Please feel welcome to share these pictures of some of the many artifacts created at the Syntheist workshop gathering at Lindsberg in Sweden, the weekend of 29 May-1 June 2014.
You may already be familar with the Syntheist concept of The Infinite Now – the idea of a transcendental experience within which all of time and history seems encapsulated into one single moment and place in passing. While The Infinite Now is of course the name of the Syntheist baptism act, and as such a both dividual and communal event of immense importance, the concept also refers to kairos, the classic Greek concept of time as a short moment when everything happens at once, as distinct from kronos, time as pure duration.
An interesting and highly recommended online participatory art project with a similar theme is Hourtopia. Please feel most welcome to check it out at the Hourtopia web page or on Facebook and make your own artistic contribution.
Where and when does all of history seem encapsulated into a short time span and at a specific place in your own life? Would you even like to contribute to Hourtopia with a picture of your own Syntheist baptism act?
All conditioned things are unsatisfactory.
All conditioned things are impermanent.
All things are empty, devoid of intrinsic, independent nature
-The three marks of existence,
from the Pali Canon
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: neither all thy Piety or Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
-Omar Khayyám, the Rubaiyat
The hardest questions in life are asked in innocence:
Why did my dog pass away?
Why do we have to die?
If one thing defines an absolute truth about life, it’s that things change, and quite often for the individual, they change for the worse. It’s can be a somewhat depressing fact of the universe that life is hard. It’s full of full of dangerous things that seemingly are dead set on making our lives risky: disease, radiation, war, volcanoes, old age, fast moving objects, predators; the list goes on endlessly. It’s an experience so universal that one could conclude that it is time itself that is set against us. The passage of time eventually destroys anything and everything that is conditioned, buildings, empires, our loved ones, us.
If time is our enemy then, it makes it important to know its nature. But time is a tricky thing to define. Many definitions end up in circles, and trying to nail it down beyond the somewhat unsatisfying statement that “time is what clocks measure” is the topic of many arguments among both scientists and philosophers.
But one aspect of time that’s beyond reproach is the Moving Finger that Omar Khayyám addresses in his verse above: the truth that time moves inexorably from the past and into the future, and while redemption, forgiveness and reparation may be found, there is no undoing of past mistakes. This is the Arrow of Time. Life has no save points. There is no [CTRL] + [Z] in physical reality.
But why exactly is this? Both classical and quantum mechanics fall short here. In mechanics, there is no particular reason why time has a direction. Consider a movie where two billiard balls collide perfectly, each going off in their own direction. Play this movie backwards, and there is no apparent problem: the motion of the balls backwards to collision and outwards to their initial positions seems to the human eye a perfectly reasonable proposition. This process is what’s known as reversible.
However, when we just have two billiard balls on our table, things are simple. But if we have a whole game of pool things become trickier. A cue ball smashing into the triangle of balls is a process that’s not completely impossible to reverse, but would take very careful measurement and setup of initial conditions to make all the balls move back together in a triangle and then spit out the cue ball with all their combined energy. You can be absolutely sure that this will not happen randomly. And as the game gets bigger, the complications to reversing processes become all but impossible.
Let’s now say we do something horrible: we light a tree on fire, make a movie of it, and play it in reverse. Now something in this picture strikes our intuitions (and hopefully also our conscience) as clearly wrong. Thermal fluctuations and atmospheric ashes do not direct themselves inwards, their turbulent flows becoming smooth, concentrating until the carbon glows red hot, and all this energy being used to split and then fuse oxidized carbon atoms together into an intricate matrix of carbohydrates and metals that is capable of sustaining itself by energy from the sun. This simply does not happen by itself. The process of burning a living thing is utterly irreversible, so take care if you are ever contemplating doing so.
To get a grasp of the extent of the physical reality that underlies this irreversibility, look around you. If you are reading this in the comfort of your home, your first impression may be that not much is happening. This is an illusion. Our perception is attuned to the narrow band of phenomena where saber-toothed tigers pounce and beautiful people dance, because these are the things we need to be able to react to in order to survive and reproduce. Nevertheless, the physical reality is that all things are constantly in a state of relative motion. Clouds look initially static as you gaze on them, but as you keep staring, it becomes apparent that they are in flux, shape shifting as they pass overhead. So it goes with windows, tables, computers, mountains, planets.
If all things then are in motion as time passes by, what in this is the cause of our loss and grief?
The examples of reversibility and irreversibility above show us something about nature: as soon as things get complicated, they also become irreversible. But why exactly is that?
The answer to both of these questions is one that’s purely probabilistic in nature. There are many ways that a game of pool can go after we hit the cue ball, but very, very few that land us back in the situation we started in. There are many ways that the particles of the tree can fly once it’s lit on fire, but incredibly few ways that they can fall back together to be a tree.
The Law of Hard Knocks then, to which Murphy’s Law is but a lemma, is that there are many, many more ways that things can go wrong than ways that they can go right. Leave things up to random chance, and the dice is overwhelmingly loaded against you. That’s life.
