From WWJD to WWDD: “What’s Left?” April 2016, MRR #395

Save me from this road I’m on
Oh, Jesus take the wheel

Carrie Underwood
“Jesus, Take the Wheel,” Some Hearts (2005)

Stan was my friend in high school. His mom went through an ugly divorce, got a little crazy, and joined a pentecostal Assemblies of God church when I was a sophomore. We made fun of her—speaking in tongues, full immersion water baptism, miraculous healing through prayer—but I admit I was a little freaked out by her beliefs at the time. Having been raised most of my life in southern California, I had a learner’s permit at 15, a driver’s license at 17, and my first car as soon as I could manage. But throughout my high school years, I was dependent on the kindness of parents to give me and my friends rides to and from places and events. Well, Stan’s mom had a bumper sticker on her car that read: “WARNING: In the event of Rapture, this car will be unmanned.”

It wasn’t that I was upset about her belief that “the church” would be physically snatched away from this world by a wrathful god in the “end times.” I just couldn’t understand how an otherwise caring and loving mother would be okay with being raptured out of the moving vehicle she was driving with her children and their friends still in the car. I mean, potentially at least, wasn’t that religiously inspired child neglect? I got another clue to her cognitive dissonance in 1968, the year the federal government made seat belts mandatory. She had a beat-up 1960 Olds 88 4-door sedan without seat belts from the divorce settlement, and concerns were raised by the other parents that her vehicle wasn’t safe enough for the transport of the adolescents in her care. She was apologetic that she couldn’t afford to install proper safety belts because her ex reneged on the child support. “We are all in the hands of our Lord,” she would say. “His eye is even on the tiny sparrow.”

To say there’s a lot of evangelical end-of-days apocalypticism in this country is an understatement. Forty-one percent of American adults believe we’re in the end times. Seventy-seven percent of Evangelicals and 54% of Protestants concur that “the world is currently living in the ‘end times’ as described by prophecies in the Bible.” Forty-five percent of practicing Catholics say the end times have arrived. These are the results of a 2013 OmniPoll conducted by James F. Fitzgerald, who also found that 54% of blacks, 48% of Hispanics, 39% of whites, 46% of married adults, and 47% of parents say the world is in the end times. According to a contrasting 2012 Reuters poll, something like 22% of Americans believe the world is going to end in their lifetime. Either way, there are a fuck of a lot of people in this country who are convinced the world is coming to an end, and soon.

I’m not here to parse out the various and confusing elements of Christian eschatology—Resurrection, Rapture, Tribulation, Second Coming, Millennium, Last Judgment, etc. Nor am I interested in discussing the niceties of Christian Zionism versus Christian Dominionism versus Christian Identity ad nauseam. With anywhere from a quarter to a half of the US population buying into the notion that the end of the world is neigh, is it any wonder that “Jesus take the wheel” is more often then not the default decision made by Americans. That also includes political decisions, anything from what to do about climate change and income inequality to how to handle terrorism and police brutality. Particularly scary is the reality that citizens and elected officials are making decisions about a future they don’t believe is going to happen. Why do anything about global warming or institutional racism when the world is going to end soon?

Take environmental issues. More and more people, and the politicians they elect, don’t believe that global warming or a sixth mass extinction or pollution or even littering are a problem because after the world is laid waste at the battle of Armageddon, the Second Coming of Jesus will usher in a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem. This denial of basic reality is a huge fucking problem for the rest of us, and for the survival of the planet. There’s no need to be prudent or plan ahead or take care of the next generation if the world is going to end in our lifetime. Ann Coulter once said that having children is what makes people conservative, because they now have a stake in the game and an interest in the future. But becoming an end time Christian actually makes people nihilistic because that future is predetermined and apocalyptic.

