With just a few weeks to go until Getting High is out – see post below – I thought I’d post a short excerpt from the closing chapter.
For some context: what I’ve done in the preceding pages is to explore how our various attempts at flight are connected with religious moves to attain access to some kind of paradise. That might be a political utopia, or a spiritual nirvana. It might be via powerful rockets, or powerful psychedelics, or pentecostal experiences. Each of these moves speak to our longing for immortality and divinity, and each of them ends up diminishing our humanity and compassion for others. And this is why Good Friday is good: it is the act of putting these divine pretensions to death.
There is grief-work to be done here, and the act of laying down our beliefs is traumatic for so many, but if we are truly to love, we must keep hammering in those nails… It is only then that we can resist the allure of transcendence, these technologies of religion that promise to lift us away from pain and mortality. Only when we find contentment in having our feet on the ground will we be able to truly work for the after-life.
Hope you enjoy the taster… and Happy Easter 🙂
The French Revolution was the political bleeding edge of the Enlightenment that had sprung from the Renaissance. Liberty, equality, fraternity: the people wanted freedom from a monarchy that claimed to have their best interests at heart but left them starving while they feasted, a monarchy that tried to deflect their anger with the spectacle of flight. They guillotined the king and thought they were done; before long Napoleon had risen in his place.
‘So long as men worship the Caesars and Napoleons,’ Huxley wrote in 1937, ‘Caesars and Napoleons will duly rise and make them miserable.’ This is the way of Nero, and there can be no true liberty or equality until we are done with the divinity he represents. The revolutionaries butchered innocent aristocrats and massacred the king but ultimately lacked the courage to put God’s neck under the blade.
Fire the laser, destroy the Death Star, kill the Emperor. I know that, for those of us brought up on obedience and duty, this is a frightening prospect. But it must be done because, as Noble says, it is about ‘defiance of the divine pretensions of the few in the interest of securing the mortal necessities of the many.’ Being done with the myth of cake so that all may eat bread. Or, as Kennedy said about Apollo: for all mankind.
In a fluid dream late one night, I find myself at Rice stadium in 1962, seeing the President rising to his feet. He’s meant to talk of the Moon, but he tears up this speech and announces instead a great programme to help Martin Luther King in the elimination of racism and poverty. The same familiar phrases ring out:
We do these things not because it is easy, but because it is hard… because that challenge is one that we are willing accept, one we are unwilling to postpone… To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money… but to do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out—then we must be bold.
What would have happened if, alongside the glories of Apollo we had worked that hard to eliminate poverty and inequality?
50 years later I’m worried that we risk making the same choices, opting to fund the divine pretensions of the few rather than securing the mortal necessities of the many. The elite nature of religion—God’s chosen people—has given way to the elite nature of consumerism. Choice is god, and we tell ourselves that we deserve that latest upgrade far more than the hungry families down the road deserve to eat.
I’m coming to understand that, in a world like this, talk of atheism or the ‘death of God’ is absurd. Take one look in an Apple Store, or one peek into a fashion magazine, and there are gods and angelic beings everywhere, objects of our worship promising purity and perfection.
With religion in the past and technology now, the idea that we won’t die is the idea that won’t die. My forefathers shared so many hopes with men who fill the stages of Silicon Valley: not only are gods alive and well, but we are on a path to becoming one of them. We might find ourselves disappointed with one means of ascent, but we quickly switch to another, and my own life is testament to this fact: the problem of God is that God keeps on being resurrected.
Because of the way our consciousness OS has evolved, the figure of Apollo has become the undying zombie-deity that we struggle to be rid of, a spectre that haunts us with a fantasy about our own enduring spirit. This haunting can become so acute that violence appears to be the only way to be rid of it. I think of Hunter raising a gun to his own head, this the only way to kill off the Duke myth that stalked him and refused to let him live in peace. Then there is Jesus turning to Jerusalem, knowing that to do so would mean death, but this the only way to be done with the Christ figure. We witness these deaths, but then insist on resurrection, summoning their Holy-Gonzo spirits to fund our own narratives of ascension.
I can’t do this any more. I refuse this telling of the tale.
Some have heard me say this and beckoned me towards the radical atheism of Dawkins or Dennett, but in the coming world of AI the denial of gods will be a supine abdication focusing on wet curates and parish hymnals.
No, in a world where the illusion of god keeps on being resurrected, we need a set of practices that keep on putting the illusion to death. It’s in the face of this that I’ve found myself wending my way back to Christianity, albeit a form of that is done with any transcendent God, a faint thread I find there of just this kind of process: the story of a perfect god put to death, no angels descending to his aid.
In this retelling, crucifixion is a technology that seeks out and destroys the religious virus that has hacked and taken over our drives, hiding away in the unconscious.
In this re-narration, the Mass is a celebration of the dismantling of these gods who’ve wounded us. We break bread and drink wine, Apollo torn apart into something perishable, the god we once worshipped at this table now become part of the meal, the sacred art of memory performed as we ‘do this in remembrance’ of the god who descended and died.
The cry goes up, he breathes his last, the sky goes black. The sun has died.
What then of the resurrection? Sitting with friends in France this was the question immediately fired back. I had wrestled for so long with it, then, some time after Nic’s death, I found myself interviewing Professor Simon Critchley for a programme I was presenting for BBC radio, a commission squeezed into my continuing work teaching mathematics. I’d been wanting to talk about Montaigne, and his idea that to philosophise was to learn how to die. Then, more in hope than expectation I threw the question of resurrection at him.
‘I believe in the after-life,’ he said, ‘in so far as I believe in the life of those that come after.’
I was stunned. The producer was leaning in, holding the microphone close, me sat in a chair, Critchley stretched out on the bed in his hotel room, black leather boots on crisp white linen. I was trying to formulate my next question but my mind was full of Nic, his widow and his twins. ‘Kids, those you love or have been close to,’ he went on, filling my silence, ‘you want them to go on.’
This was a resurrection I could live with: not that when we die we are raised again, but that those who live on are able to be lifted, can get up from the grave-side and find life once we are gone. The most important task we have is not to achieve our own ascension, but to live well enough that those who come after can, once they have grieved, rise again.
Text (c) Kester Brewin 2016
Getting High will be released April 19th.