This law is mathematically codified in physics as The Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that as time passes, entropy in a closed system increases. Entropy is the property associated with the number of ways a given system can arrange itself. The Second Law is widely celebrated as the surest thing in science. Because it is an intrinsic property of systems of any real complexity, it’s not just that we can’t imagine how the universe would look without the Second Law, it’s that we can’t imagine any universe without it. The great physicist Arthur Eddington, who is credited for coining the concept of the Arrow of Time, once stated:
“The law that entropy always increases, holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation”
He also made it clear that the Arrow of Time, the property of time moving in one direction only, is solely a property of entropy. However, he also stated that even though it doesn’t have any other physical properties, it is immediately recognizable by consciousness. Any observable process that doesn’t make sense when run in reverse is subject to the Second Law. And the Second Law deems that as time passes by, all things must return to dust. Does it absolutely have to be this way? No, because the Second Law isn’t absolute. There’s a chance that things can randomly run in the opposite direction, but this chance is so vanishing small that it’s easier to regard it as impossible.
Entropy has some properties related to the human condition that are worth noting:
It is the mechanism that causes bad things to happen.
It is the mechanism of impermanence.
It does not map to any physical property except the configuration of matter and energy as it relates to something else. In other words, it has no essential nature, only relational nature.
These three properties map disturbingly well to the three marks of existence as witnessed by Buddha several thousand years ago, once again lending credence to the argument that the Second Law is all-pervading not just scientifically, but also on the scale of humanity.
So if all things are at the mercy of the Second Law, why is it then that we’re surrounded by order? Truly if we look around us there are a great many things that are set in order, much higher than it was when say, the Earth first cooled billions of years ago?
There is an aspect of entropy that seems to clash with itself: chaos can lead to order. Death can lead to life. All it takes is a mechanism that constrains entropy to rise in a certain way. Because the Second Law states that entropy is always on the rise in a closed system, and systems aren’t generally closed. Think of a windmill: it’s an arrangement of matter that causes something very chaotic, the weather, to be turned into something very ordered, electricity. Though it causes turbulence and therefore increases entropy in its environment, internally in the mechanism, entropy is reduced.
Let’s go back and have another look at the burning tree example. As it turns out, there is a process that comes very close to describing our impossible reversed burn scenario of gas, ashes and energy turning back into a tree: the growing of the tree itself. Through photosynthesis and other self-organized metabolic pathways, the tree grows, taking in energy from the sun, carbon from the atmosphere, and minerals from the ground. How then is this not in conflict with the Second Law? Because the tree is not a closed system. The sun’s rays come from the nuclear processes taking place in its core, which are very high entropy, but the rays themselves transmit lower entropy to the tree which utilizes them to create itself. In other words, the seed of the tree creates constraints that limit the number of possible ways the future might look for the tree, until the seemingly impossible happens with a high probability: the miracle of life.
Likewise, if you eat an apple from the tree, you increase the entropy in the apple by digesting it, which then leads to a lowering of entropy locally in your organism and thereby staving off your own demise. It takes the death of the apple to support your life. All this happens because you and the tree and all life is carefully yet robustly arranged in a configuration that allows for entropy to flow out of one subsystem and into another, and as long as the total entropy for the system is on the rise, the Second Law is appeased. Internally in the sun, entropy is always rising and eventually it will die. But here on Earth, that process of dying is the root cause of weather, photosynthesis, brains, trees, apples, puppy dogs, space probes, ancient sages and great Arab poets. It is a misunderstanding that entropy must necessarily end in total death and decay. It can just as well turn to life.
These constraints on the flow of entropy are so carefully arranged that they can perpetuate themselves, flexibly and with small variations so that they can always respond to the changes in their environments, just like the windmill turns into the wind, propagating endlessly and diversifying into endless forms most beautiful and wonderful. We call this mechanism of constraint propagation Evolution, which is arguably the most elegant explanatory tool we’ve ever encountered. Evolution is the mechanism that has life locked in a dance with the Second Law, ever postponing the inevitable and doing so with unfathomable beauty and efficiency for the last 4 billion years, exactly because the universe is such a dangerous place. The very thing that is trying so hard to kill you is the source of all the complex forms you hold dear.
Life is hard. As soon as we’re old enough to perceive the world, this becomes apparent. But if life wasn’t hard, we’d have no reason to exist the way we do.
What remains is the question: what do we call this this eternal double-sided law of entropy and evolution, yin and yang, death and life, creation and destruction?
The Chinese named it the Dao. I choose to call it Entheos, the Divinity of Change, the dynamic of cause and effect.
It is the core conveyor of creativity in the universe, a law that transcends the material, independent on everything but the interconnectedness of all things.
The worship of Entheos is nothing other than effecting change, by creating the constraints and frames into which your life flows by itself.
“Focus attention on the feeling inside you. Know that it is the pain-body. Accept that it is there. Don’t think about it – don’t let the feeling turn into thinking. Don’t judge or analyze. Don’t make an identity for yourself out of it. Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is happening inside you. Become aware not only of the emotional pain but also of “the one who observes,” the silent watcher. This is the power of the Now, the power of your own conscious presence. Then see what happens.”