Wow, punk rock, man! No future! Who would have thought that evangelical Christians and punk rockers have so much in common? And you know who else shares this nihilism? Islamic jihadis. Of course, Islam has its own eschatology, involving the Mahdi, al-Dajjal, Isa, Ya’juj and Ma’juj, Dabbat al-ard, destruction of Mecca, al-Qiyamah, and the Day of Judgment. The great majority of Muslims aren’t apocalyptic however. Even those Muslims who narrowly focus on jihad (holy war) aren’t all obsessed with the end of the world. But of those Muslims who believe in an imminent Islamic end time, virtually all practice jihad as a means of realizing their apocalypse. Al-Qaeda, Taliban, al-Nusrah Front, Islamic State—because all these end time jihadi groups are both Sunni Muslim and proponents of a fundamentalist Islamic revivalism known as Salafism, its best to call this type of terrorism Salafi jihadism.

Now, here’s the really scary part. Groups of end time religious fanatics—evangelical Christians and Salafi jihadis respectively—are jockeying for power in this country and in the Middle East, with the aim of bringing about the end of the world. What’s more, they’ve each designated the other as their mortal enemy and vow to fight to the death to defeat their foe. So now we have two fundamentalist end time religious movements potentially squaring off against each other across the globe, not in a war between civilizations or a war to save the West, but in the ultimate holy war to destroy this corrupt world and usher in a purified heaven and earth. It’s Jehovah versus Allah, the Bible versus the Koran, and what’s crazy is that the annihilation of civilization as we know it is not collateral damage, but the avowed goal. During the Cold War between east and west, the proliferation of nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union was deemed a strategy of mutually assured destruction, a balance of nuclear terror that oddly enough kept us from blowing up the planet. Now, there is a very real danger that religious nuts will gain control and wage holy war in order to realize the end of the world.

To this apocalyptic dualism, add a third element, the Zionist zealotry of Jewish settlers in the Palestinian West Bank. Hasidic Jews like the Satmar have long decried any political attempt to force the hand of the Messiah, of which the State of Israel is the principle instance. It took the settler movement in the Occupied Territories via groups like Gush Emunim to infuse political Zionism with a religious fundamentalism that viewed the establishment of Israel as the inadvertent start of the Messianic Age, allowing the Jewish settlers to consciously hasten the coming of the Messiah by redeeming every centimeter of the Holy Land, Eretz Israel supposedly given by god to the Jews. This theocratic, halachic Zionism encompasses various elements of Jewish eschatology—Gog and Magog, the Day of Judgment, the return of exiles, even the rebuilding of a Third Temple upon the Temple Mount in a new Jerusalem and a return to animal sacrifice—and intends nothing less than building a literal paradise on earth in the form of a Greater Israel. So while the realization of a Messianic kingdom here and now through Jewish efforts is completely opposite to the divine dramaturgy that marks sweeping Christian/Islamic end of the world scenarios, there’s a frightening synchronicity between the messianism of settler Zionism and the apocalypticism of Christianity and Islam.

Progressives often wonder why any sane woman votes Republican, given the GOP’s atrocious record on women’s issues. I constantly wonder why rational individuals have anything to do with end time politicians. I mean, how does one trust a politician or a political organization to work for the common good and a common future when they proclaim that the end of the world is near? Should an evangelical president who fervently believes in the apocalypse have his finger on the nuclear launch button? Not that electoral politics, or politics-as-usual, can do much to diffuse the apocalyptic tango between Christian evangelicals, Islamic jihadis and Jewish extremists that seems to be centered once again in the Middle East.

Evangelical voters are mostly Republicans, and they’re now divided between Rubio and Cruz, with Bush in third place, as we enter February. Trump polls only slightly higher than Hillary (3.3% to 2.1% as of 7-30-15) among evangelicals, but evangelicals are by no means anybody-but-Trump types (see JC Derrick, worldmag.com, for more evangelical politics).

