Religion & Beliefs
Spirituality as Satanism
Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the … Read More
Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell. William Blake, the Marriage of Heaven & Hell When I was younger, the ideal Jew for me was a kid who would wear a yarmulke but who also still smoked, or drank, or enjoyed secular pleasures. To this day, I’m not exactly sure what this ideal Jew signified, but I think it has to do with having the best of both worlds, with not having to make a choice. Yes, the symbol said, you can be both Jewish and in the world; you can be Jewish and have a good time; you can be Jewish and cool; even Jewish and bad. As the kippa indicates, "Jewish" for me meant religiously Jewish. Obviously I know, and knew, that there are plenty of Jewish identities which are entirely compatible with, or even encourage, various forms of sensual celebration, hedonism, and/or dissoluteness. But when I was younger, the part that mattered was the religious part, which to most people seemed antithetical to all of them. Was it possible, I wondered, to have my challah and eat it too? To taste the sweetness of a devotional religious life but not give up too much of the sensual world? It’s entirely possible that this early interest in gam v’gam–both-and–was synechdoche for sexuality. That is, "Jewish and cool" really was about "Jewish and gay." But the gam v’gam is so pervasive in my life, I think it’s more than that. Sure, two decades on, the bad boy kippa wearer no longer holds the same appeal, but as a queer, spiritual, progressive, meditating, neo-Hasidic Jew, I am close to the ideal I once sought. I now am the heretic who preaches, the lawyer-poet, the Jew who thinks that God loves him when he’s at Burning Man. This is not my personal idiosyncrasy. Contemporary spirituality is, in large measure, entirely about the great gam v’gam: the marriage of Heaven and Hell, as first articulated by William Blake. It’s a refusal to surrender either the spiritual or the sensual, and more than that, to insist that religion and paganism, God and Satan, are at their core, one and the same. The rhetoric is rarely so extreme, but it is there nonetheless. For example, in the Jewish world, we "Neo-Hasidic" Jews want it both ways: the authenticity and fiery love of the Hasidim, the "neo-" of feminism, progressive politics, and sex-positive values. One could argue, from a more right-wing perspective, that "Modern Orthodoxy" is a similar straddle. Or the Conservative notion of "Tradition and Change"–"Change" here being specified to accommodation of love, pleasure, and human potential. Or "Jewish Renewal"–Jewish, but also renewed, with altered mindstates, left-wing politics, sexual liberty, and the rest. God and Satan William Blake’s great work of philosophical spirituality, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" is ostensibly a dialogue between the two poles but really an advertisement for the latter. "Heaven" is the puritanical religious ideology that condemns desire and points skyward toward transcendent, and usually body-denying, values. It is what we now know as the mainstream of Western religious rationalism: the religion of sobriety, restraint, society, and objective values. Over two hundred years ago, Blake was already blaming it for repression, oppression, and war. But as we’ll see, it has its role to play as well. "Hell," for Blake, is that principle which holds that "Energy is Eternal Delight." "Those who restrain desire," says the Voice of the Devil in Blake’s poem, "do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained." The Satanic libertine is not weak; she is strong, and more in touch with her (and his) erotic being. Hell sees holiness everywhere, especially in eros. It is pagan, sensual, and vibrant. It is sex, freedom, self-actualization. If Heaven is the Hasidism of neo-Hasidism, Hell is the neo-. Blake’s "Proverbs of Hell" include: The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom…
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God. To spiritual folks today, as well as readers of Philip Pullman’s heretical His Dark Materials trilogy, all this should sound familiar. Likewise to all of us who see God in the body, especially the naked one. As I’ve written in these pages before, there is, in my experience, a glorious holiness in the fire-dancers of Black Rock City, the misbehavior of rowdy schoolkids, the grandeur of nature. All this is God/dess as Manifest, as Shechinah, as presence, as Earth, as sex, blood, guts, and energy. It is the suppressed, shadowed half of Divinity, often aligned with the feminine, suppressed by centuries of patriarchy. For Blake, as a poet, the tension between Heaven and Hell is not one which ought to be resolved. Hell without Heaven is total, sensual, Satanic anarchy. A less well-known Proverb of Hell, for example, is "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires." Hell has no ethics, no restraint. It is a de Sadian libertinism, and is corrosive of all order. But of course, Heaven without Hell is all order, all stasis, all restraint. It is dead, devoid of true holiness, and governed by fear and Reason to the exclusion of love and human energy. This, too, should sound familiar to those of us who either grew up in such a world, or see its leaders on television. In our time as in Blake’s, there are those who would extinguish all fire in the name of the occasional conflagration. Messianic Wedding
What Blake sought, and what I for years have sought, is not a "golden mean" or happy medium or vacuous "balance" between the two poles. It’s trite to say that, yes, well, I’ll have some of each, because where one draws the balancing line is entirely determinative of the substantive result. Blake sought a marriage, a union of the two. A recognition of their stark opposition, but a messianic wedding of opposites.
