Holy Castle

ManHighCastleReading about Philip K. Dick prompted me to read one of his novels. But which one? Some Amazon pick-up lockers on the way to work are painted with a mural of The Man in the High Castle. I haven’t seen the series, but there was the paperback, facing out, at the local independent. It’s been a while since I’ve read Dick, so I have to find my legs for his style. I’m surprised at just how much religious language he uses. Our cultural biases tend to insist that intelligent people aren’t hoodwinked by religion, but it does, nevertheless, appear. The premise of Dick’s novel is based largely on I Ching, the “Book of Changes.” Indeed, the conclusion of the novel relies heavily upon it. Along the way, however, Dick shows his sacred mettle when it comes to Judaism and Christianity as well. His prose is sprinkled with biblical quotes.

More than just a surface awareness, The Man in the High Castle offers some deep reflection for the reader. Mr. Baynes, seated on the rocket to San Francisco, ponders the Nazis who’ve won the Second World War. Reflecting on their hubris he considers how they’ve come to think of themselves as divine. “Man has not eaten God; God has eaten man.” This gave me cause for pause. Apart from Dick’s narrative, the idea of divine anthropophagy is in keeping with much human experience. We often consider ourselves masters of our own fates. Many, however, find themselves dangling like a spider from a web over the fire. Not that of Edwards’ Hell, but simply that of human circumstance. The Nazis didn’t win the battle, but listening to today’s political rhetoric, they may have won the war.

Nobusuke Tagomi explains to Baynes how I Ching, a 5000-year-old book, is alive. “As is the Christian Bible; many books are actually alive.” Far from poking fun, Dick suggests there may be something to all this mumbo-jumbo after all. We are conditioned to mock, dismiss, and ignore religion in this world where rationality leads to presidential races such as this one we’re currently suffering. Follow the trail back, I suggest. Look for clues. Philip K. Dick isn’t the only secular writer who knew more than the average person about what fascism looks like, and about the role of religion in its downfall. The novel may not be easy to read. It demands much of those who approach it. Nevertheless, it preserves the truth that many books, indeed, are alive.

High Castle Blade Runner

DivineMadnessGrowing up evangelical, one of the popular topics of conversation was crypto-christians. (My spellcheck insists that this is a lowercase expression.) Crypto-christians are people, generally famous people, who might be secretly “Christian.” You see, despite stereotypes most evangelicals really do want people to go to heaven. In fact, they tend to be obsessed with it. And besides, it can’t hurt to have a celeb backing your claims. One name that never came up in my circles was Philip K. Dick. I grew up reading science fiction. My reading patterns (which haven’t changed much) involved reading what I could find among used books at Goodwill. We were poor, and besides, there were no bookstores in our town. Like many people, I’m sure, I learned of Dick by watching Blade Runner. I occasionally heard others discussing the movie, but I hadn’t seen it myself and thus continued blithely unaware until I began teaching. I then read how Blade Runner is a possible Christian analogy, and curious, I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Since then Dick, who never made it big in his lifetime, has become a staple of the sci-fi diet. In The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick Kyle Arnold explores the now famous 2-3-74 episode. Dick, in addition to being over-medicated, had mystical experiences. The “big one” took place beginning on the date implied in its title. This vision, while not orthodox by any standard, is clearly religious. Critics tend to think that Dick may have either faked it or that he underwent some kind of schizophrenic episode. Arnold, a clinical psychologist, has the chops to demonstrate that these latter explanations are off base. Dick had a legitimate visionary experience—something even neuroscientists can’t access because the experience is subjective and personal. It had a large impact on his life, but it did not make him mentally ill.

Arnold is not, as far as I can tell, a crypto-christian hunter. He is a psychologist attempting to understand a most complex and tormented writer of superior science fiction. What becomes clear, however, is that Dick was well-informed about Christianity. He imagined himself a secretive first-century Christian in an oppressive Roman Empire. This aspect of his life tends not to emerge in pop culture discussions—how Christian can you be and still be cool? Certainly Dick was not a conventional believer, but religious imagery and even actions became some of the most important moments of his life, according to his own recollections. Philip K. Dick was clearly a haunted man. And one of the specters haunting him was an often undiagnosed religion.