Trump continues to hold steady in the polls even as more and more conservatives comes out against him. The National Review recently editorialized against Trump as “a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.” (1-21-16) NR hosted a symposium in which some 22 leading conservatives vented their opposition to a Trump GOP nomination. Talk show host Glenn Beck, in endorsing Ted Cruz in Iowa, said that he prefers Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump because at least Sanders is honest about being a socialist.

There’s clear evidence that Trump is actually pulling a lot of his support from white working-class Democrats, all the while Trump garners endorsements from the likes of Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin. (See Robert Reich’s “Who lost the white working class?” 1-19-16) The backing from Blue Dog Democrats won’t be enough to get Trump elected president, but it will continue to further fracture the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Meaning that there’s gonna be a lot of blood spilled before this ongoing GOP debacle falls out, and there’s little likelihood the party will unite behind either Rubio or Cruz—the candidates favored by evangelicals—if Trump is not nominated. A split RNC is all but inevitable, and if one or another Republican elite attempts to broker the convention, breakaway movements and third party runs are guaranteed.

So its a win all around, except for the part about Hillary winning the presidency.

Don’t be fooled by the youthful insurgency surrounding Bernie’s candidacy or the supposedly hapless nature of Clinton’s campaign. At this stage of the Democratic primary, she has the numbers and he doesn’t, even without the intervention of party super delegates. No amount of young idealism is going to prevail over old entrenched Democratic Party money and power. It looks like Hillary faces a severely divided Republican field and a critically weakened GOP, so she will prevail. Of course, things can turn on a dime. I’m reminded of that as we go to press, and the news of Scalia’s death comes home to roost. Obama, a rather middle-of-the-road Democrat, now has a stunning opportunity to significantly impact the judicial philosophy of the Supreme Court for generations to come. His appointment in turn will be fought tooth and nail by the Republicans. Chances are good come November 2016, each party will field candidates for President, Vice President, and Supreme Court Justice.

It’s pure smack to this old political junkie.

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Israel and Palestine, confict without end: “What’s Left?” October 2014, MRR #377

The middle of the road is for yellow lines and dead armadillos.

Jim Hightower

I’m a middle-of-the-road moderate.

This feels like a stand up AA confession. Me, “Lefty” Hooligan, a moderate. But I’m middle-of-the-road when it comes to the whole Israel/Palestine conflict.

I grudgingly agree that Israel has the right to exist, but I vehemently oppose Israel’s military overkill, its collective punishment and massacre of Palestinians in pursuit of eradicating Hamas terrorism. I grudgingly agree that Palestinians should constitute their own nation, but I adamantly oppose Hamas terrorism, its indiscriminate targeting of Israelis and threats to wipe out the Jewish people. I think that Israel’s overwhelming military and economic superiority over the Palestinians, this massive day-to-day power imbalance, virtually guarantees the abuse of that power in the form of discrimination and slaughter, apartheid and ethnic cleansing.*

I wasn’t always such a reluctant moderate with respect to the bloody Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I know the subject deeply, but narrowly, and from one side only. As an undergraduate at UCSC, I studied Jewish history in general and Zionist history in particular, with a six month stay on an Israeli kibbutz (commune) in the Jezreel Valley with my Jewish girlfriend in the summer and fall of 1974. My grasp of the Arab side of things is glancing at best. Yet, like a shard of hologram properly illuminated, a slice of history properly studied will reveal the whole. What got in the way of my extremist sentiments, and what made me a moderate was what Israelis like to call “the facts on the ground.”

I was and remain a communist. I was intrigued by Zionist socialism and I had an affinity for kibbutz-style communism, but I soon discovered how intrinsically rightwing they were. Zionist colonial society was dominated from 1920 on by the Histadrut labor federation—part trade union, part capitalist owner and employer, and part de facto state. The Histadrut ran close to 75% of the Zionist economy in pre-1948 Palestine until the newborn Israeli state nationalized half of that, and the labor federation’s social power has been on the decline ever since. The national syndicalism professed by the Histadrut and key to Labor Zionism shunned class struggle for Jewish national unity. It was a non-Marxist, even anti-Marxist socialism rooted in Romantic notions of organic nationalism and ethnic purity.

