religion & philosophythat's what he said, by Frank Wilson

We need to rediscover an old way of being

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One usually hears Judaism, Christianity, and Islam referred to as “the three great monotheistic religions.” Apparently, however, that noted deity Yahweh would disagree: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20, 2-3).

That second verse is a simple imperative; there really is no way of reading it other than literally. Yahweh acknowledges the existence of other gods besides himself. He subscribes to what Max Müller called henotheism, which means giving pride of place to one god over all others. Yahweh is the god of Israel and he insists that Israel honor him above the gods of other nations and tribes.

I’m a Catholic, and we Catholics have sometimes been accused of closet polytheism, what with our veneration of saints and fondness for relics and statues and holy water. In fact, the church, as it spread, adapted and accommodated itself to pagan customs. Many ancient churches are built on sites that were once pagan shrines. Catholic thought was also much influenced by a Fifth Century Syrian monk who called himself Dionysius the Areopagite, and who thought that, in addition to all the visible creatures inhabiting the world, there were also all manner and levels of invisible preternatural beings, the best-known being angels.

The question I would like to address, however, is this: Who came first, God or the gods? It seems altogether likely that it was the latter. But what is interesting about that, it seems to me, is how it suggests that mankind’s initial encounter with and understanding of the world was interpersonal (as it still is among so-called primitive peoples).

We take it for granted now that everything — including ourselves — is mostly the product of impersonal forces. This is a pretty recent outlook, but is now nearly universal. And yet, increasingly, there seem to be all sorts of misgivings about it. Proponents of anthropogenic global warming, for instance, blame the industrial revolution for the problem they think they have identified. They claim to have identified that problem by means of science, the same science that gave us … the industrial revolution, the factories, the SUVs.

This ambivalence is evident in a piece by Luisetta Mudie called “Climate Change and the Poetic Imagination.” In it, if I understand her correctly, Mudie seems to accept the science of AGW and suggests that we must start imagining things differently if we are to cope with it effectively. “Science,” she writes, “cannot get very far with climate change divorced from its partner, the Mature (not classroom) Imagination.”

The problem with this is that we simply cannot will ourselves to do that. In fact, that is the problem with the way we moderns go about things: We come up with an idea that we think will solve a given problem, then go about trying to put said idea into practice. This is a far cry from the interpersonal engagement with the world we once enjoyed.

It is worth noting that language was born out of just that interpersonal engagement. As that engagement was supplanted by an increasingly abstract view of things, our words grew more and more detached from things even as we ourselves did. We became subjects stranded in a world of objects, in Housman’s phrase, “lonely and afraid in a world [we] never made.”

We do not need a new way of thinking or speaking or imagining. We need to rediscover an old way of being in order to restore to our thinking, speaking, and imagining something of their original freshness. That is something neither reason nor science can help us with. Maybe we need to get reacquainted with those other gods that the first commandment reminds us of.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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38 Responses to “We need to rediscover an old way of being”

  1. Hi Frank,

    *We need to rediscover an old way of being in order to restore to our thinking, speaking, and imagining something of their original freshness.*

    Quite right: this was my point really. I was picking up on a slender thread of what you might call imaginal philosophy, extending through Islamic mysticism, Henry Corbin, alchemy, Jung and James Hillman, as well as Tom Cheetham.


  2. Whether it be the world (i.e., the physical environment) or beyond the world (i.e., the gods), the challenge to the human mind has always been paradoxically simple and complex: make sense out of existence. The problem with that challenge is also simple and complex: the human mind is not quite up to the task of flawlessly sorting out everything under the sun (and beyond the sun); we make many mistakes along the way, and it is hubris to imagine that we will ever (in this lifetime and in this existence) have all of the answers. People with simple minds (and there are too many of those) defer to others for settling upon “solutions” to complicated challenges and mysteries (including the question about gods and God, as well as the more contemporary question of “climate change”); the more thoughtful (and less simple) minds remain open to the notion that “we need to rediscover [. . . ways] of thinking, speaking, and imagining something of [. . .] original freshness.”

