I begin with a reassessment of the Fall and the nature of the corrupted world in which we live.
As a child, I regarded the story of the Fall as a curiosity, and even among the religious (as I was, when young), few take the story literally. Over the years, most commentary on it has consisted of feminist objections to blaming Eve for the whole debacle (or more commonly, the idea that a man long ago cooked up the story and put the female in the role of corrupter), or as a reason to attack Christianity as a vehicle for unearned guilt, self-loathing, and shame (dirty bodies, dirty minds, etc.).
When I lost faith in my late teens, I rarely thought of it at all. It is only in gnostic commentary that the myth was revived for me as something vitally important in understanding our current condition on the planet, and my old hesitation in taking the myth seriously (this actually happened vs. this did not actually happen) ceased to be important.
I should clarify that I am not a gnostic, or at least I do not think I am. It is unclear to me whether there is any sort of divine spark in mankind, or whether there is any such thing as the divine at all. (Although I will admit to being less confident in my rejection of the concept of divinity than I have been these past several years.)
But there is good and evil in the world.
Of this, I am positive.
If there is one transcendent understanding I have gained from reading about esotericism and the occult these past few years, it is the power of myth, allegory, and symbolism to present difficult truths.
My mind is, at present, stretched taut by the tension of a skeptical, scientific, and materialist prejudice toward making sense of the world pulling against the compelling realm of dreams, intuition, and symbols.
The former points to scientific laws. The latter points to natural law, which consists of the recognizable and reliable patterns one notices in the world but cannot represent mathematically.
As a political science undergrad, the term “natural law” was almost exclusively used within the context of Lockean political philosophy. I hadn’t given it much thought beyond that, to be honest.
Natural law, I have come to understand, may be expanded to explain principles like “you reap what you sow,” or the Wiccan “law of threefold return,” or the colloquial use of the term “karma” in the sense that if you do good in this world, good things will come to you, and if you do bad, likewise (and this is only one example).
The aspect of natural law that there is something fundamentally corrupt at the base of the world we inhabit right now has led to a new understanding of my life here. It has fomented change in my worldview, my values, and my priorities. Most significantly, it has changed my view on the role of politics in our lives.
As to politics, we tend to put the cart before the horse. Politics seems to me now, less a cause than an effect: it reflects the aggregate “us” and the values we pursue. Hence, political change in a corrupt society seems more futile now than it ever has. We have ignored the contaminated source of the stream and keep arguing with each other about how to pull pure water out of the filth.
Rather, we ought to get to the business of changing ourselves, by which I mean, each individual looking inward at himself, and transmuting the rot within: a rot few people acknowledge, or can apparently stand to face.
And it seems to me that the excessively political aspects of our existence are largely a product of projection, evasion, and avoidance. How much easier it is to blame other individuals, factions, movements, and ideologies for all of the evil in the world than it is to face our own role in it!
We (well, many of us) posture as saints. And the people we know and keep close to us are also saints, (albeit with a few flaws – in particular the way they disagree with us.)
It is, rather, the faceless people in distant places that we do not know personally who can be blamed. And, perhaps, the celebrities that lead them like the sheep they are.
This flaw in the universe, this corruption, this adulteration, manifests itself within each of us and all we create, and then intensifies and becomes larger.
It is also the flaw in cell division that causes cancer. It is why π is equal to an irrational number, damning us imperfection in all of our geometrical operations involving it.
It is why we have the capacity to feel pain, and especially chronic pain which tells us nothing we don’t already know about what is injured: suffering without apparent purpose.
And if there is one thing there is a surfeit of in the world, it is suffering without apparent purpose.
It expresses itself in the maxim that every man has his price, that every hero owns slaves or profits from slavery, or harasses or assaults or robs or exploits others, or steals from public coffers, or engages in fraud and duplicity, or expresses ugly thoughts sometimes.
It is every piece of litter and the impulse to litter. It is economy always triumphing over beauty. It is every gang shooting and every innocent victim of a gunshot.
It is melancholia. It is the mold on our bread. The taint in our drinking water.
It is endless war, famine, and disease. It is every accident which strikes an individual down in their prime. It is, most significantly, mortality itself: that we must age and die.
