea-worm is a really horrible thing. You can look it up, if you want, but I’ll tell you a little bit about it, even though it's very distasteful. A Guinea-worm is a parasite that lives in Africa. It burrows under your skin, and it's quite long. It's about that long, and it’s about that wide. It’ll burrow underneath your leg, and then it's in there. Maybe it pokes its little head out a hole, which is one of its delightful tendencies. If you want to pull it out, it breaks, because otherwise you’d just pull it out and it would be dead. It doesn't like that, and so it just breaks off. Many, many people had this horrible disease. Well, you can't imagine what that would be like. You’re part of the one percent and you live in North American, and thank God for that. You don't even want to think about it, let alone have it. He went to Africa and wiped the damn thing out. It’s like, wow, great. It seems to me the planet’s a lot better off without any Guinea-worms on it—even though that’s Guinea-worm genocide talk. I’m still pretty happy about it.
That was one guy who thought, well, we don't need these things. Yea, fair enough. Good for him. He can die thinking that the world’s a better place than when he first popped out, so good for that. I think that’s a good aim: to think that, when you’re on your death bed, you can look back and think, there’s a little less suffering from here on out than there would be if I never existed. That's a lot better than the opposite, because it's certainly possible—say, if you're Stalin—to ensure that there's a hell of a lot more suffering than there would have been if you hadn’t lived. We perfectly well know that people can manage that, and that many, many people try to do nothing but manage precisely that. It's hard for me not to think about that as some sort of metaphysical evil. I think it's the right way to look at it.
You have the sun, here, and the moon, here, as far as I can tell. Hah. Actually, I think this is the moon, over here. Hah. That’s part of the Sistine Chapel, which is an absolutely remarkable. Part of the reason why I’m teaching about the Biblical stories is because the humanities have been decimated so badly. Again, I think that has to do with resentment and hatred, more than anything else. But I don't really think you can get a grip on the humanities and what they have to offer without knowing the Biblical stories, because they’re the dream out of which the humanities emerged. Unless you have that background knowledge, that dream, then there’s all sorts of things that are utterly profound that don't open themselves up to you. Dante’s Inferno would be one of those—Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is an absolutely amazing piece of work. Milton wrote it because he wanted to justify the ways of God to man. What an ambition that is. I mean, he was serious about that. He took the problem seriously. It's the Mephistophelean problem: well, this is rough business that we’re involved in, and maybe we should just give it up. I think the world—the whole world—was deciding that in the 1980s, when we were deciding if we were going to engage in the ultimate nuclear catastrophe.
We were very, very close to that, a number of times. I think it was a collective decision, in some sense, on the part of humanity, that we might as well keep the whole awful game going, rather than just demolish it. Again, it's a dream, and trying to explain the nature of being and the nature of evil…You can’t crack the damn thing without knowing the underlying stories. That’s really too bad, because it’s utterly profound. As far as I can tell, you need profound knowledge, because life is actually a profound problem for everyone. I mean, you can shelter back and live a very conservative existence, and, look, more power to you. I understand why you would do that, but it doesn't stop you from having to face the ultimate questions of life. They're right there, in everyone’s face, at least in some point in your life. It would be better if you could confront them full on, and to deal with them properly, and to be a beacon of strength as a consequence of that.
The humanities is supposed to teach wisdom. Wisdom is what enables you to deal honourably with the tragedy of life. I can't see how you could think that was a bad idea. There’s gonna be times when you’re in an emergency room and prone to panic, and to cry, and to break down and to collapse—to be of no use to anyone around—and that's not the right way to be. The right way to be, in a situation like that, is to be strong and reliable, and I don't think you can do that without being wise. You can't be wise without putting yourself together, without knowing something about where you came from and what you're like. That’s history and the humanities.
This isn't optional. "Man doesn’t live by bread alone," and that’s exactly the issue here. You see these magnificent works, it’s not like Michelangelo thought of this literally. He was a genius, for God’s sake, and he’s trying to get at that profundity of human culture. I suppose that's why you have this patriarchal figure, here, and the cosmic role that consciousness and tradition plays in being itself. It’s ennobling. Religious or not, hundreds of millions of people come from all over the world, to Rome, and go through this tiny chapel to look at this. There's something in it that everyone needs to see. It's not just beautiful. It’s more than beauty. It’s that which feeds the soul. Everyone feels that, even if they can't explain it.
