Caledonia Dreamin’

“Edinburgh is a mad god’s dream.” So penned poet Hugh MacDiarmid with sentiments that could’ve been composed by H. P. Lovecraft. My association with Edinburgh seems accidental, but there is little in my life that compares to this mad god’s dream. The Gnostics used to believe that there was nothing in divinity that precluded a kind of divine madness. Philosophers, back when they still considered god a postulate, argued about whether the deity was good or evil. If they’d come to Edinburgh, I suspect, the debate would’ve taken on a whole new cast. In his poem “Edinburgh,” MacDiarmid captures the untamed nature of a city that has never been given the accolades of Paris, London, or New York, but is just as edgy and twice as beautiful.

Dreaming gods, of course, are nothing new. Vishnu, according to some strains of Hinduism, is the god whose dream is the universe. In the Ugaritic Baal Cycle, it is a dream that reveals to the ancient god El that Baal has returned from the land of death. And, of course, Cthulhu lies dead but dreaming in the city of R’lyeh. To me, Edinburgh is a wonderful alchemy of divine dreams. I was a young man, still so very naive when I moved here. Looking back at those old photos, I see a much younger face from the past, telling the camera that yes, he’d found paradise, the very place of God’s dreaming. Our human politics, however, trump divine dreams every time. Although I never wanted to leave, I was not permitted to remain. Yes, the camera does, at times, capture the soul.

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I am on the train that will take me from Edinburgh, having seen it anew through my daughter’s eyes. I came here penniless some twenty-four years ago, but with a head full of dreams. Life has taught me the cost of dreams since that time, and I have had to pay with wrecked careers and uncertain futures, trusting that the god who is dreaming all this is mad indeed. Nevertheless, like the gods, I refuse to stop dreaming. As much as Hugh MacDiarmid captures the spirit of Edinburgh, as I sit here, with a wee bit of mist in my eyes, my mind is on the words of another poet, Baroness Nairne. To her I will have to leave the last words, from this south-bound train. “Fareweel, Edinburgh, where happy we hae been.”


Playing Nicaea

Some professors are more creative than mine ever were. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even today “old school” means getting it done the arduous, nose-to-the-grindstone way. A friend of mine, however, is in Turkey where a class on social, political and religious relations has her involved in a role playing game (RPG in internet-speak) where the students take on the roles of the participants at the Council of Nicaea and argue the perspectives of those parties. What a great way to learn what minutiae set ablaze entire worlds! For those of you who don’t follow ecumenical councils, Nicaea was the big one. Depending on whom you trust, there were seven ecumenical councils that early Christians accepted, although others had gone their own direction before the first council (Nicaea) even began. Historians are now aware that Christianity was never a unified religion, just a varying number of winners and losers vying for who had the right to call themselves the true followers of Christ.

Constant Constantine keeps the halo.

Constant Constantine keeps the halo.

Nevertheless, the Council of Nicaea was one of the pivot-points on which all of history in the western world turns. Seem like a sweeping generalization? It is. But an honest one. Nicaea was the opportunity for the first Christian emperor, Constantine, to set in motion the swirling whirlpool of politics and religion that has never truly left the world ever since. Already before 325 C.E. there had been endless bickering about who Jesus really was, when Easter should be celebrated, which books belonged in the Bible (that most political of books), and who had authority over whom. The big question was really the relationship of Jesus to the Father, or, the first instance of “who’s your daddy?” Over questions like these, given history’s long view, thousands of people have died.

It’s not unusual to hear that the Council of Nicaea was the last time all Christians agreed on the major points. Many churches still recite the Nicaean Creed on a regular basis as a symbol of that unity. It is clear, however, already from the period of Paul’s letters (the earliest Christian literature) that differences of opinions had arisen among the first generation of disciples. Those we quaintly call Gnostics were among the earliest believers and they managed to survive, transmogrified, past all of the authoritative councils of the church. The very idea of ecclesiastical authority is one of power. Who has the might to make right? And it was a chance to be seen among the ecclesiastical elite. Nicaea left out, most famously, the Arians. And if the media is anything by which to judge contemporary Christianity, the majority of the Religious Right would fall into that camp as well. Recite with me now, “I believe in…”

