Hello, dear readers. Today I want to discuss my religious beliefs, how they evolved as I got older, and, most importantly, how those beliefs have shaped The Divine Conspiracy.
For those who aren’t aware, I made another blog post outlining The Divine Conspiracy. The long and short of it is that it is a fantasy novel series that I am currently planning out that centers on a family of paranormal investigators employed by the Knights Templar as they try to find a way to stop a war that is threatening to break out between the light and dark forces of magic. The protagonists, Ariel and Ronan Banks, have unique magic abilities that may end up being the catalyst that ends up solving the eons-long conflict, and both the light and dark sides are looking to use that power for their own ends.
“But what do my religious beliefs have to do with this story?” you may ask. Well, a big reason is that I have been doing a lot of pondering over my spiritual beliefs over the last few years, and a lot of those ponderings have seeped into the writings I’ve done on the project. Indeed, the conflict that Ariel and Ronan are caught in the middle of is one that started with Satan’s rebellion against God shortly after the creation of the world, and now the twins have to figure out a way to unite the two sides once again to save their world from complete destruction. But to do so, they must figure out what really started the war in the first place and try to figure out the true nature of Heaven and Hell.
Based on that description, you might be forgiven for thinking that my vision of this universe follows a standard Christian system. However, it’s actually more complicated than that. I drew from several different sources to form this universe’s spiritual makeup, not just nonfictional ones. For example, the eldritch deities of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu play a major role, especially the devilish trickster Nyarlathotep. Perhaps the best way to explain this would be to look at all the religious beliefs that currently play a role in shaping my view of the universe, starting with the one I grew up with.
I’ve mentioned before that I was raised in a conservative Christian family because I’m a white dude born in the U.S., and that’s how it goes. While not fundamentalist, my family was and is very orthodox in their beliefs. They believe in the Ten Commandments, as vague and unspecific as they may be. They are convinced that America was founded on Christian values, despite the Founding Fathers explicitly stating otherwise numerous times. And because Republican Party politicians call themselves supporters of the Constitution those Fathers drafted, they support them wholeheartedly, no matter how divorced from reality their beliefs become.
As of now, though, I find myself in the same position as legendary poet William Blake did two hundred years ago. While I still believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a divine being, I have very little faith in organized religion as a whole. Between the evangelical crusade against climate justice, abortion rights, and the LGBTQ+ community in America and the ongoing sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, I’m beginning to think Leo Tolstoy had a point when he wrote:
The Churches as Churches- as institutions affirming their own infallibility- are anti-Christian institutions. Between the Churches as such and Christianity, not only is there nothing in common except the name, but they are two quite opposite and opposing principles. The one represents pride, violence, self-assertion, immobility, and death; the other humility, penitence, meekness, progress, and life.Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You, 1894
Indeed, the more I look into Jesus’ teachings, the more that arguments that he was something of a proto-anarchist/socialist philosopher start to make sense. Indeed, if one was to look deep enough into Christianity’s early history, one might find a certain sect that complements anarchist philosophy very well…
Gnosticism was one of several Christian sects to spring up in the centuries between Christ’s death and the adoption of the Nicene Creed. There is some debate, though, as to whether Gnosticism really counts as a Christian faith, since the only thing that it really has in common with orthodox Christianity is its reverence for Jesus as a divine messenger.
Indeed, the Gnostic creation myth could not be more different from the book of Genesis if it tried. The gist is that there are, in reality, two major deities running the universe. One, the Monad, is the ruler of a Nirvana-type realm of limitless bliss known as Pleroma. The other is the Demiurge, Ialdabaoth, a malicious idiot god with delusions of grandeur. Ialdabaoth created the world we live in, which is nothing but a shoddy mock-up of Pleroma filled with suffering and death. To escape the Demiurge’s creation, we must fill ourselves with love, compassion, and knowledge of the truth about the material world so that we may achieve gnosis and return to our true home in Pleroma after our earthly deaths.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve started to consider myself a Gnostic in recent years. That’s mainly because Gnosticism seems like a much less rigid set of beliefs than orthodox Christianity. Indeed, the Gnostic sects tended to be highly syncretic. The idea of the material world being an inferior shadow of Heaven comes from the Greek idea of forms, popularized by Plato; the snakelike form of Ialdabaoth seems to be inspired by the malignant snake god Apep/Apophis from Egyptian mythology; and the idea that the world we live in is Hell and we must break the cycle of reincarnation to escape it sounds very similar to ideas from Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism.