"And God said, let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let the birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens. So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth. And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. And God said, let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds. And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind."
Kind means kin. To be kind is to treat others as if they’re your kin, and so "according to it's kind. And God saw that it was good." That’s continually represented over and over. "God said." That’s the thing that calls being into existence. "And God said it was good." That’s the fundamental judgement about the nature of reality. One of the things that happens in the translation—in the movement, let's say, from the Old Testament to the New Testament—is God is obviously blessing creation in the beginning of this story, and then you have Old Testament God, and don't mess around with him, right, because he’ll give you a good smiting if you get out of line, there’s no doubt about that. He’s kind of an arbitrary character, and lots of modern people think, well, how could you believe in a God like that? When I read that, I think, well, that isn’t how the Old Testament people thought. They thought, you’d better look the hell out. Life is really difficult, and if you step out of line, you’re gonna get flattened. God doesn't care, in some sense, whether you approve of him. Like, what the hell does that have to do with anything? Obviously, you don’t approve. You’d better pay attention, though, because otherwise you’re gonna be in real trouble. There’s real wisdom in that.
Nietzsche really admired the Old Testament as a work of literature. He thought that the representation of the divine, as a representation of the essential nature of being, was extraordinarily accurate in its arbitrary and often cruel nature. It wasn’t following a morality that human beings could really understand as moral. He thought that was very realistic, and I like that interpretation. But what happens in the New Testament is quite interesting, because there's an insistence, all of a sudden, that you’re supposed to act towards God as if he’s nothing but good. That’s such a strange thing, because you look at the world and you think, yea, really? Just good, eh? Well, the cancer and the earthquakes is kind of hard to fit into that picture, and the terrible things that happen to children, and all of that, is very difficult to square with the notion of a good God. But then, the underlying idea is that, if you act in that manner, it makes it more likely to be true. It’s something like that.
I would consider that, in some sense, an act of both courage and faith. It’s like you’re going to make the case—like God makes at the beginning of the Bible—that being is, in fact, good. You can't see it because, well, you get to see all the things about it that aren't so good. That's not the point. It's a metaphysical presupposition. It’s a decision to act that way: I’m going to act as if being is good, and to further that. The implicit idea is, well, there isn't any way that you can make things work out better than to do that.
There’s a courageous element to it, which I think is also expressed, to some degree, in the idea of Christ’s voluntary sacrifice of his own life. His presupposition was something like, I’m going to act as if God is good, and I’m going to play that out right to the end. That becomes something like a divine pattern. I believe there's wisdom in that because, again, most of the time that I’ve been wrestling with this sort of thing, I’ve always been looking at the opposite. I haven’t been studying good: I’ve been studying evil, because evil is easier to believe, especially after the 20th century. I think you have to be blind not to think about the things that happened in the 20th century as evil. Some of the things that happened were so brutal that it’s just absolutely unimaginable—well, unless you imagine it—and it’s right there; it’s part of the historical record.
I think, well, if there’s something that’s that terrible, it indicates, as clearly as anything, that there’s also something that’s its opposite. That’s whatever it is that’s the farthest away possible from that outcome. That doesn’t mean we can exactly say what it is, because it's easier to grip, in some sense, what it means to torture and break and hurt, and not to be able to conceptualize so clearly how you would have to act if you were acting in the exact opposite manner. But, at least, it implies that it exists.
I see that pattern being laid out in this dream-like manner in the New Testament. It has something to do—and this is for sure—with the voluntary acceptance of mortality. That’s the poisoned apple, right? The fact that everybody looks forward into the future to know that you’re finite, and so is everything that you love. It’s very difficult for that not to poison your existence. Well, there’s no getting out of it, as far as we can tell, but there might be something like switching your attitude to it. You could say that's the price you paid for being, and the heroic thing to do is to accept that, and to not even accept it grudgingly—to say, all right, I’m going to go along with that. I’m going to accept that, and I’m going to act, nonetheless, as if being is good. Then, I’m going to see how things turn out. "God saw that it was good." It's an act of courage. There’s an act of courage that's associated with that transformation of attitude. Even with regards to the notion that the world is good, it's a courageous attitude, especially given that there’s so much evidence that makes that conclusion difficult to continually draw. But the alternative seems, to me, to be far worse.
