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Zen dragons and false pictures of reality…


Let’s start with a little Japanese Zen parable that I stumbled upon, and that I like a lot for some reason:

In China there wKunisada_II_The_Dragonas a man named Seiko; he loved dragons. All his scrolls were of dragons. He designed his house like a dragon-house and he had many figures of dragons. So a real dragon thought, “If I appear in his house he will be very pleased.” So one day the dragon appeared in his room, and he was very scared of him, and almost drew his sword to cut him. The real dragon said, “Oh, my!” and he hurriedly escaped from the room.
“Don’t be like Seiko!” – Dogen Zenji (1200-1253)       (source)

Why do I like this little parable so much?
Because it is a very good description of a human tendency to avoid Reality and run away in our own selfmade pictures, systems of thought and descriptions of reality of it, as if they are the real thing. And then live as if this is the real thing. This applies to all kinds of stuff: God, the natural world, human relationships, and so on…
We make our interpretation the real thing, until it leads its own life, and in the end our own version will be more important than the actual thing, the ‘dragon’ in our parable, and we might get rather disturbed if a real dragon would show up, like our friend Seiko did.

This doesn’t mean that we as humans live without our ‘scrolls of dragons’. We humans interpret and describe the world in language and systems of thought, and without this mediation we cannot see the world. That is a natural and necessary thing, but the danger is always there that our mental interpretations run away from us and from reality, and form a world on their own, unhindered by reality itself.

One version of this is scientism, where our modern scientific observations and interpretations of reality (and the consensus about them that we have at this present moment) become all there is, with nothing else. We squeeze all of reality into one interpretation of what can be observed with our 5 senses and our instruments, and then equate that with Reality. I’ve never understood how people could ever fall for such a thing, but it remains a popular outlook on the world, probably because it makes our world seem more controllable, and the uncontrollable forces like gods and devils are eradicated by just ignoring them…

It can gen more serious than that though: when the ‘dragon’ in question is God, the Creator of Reality and Ground of being ‘him’self, this becomes conceptual idolatry. Instead of believing in God and putting our trust in the Creator, we end up following a construct of our own making. Instead of making connection to the God behind all constructs, we end up worshipping a selfmade deity only existing in our head, since we think we can completely describe God, and that God is nothing but what we describe with our theological language.
None of our descriptions will even describe a natural thing for 100% though, let alone God.

The religious side of making our own dragons can get dark. When I posted this parable on facebook one of my friends noted that this is what Americans do with Christ. And I can see her point in these days of Trump I am afraid, any religion that could go along with Trumpism is opposite to what I read in the gospels and all of the New Testament, about humbleness, enemy-love, rejection of Mammon and power, and so on…

(There also might be the danger that a picture of God living in an enormous thoughtfield becomes a more potent entity and behaves like an egregore or ‘godform’, and this might be the case for Murikan Jeebus, the tribal war god that is completely unlike Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the Incarnated Son of God in almost every important detail except some cosmetic ones, but that is another story. It is the same with the supposed Allah of IS who wants most people dead by the way; who is a blasphemy compared to how the Muslim tradition and scriptures envision the God of Abraham and Creator.)

It’s also quite important in more mundane relationships by the way. If instead of letting people be who they are we make our own set of expectations for them, we will only have a friendship or even marriage with an illusion, not with a person. See also my post Do you love your wife or a picture in your head? for more about that idea. The weird thing is that even Christians seem to fall for this habit of making ideals and then trying to conform people to them.

(Which is the opposite of Platonism btw. Platonic ideals are a priori and can only be discovered, while these constructs are a posteriori and completely made up by us humans.)

So what is my point here?

I do think that it’s very important to learn to see what really is there. To not just follow the finger pointing to the moon, but look at the actual moon. And to let it be the moon without expecting it to be cheese or an alien base from the time before time.
It is very important to let reality be, and to interact with what is really there, not with illusions. To cultivate ‘first sight’, as it is called in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books. In the words of the kelda of the Mac Nac feegle clan, who speaks almost normal English here:

‘First sight is when you can see what’s really there, not what you heid tells you ought to be there. […] Second sight is dull sight, it’s seeing only what you expect to see.’
(The Wee Free Men, P. 132)

Think also of the words of Jesus in the sermon on the Mount:

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23)

How we do that depends on the subject or object, but a radical honesty with ourselves is always the beginning, and an openness to being wrong. But I don’t have all the answers here, and am only learning myself while stumbling along the way. I just know that this is extremely important, if we want to get anywhere at all.

What do you people think?

peace

Bram

 

 

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New Bram Cools release: “Safe happy Christian music for the conservative middleclass” (the lost album)


Allow me to use my blog once more to do a musical announcement:

Available now Saturday:

“Safe happy Christian music for the conservative middleclass” (the lost album)

safe

Next Saturday, the first day of July, the Bram Cools album ‘Safe Happy Christian Music for the conservative middleclass’ will be released through my  bandcamp page. It will a ‘choose your own price’ release, and if enough people ask me for it I might make some kind of physical CD-R release too.

