The Idealist Symbolism of the Christmas Archetype

Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.

As we experience the afterglow of Christmas—the date that symbolically commemorates the birth of the Christ in the Christian world—I wanted to share some reflections about its archetypal symbolism. Just as Pentecost symbolically marks the Divinity's entrance into Its own Creation in ethereal form (the Holy Spirit), Christmas symbolically reminds us of God's entrance into the world in human form. Surprising as this may sound to the average Christian, this archetypal idea of the Creator entering Its own Creation is by no means exclusive to Christianity.

In the creation myth of the Aranda people, in Australia, the Creator deity Karora dreams the world up as He sleeps. He then wakes up in His own dream, effectively entering it. Once within the dream, Karora even eats some of the animals He'd imagined into existence. On the other side of the world, the Witoto people of the Amazon jungle believe their Creator deity Nainema also imagined the world into existence while in a state of slumber. He then stamped on His own imaginings and eventually penetrated them, subsequently spitting the jungle into existence. In a foundational Hindu myth, the supreme deity Brahman creates the basic scaffolding of the world as a thought in his mind. Brahman then births Itself into Its own imagination, by imagining a cosmic egg and then hatching from it. And so on. More details about all these myths can be found in my upcoming book More Than Allegory. The key point, however, is that cultures across time, geographies and languages have expressed this primordial notion that God imagines the world into existence, and then enters Its own imagination. Isn't this a fair way to also describe what happened when the Christ was born? Symbolically speaking, wasn't the Christian God also entering His own Creation in the form of Jesus, the man? The human mind, in its trans-intellectual and trans-linguistic depths, has always known something about this; something more true than mere allegory, which it has expressed in profoundly symbolic, mythical forms.

Available now for pre-ordering.

Remember: according to the Christian myth, Jesus wasn't only the son of God. He was God incarnate. It is this identity between God and human that gives us symbolic clues about the metaphysics suggested by the religious myths mentioned above, including the Christian myth. There is a passage from More Than Allegory that discusses this. I will quote it below but, first, I need to quote another passage that explains what I call the cognitive 'big bang':
The present moment is the cosmic egg described in so many religious myths, which we briefly discussed in Part I. It is a singularity that births all existence into form. It seeds our mind with fleeting consensus images that we then blow up into the voluminous bulk of projected past and future. These projections are like a cognitive ‘big bang’ unfolding in our mind. They stretch out the intangibility of the singularity into the substantiality of events in time. But unlike the theoretical Big Bang of current physics, the cognitive ‘big bang’ isn’t an isolated occurrence in a far distant past. It happens now; now; now. It only ever happens now. (pp. 102-103)
And now the passage about the Idealist metaphysics hinted at in many of the world's religious myths:
Significantly, idealism is precisely what many of the world’s religious myths have been hinting at for thousands of years, as discussed in Part I. In the Arandan, Uitoto and Hindu myths we explored, as well as in the Hermetic myth that underlies Western esotericism, the world is seen as the mental activity of a cosmic mind. As a matter of fact, the sophisticated Vedanta school of Hinduism states explicitly and unambiguously that all phenomena unfold in consciousness alone. The same notion is found in Buddhism, particularly the Yogācāra School. Even the Christian New Testament hints at this in a magnificently symbolic way when John the Evangelist writes: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... Through [the Word] all things were made.’ ‘Word’ here is a translation of the original Greek Λόγος (Logos), which also means reasoning or thought. So through thought ‘all things were made.’

Kripal states that ‘Logos here does not refer to some form of rationalism or linear logic, but to a kind of cosmic Mind, universal intelligence, or super-language out of which all that is emerges and takes shape. Logos is not human reason here. It is “with God.” It is God.’ Yet, John has the Logos incarnate as a man, Jesus. So this ‘cosmic Mind’ is also the human mind. The Logos is also human reasoning because God was also the man Jesus. Indeed, as we’ve seen in Part I, the words of language are the form and manifestation of human thought.