There’s God, again, with the sun behind him. He’s associated with the solar consciousness. He’s creating all these strange, wonderful creatures. People say, well, you know, the idea of God as an old man in the sky is primitive. It’s much more better to think about it as a…"Much more better?" Jesus. Hah. Anyways, it’s more sophisticated to think of the divine essence as a disembodied spirit, or something like that. But, you know, that's not so obvious either, because—as I already pointed out—there isn't anything that's more complicated than a human being.
The idea that the divine is something that’s at least as complicated as a human being strikes me as something that’s actually quite reasonable. I know it’s a metaphor. Although, I don't know to what degree it is a metaphor, and it's also something that's embodied. That’s also a very interesting notion, because it's become increasingly obvious, as we try to do such things as produce artificial intelligence, that it's very difficult to produce an intelligence—or, perhaps, a consciousness—that isn't embodied in some manner. It can't be just a spirit without form. I think that’s part of the reason, too, why Christianity put so much emphasis, at the end of time, on the resurrection of the body. There’s a drive to ennoble the idea of the body—not just the spirit, the consciousness that floats abstractly above the body. You can't just shed that part of you that’s heavy and material, so to speak, and leave it behind as if it’s of no value; you have to ennoble that, as well. That idea is also linked to the representation of God as a human being, and as a wise human being, and as something that’s embodied. And so, at least from the metaphorical perspective, I don’t think it’s reasonable just to brush your hands across and say, well, that’s primitive. I don’t think it’s primitive, at all.
"And then God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness." And it’s "our," because this is part of the Priestly story. As I said, there’s a number of sources for the Old Testament. In the Priestly versions, if I remember correctly, it’s Elohim. That may be wrong, doesn't matter, but, precisely it doesn't matter because the notion is that the God who’s in the background of this story has a kind of plurality of being. It looks like the idea of monotheism arose with great difficulty, across time, because there are lots of powers. The idea that there’s a power of powers was something that wasn’t easy for people to figure out. What’s constant across sources of power? Well, some kind of meta-power, but it's hard to figure out what that is. That’s what's being represented by the movement, as far as I can tell, from polytheism to monotheism. It’s, first, the observation that there are powers that determine the destiny of people, at least in part, that you’re subject to. Then, the idea that there's something common across all those powers that you can represent, partly, with the idea of the sun rising in the morning and fighting it's way out of the darkness at night. That’s associated with consciousness and sovereignty.
One of the things that bothers me about simple-minded atheism—and I would say that simple-minded atheism is of the sort that regards these stories as nothing but simple superstitions—is that it's very, very poorly informed. Whatever these stories are, they are not merely simple superstitions. They weren’t conjured up by some cabal of priests to bamboozle the masses—even though they were used for that purpose, from time to time. It's much, much more complicated than that. They have a very ancient lineage, and they’re tied together with all sorts of other stories. There’s an emergent wisdom in them, and I think the right way to view them is as the birthplace of sophisticated philosophical ideas. You have to wrestle with these stories. I said, already, that I’m going to be as rational as I possibly can in my discussion of these stories, and not refer to anything metaphysical except when that's absolutely necessary. Although, I don't want to eliminate the possibility of metaphysical reality, because I think that’s premature. But you have to take the stories seriously. If you’re going to approach the problem properly, you can’t just casually dismiss them. It's not appropriate.
"Let us make man in our image." That's a very interesting idea and, like I said, it's not easy to understand how it was that human beings came up with the idea that us, lowly creatures, were God-like. With the Mesopotamians, for example—and the Greeks were like this, too—human beings weren’t God-like; they were playthings of the Gods. The Gods just tortured us for their amusement. Love, hatred, anger, and all those powerful forces…We were just playthings to the Gods; there wasn’t anything particularly divine about us. The notion that, in some sense, we partake of the divine is a staggering idea. I don't want to underestimate the difficultly that there was in abstracting that, or the utility of that idea for our current mode of being.