More about the album
Don’t be fooled by the title, ‘Safe Happy Christian Music for the Conservative Middleclass’ is not only a rough collection of weird lo-fi folk songs that often go in unexpected musical directions, it is also a a bit of a spiritual concept album that is designed to make people uncomfortable at times. (It even makes me uncomfortable 7 years later, and that’s not because of the musical errors and out-of-tune moments.)
While the music is inspired by the words of Christ and the New Testament, so you can be certain there’s nothing safe or middleclass about actual Christianity. If you take these things seriously seriously you’ll end up closer to nonviolent anticapitalist green anarchism than to a cage of safety, Mammon and the quiet desperation of adulting under peer pressure of those with shiny toys and life-sucking jobs…

As said before it’s not really a new album, but an older project that only got finished now. ‘Sell everything you have and give it to the poor‘ was meant as its first single together with ‘Stephen, they’re gonna stone you to death’ 7 years ago, but the album never came… It grew out of a set of songs songs that I started writing at the moment that my band the contemporary Christian Muzak collective (CCMC) was falling apart, almost 10 years ago. Mandolin and melodica are very prominently present on the album, but apart from that I do switch instruments all of the time, and the role of electronica if present is generally rather small.
Most of these songs were almost completely recorded but never finished when life happened and prevented them to be completely finished, and so they took a long sabbatical on my harddisk instead of being released ‘soon’ as I promised 7 years ago. Musically there still is the pre-cyberluddism approach of playing a lot of instruments myself rather than programming them as I did on later albums, which gives a more folk and at moments even rock feeling, and there is a lot of experimentation going on which sometimes gives a noise-feel. While most of these songs have just been hiding on the computer, a few of them have been played live, and the sing-along classic ‘sell everything you have and give it to the poor’ fastly became a concert favourite.

The playlist will be:

1. Ouverture 02:07
A slightly Sufjanesque semi-instrumental ‘ouverture’ in 5/8 on mandolin and melodica, which sets the atmosphere for the more folky parts of the album. Probably one of the more safe and happy pieces on the album, even though it’s written in an uneven meter and minor key. (Hear an older mix of it on soundcloud)

2. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor 04:4
This undoubtedly is the ‘hit’ of the album. Based on a very minimalist chord scheme derived from traditional American folk music, this proves to be a live hit and sing-along, even though the lyrics are rather controversial, and much more Christian than safe or middleclass. This arrangement is based on mandolin, percussion and sometimes a heavily distorted slide guitar, and it still echoes the CCMC atmosphere.

3. Gentiles 03:28
This is an older song that has been online in different versions for years, probably both weird and unique and yet typical for the older Bram Cools indiefolk style, with the typical melodica, and a heavily distorted small African drum and stuff like that. Also a protest song about how religion often misses the point. (older mix on soundcloud)

4. You were hungry 02:43
Here we depart from the folk for a rather freaky experimental kind of lo-fi noise that was originally just built on endless layers of delay on vocals and some claps. For later version the original has been sampled and re-arranged, and spiced up with some electronics. The music is meant to be uncomfortable as a support of the lyrics, which are taken straight from Jesus’ words about social justice, care for the least and judgment… Very safe and middleclass…
I hope to be able to play this live one day with an actual theremin…  (older mix on spundcloud)

5. No more lilies in the field 04:47
With this song we’re back to folk music of the more psychedelic kind and to the first actual guitar song. Different layers of percussion, folk instruments or reversed sounds come an go in a song structure that doesn’t really follow a verse-chorus-verse pattern. To stay in harmony with the other songs it’s alos a protest song against commercialisation and Americanisation of religion. (lyrics video on youtube)

6. Don’t kiss me 03:27
This was the first song of the album to be ready, and thus it ended up on my compilation album ‘I am the Belgian Christian lo-fi scene’ as a very new song 7 years ago. A song about love (or the absense of it), and again an indie-folk song. The mandolin is back, and so is the 5/8 meter. If the album were an actual LP this one would close the A-side. (‘I am the Belgian Christian lo-fi scene’ version on bandcamp)

7. Stephen, they’re gonna stone you to death 03:3
The B-side of the LP (also the B-side of the ‘sell everything’ single) starts with a distorted slide-guitar, and then everything goes weird, but in a very slowed-down and relaxed way. There is a guitar-noise feel, but the mandolin and melodica are back and bring a weird drumcomputer that has been stretched beyond recognition. Just like the ‘ouverture’ this is a semi-instrumental but in a completely different way. This song does have a text somewhere the end if you can understand it through all the distortion, and it’s about getting stoned, and not in the druggy way. (‘sell everything’ single version of bandcamp)

8. Coming soon 04:10
Something of the guitarnoise stays, and in comes a voice in the desert screaming about the end of time. The percussion is back at full force, and something sounds a bit mid-Eastern maybe. The song is about struggling with Christian ideas about the end-times.

9. Swords into plowshares 04:39
The mandolin is back for a more folky song about a world without war or weapons that still is rather experimental.

10.Poverty nor richess 05:12
And with this the weirdness is really back in full force. What could go wrong with only 2 chords and a bible-verse, and an arrangement of acoustic guitar, piano, melodica, percussion and vocals, one could ask. Well, apart from the content of the bible-verse from proverbs that maybe isn’t quite middleclass, the chords are not usually used together and form some kind of C-altered scale together. And then there is that manic shamanic-sounding background-vocal, and those free-jazz chaos parts. Ah and the percussion is an actual shamans frame drum. I don’t think I would dare (or even be able) to even make such a song anymore, but it’s certainly interesting to listen again.

11.Drummers and drumcomputers (psychedelic folk mix) 03:13
This is another live-favourite that has had a lot of different version, and finally we have jumped from heavy theology to a protest song about the downsides of our technological society. This should have become the first recorded version, but it evolved a bit before it was finished and lost the electronic beat that featured the demo-versions and some live-versions. This also has some nice harmonica bits played by Bram Beels that were recorded in Sweden! (very crappy live webcam version with beat and guitar here on youtube)

12.Love and mistakes 03:31
And with this song we close the B-side of the LP, and we finally get rid of sarcasm, the harsh demands of reality and the clash betwee and our world and anything that makes sense, to find rest in Love with this soft song erupting in a quiet post-rock like instrumental part. Surely, it’s still a bit rough, lo-fi and unconventional still, but only those who hate grace and forgiveness will be uncomfortable with this one…

It isn’t the closing song if you download the whole album btw, there are 2 bonus tracks for those who download the whole album. The first one is the poppy fun protest song that should be well-known to older fans, and the second one, called ‘new moon’, is a rather extatic improvisation with the mandolin/melodica/percussion instrumentation.

