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Excerpt from "The Purpose of Religion"

by Dr. Andrew Cort, DC, JD


INTRODUCTION

A long time ago, when I was still a very young man, I came to the conclusion (like most of my peers) that the Bible was to be taken with a grain of salt. I had heard it said, and completely agreed, that if a human father were to treat his children the way the God of the Hebrew Bible treated His children, we would demand that he be arrested and locked up. This hardly seemed like the sort of fellow whose opinions on morality and appropriate social behavior needed to be taken seriously. The ethics of the New Testament were admittedly less horrific, but they appeared rather trite and unrealistic. Anyway, the more I learned about science and history, the more irrelevant the whole thing became. Later on, when the conditions and influences of my life aroused a latent interest in spiritual matters, this interest took the form of meditation, yoga, vegetarianism, and a general focus on eastern religions – for these, it seemed to me, were still in touch with ‘real’ spirituality. So as literature the Bible was mildly interesting, but it was not very consequential to my life.

A few years ago this all changed. I had begun working on a book in which I was exploring historical ideas, and at a certain point it seemed appropriate to include a chapter on the ancient Israelites and to say something about their influence on the history of philosophy. So I took out a copy of the Bible and began reading a bit of Genesis, with the intention of writing a short chapter – perhaps a dozen pages or so – and then moving on to more important matters.

Several years and hundreds of pages later, I finally stopped writing about all the wonders I was finding in the western Scriptures. What happened was that I discovered a whole new way in which the stories spoke to me. It wasn’t the history that interested me, or the teachings about morality and social justice. It certainly wasn’t the fantastic claims that defied all scientific logic. What interested me was the symbolism: the symbols, images and metaphors that tell an inner psychological story – not about the journey of a nation, but about the journey of a human soul.

Let me share one such story, to show you what I mean:

~

Shortly after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, we are told that "Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim." So Moses told Joshua to put together an army and go into battle with Amalek and his people.

Amalek was a descendant of Esau, the brother who was deceived by Jacob. So the Amalekites had a deep-rooted ferocious hatred toward Israel, the descendants of Jacob. They attacked whenever possible and with no provocation. They would sneak up behind the Israelites and use ambushes and cunning to attack the weak, the elderly, and the stragglers. Later, during Moses’ teachings by the Jordan River in Deuteronomy, he says that God will be at war with Amalek forever, and he transmits this divine command to his followers: "You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!"

Taken literally, this appears to be one of many examples of a God who often approves of murder and slaughter, and wishes us to show our love for Him by killing certain other people. In fact, this particular story has sometimes been used to explain and justify a need for Israelis to kill Arabs. But this degrading excuse for violence and inhumanity takes literalism to the extreme and completely misses the point.

Like everything in these stories, the episode with Amalek is an internal symbol. Amalek represents the great enemy of the soul. He is lurking within each one of us. The name ‘Amalek’ has the root ‘malak’, a word which means ‘cutting at the neck’ – that is, severing the Mind from the Body. In addition, according to the Kabbalah the name ‘Amalek’ signifies Doubt. Thus, whenever one is considering an appropriate positive act, ‘Amalek’ introduces doubt into one’s being, and cuts off our mind (our wisdom, intelligence and better judgment) from our actions.

Now, doubt can be intelligent and rational, making sure we don’t jump to foolish conclusions and that we search for accuracy and truth. But there is also an irrational, automatic kind of doubt, the kind that mocks our Reason, belittles any argument without even listening, and reacts to the most inspiring moments with nothing but a cynical shrug. Amalek is that ugly inner voice that sneaks up and attacks goodness and truth, that laughs at decency and sincerity, that scoffs at kindness and altruism. Amalek represents the all-too-familiar cynicism that pounces on any sign of weakness, that seeks to prevent any attempt to improve oneself, that cavalierly denies God or anything more important than our selfish desires, and insists that everything must be ultimately meaningless.

This uncontrollable hatred of everything noble and good cannot be reasoned with, it cannot be persuaded by rational argument. Symbolically, then, there is no room for acts of diplomacy with Amalek: he must simply be annihilated! From this comes the injunction in Deuteronomy that we must “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

But the only form of slaughter that is being justified here is the slaughter of our own cynicism and doubt.

This is a never-ending battle, and the soul must be ever vigilant. King Saul would later lose his kingship for letting the king of the Amalekites live. David, in his own battle against them, would fare better: he would not "let" any of the Amalekites live – but four hundred of them would escape. Some Amalekites always escape. And that’s the point the Bible is making. This deadly inner voice does not give up, it will never leave us in peace, and we ignore it at our peril. Condescending cynicism and doubt are the worst spoilers of the soul. Like God, we must be at war with Amalek forever.

~

So as you see, even though the stories themselves may not be literally true, the meaning that is revealed by the stories is true. Among contemporary educated people, myths are typically dismissed as childish fantasies or the unscientific gropings of primitive minds. But the mythological view of the world has always been, and still remains, an important way of understanding and appreciating our world. This is not because they explain natural phenomena. It is because myths bring us face to face with our deepest psychological and spiritual truths.

