Friday, March 16, 2007



The genius of the Hebrew religion is the idea of God as found in Exodus 20:

And God spoke all these words:
"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall not engrave an image of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below."

The Hebrew God was not to be made into a static image, thereby limiting it to the heavens above, the earth under the heavens or the waters below the earth. In other words, God was not a bird, bull or fish - not a star, a human or sea monster. God was not to be frozen into a fixed image. This freedom from images was directly connected to release from the “land of slavery”.

That did not mean that the Hebrews could not concoct images of their God; he was imaged in the Hebrew Bible as a human walking in the garden of Eden, a chicken with eggs, a burning bush, an Angel of the LORD, a fiery pillar, a king, a judge, a potter, a warrior, a mother, a father and many other forms that poetically expressed this imageless Being.

The point of no 'graven' image was to assure that the infinite God could continue to evolve through the fluid imagination of human consciousness. We humans like to engrave. The term 'engrave' comes from the Old English word 'grafan' which means 'to carve.' From it we get the term grave, referring to the hole we carve in the ground to inter the dead. To in-grave is to entomb, cage in, entrap, freeze - close the lid, fill the hole, wipe your hands and say, "it is complete."

Every engraved god or goddess takes the form of a bird, animal, human or fish and is to some extent entombed. It is frozen in place. It is mythologized, which means it has a basic storyline. These mythical stories may and always do evolve as we see in every culture, but they are limited by the fixed images. Zeus remains a kingly male and Aphrodite a sexual female. The Egyptian Horus is a sky god represented by a falcon. These are beautiful stories, but they are engraved and static. Imagination is solidified, and this works well for passing the stories along to succeeding generations.


Frozen or engraved images do not work well to stimulate creativity or for growing human consciousness. The human mind needs to expand. In fact, the Universe of dark creative potentials thrives on new images and fresh unfolding. All that we see around us emerged through the human imagination - from the invention of the wheel to the automobile, from the discovery of fire to the splitting of an atom. Human imagination is amazing as it channels the infinite realms of eternity into human awareness and material form, until that imagination becomes frozen. When we freeze our gods in images, we freeze our consciousness and stop creative expansion. The history of philosophical insight and spiritual progress has been a history of iconoclasm – bold individuals destroying culturally frozen psycho-religious images in order that the mind and the culture may expand.

In the Hebrew Bible, II Kings 18, King Hezekiah had to destroy an old Mosaic inspired pole supporting a pair of bronze serpents before religious reforms could be made in Judah. The people were stuck in the old images, in the old stories, in the stilted imagination. Plato had to dismantle the literal Greek gods and goddesses, transforming them into fluid metaphors before he could advance his philosophical ideas.


The irony for Western religion is that the graven images showed up most often in the form of an alphabet - words, concepts, attributes, qualities, principles, laws, theories, theologies, sciences - doctrinal statements, creeds, journals, publications, university libraries and newspapers. Jews, Christians and Muslims do pretty well at avoiding graven images of their God, until it comes to the alphabet. Then the imagination freezes. Judaism is not nearly as guilty as Christianity, and Christianity is not as culpable as Islam. But the first two religions are much older and have had their brave iconoclasts that died challenging the alphabetic images. We see it going on today with Islam – a handful of reformers are challenging the graven image called the Qu’ran.


On a personal level, and that is where we Westerners want our religion, this has significant ramifications. Most of us are stuck in our images. We have our graven stories of the past. Most of us begin forming our biographical mythologies as teenagers and by the time we are twenty something, they are as frozen as any idol or religious creed.

Brain research is telling us that we cannot trust our memories. A fewyears ago, the actor Alan Alda visited a group of memory researchers at the University of California, Irvine, for a TV show he was making. During a picnic lunch, one of the scientists offered Alda a hard-boiled egg. He turned it down, explaining that as a child he had made himself sick eating too many eggs.
In fact, this had never happened, yet Alda believed it was real. How so? The egg incident was a false memory planted by one of UC Irvine's researchers, Elizabeth Loftus. Before the visit, Loftus had sent Alda a questionnaire about his food preferences and personality. She later told him that a computer analysis of his answers had revealed some facts about his childhood, including that he once made himself sick eating too many eggs. There was no such analysis but it was enough to convince Alda. He had formed a graven image from mistaken suggestion.

I used to tell ‘the story’ of my family. It was a nicely engraved little image – my dad was an alcoholic, my mother was an enabler, my brother was the rebel, my sister was the lost child and I was the hero. Of course there was a lot of dramatic fleshing out that went on, emotional embellishing with the appropriate adjectival flairs and flourishes, but the basic imaginal story was as solid as a Vatican decree. The more often I told it, the more solid it became. It was my idol and I bowed down before it.