So check my bandcamp Saturday if you want more!

enjoy

Bram

The American situation as a crisis for my faith


(warning: long autobiographical essay coming!) I grew up as a Pentecostal kid in a very secular post-catholic West-European country, the kind of place where Christianity and religion as a whole was seen by most people as something of the past, protestantism as a faraway historic religion, and evangelicalism as a weird cult that only exists elsewhere if that world is known already, which probably isn’t the case.  These things have changed a bit now, and I’m afraid not always for the better. The perception of ‘religion’ is even worse in certain milieus, but the attention of the anti-religious mafia has by now switched from old Catholicism to Islam due to sociological switches. And I fear that ‘evangelicalism’ instead of a noble unknown is now known to a lot people now as one of the contributing factors in the rise of the US president Donald Trump, who might be one of the least Christian persons in power I’ve ever seen and regarded by most Europeans as a dangerous madman. Which only increases the impression of certain people that religion is dangerous and makes people dumb and aggressive.

The sad thing is that Mr. Trump is the exact opposite of what one should be able to expect from a Christian, but it seems like not everyone is able to see that. Which is a problem, since I am a Christian, and I do not feel represented by whatever he represents at all. But that is for later, let’s first continue my story.

I must admit that it is not always simple to be a part of a minority faith in a secular world. I’d always be ‘different’ anyway, so it’s rather hard to separate what comes from my faith, and what comes from me just being me, the AD(H)D introverted boy who didn’t care about most things that get the general population excited, boring stuff like football -soccer for the US-ians-, cars, violent movies, oversexed nonsense, etc… but who was more into nature, art, science and philosophy. I always just assumed I’d be different for too much reasons, and assimilating without being seen is something I learned at a much later age. I do remember being kid in primary school in Lier, when everyone who was Flemish was supposed to be ‘catholic’, even though it was mainly cultural and traditional, most kids being completely unreligious but baptised as a baby where I was religious, but unbaptised. The only non-catholics in school apart from me were Turkish immigrants who were Muslims, which was an easy category unlike me. Even with the term ‘protestant’ I was an alien, an outsider, or even ‘neither Flemish nor Turkish’ as someone once described me.
(I know these things have changed by now. Now there will be much more immigrant kids of different religions at that school, and completely non-religious kids as well. The inevitable process of dechristianisation has reached a much further point by now, while more religious immigrants have integrated themselves even in smaller Town, and that includes a lot of different Christians too.)

Church was another world. An enclave from a different world. A tiny one, but it was connected to the wider church worldwide on a lot of continents. Sometimes there were missionaries in church bringing their story. Or bible smugglers, which was a big thing in the eighties when there still were communist regimes where you could be killed for being a Christian. The idea of Christianity as a persecuted minority was a logical one, but there was also a willingness to follow Jesus. The Pentecostals in Flanders did still have a lot of influence from the Jesus People and other Christian hippy movements, who had the crazy idea to take Jesus and the bible serious, even in the radical things. Just letting the bible say what it says was a big thing. And I believed it. And I read the gospels. And I saw something more impressive than what the world around me could give. Something more interesting than drugs and sex, than money and status, than sports and entertainment,…

I found among other things traces of The God I believe in is the Creator of the multiverse upholding it at every second, and the source of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. The God who is Love and Justice. As a Christian I believe that the incarnated Christ is the most accurate representation of God. Radical love for all, including oppressed and marginalised, like women, the poor, Samaritans, strangers,… and the oppressors, like the Romans and the mob that lynched him: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ (although there are rather uncomfortable words about riches)

This is what makes Christianity more Real to me. A love deeper and more radical than our human instincts. As David Wilkerson whom I liked to read as a teen said to gangster Nicky Cruz, ‘you can cut me in a thousand pieces and they will still love me’. As Shane Claiborne whom I loved to read as a twentysometing exemplified by living with the homeless in his city, or with almost being bombarded along with the Iraqi by his own country. Like Corrie Ten Boom who came out of the nazi concentration camps to preach about forgiveness and reconciliation. That is what inspired me because I knew it was True, an calling to me.

This is what always kept me a Christian. The sparks of a Greater Reality that shone in this love stronger than hate and division, and also the glimpses of a Reality bigger than our worldviews, which included the supernatural healing presence of God in different dimensions and in different ways.

As a teenager my father started a church plant with Vineyard, which is theologically more evangelical but still charismatic. I still went to the Pentecostal youth camps and events though, and had my friends there, until somewhere in my twenties. I learned a lot about God. I saw answered prayers. I heard impressive stories from everywhere around the world. I saw (among a lot of other things) a religion (on non-religion according to some, but that’s a mere language game). I also learned more about the history of Christianity, and the other Christian traditions and denominations. I already knew Francis of Assisi from catholic school, and I read a lot of C.S. Lewis, and various Catholic and Protestant authors. Those who had that love more real than all of our human constructs in it, and glimpses of the Reality beyond all our realities stayed and impacted me. Some didn’t and had just a lot of theories about God and church structures and whole constructions built on bible verses without any trace of God. I did them away quickly and forgot them. In the years I read everything from Jacques Ellul to David Bentley Hart, and found God in very different streams of Christianity (and sometimes glimpses of God in very different places outside of Christianity even).