  3. People often have a problem with the g word – “God” or “god” or “gods” because they immediately think of a bearded old pyschopath wielding lightning bolts and plagues and screaming in rage and stamping his feet.

    i think that just as we now call a certain force “gravity” without really knowing exactly what it is (only how it operates under certain circs), so back in the day, people would give a name to a particular force, e.g. Woden or Tyr or Thor, and call it a “god”.

    It’s amusing to read St Augustine in City of God take a very modern-sounding rational view of pagan deities, and say, sniffily, that of course they aren’t gods – because there is only one god – so Juno and Zeus and the others are clearly DEMONS. The sophisticated modern tone is a little at odds with his conclusion…

  4. You remind me, elberry, of a thought I have often entertained: We are reflexively anthropomorphic. We assume that were a god to manifest himself he would necessarily take on some sort of quasi-human appearance. But actually, a god might appear to us to be a distant and immense sphere of exploding gases. It is interesting that whenever angels appear in Scripture, the first thing the angel tells the human he is visiting is not to be afraid. In other words, even a preternatural creature would look quite of of the ordinary and probably not like us at all.

  5. In certain magical traditions the magician, if he’s foolish enough to summon some kind of spirit or demon, will stipulate that it come in a form pleasing to his eyes – because, perhaps, if it came in its true form it would “burn him to cinders!” to paraphrase the 1980 film Excalibur.

    A Canadian i met at uni, Scott Masson, wrote his PhD on man as being made in imago dei, and how, as our culture’s sense of God has changed, so inevitably has our sense of ourselves. It’s been published:

    – i haven’t read it but we talked about it a decade ago, and i found his ideas interesting. One thing i like very much about Christianity is that man is made in god’s image – that counters the very hard conclusion of the Book of Job, and says that we don’t just have to shrug and say the world is alien and incomprehensible. True, our limited human notions may not hold, but it suggests that we can assume god is in some way like us, even if not in a trivial watching TV and drinking beer sense.

    i wrote a kind of reply post to this just now, not safe for work surfing, however, as i included a picture to illustrate a point. i think the picture is very nice but, um, some people might not agree (!)

  6. “Unlike the mystic or the visionary, the scientist is not interested in changing or enhancing his organs of perception. Therefore,he can only succeed in seeing more of the same (smaller and smaller objects with a
    microscope or far-away objects with a telescope) but never something essentially different. Whether he sees the infinitesimally small or the infinitely large, he still sees it as an object, because he looks at it in the same quantifying
    way and with the same prismatic eye. The scientific map of the universe can undergo only quantitative changes, and as long as science progresses (which progression is inseparable from the method employed in the course of
    progression), the map will never be the territory.”

    From Roberts Avens: Re-Visioning Resurrection

  7. “A curious analogy could be based on the fact that even the hugest telescope has to have an eye-piece no larger than the human eye.”

    (Wittgenstein’s journals, 1931, tr. P Winch)

  8. What an intersting collection of questions and assertions!

    -1) ” Who came first, God or the gods? ….it seems altogether likely that it was the latter. ”
    As clearly shown in the archaelogical evidence( and otherwise) it WAS the latter which was/ were invented first.

    And how the above assertion leads to this:
    2)-“…mankind’s initial encounter with and understanding of the world was interpersonal (as it still is among so-called primitive peoples).”- is fairly nonsensical either if you mean the “World” as being other persons, in which case of course the encounter was interpersonal OR if you mean the “natural World” with which an “interpersonal encounter” would be impossible.

    And then there were these 2 wee bits:
    3) -“We come up with an idea that we think will solve a given problem, then go about trying to put said idea into practice. This is a far cry from the interpersonal engagement with the world we once enjoyed.”
    – I fail to see how the first could be seen as anything other than a reasonable process and as a means of solving problems. This is an integral part of the scientific method nor does it at all in any way shape or form preclude interpersonal engagement.

    4) -“We need to rediscover an old way of being in order to restore to our thinking, speaking, and imagining something of their original freshness.”
    Pardon me but this seems to smack of a romanticization of a time when supernatural explanations were posited as explanations for things which were not understood- things which now ARE understood by means of repeated analysis testing and yes… evidence.

  9. Hi Gracchus,

    I am at work, so cannot delve into this too much. But, you either just stirred the pot and can expect rebuttal and tangents to arise, or you just sent this conversation into the comfortable pit of Show Me Physical Evidence that Scientists (and only Scientists) can examine, making this refreshing look at how we are in this world, no different than every umpteen-hundred comment Science versus God online argument.

    Either that, or you have cast a summation of the Science side of the Scientific Imagination meets the Poetic Imagination. What an Epic that would be, and possibly much needed. Keep your mind and spirit open, and (hopefully and Hopefully) hold on.


  10. Hi Rus Bowden,

    I appreciate your thoughts and eloquently put, they were.I also thank you for your well- wishes.
    And I do regret that these discussions sometimes turn into polemical debates with, at times strong undercurrents of animosity( Myself included). Okay part of me enjoys it. But what I find as interesting as the topic itself ( Science vs God, and all that) is the what I see as unsound reasoning and superstition in the dictionary sense of the word, used to talk about it…… I like arguing in order to try to come to a better understanding and yes I look forward to rebuttals.
    I’d like to say I also I find this notion of Poetic Imagination intriguing, but as a movement or whatever I don’t know much about it.
    I do like poetry though. I like Shakespeare and Ferlinghetti and Shel Silverstein and Homer. And sunsets and the sound of a rushing river. I love watching my children grow. And lots of the other beautiful, poetic things. Like music ,and science for example. And how could anyone ever deny that Science and Poetry can, do and have to shed light on each other.
    And btw what is “spirit”, anyway? I hear that word all the time

  11. Hi Gracchus,

    In context, spirit is what makes us up in the subjective realm. It differentiates us from zombies, bodies without consciousness, consciousness being immaterial, the immaterial unable to being brought forth as evidence for scientists. No one can prove they are conscious.

    In one sense, spirit is all we know that exists, being our primary experience of ourselves, but also the what and how of the world we project from ourselves. The physical realm that we perceive back, when compared to the spiritual perceiver, is secondary and in fact may not exist at all in and of itself. It seems not to exist as such, as it changes throughout history, as people, the powers that be, and societies change their views of our experiences.

    Here is a poem called “Here” by Albert Goldbarth:


  12. Regardless of whether or not any form of diety exists outside of the realm of human existence, I am the God of my own personal universe.

    I decide, through my own judgement and recognition of facts, consciously or otherwise, how I percieve the world around me, and if my perception of the world isn’t true, there is no way to prove otherwise to me, because seeing is believing.

    Complete internal control of reality, as it exists for you personally. If that isn’t the definition of “god-like”, what is?

  13. Have you read PKD’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch Mike? Dick describes that state and it’s terrifying.

  14. Sometimes reality is terrifying, but you cannot deny the power of the human mind to control an individual’s own, personal reality.

    I think “schizophrenia” pretty much puts the argument to rest.

  15. All problems/issues/difficulties — theological, eschatological, climatological, psychological, diplomatological, spiritulogical, economicological, and whatever other logicals you got — pale in comparison to those posed by China. It is big and tough and increasingly affluent and getting bigger and tougher and richer, and it pays, and will continue to pay, less and less attention to what bothers you and me and the rest of the world, nationally, internationally, and, yes, personally.

  16. Yes, Parsifal, that’s quite right – i was just wondering whether to go for tea or coffee and instead remembered China and fell to my knees in horror.

    Suddenly, the Hot Drink Question seemed…irrelevant.

  17. The question will be —
    hoping not to be a bore —
    how to say,
    in Mandarin or Cantonese,
    sir, I want some more.”