― Eckhart Tolle (the power of Now)
All religions have identified the need to artificially introduce introspection into our lives. Modern man has a way of keeping the mind busy. Either working toward a goal or distracting ourselves, to take our mind off all our hard work and other worries. When we’re not doing either of these we too often feel stressed, as if we’re wasting time. All religions seem to agree that we all need to take time out of our busy schedules regularly to stop and think. To explore our minds to see whether we are in fact headed in the right direction in life. If the goals we have set for ourselves are the correct or worthwhile goals. Or just to let feelings stirred up throughout our day sink in and get processed. Introspection, contemplation, prayer, meditation, reflection and self-examination are all names of the same or very similar activities. The oh-so-popular-of-late Mindfullness probably belongs in this category as well.
“If you do not know to which port you are sailing, no wind is favourable.”
/Seneca the younger (Stoic philosopher)
I’ve identified two general themes of religious introspection. One is directed introspection; the practitioner is asked to meditate on specific topics, or ask certain questions. The other is to calm one’s mind and open it to whatever thoughts pop up and refrain from judging. The expressed goal of the second is often to be able to clear one’s mind entirely of thoughts.
The Zoroastrian credo can be summed up as right thoughts lead to right words, lead to right actions. Much of the Zoroastrian scriptures are composed in verse and in the form of a mantra. Mantras are insightful thoughts; thoughts for reflection, contemplation and meditation on the universe, personal spiritual growth, introspection and commitment to the principles of the faith, as well as formulation of one’s personal goals. Here is a Zoroastrian morning meditation.
I pray for the entire creation,
And for the generation which is now alive
And for that which is just coming into life
And for that which shall come thereafter.
I pray for that sanctity which leads to well-being
Which has long afforded shelter
Which goes on hand in hand with it
Which joins it in its walk
And of itself becoming its close companion as it delivers forth its bidding,
Bearing every form of healing virtue which comes to us.
And so may we be blessed with the greatest, and the best,
And most beautiful benefits of sanctity;
Aidun bad – so may it be.
/Avesta, Yasna 52.1-3
Yoga is another form(s) of directed introspection. This will be an extremely condensed introduction. Originally Yoga was a collection of meditative techniques within Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism intended to help the practitioner (yogi) attain Enlightenment. But now in the modern world it is very popular primarily as an exercise technique. Yoga operates on the assumption that the mind and body are connected. To relax the mind, the body needs to be in “harmony” and “balance”. For example, anxiety and negative thoughts often lead to shoulders being pulled forward and up, as well as a general collapse of the bodies posture. This is bad for all manner of things, especially circulation and just keeping the brain oxygenated. The reverse can also be true. An unfit body can lead to soreness and ache, which in turn leads to negative thoughts. The idea is to work on creating a posture and muscularity of a happy and healthy person with the hope of the mind following and leading to a person who is actually happy and healthy. Mind and body in connection.
There is a vast variety of ways to practice yoga, but a general theme is that the physical exercise forms of Yoga places emphasis on keeping one’s mind focused on one’s body and on how muscles and bone interact in physically taxing positions.. Partly to block unwanted thoughts, and partly to increase the stretch. In all Yoga one of the most important factors often missed when looking at it at a glance is the great stress on the controlled and slow Yoga-breathing. When oxygen is constricted in the way it is in Yoga it acts to calm the mind of the practitioner further allowing them to “be in the moment”.
Christian prayers are also directed meditation, and places great focus on letting go of the ego (which is good) by completely focusing on Jesus and God (which I fail to see would in any way is beneficial to the practitioner or anybody). But just because I don’t understand something doesn’t make it wrong.
Now and again the Catholic Pope makes decrees. They come in the form of letters to the bishops. In 1989 the “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of Christian meditation” was distributed. It warns against New Age practices which they say risk “degenerating into self-absorption” or “into a cult of the body”. It also warns that if “euphoric states” are attained this is not proper Catholic meditation. I tried my best to find some positive take-away from this. Here is the complete text if you wish to give it a shot.
The Trappist monk Michael Keating has created a system of meditation he calls Centering Prayer which is liberally based on the Catholic system and borrows heavily from Transcendental mediation. Here he describes it.
Buddhist meditation is the other type of meditation aimed at clearing the mind of thought. The trick to them is to allow thoughts come crowding in and resist to urge to act on them or flee from them. Just let them wash over you. Open up your heart and feel them, but only observe. Just let them swirl around and hover in your mind. We (humans) have very well developed methods of self-deceit and self-denial. We are good at finding ways to avoid having to look at ourselves critically. We’re good at finding ways to mentally flee. The goal of this meditation is to stop fleeing. To accept yourself.
A simple guide to Buddhist meditation:
1. Find something soft to sit on.
2. Find a reasonably quiet room or outdoor space.
3. Sit comfortably. Preferably with a straight back. But if that is too taxing, feel free to slump forward. The point is physical comfort without allowing you to fall asleep. We’re aiming for relaxed yet focused.