As a young twentysomething in the 2000ths I discovered the ’emerging church dialogue’ on the internet while it was still healthy. I recognised some things about myself in the mumbo-jumbo about postmodernism, and I saw a lot of stuff that did connect with the Higher love of Christ. The whole supernatural dimension seemed entirely lacking though, and over time the whole thing shrivelled and turned into an US American inhouse thing, that got more influenced by -to me- new and rather narrow ideologies where only the oppressed mattered, and identities were more important than people, and unhealthy American realities were absolutised and pushed upon all of the world while speaking of decolonisation.
And with that I was out. The whole American thing [which sadly influences a lot of people around the world] just seemed too polluted over time. I had seen too much stuff in the ‘conservative’ side already that had pushed me as a Jesus-following evangelical away, but instead of finding a place beyond the modernist division of both halves of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ in which both were integrated again most ‘progressive Christianity’ stuff completely alienated me and gave me no traces of the Reality of Christ, only a lot of condemnation of ‘bigots’ and deeper trenches. While the visible part of the ‘conservative’ side in politics has become something that to me seemed opposite to anything Christ would stand for. Mammon, power, own country first, an economic orthodoxy of social Darwinist policies and no care for creation, and so on…
De-Americanising my sources to a certain degree was the only thing I could do to keep my spiritual sanity. But the US at this point did have a big influence on the religion that I’m a part of, and on the view a lot of people worldwide have of Christianity.  American ‘conservatives’ equating Christianity with their weird political system isn’t something that can be completely ignored in a world that is so connected as this one. Or at least I wasn’t able to do so.

Strangely at the same time there was the new Pope, who had taken up the name of Francis, who made more sense as a Christian than both sides of the American divide. Not that I agree with him as a conservative catholic about everything, but he has the love. And he knows that both the left and right (both in American and European sense) are full of nonsense most of the time and that often neither aligns with the gospel. A Christianity that has the love that goes deeper than all of our human stuff, love for the poor and despised without creating trenches against people of certain ‘identities’, and willingness to take the words of Jesus seriously. That’s the least I expect from a Christian. And evidently a search for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, for Love and Justice before other things.

And then the overseas situation gets even worse. Against all odds the US gets a president who is supposedly ‘conservative’ and from the party favoured by a lot of supposed Christians. A man who has no place for truth in a way that goes far beyond anything postmodern. A man who mocks the vulnerable and those who are in misery. A man for whom money, power and his ego seem the only guides. A man whose policies will destroy lives, and ecosystems. And a man who is presented by some Christians as ‘the Christian option’ because he will ‘make American great again’. The antithesis of all things True, Good, and even beautiful, and of Love and Justice has been hailed as a saviour. And I can’t be the only one who sees in the guy echoes of the weird antichrist characters of bad American seventies endtimes movies,  the kind that manages to sway all nominal Christians…

If anyone tries to sell me this mess as representing Christ, something breaks. It’s like accepting that water is dry, black is white, life is death, lies are truth. Or that slavery is freedom. Yes, he might not be the actual antichrist of dispensational pre-trib premillenialism, but the level of dystopia is rather disturbingly high anyway.

(Yes, we must pray for Trump, and bless him. But he is not worth more or more important than any sick refugee child either, and on the other hand him being a fellow human made in the image of God doesn’t mean that we should ignore how dangerous and destructive the bloke is. Loving those who are wrong doesn’t mean accepting their wrongness. Love the sinner hate the sin still applies, even if said sin is destroying the whole planet we should not hate them and yet cannot accept their destructive influence at all!)

So what prompted this post?
Yesterday I saw an older David Sorensen blogpost about Donald Trump being chosen by God, and it made me wonder about all these things. For those who don’t know him, David Sorensen is a part of my charismatic past, part of the Belgian scene, although not at all uncontroversial. I sort of did appreciate his first book when I was a lot younger, but there always were things that I completely disagreed with him too. And I’m not speaking about his style here, which is just a matter of taste. I’m more thinking about his crusade against Narnia movies for example…
I once heard him preach, and I couldn’t deny that he did bring across some Christian truths, in spite of the ‘I haven’t prepared and will let the Spirit guide me now’ approach which made him stretch things that have been said in 15 minutes  into a repetitive unstructured mess of a sermon that lasted about 2 hours. (It did give me more respect for the Spirit though, being able to get through with such a human vessel…)

I can’t deny that, even with all the weirdness I’m used to, and the fact that I know that the local US Christian population has fallen for Trump to I felt betrayed. And maybe I shouldn’t have been. Weed and wheat have been growing together since time began, and it’s always been a mixed well even though it brought me living water of Christ. But to see a tradition that I supposed tried to follow Christ follow a character that is almost the dialectic antithesis of everything Christ stood for without a trace of cognitive dissonance I do kind of despair.

I don’t despair because I lose my faith in Christ. I despair because I see a Christianity that takes people away from Christ. I despair because I feel torn apart.

And I need to remember that I need to ground myself in the Truth of Christ, in Love, and not in the internet which is full of toxic group spirits and dangerous distractions…

And then something whispers. Can we please remember that in times when Christianity is deteriorating and falling apart due to synchretism with antichristian powers it is not those who can reproduce the right theological constructs who are the ‘faithful remnant’, but that all knowledge, and even faith that moves mountains is nothing without Love?

(Read 1 Cor 13 please.)

And I remember that I’m faraway myself.

so what do you think?

peace

Bram

Bewaren

Bewaren

On ‘social constructs’ and other layers of the onion of Reality.


Hi readers,

ajuinYes, a new blogpost that isn’t advertising my super-obscure music but that actually goes back to my counter-cultural philosophising that goes in territory that escapes both the current left and right. (My music might be addressing similar subjects as certain future or recent blogposts -including this one-though, I didn’t call the new album ‘Beware of Plato’s cavemen’ for no reason…)

So where do I begin? Let’s start with my first experience with the term ‘social construct’. I can more or less remember my surprise the first time when I ran into the term in an internet discussion years ago, I suppose with a young American feminist. When it was asserted by my conversation partner that gender was a social construct, which seemed to mean, nothing but a social construct, I made the mistake of taking that term on face value. My first reaction was that, since I did not at all recognise the definitions of male and female she was pushing unto me, social constructs by definition are contextual and bound to cultures, subcultures or even smaller groups, and thus we had to both give our definitions to proceed the conversation with more understanding. But no, for some reason the contextual specifics of ‘social constructs’ were not to be discussed about, I had to accept her rather scary views of male and female that probably where derived from a certain American conservative milieu, but that were utterly alien to me as normative.