And in western Scripture, as in all great mythology, they do even more. Through allegory and symbol they provide psychological instructions for a soul that has descended into material life and must now find its way ‘home’ again. This journey of transformation, from inner slavery to spiritual awakening and enlightenment, has been called “The Return to the Promised Land”, “The Quest for the Holy Grail”, “Muhammad’s Journey to the Seven Heavens”, and many other names. In other words, all the sacred Scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have the common aim of teaching us how to raise our level of Being and return to a state of conscious union with Divinity – a process that is universally known as Spiritual Initiation. When this common purpose is understood, the stunning underlying unity of all our Traditions is revealed, and the major motivation for religious hatred and war disappears. The different ways that these stories are told attests to the marvelous range of the human imagination, but the commonality of method and purpose that unites these stories is infinitely more striking than any of the differences.

But the stories are written in a perplexing symbolic code that requires a key. Otherwise, they appear to be little more than unverified historical claims, punctuated with improbable miracles, and teeming with violence, cruelty and hopeless demands for an inconsistent and unrealistic morality. Fortunately, a key still exists in our time. A key to understanding the symbolism of ancient Myth and Scripture can still be found in many of the writings of Plato and several other early philosophers. Before we look at the stories and consider their symbolic interpretations, we will need this information. So we have to begin with Socrates.

Socrates

What is happiness? We all seek it, but what exactly is it? Some associate happiness with pleasure, others with fame or worldly achievement, still others with the attainment of money or possessions. Some think of happiness in terms of good health, the enjoyment of leisure activities, or basking in the affection of one’s family.

In ancient Greece, people had similar ideas on the subject. But Socrates startled the people of Athens by rejecting these opinions and claiming that happiness was to be found in the perfection of the soul. The soul was immortal, he claimed, and its welfare should be our chief concern, since its fate after death would be determined by how one lived one’s life on Earth. “All other ends which men desire were strictly of no value in themselves. If they were worth pursuing at all, they were so only as a means to the perfection of the soul.” This was the spiritual task to which Socrates relentlessly enjoined anyone who would listen.

But exactly what is this thing he called a soul, and how is one to ‘perfect’ it? In Plato’s Republic, Socrates describes the soul as being composed of three parts, and he demonstrates that these parts are most often in a state of chaos. To perfect one’s soul begins with understanding what these parts are, what they are doing, and what they ought to be doing. We can then take steps to improve their individual functioning, and bring all three parts together into a well-ordered harmony.

To clarify these points, Socrates compares the soul’s inner reality to a city’s outer reality - that is, to the political state. Much of the Republic is in fact devoted to developing a theoretical model for a utopian society, but the essence of the book is its symbolic comparison to the inner life of humanity. In a good Republic, Socrates tells us, there would be three basic classes of citizens: the Merchants, the Soldiers, and the Guardians:

1) The Merchants would be those citizens whose interests and abilities best suit them for a life devoted to the creation of wealth and material well-being. They support the Republic.

2) The Soldiers would be those citizens whose interests and abilities best suit them for a life devoted to ideals of courage and honor. They protect the Republic.

3) The Guardians would be those citizens whose interests and abilities best suit them for a life devoted to the pursuit of wisdom, justice, and truth. They govern the Republic.

In a well-ordered society, each citizen would thus have one job to do, and would aspire to do it as well as possible. A merchant would not also try to be a soldier, a soldier would not try to partake in the governing process, a guardian would not attempt to run a business. Such abuses of individual ability would clearly be futile or even dangerous, and only lead to chaos.

Furthermore, everyone in this utopia would respect and appreciate the hierarchical nature of the system. That is, the Guardians, by virtue of their attainments in wisdom (not by right of birth, military might, or popular election), would be recognized as the true rulers, the Soldiers would enthusiastically support them in their efforts, and the Merchants would happily embrace their task of providing for society’s material needs under the guidance and jurisdiction of the Guardians.

But actual States, like actual souls, are not so well ordered: few citizens do what they are best suited for, everyone wants to interfere with everything, and only buffoons are typically in charge. Socrates narrates a wonderful parable to demonstrate his point.

Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew.... The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering - everyone is of the opinion that he has the right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation...and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces anyone who says the contrary. They throng about the captain, begging him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard.... [Finally, having put the noble captain out of commission] with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship....

After this, the sailors “make free with the [ship’s] stores”, and “eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as may be expected of them.” They love and compliment whoever approves of their behavior, and accuse all others of being fools and good-for-nothings - including of course, the captain.

This, then, if Socrates is correct, is precisely the terrifying condition of our unperfected souls: The rightful authority has been narcotized, the staff has mutinied and is running amok, and the elements of wisdom and conscience are belittled, ignored, or even destroyed.