This syncretism often meant that Gnostic mythology and beliefs were inconsistent, especially between different sects like the Simonians, the Manicheans, the Marcionites, the Valentinians, the Mandaeans, and the Cathars. Still, to an anarchist like myself, it shows an appealing level of flexibility to include ideas from other faiths, even pagan ones, that mainstream Christianity often looks down upon. Maybe that’s why I decided to base The Divine Conspiracy’s creation myth on it, as well as the next two faiths…
Kabbalah has basically the same relationship with Judaism that Gnosticism has with Christianity (and Sufism to Islam, for that matter). It’s a much more mystical and esoteric offshoot of the mainstream religion that often requires years of research to understand properly. The main difference, it seems to me, is that while Gnosticism, as mentioned above, is often so divorced from the Biblical canon that it often seems like a completely different religion, Kabbalah is often presented as the truth behind the Genesis narrative of creation, God’s blueprints for the known universe, if you catch my drift.
The centerpiece of the Kabbalah mythos is the ten Sephirot (Sefirot? Whatever.) The Sephirot are ten virtues, sometimes personified as quasi-angelic beings, which God uses to manifest in this world. He is normally without any human qualities; to give any to Him is to limit Him. A human must cultivate these qualities so they may reunite their soul with the Godhead and show others how to do the same so that the path to Heaven may be opened to them as well.
Sounds simple, right? Well, not really. The nitty-gritty of Kabbalah is infamous for being extremely complicated, to the point that it is often said that Jewish scholars weren’t allowed even to study it until they were forty (although Rabbi Isaac Luria, often considered the father of modern Kabbalah, was only thirty-nine when he died, so make of that what you will). For example, the branches of the famous “Kabbalah Tree” pictured above represent letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Those letters supposedly represent numbers, which leads to the system of numerology known as Gematria. I think this quote from Darren Aronofsky’s Pi explains it best:
Each letter’s a number. Like the Hebrew letter A, Aleph is 1. B, Beth, is 2. You understand? But look at this. The numbers are inter-related. Like, take the Hebrew word for father, “Ab”- Aleph, Beth. 1+2=3. Alright? Hebrew word for mother, “Em”-Aleph, Mem. 1+40=41. Sum of 3 and 41…44. Alright? Now, Hebrew word for child, alright, mother… father… child, “Yeled”- that’s 10, 30, and 4… 44.Lenny Meyer, Pi, Artisan Pictures, 7/10/1998
Indeed, some Jews believe that this numeric code can be found all across the Old Testament’s original Hebrew texts, revealing meanings hidden under the main text this whole time. Basically, God hid a boatload of mathematical codes in the ancient texts that may or may not hold the ultimate secrets to accomplishing Tikkun Olam, or “the repair of the world” in Hebrew.
But what does all of this have to do with The Divine Conspiracy’s creation myth? If you bear with me for just one second, I’ll explain the last piece of the recipe I used to concoct it…
This ancient Persian religion is similar to the Abrahamic faiths in many respects and is even suspected by religious scholars to have influenced Christianity’s key aspects. However, the biggest difference is that the Zoroastrian Satan figure is not a mere angel that fell from God’s grace. In reality, he is God’s, aka Ahura Mazda’s, evil twin brother, Angra Mainyu. He is in every way God’s uncreated equal, as opposed to Satan, who is a mere creation of his own deity. Indeed, it might not be a stretch to compare such a being to Azathoth, the ultimate evil of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.
This where The Divine Conspiracy’s creation myth comes in. The light entity that the Knights Templar variously refers to as God, the Monad, Ahura Mazda, etc., and the dark entity referred to as Azathoth, Ialdabaoth, Angra Mainyu, etc., were once the same creature that swam in the primordial chaos until it split in two for unknown reasons. One of the light entity’s angels, Lucifer, became a terrorist in service of the dark entity and thus created the imbalance between white and black magic that threatens to destroy the material world that the Banks family calls home. The former archangel hopes to gather enough dark energy from the souls he has imprisoned in Hell to one day overwhelm the light energy emanating from Heaven, thus allowing him to knock God off His throne and become ruler of all creation.
And how exactly are Ariel and Ronan supposed to accomplish the type of Tikkun Olam that will repair all the damage that Satan has done? While I don’t want to reveal too much (because of spoilers and all that jazz), I believe that explaining aspects of the following two religions that resonate with me might give you some idea…
We all know what the Abrahamic religions believe happens to sinful souls when they die. They go to Hell/Gehenna/Sheol/Jahannam or whatever they decide to call it, and they never get out. They must wallow in punishment for the rest of eternity, wailing in despair that they destroyed their only chance for eternal paradise after their earthly death.
However, Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism have developed a different idea of what happens after we die. They believed that our souls (or atman, as they called it) were recycled into other bodies upon our death. Of course, we refer to this idea as reincarnation.