Side note: As a father a 2 little girls, lifelong friend of women and girls, and being married to a woman I know feminism is very important. A lot of sexism exists in this world that should not exist, and it destroys people. And I’m a natural egalitarian too,but even that doesn’t mean that I agree with everything that goes under the label ‘feminism’, and some things under that name make it only worse. Let’s also say here up front that I’m no adherent of ‘critical theory’ and that I consider it an insult to postmodernism (especially when it pushes very contextual US definition of race that even have hardly anything to do with race a univeral, but that’s another story), at least phenomenologically in the versions of it that have trickled down to me through internet discussions. But feminism itself is not my subject here, a philosophical exploration of the nature of Reality is.

So to pick up on my story again, apart from the cross-cultural disconnect there firstly is the observation that I still can’t escape the notion that any social construct will always be contextual, and might thus differ from context to context, and that the internet is full of people from very different context who will have very different versions of certain ‘social constructs’. I will consider that as a given here and won’t even argue for it, because it’s too obvious for me, and I can’t imagine a possible world where this isn’t true. But there’s more…

But to get to the point, there also is the fact that I as an oldfashioned philoophical Realist do not at all agree that there that are many things at all that are purely social constructs. And I’m not even going into the problem that it seems that some ‘social constructs’ become personal constructs in our hyperindividualist postmodernist society, which in the end will make communication completely impossible, which in turn just erodes the purpose of language if driven too far when people refuse to give their own definitions and listen to those of the other side in a discussion. So we will remain on the collective level of constructs today, let’s go just with the idea that the social construct is only the last layer of the onion of the Reality of that certain subject.

What do I mean with that? There are at least 2 other layers that I am able to identify that might play a role. The most important one is the plain material-reality layer, which I will call Aristotelean for now.  And then there’s the even deeper Platonist layer behind it. (see this post for more on these ideas) We’ll stick with the example of gender here to keep it a bit practical, but the principle is more or less applicable to all kinds of realities.

(Yes, this model might be a 3-way dialectic synthesis of 2 ancient and a modern epistemology, but it’s the only way for me to make sense of Reality. I’m not saying it’s the last word on everything, it’s just the basic framework for a view on Reality that still can be refined a lot.)

Note also that we’re firstly talking about descriptions of reality, but that some take it much further, and see their own constructs or translations of deeper layer as not merely descriptive but also prescriptive. This can get very problematic, also because it often is a layer confusion, but more about that later.

So the 3 layers that I will talk about now are:
1.) the Platonist layer, the a priori part, the Deeper Idea behind something, residing somewhere in a Metaphysical dimension or the mind of God or something like that, or the Tao or Buddha nature layer if we speak from other paradigms, the one which includes the teleological dimension too, and is usually completely denied by materialists and physicalists. The God/Goddess archetypes in certain forms of Wicca are also based in this.

The problem with this layer, as with all absolutes, is that we have no direct access to it, and that we only have translations of it in human modes of interpretation. So while I do think that it is important to acknowledge that there is a Deeper Reality behind male and female, I will hesitate to say anything definitive about it. I almost always disagree with people who think they have something to say about it anyway. Which is why I disagree with C.S. Lewis on gender roles for example… His assertions about gender roles are based in his claims about the Platonic layer of the reality of gender, with which I disagree.

It’s not because something exists that we can say definitive things about it, and these layers of Reality are beyond us, even though they are the source of our Reality as much as the observed regularities we do call the ‘laws of nature’.

(Let’ also for completeness notice here that there is a variation of prescriptive notions of reality that is purely based on the Divine Will, which is very important in certain traditions. Which is where philosophical Nominalism becomes dangerous, but that’s yet again another story)

I know some people will dismiss this layer altogether,because it doesn’t fit into their worldview, but even they have to consider that this layer is heavily assumed by a lot of people, and cannot be translated to ‘social constructs’ in their worldview. We can disagree about whether something is just a social construct or not or even how much of it is, but if we don’t realise that for the other things are a much deeper reality than that we will not even be able to communicate. And even dismissing this layer as an illusion doesn’t mean that the 2 other less otherworldly layers that follow are not at least equally important…

2.) The ‘mundane world’ reality, which I’ve called Aristotelean by lack of a better term. The thingness of the thing that is residing in the physical reality of the thing itself, and not in some world of ideas. There is the reality of people being male and female (or non-binary) that is rooted in the material reality of our bodies, in their differences, in hormones, etc… No matter how much we say ‘mind over matter’, in the end this layer is much more accessible and clearer than the a priori first layer, and while partly under influence of the a posteriori third layer it still is the only actual substantial one. An important part of reality resides in our material dimension.

3.) The outer layer of the ‘social constructs’ of a given society or other human context here. These are a posteriori constructions residing in our common thoughtfield. It is a way to make the reality more concrete in societal norms and pictures, sometimes in not so healthy ways if we take our example of gender and the roles associated with it. It is a layer of interpretation and application, and one that can differ very much from context to context. Let’s also note again that the second and third layer are intertwined and do influence each other. This still doesn’t mean that there’s only one layer. It would be very naive to put everything in either the ‘biological reality’ or “social construct’ category while dismissing the validity of the other category altogether, yet it seems very tempting to do so for some people…

If we keep thee different layer in mind we see several problem that can arise.

Like I said the third layer is a translation and application of the second layer into our human cultures. But most translations that we make of the Aristotelean layer (not to mention the Platonic one) into social constructs are incomplete and unbalanced. They might for example stem from a very narrow sample of the described reality that is seen as normative by a chosen group. In certain milieus extraverted men are highly favoured over male introverts for example, even though those personality traits have nothing to do with sex or gender at all. There is nothing unmasculine about an introvert and deep thinking or even deep feeling man at all. There is a variety of personality types among men and a similar spectrum among women. So linking preferred personality types to some kind of gender essentialism is always bad for those who don’t fit in, for reasons that have nothing with non-gender-binary identity at all. This can be hard for people finding their identity when the roles are mere descriptions, and much worse when they are meant to be prescriptive…

Actually whenever we turn from descriptive to prescriptive there always is a danger already… But I suppose that’s too obvious to go deeper into now.