Ponder about this for a moment: just as John’s incarnated Logos makes all things, the cognitive ‘big bang’ resulting from human reasoning (logos) creates the substantiality of the universe across space and time through a trick of self-reference. As God is born within His own creation as the Christ, Brahman is born in primordial waters from the cosmic egg—the singularity—that Brahman Itself created, subsequently uttering ‘the Word’ to bring forth the world’s substance. The self-referential, circular character of the process and its parallels with the cognitive ‘big bang’ are even more striking here.

And it goes on and on: Nainema breaks into his own illusion to spit—a movement of the mouth, like the utterance of words— the substance of the forest into existence, while Karora wakes up within his own dream to experience, by eating, the substance of the animals sprouted from his own navel. Do you see how different peoples have been trying to suggest the same subtle cosmology through the symbolism most evocative to their respective cultures? The world we ordinarily experience is a mental creation. Its concrete form arises out of emptiness through cognitive self-reference, a process whose inherent circularity makes you believe that you were born in the world. But it is you, through your human thinking, who is creating the whole of it now; now; now. (pp. 110-111)

Back to Sam Harris' Critique of Eben Alexander's NDE

Who is this clown? Image source: Wikipedia.

A teacher of philosophy called Michael Sudduth has written a blog post criticizing what I say, in my book Brief Peeks Beyond, about Sam Harris' attack on Eben Alexander. Let me admit upfront that I had never heard of Michael Sudduth, have no idea who he is beyond what I found in a quick google search, and know nothing of his work. I will explain at the end of this essay why I nonetheless decided to comment on his criticism.

He starts his critique of my views rather colorfully, implicitly promising a knock-out punch at some later stage:
It’s astonishingly evident to me that Kastrup’s thinking on this matter is not merely confused; it’s profoundly confused. ... Kastrup’s reasoning in both his blog and book is an astonishing display of misrepresentation and philosophical obfuscation.
Apparently I astonish him a lot. Undeterred, he uses 1142 words (!) to introduce his essay and disparage my position with pure rhetoric before he even begins the attempt to substantiate his allegations. It's a lot of gratuitous disparaging that doesn't seem motivated by eagerness to debate: when he posted his essay on Facebook, he tagged 34 people (!) with visibility in the media, but failed to tag me, the very target of his criticism. I found this rather curious.

After disparaging me repeatedly, one would expect that, by the time he actually began to justify his prolific allegations, a mortal blow would soon follow. I confess: I was somewhat curious. But the implicit promise of a knock-out punch never materialized. His post disappoints. He uses almost ten thousand words (!) in total to basically fail to even argue against—let alone defeat—the substance of any of my points; the true and unsurpassed feat of philosophical obfuscation in this whole story. But don't let the ten thousand words frighten you: I can summarize the essence of what he says about me in only 3 quick points:

  1. The DMT similarity argument. Harris originally stated that Alexander's NDE looked like a DMT trip. Harris overtly suggests that Alexander's experience could have been caused merely by chemicals in Alexander's brain, as opposed to having a transcendent nature. I then argued that a chemical or physical trigger does not necessarily invalidate the transcendent nature of the experience, since all NDEs are, ultimately, triggered by some physical event. What does Sudduth have to say about this? He writes: "Kastrup is correct, of course, that in at least one sense the similarity between Alexander’s NDE and DMT experiences doesn’t defeat the authenticity of the former as a valid transcendent experience." But this was my point. So Sudduth actually agrees with my point. What's his problem then? Well, he asserts that "Harris nowhere claims [that] Alexander’s NDE was produced by brain chemistry," so my point is a straw-man. What? With a blush of embarrassment, I leave it to you to judge it after you consider the following passage by Harris: "Does Alexander know that DMT already exists in the brain as a neurotransmitter? Did his brain experience a surge of DMT release during his coma? This is pure speculation, of course, but it is a far more credible hypothesis than that his cortex “shut down,” freeing his soul to travel to another dimension." Can someone explain to me how is it that Harris is not suggesting here that DMT could explain Alexander's NDE on a purely chemical basis? I mean, how much clearer could this possibly be? Sudduth's grievance is that Harris does not outright state that the NDE was caused by chemicals; that Harris merely mentions the possibility that it was. Duh. So what? It would obviously have been ridiculous if Harris had asserted that he knew what caused Alexander's NDE. Raising the possibility of a chemical cause was as far as Harris could have gone to try to debunk Alexander. And I rebutted this by arguing that a chemical trigger—even if true—wouldn't invalidate the potentially transcendent nature of Alexander's experience anyway (this, even Sudduth agrees with). In other words, I granted to Harris the possibility of a chemical trigger and argued against the relevance of that possibility as far as Alexander's claims were concerned. I never assumed or implied that Harris did anything more than to raise a hypothesis, the force of my argument being directed precisely at the relevance of that hypothesis. I'd bet that all readers of my essay, except perhaps for Michael Sudduth, fully understood this. It's embarrassing to have to spell it out now. Either Sudduth is splitting hairs for the sake of inventing something to criticize and create polemic, or he is so myopically focused on the strict formal semantics of Harris' words that he fails to see the obvious thrust and intent of the text. Harris, my dear Michael, is not writing for analytic philosophy majors here; he's trying to debunk Alexander's story in the public's eye and he is perfectly aware of how the public will understand his words. That you fail to see this is so sweetly naive it makes me smile. Perhaps you've become too engrossed with linguistic games in your academic ivory tower and now lost touch with the real world. Or are your motivations of a different nature? (More on this later.) 
  2. The cortical inactivity argument. Harris originally claimed that Alexander didn't sufficiently demonstrate that his brain lacked enough activity to account for his NDE. In turn, I argued that appeals to residual brain activity in sub-cortical areas weren't enough to explain Alexander's NDE: the type of experience Alexander underwent normally correlates with neocortical activity, as opposed to residual activity in deeper parts of the brain. And it was precisely Alexander's neocortex that was devastated by the meningitis. What does Sudduth have to say about this? He writes: "we can concede that Kastrup is at least correct to say that whether there could have been residual brain activity misses the point." Well, once again that was precisely my point. How curious. So what's Sudduth's problem this time? He claims that Harris' grievance was that Alexander did not show that his neocortex was inactive; that Harris was not appealing to activity in sub-cortical regions. Yet Harris' own words, as quoted by Sudduth himself, indicate the opposite: "almost no one thinks that consciousness is purely a matter of cortical activity." Clearly, Harris is appealing to sub-cortical activity to suggest a materialist explanation for Alexander's NDE. Be it as it may, once again Sudduth admits that I was essentially correct. What is he trying to achieve with this?
  3. The "Failures of Proper Argumentation" critique. Sudduth writes paragraph after paragraph claiming that I failed to establish that Alexander's neocortex was incapable to generate his NDE. The only problem is that I never tried to construct an argument to establish that in the first place. After all, I have not seen the hard clinical data and, just like Sudduth, am not qualified to judge it. So who is "profoundly confused" here? I simply took seriously the assessment of the data by Alexander—a Harvard professor of neurology and practicing neurosurgeon—and explored its implications. Indeed, I believe Alexander is better qualified to judge this than Harris, who has no clinical experience and isn't a practicing neuroscientist. Harris seems much more interested in studying religion and politics than neuroscience. My argument, as I clearly state in the book, was against the notion that residual sub-cortical activity could have been sufficient to explain the NDE. Sudduth doesn't dispute this at all.

In fact, Sudduth doesn't dispute—let alone defeat—the real substance of any of my arguments. So why this mismatch between what is alleged in the beginning of his post and what one actually finds when one reads it through? It's a lot of fit & fury amounting to nearly nothing at the end. A lot of noisy but empty posturing.