  18. Yes, you’re right – that’s exactly what i thought when i read Frank’s article, actually.

  19. Oh, well, if you’re going to read the article . . . .

  20. xiansheng! wo mei chibao. zai lai yige wotou ba. (mandarin)

    xinsaang, ngoh zhong mei sik bo aah! jui bei goh chasiu bao ngoh, ho m’ho? (cantonese)

  21. Luisetta’s latest comment is probably the best any article of mine has ever received!
    But, since I have a bit of time, let me clear a couple of things up for Gracchus. (Which one might you be – Tiberius or Gaius?) Anyway, to regard Aeolus as the god of the winds is not to regard the winds as impersonal forces, but rather as forces under the governance of a (divine) person. In other words, what er regard as impersonal forces, early seems to have regarded as persons.
    Second, I hold no brief against the scientific method or the use of reason in solving problems, nor did I suggest either precluded personal engagement. My point was that it is different from the way early man approached things. Moreover, it is surely not the only way to approach things and in some cases at least may be far from the best way. Anyone who has written a poem, composed a piece of music, or painted a picture knows that.
    I should add that in saying that gods came before God I meant in the order of man’s apprehension. As for my romanticizing a time when supernatural explanations were posited that have now been supplanted by scientific explanations, well I don’t think it’s romanticization at all. I am suggesting that there may have been something to the way man originally regarded the world. One could, for instance, suggest that all science has done regarding the winds is explain to us how Aeolus goes about his job.

  22. I don’t know how you say it in Mandarin or Cantonese, but at least when China begins calling the shots instead of the United States, they won’t pussyfoot around with Islamic fanatic terrorists. Bang, you’re dead, please fork over $1.99 for the bullet (more or less, depending on how they’re manipulating their currency at the time of impact). Admittedly it’s cold comfort, for we’ll all be viewed as the equivalent of potential Islamic fanatic terrorists.

  23. Well, Parsifal, as a Catholic Taoist I feel somewhat safe, especially since I believe Catholicism is the fastest growing religion in China. Soon we will have a Chinese Pope and then …

  24. . . . they’ll keep him (or her?) under as tight security and surveillance as they do the Dalai Lama. No, tighter. How many divisions does the Dalai Lama have?

    Too bad for all those billions who aren’t in the exclusive club of Catholic Taoists. They probably feel less safe.

  25. It’s never too late to join up.

  26. A Chinese Pope would be well cool. He would be a cross between Benedict and Tai Chi killers like Yang Lu-Chan. Picture the future Pope doing Bagua circle walking:

  27. A Chines pope would be a cross between Mao Tse-tung and the export manager of a lead-toy factory, and chosen by the Communist Party Central Committee.

  28. Not if Frank chose him.

  29. Yes, we’ve lost much of what is good from the past, relied too much on materialism. But in actuality, primitives were being the greatest of scientists.
    They were describing the spiritual, unseen forces, through sensuous metaphors. The problem is that they often became attached to their sensuous metaphors rather than the spiritual meaning they symbolized. Every created thing is a door leading unto the knowledge of the Creator. So the primitives were worshipping the gods above the God, making them partners with God, rather than the Creator’s creation. When a painter creates a painting, that painting is an emanation from him; he is perfect so to speak, but his painting is imperfect. That he can imagine it is perfection, that he tries to create it is imperfection and proves the existence of perfection.

  30. About those other gods. If I pray to capital-G God, who is not only the God of Israel, but, as it turns out, the God of everyone and everything everywhere; that is qualitatively different than if I pray before a statue of Jesus, to a resurrected Son of God. And that is different than if I look to the heavens for my deceased grandfather, wondering if he is there, and if he is still with me, watching me. I bring these up, because they are common prayer experiences, easy to relate to. Not as common is to pray to a local deity, to pray to a personally assigned deity (my god versus yours, or hers over there), to conjure a specific ghost, or to conjure a specific spiritual being, not a god, maybe an elf, or to wish upon a star. And I point all this out, to conjure the realm of possible experiences, those which are left behind, when we take up the collective clerics’ interpretation of scripture and spiritual experiences.

    As I understand the Old Testament, it shows the evolution of God from a local God, to the Everything God we know. This growth was part of our recognition of, or ability to expand him into the greater territory he had all along. It seems the next step is to say that all the major religions’ Gods are the same one, and were all along, even though prior to doing this, it is blasphemy to cross such territorial boundaries. At the same time, his aspects were noted through names he collected: Elohim, El-Shaddai, Yahweh, Adonai, Theos, Kyrios, Pater, and Abba. But this is how people’s experiences of God, as a collective, wrote and taught about the spiritual realm. To the spiritually sensitive, the mystic who stands in opposition to the acceptable categories, these aspects were all there from the beginning.