4. Let your hands rest one in the other on your lap, palms facing upwards, or place your hands palm up on your knees with your thumb touching your second finger.
5. Close your eyes and start to count your breaths. Count on each breath in…breath one, breath two, breath three… Try to breath deeply and slowly. Relax your face and jaw. Relax your hands. When you get to ten, start again at one. If you miss ten and find yourself at 12 or 13, don’t worry; just go back to one. With each breath out, feel your tension going out as well.
6. When thoughts come into your mind, try not to follow them. Just identify them and let them go. The same with sounds and sensations. “I just thought about my car” “That was a dog barking” “I am hungry”. If you simply identify thoughts and distractions and don’t follow them or focus on them, they will begin to just pass by you.
7. End the meditation by beginning to move slowly. Open your eyes slowly, let your hands fall to your sides, stretch your toes, feet and legs.Come to your feet slowly. If you immediately hop into full-on action you’ll most likely lose the benefits.
8, Initially it is recommended to meditate limited periods, and then gradually extend the periods. 10 minutes is plenty when you’re starting out. The key to success is doing it regularly. It’s hard. If you push yourself too early you’re likely to kill the fun and you’re not as likely to find it as beneficial in the long run.
Not only are there spiritual benefits of meditation. There are immediate and measurable gains from it. Here’s a study (done in April 2013) on the efficacy of meditation immediately preceding attending a lecture. There are no surprises here. Meditating students retain more information and score higher on tests. Here’s a similar study on yoga that reaches the same conclusion.
Here is a general summary of what science has to say about meditation. There’s a whole host of positive effects and no negative effects. It can help everything from PTSD to heart conditions to insomnia to CD4 cell counts of AIDS patients to just plain old stress management. No surprises there. So get on your knees and pray sisters and brothers. According to the science, what is of less consequence is to what you pray.
MIndfullness is so popular today that I won’t waste time describing it. There are many places to check it out. Here for example. What is relvant it that it has been proven to help all manner of mental and mood problems, like depression and anxiety. It also makes us more attentive. Which should be a pretty obvious gain. I think it is still worth noting.
Meditating Before Lecture Leads to Better Grades
Same goes for yoga
The science on meditation
Science on Mindfullness
Guides to Buddhist meditation:
Catholic directed introspection.
The Trappist monk Michael Keating’s Centered Meditation. Link
“I don’t think…” then you shouldn’t talk, said the Hatter.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Trees are barren. Birds have flown south. Wings of insects long frozen. Crunching snow below your feet breaks the silence. When stopping to look around, to see if you are still headed in the right direction, silence.
We are now transitioning into Athea, one of the four main Syntheist festivals. We have named the period between the winter solstice and spring equinox Atheos. Atheos is the empty god. The god of nothingness. The god of not existing. The god of silence. Surely a god worthy of worship for an atheist.
We focus on darkness, moderation, introspection, solitude, stillness and emptiness.
All religions place emphasis on introspection, to regularly still one’s mind and explore what thoughts intrude. To force oneself to confront fears and admit our weaknesses. To resist the urge to occupy our minds with trivialities. A requirement for introspection is to have a space made available to us with few distractions. Temples have always been islands of calm in hectic cities devotees (or anybody off the street) can sit and collect their thoughts.
When was the last time you took some time out of your day to stop and reflect on your life or just observe what is around you?
Some religious devotees go one step further. The God of Silence, worshipped in silence, is a deity that has turned up in many forms widely worshipped in many cultures, for a variety of reasons. Unlike other adherents, however, those specifically following the God of Silence in its various aspects have most often been mystery cults, and therefore didn’t write anything down. We’ve had to construct them based on odd scraps found in historical texts or simply based on guesswork from archaeological digs and artefacts. Here are a few we can let ourselves be inspired by for this season:
– Sige is the goddess of silence for the Gnostics. Pagan theology has a way of letting metaphor and reality blend and mix seamlessly. Sige is the mother of Sophia, the goddess of wisdom. Sophia is locked in an eternal struggle against the Demiurge of ignorance. It’s weapon to spread ignorance is the constant babble of nonsense. Ignorance is seen as a of force of nature that constantly needs to be pushed back, or it’ll over-run us completely. There are no preserved temples to Sige. We have no surviving idols or depictions. It wasn’t until 1945 and we unearthed the Nag Hammadi cache that we got an insight into this lost cult. We know very little about her worship in practce. But we do know that devotees stayed silent and were tasked with “confronting themselves”.
– Meretseger is the Egyptian (Kemetic) goddess of silence, vengeance as well as forgiveness. She was tasked with protecting the tombs of the kings. She had major festivals to her honour and a large dedicated temple complex in Thebes. We don’t know the practicalities of how she was worshipped other than that sacrifices was made to her. During festivals she was believed to inhabit her idol and if you would admit to your sins and repent in her presence she could grant you forgiveness. Since she had the head of a cobra and was to protect the tombs she presumably bit any tomb-robbers in the face? We really don’t know.