"Let them have domain over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." It’s interesting that there is more than one creation story in Genesis. In this story, males and females are basically created at the same time. Later, Eve is extracted out of Adam—and we’ll talk about that—but not here. The two sexes are generated simultaneously, and they both carry within them the divine stamp, which is very egalitarian, very appropriate, and, I think, unbelievably advanced. That's what it looks like to me.
"And God blessed them." Well, that's a good thing. "And God said to them, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth." There’s God creating Adam and Eve. They’re looking pretty happy about the whole thing. That’s Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel representation. There’s some cool things about this. I mean, you gotta wonder—this is an aside, and I don't know if it’s a credible aside, but it's an interesting aside—what the hell is God doing in this thing? I mean, what is this, exactly? There’s been some interesting answers to that, and this is one of them: There was a group of scientists about 20 years ago that remarked on the precise analogy between this structure and the brain bisected down the middle. Of course, Michelangelo was one of the first people who did detailed dissections, and so they felt that Michelangelo had put God inside the brain, for some reason. That seems, to me, to be associated with the notion that there’s an analogy or metaphorical identity between the notion of whatever God is and the structures that give rise to consciousness.
I think we really underestimate the degree to which consciousness is both miraculous and not understood. You have what appears to be an entirely material substrate, yet here you are, aware and self-aware, and able to generate the world merely, in some sense, by looking at it. It really is remarkable that consciousness is dependent on something that wells up from deep within that material substrate that we don't understand at all. It’s really a crazily remarkable thing. You hear a lot about scientific reductionism, but I’ll tell you something that's kind of interesting: the guy that discovered DNA…I think it was Watson. It was Watson and Crick, but I don’t remember who wrote this book. One of them believed that DNA was so complicated that it had to come from space. He didn't believe it could have possibly evolved on earth. A lot of these people who are used as examples of scientific reductionism aren't like that, at all, when you actually read what they had to say. They were very aware of the limits of their own knowledge.
DNA is something really quite spectacularly remarkable. It’s an eternal substance. It's been around for a very long time, and the idea that we understand it is a very stupid idea. I would say that the same thing applies to the brain. We’re scratching away at the surface of something we don’t understand at all, so it’s quite interesting. Maybe Michelangelo had enough gall to do that. It's certainly possible. He had enough gall to do dissections when the cost of that was death. He had to rob corpses, essentially, to go and do it. I would say he was not particularly politically correct. So that’s kind of interesting, and there's another representation of the same thing, and that’s a funny one. I had to throw that in. I don’t know how many of you know this, but there’s this joke in the atheist community—I think it might have been started by Richard Dawkins, but it was just as reasonable to believe in a flying spaghetti monster as it was to believe in God. That’s a flying spaghetti monster, by the way. That’s called Touched by his Noodly Appendage. It’s not very sophisticated, but it is funny.
"And God blessed them. And God said to them, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. And God said, behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in it's fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food. And it was so. And God saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation."
I like that. I did a lot of coaching work with people who were fairly spectacularly successful. They were usually workaholics: the sort of people who would work 80 hours a week, just nonstop. That's just what they were like. One of the things that we were always trying to figure out was, how much should you work? One answer is, you just work until you die. You just exhaust yourself, and that's not a good idea. And then you have to figure out why that isn't a good idea. It’s gotta be something like, you don't want to do so much work that the amount of work you do interferes with the amount of work that you could still do, right? If you work like mad for two weeks and then you have to lie in a hospital bed for a month, that, obviously, isn't very productive. You have to figure out how much you can work diligently, and then how much you have to recuperate so that you can get back up and work again. People have basically settled on something like this, and given it the divine imprimatur—that's one way of thinking about it—which is, well, you can toil away for six days—and no wonder, because you have to work—but you should rest at least one day out of seven, because otherwise you don’t appreciate life. That might be part of it. Plus, I think it's more a matter of iterability.
