The Case for Awe
When the people lack a proper sense of awe, some terrible fate decided by the universe at large will befall them.
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 72
Destiny works in some wonderfully quirky ways. It could be said that the book you hold came to be written because in his childhood the author had buckteeth.
From an early age I was a voracious reader, but growing up in the coastal village of Friendship, Maine—population nine hundred souls, about a third belonging to the Lash clan—did not provide me with access to a wide range of books. Thanks to my overbite, I had to take time off from school and go “down east” (up the coast) to Bangor, the only town in the region with an orthodontist. It was quite an excursion for the family, as we did not get out of the village very often. Apart from New York City, where I occasionally visited, Bangor was the biggest city I knew all through my teens.
The trip took an hour and a half each way on Route 1, but the session at the orthodontist rarely took half an hour. Although we were too poor to have much spending money (my stepfather was a native Mainer and lobster fisherman), we usually hung around Bangor for a couple of hours, just because we were there. Occasionally, we even had lunch in a café. That was a major event. I carefully saved the money I made caulking boats and mowing lawns for the Bangor trips. While the family window-shopped, I would go off on my own and scout around. My forays yielded two momentous discoveries. One was Viner’s music shop where I discovered jazz and percussion (Enoch Light and the Light Brigade), not to mention a vivacious blond salesgirl with whom I flirted outrageously. The other was Bett’s Stationery Shop and Bookstore.
Bangor is a college town, being the largest city close to the campus of the University of Maine at Orono, up the Stillwater River. In the back of Bett’s was a book nook where they stocked authors of interest to the college crowd. This was a hallowed spot to me. I had never seen such names and titles, but I seemed to be drawn infallibly to the ones suited to my spirit. At Bett’s I found Ulysses and Journey to the End of the Night, two novels that had a profound effect on my views on literature and life, respectively. And I found other books that determined my direction in life: an existentialist anthology called The Search for Being with selections from Schelling and Sartre, the plays of Samuel Beckett, the poetry of W. B. Yeats and Salvatore Quasimodo. Then, one day toward the end of my three-year orthodontic ordeal, I came across Thus Spake Zarathustra in the translation of R. J. Hollingdale. I knew something of Nietzsche but had never read a single word he wrote. The moment I began to riffle the book, I was electrified. When I joined my parents and sister for lunch, I rudely continued to read through the meal. And in the back seat of the car on the way home, I stayed glued to the book. My excitement was so intense that I had to read some passages aloud. I started with a section from The Gay Science (cited in the introduction), containing the famous announcement that “God is dead,” then jumped to Zarathustra’s prologue:
I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
The Superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Superman shall be the meaning of the earth.
I entreat you, my brothers, remain true to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of superterrestrial hopes. They are poisoners, whether they know it or not.
In the front seat my parents sat in stunned silence. They were timid people with no intellectual interests, no notions of philosophy. My stepfather barely eked out a living—not surprising, since his livelihood depended on elusive crustaceans whose mating habits had (in those days) never been observed by our species. To my distress and disappointment, my parents often expressed perplexity and fear about the difficulties of survival. Their spiritual life consisted of lukewarm allegiance to the fundamentalist cult of Advent Christians that dominated the village. I could not believe that I was finding in Nietzsche exactly what I wanted to say to them about themselves, and about the beliefs they held, which I was expected to accept as my beliefs. All the way home I kept reading, caught in the manic exaltation Nietzsche must have felt when he wrote them. In “On Reading and Writing,” I hit upon my personal credo:
You look up when you desire to be exalted. And I look down, because I am exalted.
Who among you can at the same time laugh and be exalted? Who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.
Untroubled, scornful, outrageous—that is how wisdom wants us to be: she is a woman who never loves anyone but a warrior.
The words were engraved in my memory the first time I saw them. In the months that followed, coming up to my seventeenth birthday, I delved deeply into Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values,” centered on his radical critique of Christianity. Two points struck me as totally right: Christian religion defines morality by a belief system based on a masterslave relationship, and rooted in resentment of the raw beauty and power of the life force. These two insights liberated me, for Nietzsche was stating something I already sensed that lay beyond my capacity to articulate. But at the same time, they burdened me. When I read more of Nietzsche, I realized that he had not gone far enough or deep enough in his analysis of “that crapulent faith.” So I made a commitment to myself. I swore to finish what Nietzsche had begun. I vowed to think through and live out his critique of Christianity to the end.
This book is the result of that vow, made some forty years ago by a bucktoothed teenager whose dental defect led him to this destiny.