– The Greeks worshiped a god of silence and secrecy named Harpocrates. We know nothing of it’s worship today. To our knowledge there were no temples solely dedicated to Harpocrates. But his statue is very common in the temple of other gods. We have no idea what the significance might be. Apart from his image, all we know is that he’s the Greek God of Silence and secrecy. The rest is a well kept secret indeed.
During the Italian Renaissance ideas began to spread that there was some sort ancient pagan knowledge suppressed by the early Christian church that would explain some powerful ultimate universal truth of reality beyond that of what they were told by their priests. What this knowledge could be or what it would be for, or why it was a threat to the church is unclear. Secret societies were formed where these ideas were discussed. Harpocrates became the symbol for this entire movement. The members considered themselves very much Christian.
For reasons only Aleistar Crowley himself can answer, (presumably in a seance) Harpocrates also came to prominence in his movement Golden Dawn, the Thelema movement (that sprung from it) and modern occultism. Harpocrates came to symbolise “the Higher Self” and even “the god who is the cause of all generation, of all nature, and of all the powers of the elements’ and as such he ‘precedes’ all things and comprehends all things in himself”. Perhaps because these were inherently mysterious? The Sign of Silence was performed at the end of rituals to symbolise this mystery. Even though modern occultists often like to think their rituals involving Harpocrates are ancient, these should be seen as wholly modern inventions. I think it should be clear by now what Syntheists think about newly invented religions.
– The Norse god of silence, Víðarr. This is also the Norse god of vengeance. Which might explain the need for discretion since it’s never wise to announce these kinds of plans in advance. The reason given for Víðarr’s silence is that he was so focused when he killed the Fenris wolf that he was unable to speak. Either way, he was worshipped in silence. At his festivals followers would assemble and say nothing.
– Atri, technically NOT a god of silence. Rather the opposite. He is the vedic god of saving us from silence. During an eclipse Hindus were forbidden to speak. A demon had swallowed the sun. In order not to distract the demon-slayer, Atri, it was important to stay silent. Since he was worshipped in silence I think Atri qualifies for this list.
– Angerona is a Roman goddess of Silence. Appropriately for us today, she had a major annual festival on the winter solstice (they called Divalia) where her idol (with mouth bandaged over) would be placed on one of the gates leading into Rome. In the presence of her idol it was forbidden to express anguish or unhappiness. Which isn’t silence as such, but this was still her name. During this festival the ban covered all of Rome. People were then only allowed to say pleasant things to one another. She was the god who relieved men from pain and sorrow and could in certain circumstances also be the god of fulfilled desire. During this festival sacrifices were also made to Volupta, the goddess of sensual pleasure. Which I guess is the opposite of calm introspection. But who said religion always has to be serious and sombre?
– The Lord of Infinite Stillness (Silence) is believed to exist within and/or govern silence and is called on by Buddhist and Hindu adherents to assist in meditation.
– Quakers. A significant part of Quaker mass is to be spent in silence contemplating. Sometimes a Quaker mass is simply an hour of sitting in silence.They take utmost care not to disturb one another during this time.
– the Unnamed (or Unknown) God, aka Silence Incarnate. This cult is briefly mentioned by Paul in Acts 17:22-31. To its devotees it was considered the most powerful of gods, has no designated gender or personified characteristics aside from what the observer gives to it. Apart from it’s mention in the Bible this cult is lost to history.
As an ending note I should add that all religions condemn cruel gossip, obscene jests at an other’s expense, idle talk, and overly personal and curious prying. They condemn these for all the obvious reasons. It’s all about inflating one’s ego or aiming to damage another’s. Neither will aid you in connecting with those around you. Silence is always to be preferred to these.
Gods of silence
The ritual and practice described in this text is only a suggestion. There is no wrong way to do Syntheism. If you don’t like our festivals, gods, the way we use them or the names we have for them…. feel free to invent your own.
One of my greatest heroes recently passed away, Nelson Mandela. Seeing his image or hearing his name makes me proud to be human, just happy to exist. So it was with heavy heart I received the news of his death. If we want to be more like him it is fitting to explore his philosophy of life. He had a simple credo, Ubunto, which I think, can be applicable to Syntheism as well.
The idea is that what we are, as humans, is created by others. Our place in our communities defines who we are. The human as a purely social animal. Without a collective to share with, we do exist, but not as humans. We need others to care about, affirm their feelings, hopes and desires and in turn be affirmed by others. People are not people, without other people.
I am because of you.
The longitudinal Grant study, where 237 Harvard students have been followed for 75 years, does strongly indicate that sharing and giving to others is what makes us happy. Another way to say it is that Ubuntu seems to be hard-wired into our genes. So we might as well live by it.
It’s not a complicated credo follow. But it is hard. It requires you to let go of your ego now and again and focus completely on somebody else, to allow yourself to be there for others.
“One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”
– Desmond Tutu
“A person is a person through other people strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”.