You see, the essence of Sudduth's post is the assertion that Sam Harris never meant to imply what I claim that he implied. As such, my arguments, correct as they may be, are straw-men; or so says Sudduth. "Harris is not proposing any alternative materialistic explanation of Alexander’s experience." (Oh, really?) And neither does Harris "assume, for instance, that a physical trigger cannot lead to a perfectly valid NDE." (Oh, he doesn't?) It's my own delusions that turned Harris into a debunker of transcendence; or so Sudduth's story goes. Leaving aside the obvious naiveté of this position, the problem, of course, is that it ends up completely deflating the main thrust of Harris' very critique of Alexander. Sudduth's "defense" of Harris, if correct, would render Harris' arguments ineffective in rebutting the transcendent nature of Alexander's NDE. In trying to help Harris have it both ways, Sudduth ends up leaving no way for Harris. His 'semantic deconstruction' unintentionally helps further Eben Alexander's claims. With a groupie like this, Harris needs no critics.

Sudduth is so focused on hair-splitting the philosophical minutiae that he seems to completely lose sight of the big picture. To say that debunking the transcendent nature of Alexander's NDE was not Harris' intent seems extraordinarily ingenuous to me, if not outright stupid. But is mere naiveté the explanation here? Or are there other possible motivations for Sudduth's charade? What motivated all the unsubstantiated disparaging in his post? I can only speculate.

In my view, it is entirely legitimate that a new author attempts to raise his visibility by attacking more visible peers, as long as the attack is honestly argued and fairly substantiated. Sudduth's noisy, derogatory allegations in the purely rhetorical opening of his post are neither: they find no justification or substantiation in the body of his text. They seem to me to be aimed squarely at generating polemic and attracting attention. They catch the interest of the casual reader who parses the highly polemicized initial paragraphs but has no appetite for ~10K tortuous words.

The reason I decided to offer this reply was the messages a few of my regular readers sent me immediately after Sudduth posted a link to his essay on Facebook. They'd noticed that he didn't tag me and wanted both to warn me and ask for a prompt rebuttal. I do not consider Sudduth's hair-splitting essay, in and of itself, deserving of any reaction. Therefore, I will limit my comments on this matter to this post. I do not know Michael Sudduth and have no interest in changing this. He's proven to my own satisfaction that interacting with him isn't productive. With this reply, I know I am already giving him some of the attention he seems to crave, but I have no intention to reward attention-seeking behavior any further. Sam Harris does not need an unsolicited interpreter of his meaning or intent, no matter how frantically willing this interpreter may be. Sam can articulate his meaning and intent himself, without a Sancho Panza. Therefore, I remain perfectly willing to continue this debate with Sam, if he chooses to do so.

Overview of More Than Allegory

"The Light of Transcendence" photographic series, by Bernardo Kastrup.
This image is hereby released into the public domain.

"Over the years I have felt that the limitations of mainstream religion increasingly outweigh its potential benefits, but More Than Allegory sees into its heart, enabling us to consider religion with fresh perspective and redeeming it for our generation."
~ Rupert Spira

To mark the online availability of my new book More Than Allegory for pre-order (see links below), I am posting today the Overview chapter of the book. You can now pre-order it here:

Amazon USA
Amazon UK


This book is a three-part journey into the rabbit hole we call the nature of reality. Its ultimate destination is a plausible, living validation of transcendence. Each of its three parts is like a turn of a spiral, exploring recurring ideas through the prisms of religious myth, truth and belief, respectively. With each turn, the book seeks to convey a more nuanced and complete understanding of the many facets of transcendence.