A last big problem that I will address is the confusion of layers, which is a problem especially in combination with being too prescriptive, and it also makes communication impossible when people assume a certain thing to be in a completely different layer. (Which very often happens in discussions about gender between a certain kind of ‘conservatives’ and a certain kind of ‘progressives’ for example)

A lot of people in more ‘conservative’ mindsets have claimed insights into what I called the Platonic layer throughout the ages to justify mere social constructs as absolutes. Some modernist on the other hand have tried to exaggerate dubious cultural differences (also social construct layer) on biological differences (Aritotelean layer) while that was only half of the story. On the other hand, there are certainly actual differences between men and women (and a minority people who fall outside of the duality) that are located in deeper layers of Reality than just social constructs too. And then there’ the whole ‘gender is only a social construct that ha nothing to do with biological sex’, that’s only confusing stuff even more. Especially because there is nothing left at all to turn to if the constructs one grew up with turned out to be more than problematic and have to be discarded because they did both not correspond enough with reality on the one hand while they did  also create a reality that was very destructive on the other hand. If there’s no deeper reality to which interpretations can be adjusted, not much is left than constructing something by oneself.

Another example of this layer confusion within Christianity can be found in how we read the line from Paul in the bible about ‘doesn’t nature tell us it’s a shame for a man to have long hair’. Any post-enlightenment thinker who has read enough blahblah from the people in recent centuries about ‘natural this’ and ‘natural that’ will interpret ‘nature’ as a deeper layer of at least Aristotelean nature, but from the context it’s clear Paul is talking about what we’d call culture rather than nature, and thus just referring to social constructs of his time and culture. As a man with long hair I have met some weird Christians who told me that my long hair was unnatural and against Gods created order though. (Luckily not often)

I think this was enough for a rant about what I think of when I see the word ‘social construct’.

What do you people think?

peace

Bram

 

Coming soon: Bram Cools’ ‘Beware of Plato’s cavemen’ album


We interrupt the blog hiatus that is almost over for a musical anouncement:

Hi friends and listeners,

To all 5 of you who are reading this,
which might include email-intercepting agents from the FBI, the Belgian secret service and the Reptilian illuminati.
(Yes, you too! Please read on! Have a listen)

The release of the new Bram Cools album is nigh!
Or in other words, new home-made musical madness from an alternate universe, against all trends and zeitgeist and the laws of logic and Hegelian dialectics and hopefully with a better sound than ever,  will soon be available on the usual bandcamp site.

It should have been finished this summer, but we never control life as much as we’d like to, and time is a strange thing and never reliable.  So with a little correction by reality the new and more realistic date is set somewhere in November… The ‘it’ referred to earlier here is a collection of 20 songs in different styles and even languages that will be called ‘ Beware of Plato’s cavemen’.  It also can be considered the third album in the ‘cyberluddism‘ series, and as such also as a concept album of sorts again. Both musically and lyrically there are some unifying themes hidden somewhere, although rather loosely this time.
While I attempted at first to make some simple songs with primitive electronic arrangements, it seems everything grew over my head again, and I suddenly had a long album full of songs with much more complicated arrangements than I had planned, interlayered with some instrumentals for which no actual instruments were abused. On the other hand seems that folk and pop have regularly won the fight against the bleeps and synths this time. The music as it has become sets the stage for explorations about how our constructed realities and illusions clash with Reality, if there’s even such a thing, and other subjects of faith, despair, world peace and the end of the world… The number of languages is going up again too, most are still in English, with 2 songs in Dutch or Flemish, 1,5 song in toki pona and some lines in Latin.

The current artwork is temporarily, and will get updated at the right moment. This does probably fit with my lo-fi antiprofessional approach though…

Those following soundcloud will find the finished and completely remixed and remastered versions of Welcome outside, Splintering dimensions, Hold on, mi wile e ni, Shadows of shadows, Muggles gonna muggle and Selfmade universe on the album, although not in that order…

So stay tuned!
More soon

peace

Bram

The Animist side of Christianity


“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” – C.S. Lewis -the voyage of the Dawn Treader

dawn treaderRecently I encountered an article on Facebook from ‘the week’, a to me unknown publication, which argued that Paganism might be making a comeback in the US. Now while a compelling case could be made for this idea, I must say that with this specific article even my Pagan FB friends didn’t seem to take the article very seriously. I could also remark that the word ‘come-back’ is a bit weird since ancient European or Mid-Eastern Paganism has never been present on North-American soil as a majority religion. Not even in the pre-Columbian  Viking settlement, since Leif Erikson was  actually an Orthodox Christian, but that’s besides the point

Although no-one seemed to have been particularly impressed by the article in the the interesting and quite respectful Facebook conversation it created on my wall, and I’m not going into all the issues here (write your own blogpost about Paganism and scapegoating if you feel inclined to do so, I will surely read it and probably even share it!), there was one thing that caught my eyes because I’ve been meaning to write about for a while now. And that ‘thing’ is the first difference given in the text between a ‘Christian’ worldview and a Pagan one: in Paganism, according to the text, we have a ‘world full of agencies’, as they call it:

“As seen in the ancient Greek, Celtic, and Norse traditions, the pagan idea most alien to the modern worldview is probably the belief that the entire cosmos is animated by agencies.”

I must confess that the word ‘agencies’ sounded for a second like they were talking about dull bureaucratic entities, but since those are never very animating in any sense of the world that can’t be what they meant. What they do mean something like a world animated with spirits, or a world full of persons, some of which are humans. In other words, basically they’re talking about an Animist worldview.

