Was just watching Neil Gaiman's American Gods, a really good adaptation of his book (check out his podcast with Tim Ferriss) about a clash between the Old Gods and the New Ones in modern day US of A.
In a flashback, a colonial-era Irish woman is visited by a Leprechaun, and she thanks him for all the good things the faerie folk had bestowed over her life. He replies "oh, good and ill, we're like the wind, we blow both ways."
And that got me thinking about something that Princeton religious scholar Elaine Pagels wrote about the origins of evil in the Western world, and what that has to do with our current clusterfuck of magical thinking and narcissistic self indulgence in the personal growth scene and pandemic response. (my editor told me never to bury the lede––so there you go;)
Pagels is one of my all time favorite academics and one of the world's leading scholars on the Judeo-Christian tradition, and part of the team at Oxford that translated the Gnostic Gospels of the Nag Hammadi scrolls. But she's also gone into the deep cuts of the Old Testament and found something fascinating.
The famous story of Job, is the one where God and Satan make a bet about the allegiance of this man Job, and then Satan kicks the living shit out of him to prove he's only faithful when things go his way. Job shakes his fist at God. Yahweh bows up on him. Satan laughs.
Except that's not actually how it happened––and how it did happen has set the stage for most of Western metaphysics and the New Age. Like with many classic constructions, the story of Job was started at one point by an original author and then added to and modified over time. What we take as Job's narrative was cobbled together and changed over the centuries.
It turns out that in the original formulation, it was only Yahweh and Job, no Satan to be found. (and before we got Dante and the Romantics merging Lucifer with Satan with Beelzebub and all things bigtime baddy, S'tan simply meant The Adversary, or the One Who Opposes. Think of him more as a plot device than as evil incarnate––Satan doesn't appear anywhere in the Hebrew bible in the way we think of him today).
So Story of Job Author #1 had a plot problem––if the God of Abraham was simultaneously All Powerful and All Good, then why in the fuck would He do all these shitty things to poor old Jobey??? It didn't pencil out. God was either all powerful but kind of a dick, or he was all good, and would never be so vengeful.
In the 20th Century, this became known as "the Auschwitz Problem"––namely, how could an omnipotent and omni-benevolent deity stand by and allow for the horrors of the gas chambers or Hiroshima?
Story of Job Author #2 felt the same, and in order to resolve this impossible plot tension, he invented a new character––Satan and inserted an existential rant in the middle of the tale that would've made Camus proud. It was an innocent fix to an obvious problem. Now, God got to keep on keeping on in the All Powerful/All Good category, and all the gnarliest shit could get outsourced to a Villain. Problem Solved.
Except really, all it did was kick the can down the road a few thousand years and leave us with a massive ontological hangover.
Everyone from St. Paul to St. Augustine to Immanuel Kant and David Hume all wrestled with it. They had to do backflips to explain the inexplicable.
It's really important to note here, that this isn't usually how the gods roll. The Judeo-Christian monotheistic all powerful/all good setup was a radical innovation/mutation in the Pantheon.
If you think back to your Greek myths, Zeus, Hera, Hermes, Aphrodite and the gang could help or harm humans, pretty much on their whim. The gods were petty, jealous, vengeful, prideful, powerful, creative, honorable, mischievous and petulant. In other words, a whole lot like the humans who worshipped them.
"Greeks who worshipped such gods had no need for Satan since their prophets never claimed that their gods were unequivocally good," Pagels explains.
Same with Odin and the Norse gods, same with the Faerie folks and Leprechauns of the Celts. Never can tell which way the Divine is gonna break––for or against you. "Like the wind, we blow both ways," quoth the Leprechaun.
Same in indigenous traditions––Trickster gods abound. From Coyote, to Brer Rabbit, to their cartoon descendant Bugs Bunny, the Trickster is there to help us when we need it most, but to punk us silly when we need the reality check, or sometimes, just because they feel like it.
"For if we believe that an all-powerful God created a "very good" world, what happened to it?" Pagels wondered after she lost both her son and her husband to tragic accidents in the span of one year. "While the Buddha declared as his first noble truth that "all life is suffering" Jewish and Christian theologians speak of "the problem of suffering" as if suffering and death were not intrinsic elements of nature but alien intruders on an originally perfect creation."