That’s where the supposed radical communism of the kibbutzim came from. Labor Zionism, often used synonymously with Zionist socialism, was first cousin to Stalin’s “socialism in one country” in promoting a “socialism for one people,” the Jewish people. And Zionist socialism transcended its nationalist socialist roots into true proletarian internationalism only in communist fractions evident within the halutzim (pioneers) of the third aliyah (settler wave). These communist fractions were tangential to the kibbutz movement led by the Hashomer Hatzair and then by the old MAPAM political party. They were central to the Gdud Ha’avoda (Labor Brigades) founded by members of the Crimean Commune who followed Joseph Trumpeldor, which were then deliberately destroyed by the Histadrut. As such, this international working class communism, which attempted to make common cause with the Arab workers in Palestine, was a minority of a minority within the Zionist colonial project. It was doomed to failure. Probably why I identify with it to this day. Ze’ev Sternhell’s book The Founding Myths of Israel makes these arguments most cogently. Israeli society has since moved inexorably ever rightward.

Then as now, I’m an anti-statist. I don’t like to see the building and proliferating of nation-states. I don’t like people aspiring to create them, and I certainly don’t like people butchering each other with them. Arthur Waskow once spun out a lovely libertarian utopia for the area of Israel/Palestine that entailed decentralized federations of autonomous Jewish and Arab cantons residing side by side in a fully binational society. Sure, and if the cat laid eggs, so goes a yiddish saying, it would be a chicken. I don’t think I was ever that naive to imagine anarchism taking root in the area anytime in the foreseeable future. I was disabused of such fantasies by having experienced reality in Israel. Part of that reality is the current demographics of the region. There are 6.1 million Jews and nearly 5.8 Arabs living in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

These facts beg for a creative reconsideration of the “one state solution” put forward by the old pre-Oslo Palestine Liberation Organization for a democratic, secular nation-state in the region of Palestine. Not quite as elegant was the call for a binational state in Israel/Palestine by Zionist socialism’s left wing, the aforementioned Hashomer Hatzair and MAPAM, that evaporated with the formation of Israel’s Labor Party in 1968. The chances for either a democratic secular state or a binational state in Israel/Palestine however are slim to none, not without a lot of violence and social disruption. Far more blood and chaos will accompany the least favorable but far more likely solution, the “two state solution” that creates a Palestinian nation-state in the Occupied Territories alongside a mostly intact state of Israel. Not only is the two-state solution the highly probable outcome of decades of suffering and war, but it is likely to reproduce the same power imbalance, a militarily and economically hegemonic Israel running roughshod over a string of poverty-stricken Palestinian Bantustans.

Which is a tragedy considering that, at least on the Jewish side of things, there have been imaginative ways for a people to live and thrive without the need for a nation-state. At the beginning of the 20th century, as youthful European Jews took to socialist ideas and movements of various stripes, Zionist socialism predominated in a nationalist Zionist movement that promoted the colonization of Palestine under the patently false slogan of “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Diametrically opposed to all forms of Zionism were the Jews who committed themselves to Marxist social democracy, specifically to the internationalist socialism embodied by the Bolsheviks and their Third International, which called for world proletarian revolution to bring about a classless stateless society. The Jewish Labor Bund positioned itself between these two poles to develop a hybrid socialism unique to the social situation of the Jewish people.

The Bund operated in eastern Europe, in the territorial ghetto known as the Pale of Settlement to which the Jewish people were confined and in which the Jews often comprised a sizable minority of the population. The socialism advocated by the Bund aligned with the international working class movement while defending the national characteristics of the Jewish people in the Pale of Settlement. The Jews of the Pale lived separately (in urban ghettos and Jewish villages called shtetls), had their own language (yiddish), religion, customs and culture, and shared various autonomous social institutions (schools, community councils, and mutual aid societies). From these facts the Bund derived a form of Jewish nationalism that downplayed any united sovereign Jewish territory for one based on Jewish community control of local schools, police and government. As such, the Jewish Labor Bund’s program prefigured the program of the Black Panther Party in the United States.