One of the things that defines morality is a capacity to repeat something. If something is properly structured in a moral manner, then you can do it over and over and over again without any degeneration. That’s kind of like a relationship. If your relationship is negotiated, you can continue to negotiate it, and then you can have a relationship that lasts a long time. You can do it today, next week, next month, and next year. You can maintain it across time, and this, I would say, is the wisdom that’s been garnered over God only knows what period of time—to say, look, even God needed to take a break and appreciate what was going on. It’s not such a bad thing for people to follow that pattern. It’s a good thing for modern people to know. Even though we’re very wealthy by historical standards, our capacity to relax isn't exactly what it could be. I think that's really hard on people.
I'm going to go over, again, the idea of the attributes of God. I talked about that a little bit last week, but I want to return to it. I think it’s worth dwelling on, a little, because we’re trying to figure out what it is people were trying to formulate when they were formulating these representations. We’ve come to the conclusion that there is an attempt to abstract out the nature of power from specific aspects of power, and there’s some attempt to associate that with consciousness—as that which gives rise to being itself—and there’s some attempt to associate that consciousness with something that has a cosmic quality, whatever that might mean. It’s a statement that it has a cosmic quality, rather than a discovery. It’s a mere statement that there’s something about consciousness that has world-generating significance, and also the implication that it’s associated with human beings, as well. It’s a very interesting idea of propositions, and I don't believe that they are simply refutable. It’s a perfectly coherent argument, even though it's primarily made metaphorically. Once again, I want to build up the framework of associations around the idea of God.
This is one of the things that Freud did when he was interpreting dreams, and it is quite useful. If someone comes to me with a dream, then I have them tell me the whole dream, and then I get them to repeat it, line by line. Whenever they say a line and there’s an object in it, or a person, or something like that, I ask them what that makes them remember, or what that thing means to them, or what comes to mind. That’s the associational technique, and it’s predicated on the idea that your memory works by association—if you’re daydreaming, you go from one thing to another like a conversation does—that you can take an idea that’s at the centre of a web of associations and, by attracting the associations, you can zero in on what the idea might mean. Jung expanded that by amplifying the dream, by thinking about the narrative, or literary, or mythological similarities that might be associated with the narrative structure of the dream. I think that can be unbelievable useful.
The dream is an idea that’s trying to come to birth. It’s partly formulated and, if you discuss it and amplify it, you could speed along its transformation into a more articulated idea. With one foot in the unknown, your brain is trying to formulate what’s out there in the unknown, and to make it concrete, but it doesn't do that in one fell swoop; it doesn't just take potential and turn it into articulated ideas. It has to dream up what’s out there first, project its imagination out there, get a handle on what it might be. That’s represented in the dream, and if you analyze the dream, you can make it more articulate. That’s what we’re going to do with the attributes of God, to build up the representational structure.
The hypothesis is that God is an abstracted ideal, formulated, in large part, to dissociate the ideal from any particular incarnations, or man, or ruler. The underlying idea is that, when the ruler becomes the ideal, the state turns into Biblical Egypt. The Biblical Egypt is a tyranny. There’s a very, very solid idea in the Old Testament that, I think, took people God only knows how long to figure out: if you confuse the notion of sovereignty with the current sovereign, then your culture immediately degenerates into a totalitarian state and turns to stone. That was deadly, and then you were slaves. The thing was going to collapse, as well. No matter how big and grandiose, as soon as the ruler became the concrete incarnation of the ideal, there was no distinction between the man and the divine notion of the ideal. Then the society was doomed. I think that’s true; it’s as simple as that. I think we saw more than enough evidence of that in the 20th century, and we’re certainly seeing the same thing repeating itself now. When the ruler becomes the ideal, the state turns into Biblical Egypt, and Biblical Egypt is the archetypal tyranny.