In the weird way that philosophical legacies work, that simple move, cleaving good and evil neatly into two separate camps, gave us the seeds of late 19th century mystical New Thought, which begat Norman Vincent Peale and The Power of Positive Thinking which begat Donald Trump's magical thinking (it was the closest to religiosity Trump has ever gotten), which begat the New Age & the Secret, which begat Plandemic, which kind of brings us to our present Conspirituality moment, where people have quietly lost their minds and believe that our mental attitude is actually a meaningful response to a global health crisis, and a world going off the rails of ecological viability.
If "thoughts become things" and my beliefs shape my reality, and then something terrible, unplanned or truly godawful happens, then either a) I wasn't wishing hard enough or b) it was part of God/Divine/Universe's plan all along. And that prompts narcissism (I really am responsible for making the world) or dissociation (I won't allow myself to feel the full pain of the world and must insist to myself that it's all somehow perfect, despite all evidence to the contrary).
Children starving in Rwanda? Well since everything proceeds according to the Universal Divine and Always Perfect Plan, then...their souls must have desired this in this incarnation to provide contrast for their growth. It couldn't possibly have anything to do with conflict minerals, warlords, or the machinations of the World Bank or Monsanto. Or with my responsibility as a citizen to take a stand for universal human rights...
Or, what if I get cancer? If my thoughts create my reality, I must've been holding negative energies from my childhood trauma, or scarcity from money woes or...and I've manifested it all, and therefore need to change my mind to shrink the tumors.
Except that's not exactly how Reality works. For a super funny, insightful and scholarly take on this topic, check out Duke theologian Kate Bowler's Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I've Loved. She contracted cancer while researching Prosperity Gospel/Faith Healing evangelical communities, and then chronicles their best efforts to get her to believe her way out of illness.
In these formulations, rather than accepting that sometimes life is random, that everything doesn't happen for a reason, that sometimes, good things happen to shitty people and sometimes shitty things happen to good people (karma be damned)––if we refuse to acknowledge the Trickster element in Life, then we have to go to almost insane, and occasionally pathological lengths to prop up our Just So Stories where everything happens for a reason.
That's at the heart of QAnon's "you gotta believe, and do your own research" metanoia, and it's also at the heart of the New Age anti-vaxx, David Avocado Crowd––keep our vibes high enough (their thinking goes) and you simply won't be vulnerable to pesky viruses, or geopolitics, or anything that keeps me from that yoga retreat in Costa Rica or Bali.
In general, we're big fans of live and let live approaches to cognitive sovereignty––whatever floats our boats and gets us through the night is our choice alone.
Except...when, as is happening now, our almost schizoid insistence that all uncertainty and evil in the world is the work of shadowy forces, whether pizza eating satanic democrats, or new world order Bill Gateses, and that our own "awokening" will grant us privileged insights, or access to a grand restoration of Goodness.
Because it's either pride or fear that put us in that spot––not love or courage. Pride gets us, if we have some breakthrough, or some glimpse of synchronicity or magic, and now confidently conclude that we're "manifesting" everything in our world. Fear numbs us, that if we actually took in all that was happening in the world that it would break our mind or our heart, so better to come up with a tidy rationalization that this is all part of some higher order plan that only an elect can perceive (and we are, of course, part of that elect, which feels much better than the overwhelm of a world in grief).
So instead, can we heed the Leprechaun's warning––that sometimes the magic goes our way, and sometimes it doesn't––and figure out the Why behind that is beyond the ken of mortal folk. Can we keep on doing our best to take radical responsibility for our lives and our part in the bigger scheme, but also hold it all loosely, and be as wary of false certainty as any other false idol.
Can we humbly submit to this wild ass roller coaster ride of finding ourselves monkeys with clothes on a little blue marble hurtling through space, fueled by the light of a mediocre nearby star?
And can we return, again and again, to the only catechism I've read that feels honest and true enough to stand by.
We are in space.
No one knows what's going on.
I love you.
P.S. Our dear friend Lisa Feldman Barrett, one of the world's top 100 most cited scientists, has just released her new book 7½ Lessons About the Brain. If you want to get schooled on what dopamine is really about, why cortisol isn't what you think it is, how emotions are actually made, and a zillion other fascinating and contrarian insights on the workings of our minds and brains––get it for yourself or someone you love (and stay tuned for the podcast we just did––coming soon).