The Spice of Religion

BrakkeGnosticsI haven’t really forgotten about the Bible. It has been such an integral part of my life that I couldn’t escape it if I tried. Going into religious studies, however, I feared New Testament studies. You see, having gotten a taste of historical criticism with good old J, E, P, and D, I was afraid what might happen if I looked Q a little too closely in the face. We now know, however, that the New Testament was just as redacted as the “Old,” and that there wasn’t a single variety of Christianity, even in the first century. I just finished David Brakke’s The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual and Diversity in Early Christianity. Brakke admits right up front that some will see him as not being radical enough, but since middle-of-the-road is a comfortable place to be, I found his introduction in the realm of the little bear, just right. The old story, perhaps originating with Irenaeus of Lyon, is that Christianity began as a monolithic faith and then came along these spoil-sports like the Gnostics and soon nobody could keep the truth straight any more. This is, of course, an over-simplification.

Religions are constantly shifting. As Brakke points out, there was no definitive Christianity when Christianity was still Jewish. Paul never calls himself a Christian, and he was, by his own declaration, Jewish. His interpretation of Jesus varies greatly from that of the eponymous John, of Gospel and Epistle fame. No, there never was a single Christianity. Probably from the very beginning there were Gnostics too. And, again with Brakke, they would have supposed they were following what was to become Christianity as well. Same world, different worldviews. They were not sinister and plotting, any more than other varieties of Christians were sinister and plotting. They were trying to live out lives in accordance with what they thought life was all about.

It has become clear over the last several decades that Christianity never really did unify into a single belief system. Constantine certainly gave it his best shot, but Christianity had spread beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire already, and heterodoxy was rife. No account of Late Antiquity can be honest without noting all the fighting going on among true believers about who was a, well, true believer. Really. Tensions existed early between eastern and western brands of Christianity and schisms became as common as missals. Nobody was really able to put Christianity back together again. In fact, this Humpty Dumpty never was an uncracked egg. I’m afraid I’m taking liberties with Brakke here, but the basic truth remains. Christianity came in its own 57 varieties, most of which didn’t blend very well. The Gnostics come out looking pretty good. That is especially the case when the proto-orthodox start gathering stones. In such a case, it is perhaps time to read the Gnostic scriptures to get a little perspective.

Agnostic Gnostic

Ever have the feeling that you’re being watched? While touring the Salem Towne House in Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, that fact that Mr. Towne was a Mason became abundantly clear. In the ballroom of his historic house the “eye of God” was looking down from the ceiling, and those who are astute observers could find other Masonic symbols in the house. Indeed, the ballroom walls were painted with cedars of Lebanon, the very trees Solomon was said to have utilized in the construction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Historically nothing is known of Solomon and the tradition of the Masons originating with that event can be nothing more than folklore, yet the connection is taken very seriously by some Masons.

Cedars of Lebanon

My grandfather was a Mason, but the desire to join the secret society never blossomed in me. I’d read Holy Blood, Holy Grail long before The Da Vinci Code ever drew attention to it, but being of a somewhat skeptical bent, I found most of it unbelievable. There is no doubt that the Masons had a very influential, if secretive impact on early modern history. I never seriously researched the group, but it is clear that their origin myths are very religious indeed. I looked right into God’s eye yesterday—how was I to question it? I was standing amid the cedars of Lebanon, after all.

Somebody's eye is watching you.

The desire to possess secret knowledge runs profoundly throughout history. Those who possess knowledge possess power. The Gnostic tradition is based on this very idea; God has revealed secret knowledge to some while the rest of us grope in the dark. Best to keep that knowledge clandestine. The Masons, wittingly or un, are part of this tradition. They are the putative guardians of esoteric knowledge, hidden amid the shadows of cedars and behind the clouds in the sky. In this day of abundant, free knowledge—it is given away every day on the Internet, for those who know how to discern—it may be difficult to comprehend that much can be hidden. As I stood looking God in the eye yesterday, however, I realized that there is far too much for any one scholar ever to learn.