    The Robert Avens article that Luisetta linked to above (, is superb in bringing forth aspects of spiritual experience, at least in making the spiritually inclined circle around the big bonfire for choir. But he too gets to walking down categorical dark paths, at first in exploration, using the illumination from the bonfire, but then looking for concepts to pass on. When we do this, or at least when some spiritually inclined do this, we move further away from the bonfire. We say, let’s all follow this neat train of thought, which goes from playful wonderment, to social imperative and stale dogma. We need the next religious philosopher, the next Paul, Plato, Aquinas, Muhammad, or local saint, the next book out of the library, to bring us back to the bonfire in the clearing, who then shifts our categories. But nothing changes about the truth of the matter, only our collective dealings with it. And we’re always collectively off. We always have these square peg we’re forcing into the round hole. The mystics will note the corners that aren’t fitting.

    It is noted in the preface to Luisetta’s article at Clattery MacHinery, Climate Change and the Poetic Imagination, that Frank at his blog Books, Inq: The Epilogue recently made a post titled “Language and reality” ( He quoted an article in New Scientist by F. David Peat called “Is there a language problem with quantum physics?” ( Here is that quote:

    “Bohm pointed out that quantum effects are much more process-based, so to describe them accurately requires a process-based language rich in verbs, and in which nouns play only a secondary role. In the last year of his life, Bohm and some like-minded physicists, including myself, met a number of native American elders of the Blackfoot, Micmac and Ojibwa tribes–all speakers of the Algonquian family of languages. These languages have a wide variety of verb forms, while they lack the notion of dividing the world into categories of objects, such as ‘fish’, ‘trees’ or ‘birds’.”

    Frank then writes, “Alan Watts made a similar point many years ago (he also referred to American Indian languages, I believe)–suggesting that we are not so much ‘people’ as ‘peopling’.” Part of peopling is godding, whether you want to list all the Norse or Greek gods, or to list Elohim, El-Shaddai, Yahweh, Adonai, Theos, Kyrios, Pater, and Abba. There is so much you can do with the bonfire, so many reflections on the trees behind the choir circled round. But our made-up categories just don’t fit the mystic, each others’ spiritual or religious experiences.

  31. Speaking of American Indians, the Plains Indians, the Lakotas believe they were brought their religion by White Buffalo Calf Woman. She brought seven essential teachings. One of those teachings is the Sweat Lodge. When Christians came to this world they considered Indians heathens. Yet, the Sweat Lodge is a very fundamental Christian teaching, being born again. Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can I go back into my mother’s womb?” When an American Indian goes into a Sweat Lodge, symbolically, that is what he’s doing. He enters the earth, it is dark, warm and moist. He prays for transformation and for his community. When he comes out of the Sweat Lodge, he is reborn. This is a simple description, but so often the outward symbols that seem to cause conflict between peoples and religions are, if looked at according to their inner meanings, a reason for agreement. It doesn’t mean each group needs to stop using their outward symbols, but to recognize that others may be arriving at the same truths with different symbols that seem alien to other groups. There is an underlying oneness deposited at the heart of all created things.

  32. I have a problem with the assumption that the commandment to have no other gods before me is referring to gods that somehow share power with God. Mr. Wilson says this statement must be taken literally, why? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not creating a dichotomy here. The Old Testament says that everything that God made is good. Like the Hindus the God of the Old Testament creates and destroys, Isaiah 45:5-7

    “I am the LORD, and there is none else, there is no
    God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not
    known me: That they may know from the rising of the
    sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I
    am the LORD, and there is none else. I form the light,
    and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the
    LORD do all these things.”

    Why aren’t these gods symbols of anything and everything humans can put before truth and love. Whatever the other gods were, whether the sun, a bull, a statue, money, lust, self, all of which are not inherently evil, but are a obstacle if put before God, The One. To know God is to know yourself. True loss is to have lived your life in utter ignorance of your self.

