It is impossible for one to step in the same river twice, for upon one different and still different waters flow—Heraclitus of Ephesus
We are familiar with mutated cultural items in postmodern capitalism, through the musical and visual mash-up and the song remix. But we seem unwilling to recognize that our core beliefs, when considered in their histories, have a hybrid nature just like these seemingly trite diversions.
The history of any language could serve as an example of such “deep-time” hybridization, but here are just a handful of instances from the history of Christianity:
– In the 8th Century BCE the Persian prophet Zoroaster preached worship of a “God of Light,” Ahura Mazda, creator of all good in the universe. Ahura Mazda continuously battled Ahriman, the lord of materiality, illusion, and lies, until a Day of Judgment when the light-god would banish Ahriman to hell for eternity.
Although they were brutally suppressed as heretics, the Gnostic Christian cults of the Alexandrian era (2nd-4th centuries CE) held views that in time had significant influence on Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity. The Gnostics combined a Zoroastrian dualism between matter and spirit with Neo-Platonic views of a “Heaven” that exists beyond the physical world. For them, the material world was utterly corrupt and an illusion created by an Ahrimanic-like being. These evil qualities became synonymous for the Gnostics with that of Yahweh, the demiurgic god of the Old Testament. Yahweh—whom the Gnostics eventually called Satan, the Adversary of mankind—created the material universe to trick the imprisoned sparks of divine light that the Gnostics believed humans were in their essence.
A person could amplify and release this “imprisoned spark” through knowledge (gnosis) of the truth of the situation. After initiation, one could ascend seven levels of divine knowledge (the path of Sophia, imagined as a goddess and guide) to the timeless, non-spatial Pleroma (“Fullness”)—a conception of heaven that was directly adapted from the Neo-Platonists’ “One.” For the Gnostics, Jesus the Savior never incarnated physically, but was a hologram-like emanation of the true God of the Pleroma, who taught secret doctrines of gnosis that only the initiated could use towards salvation.
Along with Platonic doctrines of reincarnation, these ideas were banished from orthodox Christianity at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. Yet the idea of the world—especially the flesh—being completely corrupt survived and found expression in the monasteries’ ascetic practices. The Neo-Platonic Heaven was revived during the evangelical surge of the 19th & 20th Centuries as a “City of God” where true believers would spend eternity. The vanquishing of Satan after an End Times is orthodox amongst contemporary evangelical Christians. They do not seem to realize that in believing these ideas, they are more Neo-Platonic Zoroastrians than Christians, for nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus mention such things—they occur only in the Revelation of John of Patmos.
-The Persian-Roman religion of Mithraism, with which the Christian sects competed for adherents in the first three centuries CE, taught astrological knowledge of the equinoctial precession to its initiates. Its calendar was comprised of “holy-days” marking the solstice/equinox. The early Christian church appropriated them in the Julian calendar in order normalize its own rituals, placing Christ’s birth on or near the solstice and death and resurrection near the spring equinox. Also changed from the Greek was Christ’s reign “until the end of the Age” (referring to the sun’s eventual heliacal rising in Aquarius after Pisces in the precession) to the “end of time.”
– Pseudo-Dionysius’s Celestial Hierarchy (5th century CE) classified the pantheon of Greek, Roman, and Hebraic daimons as divine agents. He retained only the Hebraic angelic orders (which were in part based upon the older Egyptian orders) as being in God’s service. Six centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas used the Celestial Hierarchy to normalize the angelic orders in the service of Christ. All “messengers” other than the Hebraic were thus recast as demonic agents of the Adversary, remnants of the old pagan order which Christ’s life, death and resurrection now effaced. Christianity was rationalized as a religion to replace and amplify all the previous, Apollonian-hero belief systems. It erased the previous pantheons of gods and replaced them with a single archetype that successfully re-encoded, in moral terms, the psychological landscape of the hero. Psychologist C.G. Jung, after studying the common structures of mythologies and religions, called this unifying signature of Christianity the “individuation process.” According to Jung, Christianity psychologically succeeded in effacing Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, and other religions by (some say because) placing a mysterious contradiction at its center: that a unique being could both be God and a single unique human at the same time—further, that the whole of the Kosmos had a triadic nature: God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit was an echo of the Neo-Platonic “world-soul”, a living presence considered universally as a feminine deity.
The Roman Catholic laity reconciled the “psychological loss of the feminine” by raising the Virgin Mary as mother of God, and nearly equal to Jesus and God, ratified by papal decree in the 19th century.
Et cetera. This list could go on in widening scope and finer detail—and that’s my point. What we consider “orthodox” is actually syncretic when we examine beliefs more closely. Hybridity informs most long-lasting cultural products, like a material corollary to genetic variation: you won’t anywhere find a genetically “pure” group of people, because the closer they are to “purity” the greater the chance that recessive genes will surface to end their own reproductive viability.
Similarly, you cannot find a cultural signal that has not been uncorrupted by the noise of heterogeneous influences as it has descended through time and geography to the present.
Our minds function against the influx of our surroundings by instantly filtering out the familiar, finding signals in the background noise. We transform the noise of an unfamiliar experience by creating from it a signal, however “mistaken” it might be.
It is from this assimilation process, from a storehouse of sometimes imperfect, unorthodox collective memory, that cultural mutations multiply and are in turn carried down.
Our minds create abstractions that mediate between our mental background and the alien “other” that we confront. They are, for the most part, unconsciously willed—a product of Imagination. The “first draft” of impressions is populated with chimerical phantoms that become objects for thought, then objects of shared culture, if they can successfully encode their own mediating function, making a bridge between the two societies. Every moment is an origination point for what will be inherited in time—and results in the creation of new cultural objects. So in other words, the remixed is our constant matrix, the mashed-up our constant genesis, on timescales from the shortest media cycle to the zodiacal age.
This view is contrary to the Western idea of “self-identical essence” that objects, self, and experiences are said to possess, as explicated in Plato’s Timaeus onward.
Recollection of the originating event or “pure expression” of any religious, social, or artistic movement would seem to be instrumental to its continuing survival—but to make this possible, “mutations” must be suppressed in the process of shepherding ritual and remembrance into collective consciousness; this suppression supports the phenomena’s stable transmission through time in replicating the informational content—its self-identity.
It’s easy to conclude that the metaphysical christenings “same” and “different” interdependently define one another on the playing field of language against a primordial background of Imagination where flux reigns. Rigid adherence to the categories results in a paradox and conflict, in ignorance of the multiplicity of origins.
Take two religious movements, for example—Roman Catholicism and the Islamic Salafiyyah. Both religions originated in the midst of “pagan” cultures, yet both possess a similar ontology: the idea of one unchanging God who underwrites the identity of all individual creations.
From this ontology naturally evolved the mutation-deleting practice of “self-identicity.” Both of them have squelched heresies in ritual and belief within their own ranks, and they easily find resistance against one another, as the past nine hundred years attest.
Conversely, take two religious sects for example that practice a denial of “self-identicity” in their ontologies—Theravadin Buddhists and Advaita Vedantists—or, to be consistent, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Sufis.
None of these sects have ever gone to war against each other, nor against the practitioners of any other religion. Nor will they ever. A war between them would be a war between dead labels only, their adherents’ beliefs having already mutated away from that which their names signified.
On the other hand we have the pan-psychic or “animist” conception, in which everything in creation is inherently ensoulled along a kind of spiritual or psychic spectrum.
Of all the beliefs that have been suppressed and damned in the Abrahamic West, pan-psychism has received the most censure. The Platonist-Abrahamic tradition has evolved an inherent resistance to the miscegenation of the “given”. Under evangelical/Roman Catholic Christianity, Salafi Islam, or Orthodox Judaism, Imagination is viewed as the work of the Adversary.
These religions have evolved no way of absorbing the vast, impersonal irruptions of Imagination other than censure; in this, their ability to flexibly adapt against the radical multiplicities of “animism” are severely restricted.
Belief systems that inhere with self-identicity inevitably suppress those with ontological multiplicity, like pan-psychism, through erasing the latter’s adherents by extermination or conversion in order to render their own identity fixed. This is a sort of deadly, psychopathic narcissism in which the “Other” represented within is never given voice by the Imagination. And thus the fixing of its own identity never ends, the stabilization process of its own signifiers never completes. Their struggles to be “eternal” constitute the very history of these religions.
“Animist” ontologies, on the other hand, dissolve the identities of sacred beings by stealth, so to speak—a death by a thousand chimerical images, spreading outward into an amorphous mist of deity.
The “big-ticket” religions of self-identicity will have to either eventually mutate or die.
For its violence, it’s become difficult for many people within our culture to continue buying into the “frame-propositions” of self-identity on which Western culture lies. We continually struggle against the tide of ceaseless change both within and without; we battle the trickster who threatens to melt from beneath us the fixed identities of the world’s entities—our companions, in a sense, to default the fluxing phenomena onto the side of what’s already been preserved in tradition.
But the pan-psychist paradigm cannot be escaped. It mirrors that of Imagination itself, a fertile ground of flow more akin to the quantum world physicists tell us exist in flux, than the macro world of seemingly solid objects around us—the realm of the self-identicist, big-ticket religion.
The pan-psychist world-view is a more apt way of describing the tangled paths that underlie our current cultural mash-ups. Fundamentalists of any stripe who attack ideas or practices as syncretistic—as “impure”—ignore the endless fertility of the human Imagination in the creation of the very things they hold as “pure”. They ignore or minimize the history of their own beliefs or practice, perhaps because to do so would be to recognize the fluid and restlessly Imaginative nature of the human mind—that ideas often want to mate and produce mutated children and objects want to mix each other’s cultural baggage.
This analysis is only possible from the vantage point of our “aperspectival” age, where a version of linear, progressive history is itself laid bare and each of its “moments” made transparent. The convergences and traces of these mutations are made possible by parallel examinations of specific religious forms, along a continuum both transcultural and transtemporal.
Our future culture will be a continuum of discontinuities, a working out of the chimerical first drafts. It is very possible that “pure” religions will expire as the machinery of their architecture is laid bare; their coherence was only possible due to the fact that the moments of their history remained and continue to remain unconscious.