All through my life I have faced a paradox: feeling compassion for humanity and, at the same time, suffering a certain repulsion for it. Eventually I came to understand that the repulsion I felt was not for human existence as such, nor was it merely a projection of self-repulsion on others. Rather, it was a spontaneous, gut-felt response to human behaviors and attitudes. (The attitudes that inform behavior are values, and these are what Nietzsche sought to shatter and recreate.) Even as a child, it seemed to me that certain forms of human behavior are incompatible with genuine humanness. This may not seem like such a radical view, since most readers would agree that some human acts are repulsive, unworthy of humanity. But I was in a terrible fix quite early in life because I was repulsed by actions and attitudes that were normally regarded as admirable—in particular, religious righteousness and moral rectitude. What the world at large considered to exemplify the best in human nature, I found quite deplorable.
Living with this conflicted feeling, I came to realize something that is extremely difficult to define: namely, how humanity stands in danger of betraying itself through what it holds as its highest ideals. I wondered how such a weird proposition could be true, how the self-betrayal of an entire species could actually be effectuated. In time I realized that I could not even suspect such a betrayal were I not adhering to an innate standard of humanity by which I was judging human behavior, including my own. But what could that standard be? How did I acquire it? Why did other people not have it as well? How could I apply my sense of values, the code of misanthropic humanism I found in Nietzsche, in a compassionate way? And even if I came to define my “innate standard of humanity,” and live up to it, what then? How would this dispose me to the rest of the world? And most importantly, would I then be able to see how humanity’s self-betrayal plays out? Even how it might be averted?
Such are the questions that have troubled me throughout my life. To a great extent, this book is my attempt to resolve these questions. It has been quite a challenge, and I expect that the “exposé” of humanity’s selfbetrayal in these pages will pose quite a challenge to some readers. I ask xviii introduction for a fair hearing, and not to be taken for someone who claims to have found the ultimate solution to the troubles that afflict the human species. I think, however, that I have made the deepest cut in spiritual terms, going to the hidden heart of the betrayal, the place where human dignity is rotted out. Having shared my mission with many people over the years, I am convinced there is a growing perception that something is fundamentally wrong with mainstream religious values. Each day, I see more evidence that some people at least are prepared to face the terrifying question: Why do we betray our humanity in the name of our spiritual principles?
This book is a call of alarm, but also a call for inspiration. The following pages contain a heady mix of history, science, theology, anthropology, myth, and personal testimony of mystical experience. Above and beyond the several points it develops, this book presents a case for awe. This poses a dilemma, however, because the case for awe cannot be proven by scholarly method, yet that is the approach I have taken in my argument. Readers will fare more easily with this book if they bear in mind that I frame my argument in scholarly terms, but the basic convictions from which I write neither derive from, nor rely on, scholarly proof and academic method.
To make the case for awe, I go back to the rapturous bond with nature that was celebrated in Pagan religions in the classical world. I return to the Mysteries. My account of Paganism may not resemble what you are accustomed to accept as history. But I submit that the supreme value of the honest study of history—as distinguished from blind acceptance of historical fables—is to show us how we have departed from the proper course of our evolution as a species. The purpose of the Mysteries was to keep us on course. I am not the only person on the planet today who is convinced that we as a species have been torn out of a primal connection—our bond with Gaia, the living planet. A good many voices in our time have said as much. But in this book I am saying something more. I am saying that our connection to the living earth is not merely a matter of survival, it is essential to our way of knowing ourselves, defining who we are as a species. The species-self connection, as I call it, confers the sense of our singularity, our unique (but not superior) potential in the Gaian life-plan. I will show how practical visionaries known as Gnostics practiced and taught that connection. When their sacred tradition was destroyed, we were set on a sure course for self-annihilation.
The historical view of humanity’s self-betrayal presented in this book may be the one version of our story that can save us from the nightmare of history. Such is my highest aspiration.
The Sonata Form
This book is constructed in the form of a sonata of four movements. Rather than straightforward, scholarly exposition (though there is a good deal of that), it works by a symphonic play of themes or leitmotifs. The all-pervasive theme is the goddess Sophia, whose name is wisdom, whose sensory body is the earth. My first objective is to recover and restore the Sophianic vision of the Mysteries celebrated in ancient Europe and the Near East. The guardians of this vision were called gnostokoi, “those who know as the gods know.” To correlate Mystery teachings with Gaia theory and deep ecology—the second objective of this book—cannot be done without looking closely at what destroyed the
Sophianic vision of the living earth, and how it was able to do so. The genocide of native spirituality in the classical world went on for centuries, but a cover-up has largely concealed this fact, and continues to this day. To expose the cover-up and reveal both the cause and scope of the destruction so wrought is the third objective of this book. Finally, the fourth objective is to complete Nietzsche’s critique by showing what is basically wrong, indeed, pathologically dangerous, in salvationist theology and Judeo-Christian ethics.