What is God like? From the Christian perspective, there’s three elements. One seems to have something to do with tradition, and so that’s God the Father. That’s partly the embodiment, I would say, of the human being. That's an ancient, ancient thing. It’s also, partly, the embodiment of the tradition of human beings, which is also a very ancient thing, and that's the structure. As I said, it's the structure that consciousness emerges from that enables us to grapple with the unknown as such. And then there’s the intermediary between that and Christ—that’s the Holy Spirit, the bird. That's the spirit in a more abstracted sense. I would say that’s probably as close Christianity ever got to the notion of disembodied consciousness, something like that. And then there’s the notion of the suffering individual. That’s a very complicated idea. There’s this idea—an old idea, and I believe this was originally a Jewish idea—that something with the attributes of God—omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence—lacks something. It's like a Zen koan. It’s a really interesting idea, because what in the world can something like that lack? The idea is limitation. Something that’s everything lacks limitation. When I first encountered that, it just blew me away. It was such a brilliant, brilliant realization that there are advantages to not being able to do things—partly because it gives you something to do. I suppose that's a big part of it.
If you had everything you wanted at every moment at your fingertips, well, there’s no story. It’s funny because that happened to superman, the cartoon character. By the 1980s, he could juggle planets. He could bounce hydrogen bombs off him and be fine. Everyone got bored because, well, what are you going to do to superman? You lob a hydrogen bomb at him and he brushes it off and combs his hair, and that's the end of that. The whole cartoon series basically died because he didn't have any flaws. There’s no story without the limitation. I think that’s an absolutely remarkable idea. Part of the notion of Christ—and this is something that I’ve puzzled over for a long time, and I learned a lot of this from Jung—is that there's an idea in Christianity that there’s consciousness, which, in some sense, is eternal. It stretches from the beginning of time to the end of time. It’s this abstracted notion, but it lacks a certain kind of reality because it’s not instantiated in a specific time and place in history. And so the idea of the Son, the third part of the Trinity—or one of the three parts of the Trinity—is the notion that tradition and consciousness also has to be embedded in history, in a particular time and place.
There’s the archetypal embeddedness, and that would be the incarnation. That’s the perfect man who accepts his mortality and acts in a virtuous manner. It’s the archetypal story of every individual, as well. There’s a very strong strain in Christianity—I would say this is more pronounced in orthodox Christianity—that the proper path of life is to take the tradition and the spirit that's associated with consciousness and to act it out in your life, in your own personal life, in a manner that's analogous to the manner in which Christ acted it out in his life. What that means, in part, is the acceptance of the tragic preconditions of existence. That’s partly betrayal—by friends, by family, and by the state—and it’s partly punishment for sins that you did not commit, as well as the ones you did commit. What the notion is, is that your duty, let's say, and the way to set things right in the cosmos, is to accept that as a necessary precondition for being, and to act virtuously despite that. That's a very, very powerful idea, as far as I’m concerned.
The world’s a weird a place, and I’ve seen some very strange things in my life. I’ve dealt with some people who weren’t on a good path. One of the things that was really interesting about being around people like that was that it was like they were surrounded by a gravitational field, of sorts—I’m speaking metaphorically, obviously. Their world view was so warped and twisted that, if you came within contact of them, all of a sudden you started to play a part in their drama. It was almost inevitable: they would manoeuvre and manipulate and interpret in a way that made you into the villain in their story, no matter what it was that you wanted to do. Unless you’ve encountered something like that—and many of you probably have—you don't know how powerful a pull that is. It’s certainly possible that someone can act in like a gravitational object and bend things around them to fit their unhappy and tragic narrative. I’ve seen the opposite, too, where people were aiming upward with the best of their ability and, because of that, they had a positive effect on the people around them. That ordered things around them in profound ways.
The degree to which the cosmos would order itself around you properly if you got yourself together, as much as you could get yourself together, is an open question. I mean, we know that things can go very, very badly wrong if you do things very badly wrong. There’s no doubt about that. But the converse is also true. If you start to sort yourself out properly, you have a beneficial effect on your family. First off, that's going to echo down the generations, but it also spreads out into the community, and we are networked together. We’re not associated linearly; we all affect each other. The degree to which acting out the notion that being is good, and the notion that you can accept its limitation, and that you should still strive for virtue—it's an open question how profound an effect that would have on the structure of reality if you really chose to act it out. I’ve seen things in my life that indicate that I do believe there’s a metaphysical aspect to life, as well as the rational, practical element. I think there are times when those two things come together, and I’ve seen that happen. I don’t think we know the limits of virtue. I don’t think we know what true virtue could bring about if we aimed at it carefully and practically. The notion that there’s something divine about the individual who accepts the conditions of existence and still strives for the good…I think that’s an idea that’s very much worth paying attention to. I think the fact that people have considered that idea for at least two thousand years quite seriously is also an indication that there’s, at least, something to be thought about in relationship to that. That’s kind of the Trinitarian idea.