– Michael Onyebuchi Eze
“A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food and attend him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”
I have had the most fascinatiing email discussion recently with American philosopher and theologian Robert Corrington. He is the author of the much recommended books Nature’s Sublime: An Essay in Aesthetic Naturalism, A Semiotic Theory of Theology and Philosophy and Nature and Spirit: An Essay in Ecastic Naturalism.
Corrington has basically studied and written about what we conduct here at syntheism.org for almost three decades. Unsurprisingly, he shares our love for Leibniz, Schelling and most of all the great American Pragmatists, such as Charles Sanders Peirce and William James.
First, I affirm that whatever is, is a natural complex, that is, that ‘it’ is in and of nature and is complex. There can be no such thing as a simple. There can be nothing out of nature, as nature has no boundary or circumference, and by the same logic, nature can have no center and no telos either internally or externally. It follows logically that God must be a natural complex that/who is in and among all of the other orders of nature natured. This is a finite but LARGE god that has great but not infinite scope—I prefer to say “indefinite” scope instead—a bit like the view of William James in his 1907 Pragmatism Lectures.
Hence, in terms of immanence, god is active in the world but in profoundly limited ways. For me, this is where god-ing and involution operate—on the outer edges of evolution. Our encounter with microbursts of spiritual energy lifts up our metaphysical gaze to an expanded consciousness and to an enriched sense of the infinite modalities of nature that simultaneously enables us to look downward into the abyss of nature naturing. Nature is all that there is and a deep pantheism starts from that realization—hence there is no place for an ontological act of creation in Neville’s sense. Rather we get my definition of creation in this definition of nature naturing: “Nature perennially creating itself out of itself alone,” while nature natured is: “the innumerable orders of the world where there is no order of orders.”
Following Feuerbach I argue that 99% of what we call God is in fact a species driven ego-ideal that comes from a kind of wounded narcissism in the pre-Oedipal stage that tries to replace a non-existent or weak parental ideal with a fiction of an omnipotent father idealization that operates as a projection of the idealized idol of our species-being. In one sense Karl Barth is right; namely, after Schleiermacher, theology becomes anthropology. And I say, yes it does, and that is a good thing—up to a point. The ego-ideal is a valid projection that quickens the selving process—its pilgrimage in the dark world of space, time, and causality. However, further individuation requires both deconstruction of these species-wide idols and reconstruction on the other side were we see images of wholeness coming out of the arts and no longer just out of religion with its tendency to lapse into heteronomy and violence.
Thus far we have the gods of the collective unconscious that get projected onto the infinite motility and movement of nature, and a unifying drive to find just one God to anchor the self in history and place. This drive fails for finite Dasein (Heidegger) or Existenz (Jaspers) as the psyche is geared to embrace a wild free zone of polytheism. Heidegger’s a-theism (and Neo-Paganism) has this part right—his topos is in the no-person’s land that is pre-Socratic and post-Christian. Few Heideggerians realize that the ‘master’ developed contempt for both Catholicism and Protestantism. His eschatology is absolutely not Christian even if he uses language from the Christian world—but how changed in meaning! There is no bridge connecting The History of Being with The History of the Sacred (Geist).
Second, we have the issue of nature naturing. Some simply equate it with God. I do not—that would be too simplistic. Nature naturing is the fecund ground of the potencies (Schelling), which serve as the enveloping womb for the complexes that are ejected into the world of nature natured. This transition, like Schopenhauer’s idea of the objectification of the Will, is a profound mystery right on the extreme edges of ordinal phenomenology and its own remarkable powers. The gods and goddesses of the collective unconscious, working through projection, arise in the liminal zone between the collective and personal unconscious—sometimes reaching consciousness and sometimes not. They are the standard bearers for the archetypes.
But, God is curled up in the very abyss of nature naturing—different from ’it,’ but an absolute kind of prevalence that I call, following Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine. I will have more to say about nature naturing and the Life Divine in the books I will be writing in the months and years ahead.
The question of whether or not God exists has traditionally been the central focus of debates between theists and atheists, along with related epistemological questions such as under what conditions we are justified in believing in or rejecting belief in God. In the context of these debates, “belief in God” is generally understood in terms of belief in the existence of a more or less (though usually less) well-defined entity or being with a number of properties (e.g. “personal”, “conscious”, “supernatural”, “transcendent”, “omnipotent”, “omniscient”, “omnibenevolent”, “creator of the universe”, and so on). For both theists and atheists working with such a conception of God, the religious/anti-religious struggle becomes a matter of providing arguments and evidence either in favor of or against the existence of such an entity.
Considering the popularity of this approach to religion and God, the title of this text may at first glance seem somewhat paradoxical, or in any case a bit counterintuitive to a lot of people. After all, most theists and atheists seem to hold the question of whether or not God exists to be of utmost importance. In the end, isn’t the existence of God what religion is all about? The Syntheist response to this question is a resounding “No”. However, this does not mean that Syntheists need to dismiss the concept of God as unimportant.