Part 1, “Conquest and Conversion,” focuses on the third objective: to show the cause and scope of the destruction of the classical world. It describes the pre-Christian spirituality of Europe, a world unified by Celtic culture and overseen by seers from the ancient sanctuaries of Egypt and the Levant. To bring the Gnostics to life in flesh and blood, I offer the example of the Pagan initiate Hypatia, who taught at the famous library of Alexandria. Her murder by a Christian mob in 415 C.E. marks the dawn of the Dark Ages. The conquest of Europe involved a genocidal program on a massive scale, combining the military might of the Roman Empire with the religious fanaticism of Christianity. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 describe how the genophobic ideology of a Jewish splinter cult in Palestine came to infect the entire Empire. In the Zaddikim of the Dead Sea reside the true origins of Christianity. When the messianic obsessions of that cult were adopted by Saint Paul, a forced recruit who hijacked its secret teachings, a new belief system erupted upon the world. Salvationism promised liberation for the immortal soul, by contrast to Pagan religion which offered liberation from selfhood through ecstatic immersion in the life force, Eros. For Salvationism to prevail, the traditions of Pagan religion and the Pagan attitude of tolerance toward religion had to be brutally eradicated. This is a lot of history in three chapters, I know. But the high compression of my argument here is supported by research on the Dead Sea Scrolls, documents that tell the unknown story of how Christianity was born.
Part 2, “A Story to Guide the Species,” highlights my first objective: to recover the Sophianic vision of the Pagan Mysteries. Opening with an explanation of the rare Gnostic books discovered in Egypt in December 1945, it goes deeply into the shamanic tradition of visionary practices dedicated to Sophia, the wisdom goddess. I show that the Gnostics, who called themselves telestai, “those who are aimed,” preserved and transmitted that tradition, which originated in Neolithic times. Here I present scholarly research side by side with the evidence of my own mystical and shamanic experiences. Some readers may find this juxtaposition awkward or off-putting. It may help to know that I am (to my knowledge) the only scholar writing on the mystical experiences described in the Nag Hammadi codices who admits to having had such experiences. In any other field of research, isn’t that the very least one asks of a writer—firsthand experience of the subject matter? Conventional scholars would risk their reputations, if not their tenured positions, by such an admission. For me that is not a concern.
Part 2 develops my second objective as well: to correlate the Mysteries and Gnostic cosmology with Gaia theory. Here again, some readers may be puzzled by the way I juxtapose these matters, or imply their equivalence, especially in the conflation of Gaia with Sophia. I argue, for instance, that the seers who directed the Mysteries taught coevolution with Gaia, that they were deep ecologists with a profound spiritual orientation, that they had a unique view of how human potential fits into Gaia’s transhuman program, as well as how it can deviate from that program. With such correlations, I am proposing a carefully measured rapprochement between an ancient heritage and our future options for the planet. In short, I maintain that Gnostic teachings repressed by Christianity present the ancient taproot of deep ecology, affirming the sacredness of the earth apart from its use for human purposes. To date, deep ecology lacks a spiritual dimension, but it might acquire one by incorporation of the Sophianic vision. The sacred story of the “fallen goddess” embodied in the earth, retold in episodes throughout parts 2 and 3 of this book, is an ecological myth that resonates deeply with our growing intuition of Gaia, the living planet. I have not invented this myth. I have merely reconstructed it into a coherent narrative so that we today have the opportunity to participate empathically in a sacred myth about the planet we inhabit.
Thus part 2 symphonically develops two themes, and balances them: recognition of the divine Sophia, and application of her sacred story for guidance toward a sane, sustainable, planet-friendly future.
Part 3, “History’s Hardest Lesson,” reprises the objective of the first movement, the destruction of the Mysteries, and reinforces it with the fourth objective, the completion of Nietzsche’s critique. I explain the nature-hating basis of monotheism and the pathology of the divine victim, who, according to salvationist faith, also provides the ideal model of human nature. To do so, I reprise and deepen my analysis of the core pathology of the victim-perpetrator syndrome introduced in part 1. I show how the redeemer complex personified in Jesus Christ is religious cover for perpetration. So far, the victim-perpetrator bond has been detected in dysfunctional families and addictive relationships, not yet in the historical record, and not in grand theological propositions such as salvationism. But I am convinced that my analysis will reveal what has hitherto been so hard to understand: how blind allegiance to what is purportedly the highest model of humanity actually deviates us from our humanity. Finally, my post-Nietzschean critique shows that belief in the redemptive value of suffering is merely a glorification of the victimperpetrator bond.
Part 3 concludes with some reflections on how to go beyond religion and cultivate genuine, life-affirmative values based on the sacredness of the earth and the recognition of humanity’s singular responsibility in evolution.