And here comes my main point: while some people might not like the idea of an Animist worldview (some of which are connected to Modernism, others probably to fear of the unknown), this is not at all something that needs to be opposed to Christianity. But indeed i’s rather something antithetical to modernism and its philosophical forefathers, and thus also partly to the forms of Christianity that either helped forming modernity or in a secondary move also those that have been shaped by it.
It probably starErasmus 2ted with Erasmus or even Scotus and was very prevalent in the Renaissance tendency to get rid of everything viewed as ‘superstition’. And so in Christian modernism (which includes a lot of protestant traditions) we find a fear and adversity to any even remotely animist idea. A commenter on the first post of the series on ‘faerie’ on Dr. Richard Becks  experimental theology blog gives us a nice example of this resistance to ascribing any animist dimension to this Reality we live in:

When we re-enchant the World, what are we doing? Part of the Reformation’s emphasis was to strip the world of fantasy, not of spiritual. Peasants no longer had to fear that an irate saint of the local bridge would drown them if they did not drop a florin in the toll-box. Of course, the agents of the so-called Enlightenment took the critique without their source. There were no such things as spirits, devils, angels, gods etc. nothing that man’s “ever-watchful eye” could not prove.

(Note that the guy is going way too far for a pure reformation or actually any small ‘o orthodox Christian’ worldview. Luther himself would be quite shocked to hear that there are no devils for example…)

The main fear here, apart from a modernist control issue and a humanist ‘man conquers nature’ ideology, is probably that of idolatry: that the ‘agencies’ if we acknowledge them will become too important, and that they might take the place God only deserves. This is a valid concern, and people who do acknowledge those realities do sometimes fall into this trap indeed. But an argument out of fear of consequences is never a good way to accept the reality of something.
I will also add here that strangely enough the same concerns are never uttered towards human power, systems, and Winkian Powers like Mammon, while those are recognised and their claims to legitimacy are sometimes uncontested. No matter if they are seen as personal or not, their influence stays the same, and keeps us from God and from seeking first the kingdom and Hid righteousness all the same…

So it might go completely against the grain of a lot of modernist Christianity, buDyingDryadt it certainly is my intuition that recognising this ‘Animist dimension’ of the created world is not really a heterodox oddity of some ‘progressive’ green modern thinker, lost in basckwards synchretism and making up stuff that has no basis in either the bible or Christian tradition or something else fringe and new. I’d rather say that it is just a part of Christianity, even though it might be hidden for eyes that cannot see it. It is very clearly present in the bible, and moreover has been often voiced by the Christian tradition.

And I’m not only thinking about angels in heavely realms here… (I do believe that Charismatic Christianity and Pentecostalism were among other things part of a movement of the Spirit to bring this and other spiritual dimensions back into modernist Christianity, lest it be rendered completely impotent as a dead muggle religion, that often has been moved only in the private space altogether.)

As one of my Facebook-commenters said: “I might be simple-minded, but, how could you read the Psalms and not be basically OK with animism?”. There are lots of verses in the psalms that seem to ascribe agency and the capacity of worshipping God to animals, trees and the elements of nature. When I was a kid one of my favourite songs was about trees that clap their hands for God.

We do take this as pure metaphor as moderns. I don’t know if that’s the best way of viewing it though. There is a rather animist worldview in the background of most of the bible that we just dismiss as moderns. The problem for Christianity is not that the world isn’t full of living beings, but that the are not to be seen or treated as divine in themselves. This is the danger of animism.

zone50But I would say that it’s quite clear most moderns outside of the New Age and Neo-Pagan niche are not at all in danger of divinizing nature, thus and giving so much respect to creation that it diminishes our respect for the Creator. Au contraire mes amis, most of us can need a healthy dose of realisation that Nature is Alive. That we humans are not everything. And also that God Himself is Present and Neo-Paganism (as well as New Age, but also the rise of Charismatic Christianity on the other side) is indeed an answer to this reductionist modernist desacralisation and disenchantment. Smashing the mystery out of Christianity (something that goes back at least to the reformation), is a good way to sterilise religion and in the end kill it from within. Too much Bultmann-manouvres and Christianity dissolves completely…

I’m not saying anything new here. The pre-modern church has always believed in intelligent non-human agents in the cosmos and in nature. Even the Pope seems to agree with that, which can be read through the lines in his ecological encyclical Laudaro Si (read it here Did you ever think of a time when we would read Papal encyclicals on the internet?). The title alone is a strong reference to the Animist dimension, as it is a quote from Saint Francis’ canticle of the sun.

The canticle (just as psalm 148 for example) is a perfect place to see how the Animist dimension is fitted into a Christian worldview. The elements and the creatures (yes, even death) are seen as persons, fellow creatures that all are made by the same Creator, and that all worship the same Creator. And while it starts very certainly with an affirmation of a very Monotheist God-centered Christianity, all the other things are fitted neatly in there too. So let’s meditate on this text and psalm 148 for a while to close our thinking about the Animist dimension of Christianity… (This translation comes from wikipedia. )zonnelied

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.
Amen

So what do you think?

peace

Bram

Monotheism or monopolytheism?