It is the relentless ticking of time, of which there is never enough.
And most of all, it is the aspect of reality which prevents us from ever opting out. It stalks us where we live.
Yet, it is not enough to seek escape and refuse participation in the world, for we carry the same flaw within us: the rot which cries out for transmutation.
Those things which oppress ourselves and others outwardly are a product of those things within: the actions we take, or the actions we do not take.
That is, our choice to participate actively in the corruption, or our choice not to resist. Or our choice to be apathetic about it until it victimizes us personally.
How many of us could have foregone a transient pleasure or luxury today and instead worked or donated to save a stranger’s life in an impoverished land abroad? How many of us could have kept a person’s mind open to the virtue we profess to care about had we held back an insult or fusillade of sarcasm and mockery?
The bitter aftertaste in all of the wine I have ever drunk is a product of this understanding. I keep thinking of the milk cartons they sent home with us for Lent when I was a young Catholic, to be placed on the kitchen table. They were there to remind us each time we ate of the deprivation others were experiencing, and to donate accordingly.
Every choice we make pertaining to the corruption of the world incurs a cost: a cost of suffering, should the universe have its way with us, or a choice of excruciating effort (or loss, as a consequence of the risks we take to ameliorate an evil in the world affecting others), should we choose to challenge it.
I sink a little when I consider that perfect transmutation is not possible and cannot exist in the world. But perhaps the only meaning I can find after a quarter century of barren atheism is that the universe with all of its corruption rolls up to our door, through it, and into us, no matter what we profess to believe.
And perhaps all that is left to do is to let it have its way us…
…or to prepare for battle. To sharpen the sword…or to heat the athanor.
The further we withdraw from nature, the more likely we are to remain unaware (if not entirely asleep) of this reality. The imperfections in nature are replaced with (apparently, but not actually) straight lines of concrete blocks, dividing lines on highways, and geometrically perfect signs. The local McDonalds trims its bushes into perfect cubes for some reason.
The rotting log of a fallen tree is missing from the landscape. The grass is all cut to a perfect, uniform length. All of these things are externalized simulacra of Platonic dreams: the perfect square of the strip mall parking lot.
The perfect triangle of the yield sign on the highway.
The perfect teeth and body of the model advertising junk food on the otherwise perfectly white billboard in front of us.
All of these things distract from all of the rotten, broken, imperfect things within in way a muddy, crooked creek, or uneven maple tree, its base covered in fallen leaves in the autumn, do not.
The environment of the urban or suburban dweller is fundamentally dishonest, and often hypnotically anodyne, at its core. It pulls our mind away from an intuitive and visceral understanding of our present condition.
And for all of my awareness of the rot within and without, how often do I find myself regretting angry words to loved ones, cutting sarcasm to strangers, or cutting an ethical corner by buying a mass-produced consumer item whose provenance I choose to remain unaware of (its production potentially involving exploitation, oppression, or ecological devastation)!
I watch others in kind: those who consider themselves men and women of principle and virtue, who lash out and insult others, and who justify or excuse it in the pursuit of righteousness.
All sins of which I am guilty. Now and in the past.
All indulgences which I have long understood to be vices, and have yet indulged in myself.
What standing do I have to point this out in others?
This blog is an exploration of the rot with an eye toward transmutation, and I choose this word “transmutation” carefully. I mean it as something distinct from pure exorcism.
The anger which leads us to hurt people can be transmuted to the sort of energy and emotional outrage which can be put to productive use. The love of things can become a love for other human beings, or animals, or forests. The lust for power can become a lust for justice.
Of this I am almost positive. This is The Work. Even if perfection is not possible, it seems that we (meaning I, first and foremost, but also mostly everyone else) have been lax in pursuing it.
To reform all of human civilization, we must reform ourselves, and we must do so on as universal a basis as possible. We must do so without flamboyant sanctimoniousness. We must do so with a pure heart and acknowledgement of our shared nature as homo sapiens. We must acknowledge our flaws, to ourselves and each other.
We must help others to overcome. This is not sacrifice, nor is it charity: it is an investment in the world we all live in, and one which could pay substantial dividends.