This is interesting, because you have, here, God the Father, who’s coming out of the this strange—this isn't the sky, exactly. You see this very often in these old pictures. It’s not exactly the sky. Whatever the heaven was that people believed in, it’s something that. It’s like the sky opens, and there’s a dimension beyond the sky. I wanted to show you this, too, just to show you that this isn't only a Western conception. It has something to do with mystical experience. There’s a Bodhisattva. It kinda looks like he has a hat, but that's not a hat: that's a whole bunch of Bodhisattvas, going back to eternity. This hole in the sky, here, is like a hole into time, and these things are recurring across time. It’s the eternal recurrence of this redemptive archetype. The sky opens up, and you can see that thing recurring, and recurring, and recurring. That’s the same idea, basically. That’s the Blue Buddha, who’s a healing entity, sitting in a mandala, which is like a representation of paradise. It’s the same idea: reality opens up and reveals this image of perfection. It’s a universal conception and, well, I think it’s a representation of the possibility of the metaphysical and the physical coming together in some sort of communication. It’s something like that, anyways.
You have to remember that there’s absolutely no doubt that people have metaphysical and religious experiences. That’s an absolute fact. You can induce them chemically, and you can induce them electrochemically. Lots of people who have epilepsy have epileptic prodromos that are associated with divine enlightenment. Dostoevsky, for example, had epilepsy. That was really, I think, one of the things that made him a great author. Dostoevsky would have this feeling that he was going to have an epileptic seizure. He said that the feeling, for him, was that the world was opening up, and he was becoming more, and more, and more enlightened. He was just on the verge of grasping the essence of existence, and then he’d have an epileptic seizure. The subjective feeling was that that much knowledge was just too much for him to bear. You can say, well, that was a neurological abnormality, and fine. But, God, he was Dostoevsky, so you can’t just brush that off.
That’s the Trinitarian idea, fundamentally. This notion, here, is the notion that the cross is a funny thing. The cross marks the centre. It’s an X, and the X is the centre of the world—like the X that the cathedral is at the centre of the world. It’s where you are. As a consciousness, you’re the center of the world. That centre of the world is a place of betrayal and suffering and limitation. That’s exactly what it is, and the question is, given that, and given the fact that you know it, what the hell are you supposed to do about it? I believe that’s Goya. What that representation implies is that you’re supposed to voluntarily accept that, and then move forward in good faith and with courage. That’s the notion, that you’re supported by your tradition, and that's why you need your tradition, too. That’s why you need to be embedded in your tradition, because without that, without the support of your father—and I mean that both practically and metaphorically—without that behind you, without the knowledge of you as both a biological and a cultural creature, without that depth of knowledge, you don't have the courage to do it, because you don't know what you are or what you could be. You’re a historical creature.
Students ask me, sometimes, why study history? It’s like, because history is about you, that’s why. History tells you who you are. You can't tell who you are because you live a little while. How the hell can you figure out who you are? You need all this collective wisdom, all this dream-like information, all this mythology, and all this narrative, to inform you about what you are, beyond what you see of yourself. You’re pummelled down, and people pick on you, and there's 50 things about you that are horrible. You’ve got a self-esteem problem, and you're sort of hunched over. You’ve got all these problems, and so it’s not easy to see, let's say, the divinity that lurks behind that. Unless you’re aware of the heroic stories of the past and the metaphysics of consciousness, I don't think you can have the courage to regard yourself as the sort of creature that can stand up underneath that intense, existential burden and move forward in courage and grace. Of course, that’s part of the reason that I’m talking about these Biblical stories. It’s 9:30, so we’re going to have to stop.