The Third Reich’s “Final Solution” put an end to the aspirations of the Jewish Labor Bund by liquidating the Jewish people in eastern Europe. I got to know some Bundists who had immigrated to New York City after the second World War. When they didn’t entirely assimilate, they became either ardent Communists or soft Zionists. Few remained affiliated with the Jewish Labor Bund, which like yiddish has recently experienced a revival in interest.

The spectrum of Zionist socialism/ Jewish Labor Bund socialism/ international socialism parallels a broader spectrum within the Jewish people at large, generated by the question over the nature of the Jewish people. There are those who would argue that the Jews aren’t a people at all, among them outspoken jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, and academic Shlomo Sand whose book The Invention of the Jewish People summarizes this position clearly. Then there are those at the opposite end of the spectrum like the Jewish Defense League who believe that the Jewish people are a nation, even a race, chosen by God and given the land of Israel as their inalienable birth right. Most who weigh in on the subject, including most Jews, hold a middle position, that the Jewish people are some amalgam of race, nation, ethnicity, tribe, culture or religion which cannot be clearly fixed. The point is moot however, given that Jews consider themselves Jews, and define themselves as Jews no matter the argument or the circumstance.

The Jews have existed as a self-identified, dispersed people at least since the Babylonian destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE. Thus, the Jewish people have survived partly or entirely without a nation-state for over 2,500 years. The Roman destruction of the second temple in 70 CE forced the Jews to adapt with the development of the synagogue as a temple in absentia. Yet whether this Jewish dispersal is termed exile or diaspora, it took more than the institution of the synagogue to hold it together. Vibrant centers of Jewish culture and learning overlapped concentrations of Jewish population first in ancient Babylonia, then in Moorish Spain, and finally in Medieval Poland.

These dynamic social/cultural/religious centers provided guidance and cohesion to the Jewish people as a whole, throughout the eastern hemisphere and eventually the world, and were crucial to Jewish survival. It can be argued that this core/periphery structure of Jewish existence was in crisis by 1850, with the rise of the modern nation-state. But what can’t be substantiated is the Zionist assertion that without a Jewish nation-state, the Jewish people will always be threatened by discrimination, harassment, murder, pogrom and holocaust. One of the most dangerous places in the world for a Jew to reside today is in Israel. All it would take is for Israel to lose just one war in order to raise the very real specter of Jewish genocide once again.

Between the wholly inadequate two-state solution and Waskow’s anarchist idyll, there are a number of quite possible, favorable resolutions to the Israel/Palestine conflict. I’ve highlighted as viable examples leftwing Zionist socialism’s binational state, the one-state solution of the PLO’s secular democratic Palestinian state, the Jewish Labor Bund’s socialist program for Jewish territorial autonomy, and the non-state core/periphery structure so critical to Jewish survival as a people over the millennia. This middle ground is quite broad, providing a wide political middle-of-the-road from which true moderation can arise. And a moderate, just solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict would be wonderful. In this instance, I would dearly love to refute Barry Goldwater when he said: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

*I rely on Max Boot’s exhaustive study Invisible Armies for the distinction between formal military action and terrorism.

Religion Reconsidered: “What’s Left?” March 2008, MRR #298

One of my many contradictions, from a Marxist perspective, is that I’m a wimpy, waffling agnostic, not a hardcore, commie atheist. The reason I’m an agnostic instead of an atheist has nothing to do with finding flaws in atheism’s arguments against the existence of God, or with finding redeeming features in the horror show that is religion. I’m undecided about whether or not God exists because, throughout my life, I’ve had personal experiences that might be described as spiritual, mystical, even religious.