Like his description of the State, the soul of Socrates also has three parts:

1) Corresponding to the Merchant class, the soul contains our Appetites: all our desires for food, sex, pleasure and comfort, represented, according to Plato, by the stomach and genitals. This is the level of the soul where efforts must be made to overcome the vices of gluttony, greed and lust, with the virtue of Temperance.

2) Corresponding to the Soldier class, the soul contains our Will: all our power, our great loves, our aspirations, represented, according to Plato, by the heart. This is the level of the soul where efforts must be made to transform negative emotions such as anger and envy into the virtue of Courage.

3) Corresponding to the Guardian class, the soul contains our Mind: our conscious awareness, our ability to seek knowledge and truth, represented, according to Plato, by the head. This is the level of the soul where efforts must be made to overcome pride and intellectual sloth, and replace them with the love of Wisdom.

Temperance requires that the appetites be controlled by Wisdom. Courage requires that the passions also be controlled by Wisdom. Justice (the chief characteristic of a superior Guardian or a superior Mind) is a combination of Wisdom, Temperance, and Courage, working together in an appropriate, harmonious relationship – with Wisdom providing the active governing force.

But like the sailors on Plato’s ship, the elements of our souls are not doing their jobs faithfully and are not in right relationship with each other. Decisions are made based on appetites, the emotions are running wild, and the mind is uninvolved and passive.

To perfect one’s soul means to bring order to one’s inner chaos, to get each part to do its own appropriate job as well as possible, and to overcome the soul’s anarchy by taming the appetites and arousing and reinstating the rightful authority, the mind.

The Garden of Eden

In the story of the Garden of Eden, which is a parable of our inner life and the need to evolve and perfect the soul, Adam represents the human mind and thoughts, Eve represents the heart and the emotions, and the Serpent represents the appetites and material body. (This is a traditional symbolic usage of male characters, female characters, and animals, throughout the world's mythology and scripture.) In their proper harmonious alignment, the Mind would be the Active principle which governs the soul. The Body would be the Passive principle which supports and is governed by the Mind. The Heart would be the Reconciling principle that listens to the wisdom of the Mind and then integrates, unifies and protects the complete internal triad. But what happened in the Garden of Eden was that this order became inverted. The serpent (the Body) interfered, took the active lead, and persuaded the Heart to go along with its wishes. The Mind, wrongly passive, silently acquiesced and joined in.

Now the serpent was more crafty

than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, ‘Did God say,

“You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’

The woman said to the serpent,

‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden;

but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree

that is in the middle of the garden,

nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”’

But the serpent said to the woman,

‘You will not die;

for God knows that when you eat of it

your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,

knowing good and evil.’

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food,

and that it was a delight to the eyes,

and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,

she took of its fruit and ate;

and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her,

and he ate. (Gen.3.1-3.6)

Adam’s behavior in this story is completely passive. Throughout the scene, he is ‘with her’ (that is, with Eve) but silent. The Serpent and Eve have their discussion, she decides to eat the fruit, she gives some to Adam, and he eats it too. The story does not say that Eve tempted him, and nothing in the narration or in his silence suggests that she did. There is no indication that he is reluctant to eat the fruit, that he vacillates or frets about what he is doing, that his better judgment is overwhelmed by treachery, or even that he thinks about it at all. He says nothing and takes no initiative. It is merely a passive act of acquiescence.

This was the real ‘sin’ that occurred in the Garden of Eden, and that recurs within the soul of each one of us. This is the fundamental (i.e., ‘original’) sin – the sin of an inverted soul. We are all committing this sin right now. Our soul has been turned upside down, hypnotized by the world of matter, beguiled by the serpent, so that all our attention is focused on the lowly and the base. The demanding Body has become the active force in our lives and is completely in charge. Wisdom has been belittled, truth has been relativised, and the Mind has retreated into passivity. The Heart, mesmerized by all the gluttony and obscenity that surround us, fawns over the cravings of the Body. It takes very little imagination to see that this biblical allegory provides a thorough, accurate, and increasingly pertinent description of our contemporary life.

To perfect the soul, ‘Adam and Eve’ (representing all of us) must first return to a properly balanced state. So God tells the serpent, “upon your belly you shall go” – the Body must focus on the earth and not try to be in charge. To Eve He says, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This is not a literal sexist statement. It means that rather than remaining ‘wedded’ to the mundane material world of the serpent, our Heart must turn upward and recognize the Mind as the proper authority. Lastly, God turns to Adam, the Mind. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” The face, that is, the head, represents the Mind. The ‘sweat of your face’ indicates the required active efforts of the Mind.

This advice, the first step of Spiritual Initiation, is as important and relevant today as when it was first given.


###

Andrew Cort is an Author, Speaker, Attorney, Teacher, and Doctor of Chiropractic. He is also the Host of Spirit of the Berkshires on CTSB-TV and available on his website.His most recent book, The Purpose of Religion: Enlightenment, Meaning and Love in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Symbology, celebrates the underlying decency and spiritual unity of our western traditions. You can find out more about Dr. Cort, his books, videos, speaking engagements, TV show, etc, on his website at www.andrewcort.com


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