Many people in the West often stereotype reincarnation as a wonderous process that allows an individual to experience numerous lifetimes with a single soul. Followers of the Dharmic religions and other neopagan faiths might tilt their heads at this suggestion, though. They tend to view being reincarnated back onto the material plane the same way an Abrahamic devotee would view being damned to Hell. Like the Gnostics, as mentioned above, Dharmic devotees (especially Buddhists) view the world we live in now as a realm of suffering and pain. To gain true happiness and escape this world of suffering, one must break the cycle of samsara, or “wandering,” by leading a virtuous life so you may become worthy of moksha, or “enlightenment,” and be accepted into Nirvana or Vaikuntha or any of the other Dharmic heavens.
Indeed, as the plot of The Divine Conspiracy moves along and as Ariel researches the world’s various faiths more and more, she begins to suspect that reincarnation, not eternal damnation, was God’s plan all along. By holding sinful souls captive in Hell instead of allowing them to complete their samsara cycles, she argues, Satan is hindering the natural order of the universe, thus straining it to the breaking point so that when it does snap, he can claim the pieces as his own domain. Is she correct in this assumption? You make the call… as soon as I get around to actually writing the books, that is.
Speaking of hindering the natural order, that leads me to the last faith I’ll be discussing here…
This spiritual philosophy, alongside Confucianism, forms the backbone of modern Chinese religious practice. At the most basic level, Taoism argues for a life lived in harmony with nature, one that “goes with the flow,” so to speak. The highest virtue one can achieve in Taoist philosophy is wu wei, or “non-action.” This is often misunderstood as advocating misanthropy, but in reality, it means going through life without desires. Laozi and other ancient Taoist philosophers believed that all of life’s problems stemmed from people in high positions of power ignoring the Dao and trying to bend it in ways it was never meant to go for their own selfish desires.
Indeed, I think Chapter 57 of the Tao Te Ching best summarizes the Taoist idea of governance in accordance with the Tao:
Use fairness in governing the state. Use surprise tactics in war. Be unconcerned and you will have the world. How do I know it is like this? Because: The more regulations there are, The poorer people become. The more people own lethal weapons, The more darkened are the country and clans. The more clever the people are, The more extrordinary actions they take. The more picky the laws are, The more theives and gangsters there are. Therefore the sages say: I do not force my way and the people transform themselves. I enjoy my serenity and the people correct themselves. I do not inferfere and the people enrich themselves. I have no desires And the people find their original mind.
I think Chapter 76 is equally useful to this end as well:
When people are born they are gentle and soft. At death they are hard and stiff. When plants are alive they are soft and delicate. When they die they wither and dry up. Therefore the hard and stiff are followers of death. The gentle and soft are the followers of life. Thus if you are aggressive and stiff, you won't win. When a tree is hard enough it is cut. Therfore The hard and big are lesser, The gentle and soft are greater.
It’s probably no wonder, then, that anarchists and Taoists tend to get along quite beautifully. Both groups understand that something is deeply wrong with the way we run the world, and they seek to make the rest of us understand so that we may finally rediscover the proper path that we’ve been led astray from for so long.
In conclusion, I think “gnostic” is the best word I can use to describe my spiritual beliefs. I mean gnostic as an adjective rather than a noun here because I don’t necessarily agree with the traditional Gnostic view that the realm of matter is inherently evil in any way. Rather, I’m gnostic in the sense that I think it’s important for people to develop their spiritual beliefs on their own terms rather than rely on a priest or pope of any church official to shape their beliefs for them. Much like the capitalist oligarchs, the Church seeks blind conformity from its acolytes, under the supposed penalty of eternal damnation in a fiery underworld.
“But Preston, what if the priests are right about you going to Hell if you don’t believe exactly what they say?” Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn! I know that the way they are running the world is hurting people, and I’m not okay with that! Besides, Jesus himself said you should love your neighbors and your enemies in equal measure. It doesn’t matter how well you or the system you work under acts outwardly. If you tell me that it is better not to be a Good Samaritan to other humans in need, you are my enemy, and any system that enforces such inhumanity is my enemy.
Trembling, I sit day and night. My friends are astonished at me, yet they forgive my wanderings. I rest not from my great task! To open the eternal worlds, to open the immortal eyes of man inwards into the worlds of thought; into eternity, ever-expanding in the bosom of God… I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason or compare; my business is to create.William Blake, Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Great Albion, Ch. I Plates 5 and 10
Stay tuned for more religious ponderings in the near future, as I delve into the various explanations for the existence of evil proposed in Chad Meiser’s book Evil: A Guide for the Perplexed and rank them from my most to least favorite. See you soon!