I’ve had these experiences since I was a kid, long before the psychedelic drug use of my hippie days. A momentary, overwhelming sensation that I was a part of everything, and that everything was a part of me. A fleeting, all pervasive feeling that I had suddenly risen high above this mundane, everyday existence. The inexplicable awareness that I had briefly stumbled upon some greater reality, the true, scintillating reality behind this dingy, decaying façade that was life. I’ve had these experiences well after I stopped doing psychedelics. As for the psychedelics-acid, mescaline, psilocybin-they produced quasi-mystical experiences forcefully driven, selectively amplified, and seriously distorted by the chemicals in question.

I was loosely raised Catholic, though I don’t associate my childhood spiritual incidents with Roman Catholicism. My parents wanted me to get the sacraments up to Confirmation, just in case the Big Guy was Catholic. I was on my own after that, and I never bothered to go back to church. I’ve never tried to cultivate these mystical moments by pursuing a spiritual practice or, Marx forbid, an organized religion either. I simply experienced them, marveling at many of them, enduring the rest, and getting something out of them all. Of course, I’ve come to my own understanding of what Tom Wolfe, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, referred to as the kairos, the how and why and what-for of this “time out of time,” this “most propitious moment.”

The how is simple enough. The actual experience, no doubt, is biochemically based, a natural, internal analog to the psychedelic drugs I experimented with during the early 1970s. That said, establishing such a cause-and-effect doesn’t reduce the spiritual event to a biochemical phantom, nor does it relegate the whole episode to some mechanical, materially determined process. To grasp why this is the case, we need to delve into a little bit of Marxism, in particular, Marx’s notion of dialectical materialism.

For Marx, the economic base of society gives rise to a superstructure comprised of society’s legal and political structures, as well as of the “higher ideologies of the art, religion and philosophy of bourgeois society,” as Karl Korsch described it in Marxism and Philosophy. Yet, just because the social superstructure is a product of the economic base does not make it any less real. “[Marx and Engels] always treated ideologies-including philosophy-as concrete realities and not as empty fantasies.” “[I]t is essential for modern dialectical materialism to grasp philosophies and other ideological systems in theory as realities, and to treat them in practice as such.” What’s more, society’s political and ideological superstructure achieves a measure of autonomy to act back upon the economic base to change it, creating a dialectical relationship between the two that defines “bourgeois society as a totality.” Or as Marx himself put it in the Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “Theory itself becomes a material force once it takes hold on the masses. Theory is capable of taking hold on the masses … once it becomes radical.”

This clearly distinguishes dialectical materialism from the crude materialism of Newtonian science, in which one billiard ball hits another in a simple linear chain of causality. I’d argue that dialectical materialism is much more akin to the systems and information theories pioneered by Gregory Bateson in the areas of psychology, biology and ecology. But how does dialectical materialism relate to my discussion of personal spiritual experiences?

In contending that mystical moments have a biochemical basis, similar to the endorphin high produced by vigorous exercise, I’m not refuting the reality of these events. No doubt, all individual thought and feeling can be traced back to biochemistry, yet it cannot be denied that these thoughts and feelings frequently have material effects and consequences in that we act on them. In the same way, human interest in and pursuit of spiritual experience spurs activities intended to reproduce and refine those experiences, generating on the one hand spiritual practices like yoga, meditation, chanting, and ecstatic dancing, and on the other hand the practices, institutions and ideologies of organized religion.

This isn’t to repudiate the fact that society’s economic base leaves profound marks on spiritual practice and organized religion, only to assert that the initial impulse for both resides elsewhere. Nor would I be surprised to learn that millennia of spiritual and religious activity, in turn, have acted upon this biochemical substrate to distill and shape it, and that the two have coevolved over time. The great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, like Notre Dame or Chartre, can be appreciated, in part, as finely tuned machinery incorporating a variety of spiritual technologies designed to induce mystical experiences in the participating individuals. While the triggers for spiritual episodes are often social and cultural then, their impetus is transhistorical, imbedded in that problematic realm known as human nature. The instances of spontaneous, unbidden spiritual awakening, some resulting in the founding of entirely new religions, bear this out. The capacity for mystical experience seems to be hardwired to some degree into most of us, perhaps as a peculiar expression of the wider human pursuit of altered states through drug use, artistic endeavor, SM, asceticism, exercise and sport. The question is, why? What function does it serve?