As I’ve pointed out before, the four key concepts of Syntheism—Atheos, Pantheos, Entheos and Syntheos—all have the word theos (i.e. god) embedded in them. This doesn’t mean that when we are talking about for example Pantheos, we are postulating the existence of a particular being with certain properties. Rather, the use of a term like Pantheos, which can be translated as “the Universe as God”, is meant to express a certain attitude—in the case of Pantheos, toward the Universe or Existence as such, which we choose to regard as divine. In a similar way, our use of the term Syntheos is meant to express a certain attitude toward our relationships and our longing to belong with the Other, which we too regard as divine.
Given that our use of the terms Pantheos/Syntheos etc. primarily expresses our commitment to regarding the Universe/our relationships etc. as divine, it makes no sense to ask whether or not Pantheos/Syntheos “exist”—to do so is to miss the point of our talk about God or the divine entirely. The appropriate question to ask is rather what role these concepts play in our lives; how our decision to regard the Universe and our relationships as divine and holy affects us.
Thus, from a Syntheist point of view, the question of whether or not God exists is irrelevant, because we do not conceive of God in terms of a particular being with certain properties; nor are we interested in fervently denying the existence of such a being. While Syntheism is sometimes described as the “religion of spiritual atheism”, this description is a bit misleading, for Syntheism aims to move beyond both theism and atheism. Rather than wasting our time arguing for or against the existence of God, we choose instead to appropriate the concept of God to suit our spiritual needs and desires. God thereby becomes a name for those aspects of reality that we choose to regard as divine and holy, and in this sense, God still matters as much as ever.
When it comes to overcoming grief and emotional pain, it turns out, humans are not all that unique. It’s true that we have a wide variety of methods with which to flee our troubles. Examples are: work, drugs, sex, relationships, hobbies, physical exercise etc. But when it comes to what we need to do to face them and move on we are all remarkably similar.
When I had a painful loss in my life I couldn’t deal with alone, I came in contact with the research of John W James and Russell Friedman of the Grief recovery Institute. In order to better help people in their practice they did extensive research and identified several discrete steps all grieving need to take to overcome their pain. I’ve come to recognise these principles in various religious practices. It seems like major religions have already figured these steps out, if not in theory, at least in practice, and are all acting on them:
James’ and Friedman’s steps to overcoming emotional pain:
1. Acknowledge that you have issues and define what they are. When we feel emotional discomfort our first instinct is to avoid the pain. Instead try to allow yourself to feel what you feel.
2. Accept that you have part of the responsibility to overcome your grief.
3. Identify your thoughts and feelings. Especially feelings you haven’t expressed yet.
4. Express those feelings in a safe environment.
5. If you’ve been honest with yourself and done the work you should be able to say goodbye to the pain. Find strength and joy by this. Learn and grow.
Intellectualising emotional pain, by itself, never works. Understanding why you are sad won’t make the pain go away. Feelings have their own rational and rarely cooperate. Contrary to popular belief time doesn’t heal all wounds. Keeping busy and trying to ignore the pain will only serve to prolong the pain. In time we may push the pain into our subconscious, make it part of our personality. But until we dare face it and deal with it, it will linger, draining us and dragging us down.
In order to feel safe and be relaxed enough to face our fears, honestly share and be open with how we feel we need a people around us we feel safe with. We need to feel respected and cared for. We need to be able to weep together and laugh together. The mending of broken hearts requires hard work and is difficult to do alone. This is the kind of basic unit around which all religious communities are built.
If we want to be part of the supportive community for others we need to know what to do. Best advice. Don’t over-think it. Just say “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine how it must feel for you. How have you been doing?”. It communicates that you care, that you’re not about to belittle their pain or give them unwelcome “expert” advice and it gives them the opportunity to talk to you about it without it coming off as prying.
The mortician Caitlin Doughty has a witty and fun vlog about her job and death called Ask a Mortician. Here’s a good video from her on the topic of grieving.
Burial rituals are designed as a sacred space where the grieving are given a safe space to express their pain, say words they feel need to be said to the deceased and a to take a final farewell. They all contain the above steps and components.
Shinto burial ritual
Priests have in all times been trusted persons to safely share with. Ideally, it’s a person who exists apart from everyday life only to be a spiritual guide, to share with and who can be trusted never to abuse their position. We don’t have priests in Syntheism. But we do have a community and the shared wisdom collected in all the world’s religions.
It’s important to actually say goodbye. Even though Syntheists don’t believe in an afterlife, the soul, ghosts or anything supernatural you still remember those you have lost. You know them, their mannerisms and the kinds of things they would say. You can still talk to them in your head, feel their presence. I’m sure we’ve all had such solo dialogues. In such an internal discussion you can admit things, forgive them or tell them things you need them to hear, and it’ll still have an impact on you as if they really were in front of you.
If you have unfinished business with somebody you have lost, you can use this method to settle things. Say it out loud. Preferably in the presence of another person. Whatever you need to say, say it and it can help to heal your wound. For psychological reasons, saying it out aloud with trusted people present is much more effective for healing this kind of pain, than just thinking it in your head. Community and the support from others is critical. We all need an understanding voice that listens.