Church of Siliconism

Some of us have been dragged into the electronic age kicking and screaming. Our apartment at home is full of books, and they are made of paper, not plastic. In college, some of my friends and I vowed we would never use computers—harbingers of a cold, new age. It was a vow I kept until working on my doctorate (pretty much). Despite keeping this blog, I really have very little native intelligence about the world of circuit-board, integrated circuit, and chip. I would probably be the last person to have thought to ask for an iPhone—I frequently forget to take my cell phone with me, and when I do, I sometimes neglect to turn it on. So I was stunned to find an iPhone with my name on it yesterday. I looked at it like an alien baby, wondering what it might eat. As the day wore on, however, I started to see some of what it might offer.

Siri, the software personal assistant for iOS, responds in a friendly voice to questions asked. “She” (and you can’t help personifying her) is like a personal portal to the mind of the Internet. You want a pizza? Siri knows the location of all the places in your neighborhood that deliver. You wonder what the most recent nation in the world is? Siri will look that up for you. (South Sudan, as of yesterday, according to her sources.) My brother-in-law, intrepid with electronics, and knowing my background, asked Siri about God. She replied, “Humans believe in spiritualism. I believe in siliconism.” Someone at Apple clearly has a sense of humor, but the more I began to parse this statement, the more I realized Siri could use a personal assistant in the religion field.

Spiritualism is not the same as spirituality; the former is the belief in ghosts and the religions that accompany that belief, such as Theosophy. Clearly in an American market, any product that denied belief in God, even by implication, would become the product of a witchhunt. The sad image of heaps of iPhones being melted as leering evangelicals look on is disturbing but unfortunately easy to conjure. Best to program Siri to deflect any potential ire with humor. The second component of her pithy reply is siliconism. As a religion, it is clearly underway all ready. Who reading this blog can imagine life without electronic media? Be honest! What does a computer believe? Do androids dream of electric sheep? Does Siri say her prayers as she’s being shut down for the night? What does it mean to believe? So now I have an iPhone. The day before yesterday I couldn’t find my app with both hands. Now I have a personal religion consultant. I suspect I’ll be starting a new religion by the end of the day—the First Church of Christ, Programmer. Its headquarters will be wherever a true believer is located at the moment, as long as s/he has an iPhone. Blackberry users will, of course, be considered heretics.

Gnot What It Seems

Mythology has a funny way of dying. It just keeps resurrecting itself. It is the eternal return. One of the shocking truths about religions is that their cohesiveness is exaggerated for effect. The usual desired effect is power or influence over others, as in most human enterprises. Nowhere is this clearer than at the birth of religions. Since each human brain processes information in a unique way, the two people in a room with the religious founder will hear his/her teachings in their own way and neither will be identical with each other or the founder. This phenomenon has been long recognized by religionists. It is customary to speak of “Christianities” or “Judaisms” rather than suggest a fictional singularity.

Manuscript finds and serious study of early Christian texts make a strong case for two major brands of Christianity as early as the first century of the common era: “Orthodox” and “Gnostic.” The former likely arose in opposition to the latter. Gnosticism congealed out of a heady brew of Zoroastrian dualism, Judeo-Christian nascent apocalypticism, and good old “Canaanite” mythology. The teachings of Jesus could readily fit into a worldview that rejected materialism for a pure spiritual plane untainted by physical limitations and pollution. It is only a small step from here to the belief that the physical world is an illusion. Problem is, that would mean the physical resurrection was apparent only, and what does that mean for all future prospects of bliss? Better to bring down the hammer of Orthodoxy than to live with doubt.

Yet Gnosticism lives on. One of the few direct lines of descent can be found among the Mandaeans, an endangered monotheistic sect that has maintained a Gnostic dualism for centuries. Indeed, they trace their origins all the way to Adam. Gnosticism, whether recognized or not, has left its influence on concepts from The Matrix to Philip K. Dick’s novels to Rich Terrile’s theories of God. Certainly there is a draw to believing this world is an illusion and that reality lies elsewhere. Maybe in that real world there is no need for religion since everyone already knows the truth.

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