Marx posited a kind of human nature in asserting that we are social beings, a concept covered by the hotly debated term species being. You can be sure that human sociality and spirituality are keenly related within the context of species being. That there is overlap between spirituality, sexuality and power also goes without saying. The spiritual experience is often described as fiery, capable of reducing all that is false to ash. In its crucible is forged the certainty of individual belief and the unity so necessary for social cohesion. I’m not sure what Marx thought about individual spiritual practice, but his views on the rituals, churches, traditions, theologies and holy wars of organized religion are well known:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.

Gotta love those dialectics. That religion in bourgeois society serves to delude, comfort and pacify the masses doesn’t tell us much more about the function of the more elemental mystical moment however. Aside from acting as a kind of experiential superglue for personal belief and social unity, there’s another aspect to spiritual episodes that’s worth discussing.

First, let’s talk a little bit about consciousness. Human consciousness arises from a very small number of neural circuits in the brain that monitor the rest of the mind, and the body. Given that consciousness relies on a small percentage of gray matter to function, it cannot possibly be all encompassing, and the scope of human awareness is thus severely limited. With regard to sensory perception, for instance, we are flooded with sensory information all the time, yet our conscious mind is only aware of a small fraction of that information. As an example, our clothing is in constant contact with the skin under it, stimulating our sense of touch over a wide area of our body. We’re not conscious of everywhere our clothing touches our skin though. We feel our clothes only in certain places, particularly when they impinge or restrict us. Therefore, the sensory input from the rest of our skin in contact with our clothes is filtered out of our awareness. Aside from purely biological filters, there are also cultural, social and personal filters that further restrict this torrential sensory flow.

We receive, and process, vast amounts of sensory data on many levels other than the conscious. Aldous Huxley proposed, in The Doors of Perception, that psychedelic drugs temporarily knock out these filters so that we experience heightened sensory impressions, even forms of synesthesia. Whether or not this is the case, the overwhelming influx of sense perception that comes in under the radar of consciousness does have other interesting side effects.

Sometimes, bits and pieces of this unconscious sense data percolate up into an individual’s awareness. The result is a hunch, an intuitive feeling, which cannot be pinned down to anything obvious. When patterns begin to emerge through this process, something quite innocuous can trigger a sudden, epiphanal moment. Then we say “everything fell into place,” “the scales fell from my eyes,” “all was revealed,” and “I saw things as they truly were.”

I’m intentionally using quasi-religious phrasing here in anticipation of my next point. There is a certain category of spiritual experience known as “the road to Damascus” moment, when the mystical episode bowls over the individual and literally changes his or her life. Paul, of the New Testament, had a profound religious awakening on his way to Damascus, and went from being a Jewish persecutor of Christians to a Christian believer. Paul’s personal sense of his place in the scheme of things radically shifted in an instant. Perhaps this kind of spiritual experience is like a hunch on steroids.

What I’m postulating is that certain life-changing mystical incidents act on the deepest levels of human perception, our sense of ourselves and of our place in the universe. None of my spiritual experiences were ever that profound, though I always learned something from them. That all such spiritual moments come permeated with a sense of the supernatural Other, what we interpret as the sacred and the divine and call God, is what gives me pause. Ultimately, it’s why I can’t declare myself an atheist.

BBC-TV did a movie, Longford, about the English aristocrat and prison reformer who became involved with one of Britain’s most notorious criminals, child-killer Myra Hindley. Hindley gets one of the film’s better lines, the implications of which would fill another column. I’ll close on the character Myra’s words. “Evil can be a spiritual experience too.”

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