Will the circle be unbroken (written by Ada R. Habershon). Sung by Bernice Johnson Reagon. A Christian lament for a dead mother
“The falling leaves drift by my window
The falling leaves of red and gold
I see your lips the summer kisses
The sunburned hands I used to hold
Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall”
The heat of the summer nights are fading. Coats are clenched to the body. The pensive beauty of autumn is here. Any stable state will eventually change. At some point bliss will end. Such is the nature of existence. Any outlook denying that the good times will end will assuredly be a fearful life. Learning to accept, endure and overcome our inevitable losses and failures are lessons we all will learn, sooner or later. Sooner is better.
We are now transitioning into Synthea, one of the four main Syntheist festivals. We have named the period between the autumn equinox and winter solstice Syntheos. It is from Synthesis, the Greek word for “bringing together”. Undoubtedly the greatest asset of any religious community has always been in times of personal crisis, helping us deal with loss, being there for us when we need it the most.
This season we will focus on endings, death, transformation, change and ridding oneself of the old and redundant
Philosophy and science teaches us that the world we have in our minds, our memories, are all symbolic representations in the brain. This is undoubtedly true. So why does if feel differently being in the moment, than having had it pass? What is the difference between a cool breeze on our faces a hot summer’s day and our memory of it? What about an imaginary breeze? What is the difference between a the memory of a friend alive or dead? What is the difference between an imaginary friend and a real friend?
I write this text moments after having learned of the death of a friend. I’m now a whirl of conflicting emotions and my conclusion is that none of my understanding of the nature of the world matters. A heart in pain doesn’t care about the philosophical implications or what science tells us is natural or normal. It doesn’t care whether it makes sense to feel hurt. All it requires is human contact and comfort. To find the warm and caring eyes of compassion. A place to feel safe.Sanctus: Written by Zbniew Preisner to his friend and artistic collaborator Krzysztof Kieślowski as he was dying in hospital.
Since we’re atheists, shouldn’t it make us, the Syntheists, better at dealing with loss than other religions? We aren’t afraid of the naturalistic reality of life. I have to conclude; probably not. All religions are excellent at dealing with grief. Which is odd considering that the vast majority of religions have ideas of an afterlife. An outright denial of death is standard practice. When a loved one dies why are they sad at all? Their loved one is now, allegedly, in a happier place? Aren’t they?
Which brings me back to my earlier point. The heart feels what the heart feels. Comforting lies and wishful thinking, no matter how often repeated, cannot give comfort in times of great emotional turmoil. Only the genuine caring compassion of a community will be good enough. It certainly seems like all major religions figured this out early on and are all good at it. They’ve just neglected to tell anyone. They all have successful models we can use.
An Islamic funeral ritual
1) Bathing the dead body, The immediate family and others trusted by them clean the deceased together. Psychologically it works on many levels. It brings home the reality of what has happened powerfully. It serves to remove any sanitized image one might have had about the person. This body is unquestionably lifeless, but life has to continue and those surviving can find help and solace in each other. In the shared ritual they are physically helping each other, and may act as a bridge to allow them to open up and help each other emotionally.
2) Enshrouding the body in white cotton or linen cloth. A symbol of our equality. At birth and death we truly are all equal.
3) The funeral prayer, Salat al-Janazah
“O God, if he was a doer of good, then increase his good deeds, and if he was a wrongdoer, then overlook his bad deeds. O God, forgive him and give him the steadiness to say the right thing.”
If one wants to be cynical, one might say that it’s not about asking God to forgive the deceased, but the congregation, family and friends; and not allow any perceived sins besmirch those surviving the dead. Allowing each person to be their own.
4) Burial of the dead body in a grave. Emotionally it’s normal to outright deny that somebody you have lost is actually lost. The burial acts as forcing the survivors to physically expel the dead from their lives. Not their memory of course, but unhealthy hopes of a future together.
5) Positioning the body so that the head faces Mecca. To emphasize the Muslim identity and being part of a community.
It is arguably the single most important feature of any religion. What we can do differently is cut the bullshit. Leave the platitudes and one-liners we all know have never helped anybody.
The way we react to death of loved ones makes it all too obvious that we’re primarily emotional beings. It’s important to acknowledge that we’re all, at times fragile and in need of being taken care of and comforted by somebody we trust. Much like a parent comforts a child. It doesn’t matter how rich we are, how economically efficient world we create for ourselves if we don’t primarily focus that world on taking care of human insecurities and character flaws. Without compassion from our fellow humans, we are truly alone in this world. We need to support each other, help each other, because we know nothing else will.
Please take some time to think about those in your life, the people you care about, who you know are suffering from a loss now, those who are overcoming grief or hardship. What kind of support do they require? Is it within your power to help them? Is your help welcome? Often all that is needed is to let them know that you’re there for them if they need you.
The ritual and practice described in this text is only a suggestion. There is no wrong way to do Syntheism. If you don’t like our festivals, gods, the way we use them or the names we have for them…. feel free to invent your own.