Today we’ll talk about the funny word in the title. ‘Mono-polytDBH experienceheism’ is a word used by David Bentley Hart in his rather heavy philosophical tome ‘the experience of God’, a book that tries to explain what the word ‘God’ God means in the monotheistic traditions . The word mono-polytheosm describes the idea that God is a being more like the gods of polytheism, but still the only one in his species. That’s the way in which I will use it anyway.  (Hart also uses it more or less as a synonym for ‘theistic personalism’, but that’s a term and discussion that I feel no connection with at all and will leave for others. Philosophy, theoretical theology and a multitude of deep words can be very important one one hand to really say something meaningful about Reality, but on the other hand one can easily drift off to get lost in conceptual words too that have not much relevance, or even reality behind them in any way at all…)

To start I offer a quote from Hart for a definition of the term:

“a view of God not conspicuously different from the polytheistic picture of the gods as merely very powerful discrete entities who possess a variety of distinct attributes that lesser entities also possess, if in smaller measure; it differs from polytheism, as far as I can tell, solely in that it posits the existence of only one such being. It is a way of thinking that suggest that God, since he is only a particular instantiation of various concepts and properties, is logically dependent on some more comprehensive reality embracing both him and other beings.” (DBH, the experience of God, p 127-128):

To be honest, Hart might always require slow reading and re-reading. One of my FB friends recently assured me that she needs a dictionary too when reading him, and unlike me she has English as her first language and is quite intelligent.

Back to Mono/polytheism. The main question is what I am talking about when I as a Christian and Monotheist use the word ‘God’. In a classical monotheist definition as used in Abrahamic faiths, and according to Hart also in other tradition like certain forms of philosophical Hinduism, this is something completely different from what is meant with the ‘gods’ in a polytheist fashion. Really ‘God’ has no plural and can’t have one either. God is the Creator, the Source and Ground of Being. The One, both transcendent an immanent in all of the multiverse. If the creation story is true in any way, as well as the rest of the bible, God is Universal (quite probably multiversal even, I’d add). Surely while I believe that Christians have special revelation of God in the person of Christ, other people have concepts of Him too. Not only the Abrahamic names of Yahweh, Allah but also the Manitou or Great Spirit of the original Americans, or the Hinduist Brahman or Ọlọ́run in Yoruba are ways to describe this Multiversal Creator. Yes, some things will differ, some pictures will be better than others, but there is One God behind all of existence. And all our talk of this Ultimate Reality is just primitive babytalk anyway, even in the most refined theological schools.

Some philosophers or theologians, for example in Christian Orthodoxy,  go as far as saying that God does not ‘exist’ because His mode of being is completely different, as he is the Source of Being, and maybe even Existence and Being itself. But all of these words are just mere fingerscratches on the surface of something bigger than the sun…

The problem is that not all people define God in this way. In certain views, which are those I would see as ‘monopolytheism’ we do have a “God” that is not completely the source of all Being, and depending on other things, and subject to certain natural laws (or ‘higher magic’?) that maybe even preceded it and that it can’t go against. Which means that our “God” still has a Higher Reality to depend on and answer too somehow…

This certainly seems to be an existing picture of God that I sometimes encounter in several schools of theology, especially in certain schools of modernist ‘liberal’ theology, probably including process theology, but similar sentiments can be uttered by ‘conservative’ Christians too sometimes. It also seems related to -though probably incompatible with- a form of deism in which God made the laws of nature and afterwards isn’t able to break them even if He wanted. (The lengths some people go to combine abstract philosophic notions of God with cramped modernist assertions against miracles can be quite amusing…) demiurgeThe problem is that we end up with something that is more like a demiurge than the Creator. (And if there’s a demiurge, maybe there’s a Higher God in the background that’s more important…)

It’s also often the picture atheists paint of the “God” they reject. Well, no disagreement with them, since I reject it too, but that seems very hard to explain sometimes… It is this “God” too that is rejected in the simplistic ‘only atheists of one god more’ argument that sound not very logical if you really think about what God is and what Gods are.
(Sorry Brian McLaren,I once again go with David Bentley Hart here )

Let me also be clear here that I do not per se have to reject polytheism here, even if being a more than convinced monotheist. I actually happen to have no problem at all with the existence of the gods, but just want the clear that whatever they are, they are not God and not in the same league at all. If they exist they are powers of nature or higher beings inside the word, or maybe entities on (fallen) archangel-level, or in some cases even thoughtform-entities (Hey Fotamecus, did you beat old Chronos already?) or just anthropomorphic personifications of actually rather impersonal forces inside this world. (WATCH OUT WITH WHAT YOU SAY HERE, I KEEP MY EYES ON YOU!)

It might even be that in a soft polytheistic vein what is called ‘gods’ are only personifications of the One, the Divine, which is thus just a way to describe aspects of God. Certain schools of Hinduism and some African religions seem to think that way. If I understand Yoruba well the orishas might function in such a way for example.

Still I as a Christian believe that I have access to a much clearer view on and path to the Multiversal Creator, wich is found in Christ as the most fully revelation of God. Yes, the most scandalous claim of Christianity is not the trinity which mostly leads to more philosophical discussions, long words and misunderstanding of these words, but rather the Incarnation, the idea that in the person of a human Jesus the Creator stepped into His Creation and even shared in our suffering -well, got tortured to death eventually even-, and in partaking in death conquered death, sin and evil, But that’s another thing. Let’s note also that the Living Word (Logos) is something completely different from all our human formulations.

So like the title says, I don’t care for thing mono-polytheism (and even less for any form of monopoly-theism, in that matter). If God is not the Absolute, the One, the Creator it makes no sense being a monotheist at all. We end up with a conceptual demiurge at best, and a self-created illusion or even God-replacing egregore at worst… Conceptual idolatry is always a danger for those who want to define God instead of just letting God be God while acknowledging that no theology will hqdefaultever fully describe the One. (Except for the Living Word, Christ, but here we have the same problem that we need Christ to just be Christ, and not try to trap him in our formulations and description like a dried butterfly in a museum collection.)

So for anyone who wants to discuss God and theology with me, please accept that the classical monotheist definition of God as the Creator of the universe (from which everything originates, including the regularities that we call ‘laws of nature’), not some being inside the universe bound by the ‘laws of nature’ is crucial for me. You can deny the existence of this God, but arguing about the existence of merely a one-of-its-kind god in this world is not something I want to defend and something I’m completely not interested in at all.

What do you think?

Peace

Bram