    Being a mystic, I believe that what was said by God at any time was true and only limited by the capacities of those who heard it, so often, it was adulterated and misunderstood. “Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed nor can everything that he can disclose be regarded as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it.” “…which have eyes to see, and see not; they have ears to hear, and hear not…” –Ezekial 12

  33. Hi Billy,
    In saying that the verse should be taken literally, I meant on that: It means what it says, that Yahweh has pride of place among gods. The verse does say, nor did I, that these other gods were evil.

  34. Mr. Bowden,

    Won’t there always be a collective that is “off”? Won’t there always need to be a shift in categories? It’s not about finding the absolute way so much as being aware and open to the spirit/imagination. Not saying, “I know and you don’t.”
    Being aware that religious truth is relative, but as you say, “To the spiritually sensitive, the mystic who stands in opposition to the acceptable categories, these aspects were all there from the beginning.” Those aspect are the eternal truths such as say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, which can be found in all major religions Eastern or Western (Is there a Western religion other than science maybe?). I don’t really see such a great conflict between Eastern and Western religious thought. I see different approaches that most often lead to the same inner meaning, or “Knowledge is a single point, but the ignorant have multiplied it.”

  35. A wonderful quote from Joseph Campbell salient to this topic:

    Joseph Campbell, the renowned scholar of mythology, wrote: “Whenever a myth has been taken literally its sense has been perverted. . . [and] whenever it has been dismissed as a mere priestly fraud or sign of inferior intelligence, truth has slipped out the other door.”

  36. Hi Billy,

    Please call me Rus.

    Yes, the collective will always be off. It’s the bonfire that we need to recognize. Part of life is getting back to life, errors and all, unless you feel the call to stay at the bonfire all your days, the guru at the mountaintop or something. But, we may be at a time where we need to call the choir back to the fire to get back to basics, where we come from. It seems we’ve lost a lot in our travels away, with all of humankind’s imperatives, politics, governmental and business considerations.

    There will always be square pegs and the round hole. What would you do if I gave you a square peg and a round hole? You’d probably illustrate that there is no puzzle to solve, and let the two items alone to coexist.


  37. Frank, thanks so much for this interesting story, and to the rest of the contributors, thanks for a very interesting comment-thread. I’ve numbered by responses, because that helps me think:

    1. Imagining what happened thousands of years ago is not science, at least not in the etymological sense of the word. Science is one type of knowledge, one that can be proven. Guessing about what happened even in the recent past is story-telling. It is most-especially true about guessing what happened five thousand years ago. Good story-telling is believable; it builds excitement, and it leads to a place that is important, even if it is not a happy place. Stories also lead to knowledge.

    2. The human brain is modular. Only one part has full control of verbal language. That part of the brain is richly connected to other parts that have no control of verbal language, but they do have control of other parts of the mind/brain or body on which the verbal part can only comment, as if it were under the influence of a god.

    3. Jung coined the term “complex” to describe a pattern of associations to a given stimulus. He broadened this later into what he called “archetype-theory” to describe patterns of habitual behavior in response to a complex symbol-set. He believed that one could frequently be under the influence of an archetype when making choices one thought were autonomous.

    4. Archetype is just a rough word for brain-connections for which we do not yet have words, and for patterns of brain-to brain and brain-within-brain relating for which we also have no words, except religious, mythic and psychological words.

    5. Religious words are not bad. They are not science. Science is not all good, nor is religion. All language is inadequate. If humans were created in God’s image, then God may be modular too (is that part of the notion of the Trinity?) Because God is timeless and infinite, the human experience of growing in the knowledge of God may give the impression that God grows. This is a story that tells how God grew out of gods.

    6. Remembering the old way of being that Frank describes is a path towards humility. The verbal part of our brain can easily become arrogant, pretending to own all knowledge, and pretending to know that one is on the side of the infinite. Applying that attitude to the external world is dangerous.

  38. Hi Paul,

    On point #4, I would not assume brain connections. Mind connections, or even better would be to say consciousness connections.


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