Part I will resonate especially with those who yearn for the richness that religious myths can bring into life, yet cannot get around the fact that these myths aren’t literally true. It tries to reach those whose souls are at war with their intellects. One of its goals is to restore the meaning of human life by helping the intellect give itself permission to accommodate the intuitions of the soul, without sacrificing reason or plausibility. Indeed, Part I puts forward the controversial notion that many religious myths are actually true; and not just allegorically so. It is the transcendent truth uniquely portrayed by these myths that our culture so desperately needs in order to understand the real. This transcendent truth, for not being amenable to words or equations, cannot be communicated through any other means—scientific or philosophical—but religious mythology. To make sense of all this, Part I attempts to articulate the nature of mythical truth in a manner that honors both religion and our skeptical rationality.  
Part II pursues the next turn of the spiral by first taking a step back: while we all seek truth—be it through religion, science or philosophy—we very seldom inquire into the meaning of truth. What does it mean to say that something is true or false? What hidden assumptions do we make about the underlying nature of reality when we talk of truth? Tackling these questions is the journey of Part II. In its search for answers it leverages our direct experience of world and self to inquire into the nature of time and space, the framework where truth is supposedly to be found. It then concludes that our own inner storytelling plays a surprising role in creating the seeming concreteness of things and the tangibility of history. Finally, it points to clear echoes of its conclusions in many of the world’s religious myths.

Part III, as the final turn of spiral, is the pinnacle of this work. It brings all of the book’s core ideas together in the form of a modern, plausible religious myth. In laying out a complete cosmology for making sense of reality and restoring its transcendence, Part III highlights the critical role of belief in everything we take for granted. Indeed, it explains how deeply ingrained belief systems create the world we live in. Its narrative is based on the story of a modern explorer of consciousness who, during his participation in a secret scientific project, has a series of transcendent encounters. The metaphysics he brings back from these encounters integrates the themes of the book in one coherent framework. It also opens whole new horizons for the restoration of meaning and purpose to our daily lives.

Naturally, the optimal sequence to read this book is that in which it is presented: from Part I to Part III. Indeed, the ideas discussed in Parts I and II are meant to enrich the reading of Part III. That said, if one prefers to go straight to the heart of the matter and enjoy a gripping story without analytical preludes, it is entirely possible to jump directly to Part III and then return to Parts I and II afterwards.

In whichever order you choose to read it, you will notice that the three themes of this book—myth, truth and belief—flow into and interpenetrate each other at multiple levels and meta-levels throughout the text. Part I, for instance, examines mythology with a mindset characteristic of a quest for factual truth. Part II explores the nature of truth by appealing to our own felt intuitions, as we do when we pursue our beliefs. Finally, Part III elaborates upon the role of beliefs in the format of a myth. The goal is to illustrate, both explicitly and implicitly, through concepts and style, the intimate relationship that exists between myth, truth and belief.

The three parts of this book are meant to echo and reinforce each other content-wise as well. Its central ideas return in all three, being explored from a different angle each time. This allows me to convey—often indirectly and implicitly—many more nuances than otherwise possible. For instance, the nature and role of myth is explored in Part I, but the contents of certain myths come back in Parts II and III, where they echo what is discussed there about truth and belief.

The ebb and flow of the book’s trinity of themes ultimately circles around one of them: truth, the central motif of this work. All three parts revolve around it: Part I by exploring how myths can deliver truth, Part II by unveiling the nature of truth through dispelling unexamined beliefs, and Part III by appealing to belief in a myth in order to hint at truth.

You will notice that what I mean by the words ‘myth,’ ‘truth’ and ‘belief’ is richer and more nuanced than the flattened denotations of everyday language. This may, and probably will, surprise you at first. Nonetheless, the attempt to push the boundaries of words and reveal a much bigger, deeper reality behind them is an essential aspect of this work. My intent is to help you see beyond the dull, superficial cultural dialogue reigning in society today.

I hope you find many new vistas and avenues of inquiry in this book. I’ve poured much of myself into it; more than I think most authors would consider prudent. Whatever else it may or may not be, this work is most certainly a sincere, openhearted account of my own way to relate to life, the universe, truth and transcendence.