Likewise and l’havdil, I’ve tried for years to square the Jewish circle with creative readings of Scripture which showed that Judaism, too, embraces both Heaven and Hell, spirit and sense, God and Body. But it’s clear to me that, for many people, and probably most, Judaism is about Heaven. It restrains our desires so that civilization can flourish. It is monotheistic: there is only One God, and while He does take on many different images, most (like Goddess, Pan, Christ, Ganesh) are beyond the pale. It is indeed about traditional values; family and marriage are built upon the curtailment and constraint of human sexuality. From the perspective of Heaven religion, liberated sensuality, and arguably even humanism, are the workings of Hell. And it is indeed a slippery slope down. Just four years ago, in these pages, I wrote what I thought was an innocent essay called "Guilt and Groundedness," in which I noticed, vipassana-style, that the feeling of "deep down" is just a feeling; it has no particular claim upon truth. There, my context was sexuality, and noticing how self-hatred that has been reinforced for twenty years will seem more "deep down" than self-affirmation that has been taught for only five or six–not because its truer, or what you "really feel," but simply because of time. And so the slippage began, as I recently described in these pages: first moving away from Orthodoxy, then the notion of normative Judaism, then the pretensions of monotheism. Yet I have not slipped into darkness. On the contrary, throughout the entire rake’s progress, I have checked in with Light. And throughout, like Blake’s hero, I have found Light accessible even where Heaven’s angels say there is only darkness. From the perspective of Heaven, there is light and there is darkness. As one slides into Hell, there is only Light. But there is fear too. My ego won’t let go of the notion that God wants some things, but not others. That God won’t love me if I fail to do this or that mitzvah. That there is a force in the world other than Love. I see the heresy of this Manichean view, but it’s the heresy of the Orthodox. Just try to follow the inversions: the voice of Hell, which is half the voice of God, sees everything as holy and the road to Hell as the spiritual path to enlightenment. Meanwhile, the choruses of Heaven who sing of dichotomies, the pious ones, are the true heretics, for they place divisions in God and deny the omnipresence of love. Whew. Blakean Kabbalists? Uprooting the basic Manicheanism of normative Judaism is a central part of a certain Kabbalistic agenda. Theosophical Kabbalah insists on a radical reunderstanding of evil, in which evil is merely that which is erroneously separated. Ultimately, it is not vanquished so much as reincorporated, reabsorbed. There is only Infinite Light (ohr ein sof) after all. But then, for the Kabbalists, this only happens at redemption–which is why the Sabbateans insisted the redemption had already come. For neo-Hasids and neo-Kabbalists, like the Sabbateans, it is an ontological fact at all times: God is yotzer or u’voreh hoshech, the source of light and dark. Division is apparent, unity is real. To see that everything is light: this is the realization of the Ein Sof that underlies nondual Judaism, neo-Hasidism, and, in very different language, Mahayana Buddhism as well ("To see the light in everyone and everything," Surya Das told me when I asked him, a la Hillel, to summarize his entire Buddhist Torah in one sentence.) Experientially, I feel the truth of the nondual, of Infinite Light. There are still moments of alienation, and for now, I step back from them, retreating to Jewish practice with its boundaries and norms. But in general, as the cords loosen, there is more breath, not less. So both my experience and heretical neo-Kabbalah point to the same place, and that Makom is one of love, acceptance, compassion, truth, ease, awareness, being, consciousness, bliss. But my love quakes with an admixture of fear. What if it is true that what hides behind the greatest of taboos are indeed the greatest of truths? What if it is true that what is condemned is simply the light in a vessel too sacred for orthodoxy? When I can truly surrender, the notion makes all the sense in the world. When I cannot, I’m terrified. In either state, I feel that those of us, and we are many, who see spirituality as advancing eros rather than controlling it are a pole apart from our co-religionists who still worship in pews and believe the old tales. I’m not sure how many of them there are, outside fundamentalist communities. But they are not reactionary; they are decent people, and probably more numerous than the rest of us. So, fear asks: What if they are right?
Again, as with Blake, this must perforce be a marriage, not a regression. I am not suggesting that the worshipers of Baal lived in some arcadian unity with the cosmos, and weren’t possibly cruel, vengeful, and unethical. The values of Heaven are to be integrated, not rejected or reversed. Anyway, spirituality is not really the same as Satanism; it’s only called that by the armies of Heaven, who burn witches and condemn shamans. Spirituality doesn’t venerate the devil; it observes that he doesn’t exist. If this is a marriage, it is one haunted by uncertainty and covetousness. As much as I have seen renewal and vitality in the unchaining of eros, I have also seen firsthand how it can overtake even sincerely meant intentions of ethical conduct. As much as I feel myself to be a kind of refugee from Heaven’s suburban lawns, there are moments when I wonder about the lives of my peers who live there with their children. Maybe it is only a marriage of convenience. But–there is a quality of love that I feel when nothing is surrendered, one I no longer seek to teach to others but nonetheless set my life beside. There is a kind of union between sense and soul, earthy and heavenly, It is fierce and gentle, sexual and spiritual, and it lights heart and body afire.
All images by artist Ruth Wetzel