Part 4, “Reclaiming the Sophianic Vision,” reprises and combines my first and second objectives, recovery of the Sophianic vision and its correlation with Gaia theory, and merges the Gnostic critique of Judeo-Christianity with Nietzsche’s incomplete “transvaluation of all values.” In the opening chapter (21), “Unmasking Evil,” I tackle the daunting issue of extrahuman intrusion upon the human species. This essential theme of Gnosticism is totally ignored by scholars who freak at the mention of a freak species, the Archons, said to have been produced inadvertently when Sophia plunged from the cosmic core. I maintain that the Gnostic theory of error, reflected in the myth of the false creator god, may be one of the most liberating ideas ever devised by the human mind. In discussing “the topic of topics,” alien predation, I cite science fiction writers and a range of ET and UFO research. Treating the God-self equation embraced by the New Age, and the tricky issue of “identification” currently under debate in deep ecology, I try to show that ego death is the essential requirement for intimacy with the planetary entelechy, Sophia.
Part 4 contains more disclosures from my mystical and entheogenic practice. I do not expect anyone to take these matters on faith, or to regard me as an illuminatus or guru figure (Goddess forbid!). Firsthand mystical experience is evidence in its own right, and when it comes to the most intimate aspects of human spirituality, it may be the only evidence that counts. In my exposition of the Mesotes, “the everlasting Jesus,” I present historical, ethnographic, and mythological material to complement my purely subjective fix on that mysterious entity. It may appear that I go way off the map with the Mesotes, but I would not be surprised if a good number of readers who have had that same encounter find in my interpretation an entirely new way to view it, and own it.
The book concludes with a call to sacred ecology, the Pagan sense of life. We are all inheritors of the Sophianic birthright of humanity, regardless of race, culture, or creed. But sadly, putting race, culture, and creed before our humanity, we deprive ourselves of that precious lineage. Ultimately, the message of the Mysteries is about claiming Anthropos (our identity as a species) so that we can own our species-specific responsibility in the designs of Gaia-Sophia. Each of us has an innate destiny that guides us unerringly toward that responsibility. If only we have the savvy to see what deviates us from our destinies in Gaia, and the strength to resist that deviation.
True to the Earth
In reworking and extending Nietzsche’s indictment of Judeo-Christianity, I have relied strongly on the Gnostic critique of salvationism. There are many difficult and tricky points in the argument against our highest religious ideals, and I do not pretend to have pulled off this task to perfection. I had a particularly hard time with the Superman concept. Not just in writing this book over fourteen months, but all through my life! I have never seen myself as a Nietzschean Superman—in fact, I think “ultrahuman” is a better translation of Übermensch. But I always wondered if there may not be a superhuman or divine component in human nature. Haven’t you? Only through understanding the Gnostic teaching on nous, divine intelligence, did I come to resolve this question. How I did so, the following pages will reveal.
The case for awe is also a case for humility. “Remain true to the earth,” Zarathustra implored. To stand in naked awareness in the presence of the earth, in silent knowing—this is awesome. Intimacy with the planet keeps us wild, undomesticated, unwilling to submit to social conditioning. In “On Reading and Writing,” Nietzsche wrote: “Untroubled, scornful, outrageous—that is how wisdom wants us to be.” Sophia (wisdom) loves those who preserve and protect her ways, women and men alike, warriors in the line of beauty. It could be objected that my obvious Nietzschean scorn for certain religious ideas compromises my judgment. But I am not the first to assert that religion (i.e., doctrine, rite, institution) is the enemy of genuine religious experience. C. G. Jung, Aldous Huxley, H. L. Mencken, Barbara Walker, and many others have made this observation, but no one has carried it through and backed up the argument in the way I do here.
It could also be objected that any expression of hatred is unacceptable in a book that purports to present spiritual values. I would reply that there is plenty of hatred circulating on this planet, and most of it seems to be coming from people who are devoutly religious. If humanity is filled with hatred, my personal share might act like a homeopathic dose against the general infection. I do not categorically reject hatred, or deny it a humane value. I hate a good many things: child abuse, sexual apartheid, the exploitation of youth, lies and hypocrisy, bad literature, the consumer trance. This is my shortlist. But most of all I hate the enslavement and manipulation of the human spirit by false and perverted beliefs disguised in religious ideals and ethics. Hatred is an inevitable part of the human horror on this planet, but it can also be part of the cure. As Paracelsus said, the cure is in the dose.
Indigenous wisdom offers some advice for those who undertake vigils with sacred plants, advice that may be applicable to the healing force of hatred: “Stay behind the medicine.” This means, do not be compulsively driven by the visionary power conferred by the plant-teachers, but stay behind it, be drawn rather than driven, be guided by the otherating power you take upon yourself. Likewise for hatred, a potent and precious medicine.
Without vision, the people die. Without awe, we lack the humility to live and the strength to protect what we love, all that makes life worth living. Not in His Image offers a dose of planetary medicine loaded with visionary power that was violently repressed for almost two thousand years.
Stay behind the medicine.
John Lamb Lash
May 2006 Flanders–Andalucia