As time went on, I began to see that I was a family dynamics fundamentalist. I saw that I had adopted a certain ideological model of the family, craved a little hole in the ground and buried my family in it. My dad was always the bad guy, my mom the rescuer and then there were various permutations on the kinds of abuses that took place. I told this story over and over and over. I now see it as my own little Nicene Creed or Lord’s Prayer.


One day I sat down and a made a list of all of the benefits and amazing accomplishments my father had contributed to my eighteen years in that home. I filled several pages and could have written several more. At first it was very difficult – after all, I had a pretty rock solid graven image etched into my neural hardwiring. Idols don’t go down without a fight. But with time, I began to re-imagine, re-vision, re-frame the stories. My dad was an amazing man – an 18 year old WWII veteran, a logger, a carpenter, a wildly successful business man who built and operated a grocery store, purchased and remodeled three homes, built our house by himself, a professional hunter and fisherman, a studious Christian scholar, an elder in a church, a genealogical researcher, kind hearted and riding a Harley at the age of eighty. The imagination is an amazing gift. My father is an amazing man.

I then began to write down how the alcoholic behaviors served me for the good. I saw the damage caused by alcohol and got into treatment with a clearer understanding of my own alcohol problems sooner than I would have without him blazing the hellish trail. I also got to see the glorious archetypal energy of Dionysus in a man beaten down by the ‘American Dream’. He showed me that a man doesn’t have to just gut it out until retirement when his soul is dying. His solution may not have been ideal, but he didn't lull me to sleep with passive conformity to the role of so many males in this culture, purposeless factory drones. He raged against the soul numbing servitude of American capitalism. He also gave me a gift of compassion and insight into suffering, both his pain and the pain that came to the family. I could continue with examples, but hopefully the point has been made.


We humans make graven images, mental cemeteries where we entomb ourselves with a monothematic myth marked by a story etched in a marble tombstone. Our stories are just that, stories – they were true the first time we told them, and then most often we retold them because it was easier to repeat the old creed; and we probably got some reward from the original audience. They pitied us, consoled us, despised our abuser and praised our fortitude. When I used to tell my alcoholic family story, certain women would melt with sympathy. Self glorification and certain attention is almost always the concrete out of which we fashion our myths, unless we are masochists, then our fixed stories make us out to be extremely evil. But even then, we often garner glory by getting people who try to talk us out of our self abusive stories. If we want to really canonize our stories and give them absolute and unquestionable sacred significance, we call them memoirs. That makes them the personal equivalent of God's Word, and only a fool or heretic would assail them.

This is not to minimize any abuse or horror in our lives. There is a time to tell the horror story, a time weep, get angry, seek justice, ask for reparations and rage. But there comes a point when we must destroy the old graven images and let our awareness expand. The Universe is rife with potential. Your mind is the gateway to vast resources. Open it. You are brilliant. Images are infinite.


We have been made in the image of God according to the Hebrew Bible. Ironically, the image of God is to have no permanent images! In other words, when the Hebrew Bible says we are made in the image and likeness of God, and then says to make no graven image of God, it is really saying that we are fluid, dynamic, evolving, endlessly imaginative and wildly creative just like God. God can't be frozen or formed permanently, thus we are not to be frozen or formed permanently by any story. Every thought I have and the story I tell from that thought always has another, often several, versions. This is always true, whether it’s about the untimely death of my child, the horrible divorce I went through, the recent cancer diagnosis or the moron who just cut me off on the freeway. I have the ability to take out a piece of paper, or sit quietly for a moment and destroy the old idol and re-vision another.


Re-imagining is not mandatory. Some people like their old creeds and frozen myths. Many prefer to believe that their one story is THE story. If you try to get them to re-vision their story, they will stop you in mid-stream and point out that the evil was so evil, that they can't see and shouldn't even try to see the other aspects.

You will see no life in such people. They will generally be miserable, bitter, lonely and dogmatic. That is why the text from Exodus links freedom from ‘slavery in the land of Egypt’ with the notion of freedom from fixed images. When we are bound by one story, we are enslaved to the single image. Our mono-imaginal engraving becomes our grave.

Sadly, many of these people don’t even know that they can refashion their mythologies. In this state, there is self obsessing introspection and a rigid psyche filled with spite and hatred. They are the Pharisees Jesus confronted. They are the political ideologues that rail from the left or right, veins popping, eyes bulging and voices raised.

But for those who are tired of the old myth, ready to break the old idols - take out a piece of paper, sit down and rewrite a story that you have told over and over. Ideally, pick a story that causes you a lot of pain, grief and resentment. Be creative, use your active imagination. Close your eyes and simply ask, "What new version of this story would you have me tell today?" Then let the Living Mind of a brilliant Cosmos flow through your pen.

Check Michael's web site:

No comments: