So Spoke Zarathustra

“The gods indeed did not choose rightly …” —Ahunavaiti Gatha

The clouds rumbled.

“Bastard! Devil!,” a bearded man screamed at the sky.
The mountain wind whipped his hair across his face.
The hair was not grey, but the face was not young.

He looked around,
surveying the black bellies of the thunderheads
gathered around the mountain.
The man turned his eyes back to heaven.

A smile spread from his cheeks to his eyes.
He inhaled deeply.
A mad laugh burst out of him,
and he shouted at heaven.

“You dare not kill me, you fool!”

and he shook his head.

With a lower voice, he began to speak as though
he were talking to another man on the summit.

“Death is my ally. Death—
is my power over you.”

His voice elevated as he continued:
“Kill me and you have nothing!”

Now he began to whisper, as if to a confidant.

“My friend. You and I know of powers
greater than the thunderbolt.
Greater than flood! Drought!

… If you do not kill me now, I will tell the others.”

A flash struck the peak to the south, and then a crack split the air.

“You — MISSED!” The first man screamed, laughing,

but then the wind subsided, and
his face grew more solemn.

“You know, we too
have harnessed fire.”

© 2013 Kaweah

 

This is the thing …

I often remark, in contrast to one persistent cliché, that

I am religious but not spiritual.

By this, I don’t mean that I’m a heartless churchgoer. Who do I mean?

First, let’s look at the word “spiritual.” What I mean by “not spiritual” is that, so far as I can tell, the world doesn’t appear to be populated by spirits. I don’t see ghosts or gods. So far as I’m concerned, all I see is nature, and I don’t see any good reason to posit any existence beyond nature. To me, “spiritual” is a word that stands in direct opposition to “natural.”

But I am not simply non-spiritual. Even more than I am not spiritual, I am religious.

What do I mean by this? I mean that I see sacredness in the world. It would not be enough for me to describe my view as naturalistic, because that term is too often conflated with objectivistic indifference. I cannot describe myself as indifferent. I don’t even believe that indifference exists, for in every moment of my life I have cared about whatever I was experiencing, though it be only subtly. I care about everything I see, touch, hear, smell, taste, or imagine. Never have I experienced anything valueless, whether its value be good or bad. Never have I been utterly indifferent.

It’s simple: we care. We must see value in our existence, and we must behave accordingly. When I say, “we must,” I mean that it cannot be avoided. It is the nature of our existence. If there is any Great Power in our lives, it is this: caring.

This doesn’t mean that we’re always good or that we’re always right. It merely means that we are always engaged in a moral struggle, an existential sort of holy war—an existential jihad. Just as we may disapprove of others, we may disapprove of ourselves. We disapprove because we care.

It’s a simple religion, but it seems very hard for most people to understand. I do, however, know of a few who seem to have understood it.

  • The German existentialist Heidegger saw our “being in the world” as neither material nor spiritual, but a state of “caring.”
  • The American naturalist Henry David Thoreau saw “our whole lives” as “startlingly moral.” Thoreau’s personal philosophy of being has been described as an “ethical metaphysics.”
  • Zarathushtra, that ancient Iranian existentialist and revolutionary, recognized for his moral metaphysics by Nietzsche himself, spoke of two qualities in existence—the good and the bad—the two fundamental “qualia” of human perception.
  • The philosopher Heraclitus, a Greek subject of the Persian Empire, seems to have seen the world in a similar light. He saw all things in a kind of constant struggle, saying that the world is not composed of earth, water, or air, but poetically, of fire. “War is the father of all,” he said, but by “war,” he clearly didn’t mean violence between nations; rather, he meant that there is struggle in everything, and this struggle need not be seen Newtonian terms (in terms of opposite physical forces). It may be seen in a phenomenological sense, as ethical­, even esthetic.
  • Alfred North Whitehead, an English mathematician given to lengthy philosophical exposition, also appeared to appreciate this principle when he said, somewhat succinctly, “value is coextensive with reality.”

Having established that we care, or at least that I have a very strong conviction that we care, one might ask, “what ought we to do then?” My best answer to that question is that, paradoxically, we ought to do what we must do.

All ya can do is do what you must
You do what you must do and ya do it well
I’ll do it for you, honey baby
Can’t you tell?

—Bob Dylan

We must struggle for what we find worthy of struggle. As we are thinking beings, this struggle will inevitably be guided by thought (however imperfect), just as thought must necessarily be guided by that existential state of caring.

Given this position, it would not be suitable for me to suggest any particular politics, though I personally prefer particular values, strategies, policies, and so forth. When speaking from a perspective of faith, it is better to let the caring mind determine what is wise, rather than dictate wisdom to it, as it were, in a box.

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” —Plutarch

As I have implied above, the struggle is esthetic as much as it is ethical. A good thing, whether it be an idea or an action, is beautiful by merit of its virtue. Likewise, a beautiful impression is also a good impression. Religion and art are one. Ethics and esthetics are two sides of one coin—that precious coin of our value-centered existence.

Since Zarathushtra is generally given credit for the insight behind my religion, I call my religion Zoroastrianism. You may call it what you like.

 

The Burning Bush

When God spoke to Moses, God took the form of a burning bush.

The fire is in the bush from the beginning.

The fire is in the bush from the beginning.

Why did an ancient Israelite think that God would take the form of a self-immolating bush?

It might be natural enough to think that fire consumes a bush, but there’s another way to see it—the way that many ancients saw it: the fire is in the bush from the beginning. It’s not really such a crazy idea if one considers that the fire cannot occur without what’s in the bush. Sure, the fire also needs oxygen, but again: the bush exhales oxygen as it generates wood and foliage. It provides the fire with everything it needs. It is, in a real sense, a terrestrial offspring of the sun, waiting to ignite.

With the igneous nature of vegetation in mind, consider the igneous nature of the earth. Volcanoes could not have escaped the awareness of the ancients. With accompanying seismic activity, it must have been easy to conclude that the earth itself has a fiery cauldron at its heart. Gas and oil seeps, when ignited, may have lent some corroboration to this conclusion. Indeed, it is well-known that a fire temple recently made use of the natural gas seeps at Baku, Azerbaijan.

Ancient peoples didn’t just see fire in vegetation and in the earth. They saw fire in the sky. Of course they saw the sun as a heavenly fire, but they even saw the stars as fires:

the brightest of these flames, and the hottest, is the light of the sun ; for that all the other stars are farther off from the earth; and that on this account, they give less light and warmth; …

—Diogenes Laertius, Life of Heraclitus

The Baku fire temple, depicted in a 1919 postage stamp.

The Baku fire temple, depicted in a 1919 postage stamp.

It is easy to underestimate the value of fire to ancient peoples. Fire gave them an ability to function at night. Fire defended men from large predators. Fire was a weapon of war, a companion in the hunt, and a tool for managing vegetation.

But more remarkably, fire seemed capable of transforming things. Fire tenderized and flavored food. Fire sterilized flesh and purified water. Fire evaporated water. Fire transformed clay to pottery. When iron was placed in fire, the iron itself would take on the the color and heat of fire, and suddenly man could reshape matter.

But fire got even more amazing with the advent of the bronze age. Fire had previously been used to forge iron and transform flesh. Now it would be used to transform matter itself. Alchemy would naturally follow.

Ancient peoples must have felt a tremendous sense of awe when witnessing the transformative power of fire. It had long been our companion as a species, to be sure, and it had also remained an untamed force of nature. Whether embodied as the sun, the thunderbolt, or a metalworker’s forge, it is a god who holds a special place in his heart for humanity.

No wonder, then, that the Persians worshiped it. No wonder they associated fire with the very ordering principle of the universe. No wonder that Heraclitus—an Ephesian subject of the Persian Empire—did the same. Fire seemed capable of transform anything.

The dream of transformation that fire once nurtured in man lives on today, if only in the nooks and crannies of our cultures. According to the Persian religion that I was raised in—the Bahá’í Faith, the first sign of the coming Kingdom of God on Earth will be a new, revolutionary science of alchemy:

The first sign of the coming of age of humanity referred to in the Writings of Baha’u’llah is the emergence of a science which is described as that ‘divine philosophy’ which will include the discovery of a radical approach to the transmutation of elements. This is an indication of the splendors of the future stupendous expansion of knowledge.”

—note 194 to the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 254

This very same religion assigns its most tortuous, cruel punishment to the crime of arson. Is not such a sign of respect for the power of fire a form of worship?

Today, we don’t think so much of fire, yet we, with our gas-fired power plants, furnaces, boiler rooms, and internal combustion engines, are every bit as dependent on combustion as our ancient forebears were—to say nothing of the other forms of fire. We are a civilization of fire worshipers, though our iconography has changed.

The Hexad of Wisdom

In Zoroastrianism, the benevolent Lord Wisdom interacts with his creation through six gods—or principles—of his making. These can be thought of as the pillars of Zoroastrianism:

  1. Good Thinking. “Good” is regarded in two senses: both as beneficial and as effective. Thus wisdom and goodwill are implied. This “good thinking” is the means by which men are advised by Lord Wisdom.

  2. Truth. This is Asha, the most valued principle in Zoroastrianism. Asha is symbolized by fire, probably for fire’s utility in illumination, prehistoric trials by ordeal, and in purifying metals. Asha is generally translated as “righteousness”, but seeing as Asha is generally juxtaposed against “the Lie” in the earliest sources, it probably originates more in truth rather than in obedience to a moral code.

  3. Reform. This is often described as “desirable kingdom,” indicating the core objective of Zoroastrianism: world reform. This notion might also be expressed more generally as “order,” which is how Plutarch interpreted it. Thinking of it as order, we can easily see why this principle is closely associated with the heavens. Seeing it this way, “reform” can be depicted as bringing the orderliness of the heavens down to earth, hence the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, or as my Bahá’í friends say, “the New Order” or “World Order.” Plutarch describes this Zoroastrian “kingdom” as follows:

    Then shall the earth become a level plain, and there shall be one manner of life and one form of government for a blessed people who shall all speak one tongue.

    I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to interpret “a level plain” politically, rather than physically. Additionally, the principle of world reform need not entail notions of theocratic utopias. The point, I think, is to make a project of ridding the world of suffering.

  4. Devotion. This is generally seen in a conventional religious sense, but when we consider that this god of devotion often doubles as a Mother Earth figure, we can see that “devotion” in this usage can be seen as a loving commitment to the welfare of the world.

  5. Health. Symbolized by water. Coupled with #6 (see below). Sometimes cast as wholeness.

  6. Life. Symbolized by vegetation. Generally specified as immortality or long life. Along with #5, this is often presented as a reward to the righteous. I prefer to think of health and life as values. This is not far-fetched, considering the emphasis placed upon life in Zoroastrianism. Life is, in fact, often equated with goodness itself, opposed to the evil of death. Once the virtue of life is established, the virtue of health can hardly be doubted, but health is also a virtue of its own, for life has significantly less virtue when overcome with illness.

Priest Dogs of Iran

Georgie (snapshots.parade.com)

Georgie (snapshots.parade.com)

This is a continuation of a thread on dogs.

Zoroastrian funerary rituals appear to indicate that ancient Iranians believed that dogs had a unique power to discern whether the life had departed from a body.

What follows next is known as the dog-sight (sagdid) ceremony. A dog, generally a “four-eyed” dog (a dog with two eye-like spots just above the eyes), is presented so that it gazes at the corpse. Although various reasons are assigned to this ceremony, the purpose in ancient times was to ascertain whether or not life was altogether extinct.

Solomon Alexander Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith

It may be due to this high regard for the perceptiveness of dogs, and not merely the loyalty and utility of dogs, that lead ancient Iranians to treat the corpses of dogs with the same care that they treated human corpses.

Not only did ancient Iranians believe that dogs could alone tell whether a human was truly deceased, they also believed that dogs guarded the bridge to heaven. They may have even believed that these dogs guided souls across that bridge into heaven.

In line with this, dog breeding is a religious matter in Zoroastrianism, and canine pregnancy is treated quite seriously:

It lies with the faithful to look in the same way after every pregnant female, either two-footed or four-footed, two-footed woman or four-footed bitch.

Vendidad, Fargard 15

The Vendidad establishes that people have a moral obligation to care for pregnant strays and the pups of strays. The book lays out—in detail—how to determine who is responsible for a pregnant stray. And upon whomever the responsibility lies, negligence is murder:

If he shall not support her, so that the whelps come to grief, for want of proper support, he shall pay for it the penalty for wilful murder.

Vendidad, Fargard 15

Rough treatment of pregnant dogs is a punishable offense:

It is the third of these sins when a man smites a bitch big with young or affrights her by running after her, or shouting or clapping with the hands; If the bitch fall into a hole, or a well, or a precipice, or a river, or a canal, she may come to grief thereby; if she come to grief thereby, the man who has done the deed becomes a Peshotanu (deserving of two hundred strokes or a proportional fine).

Vendidad, Fargard 15

Similar penalties are established for abuse of dogs in general:

It is the second of these sins when a man gives bones too hard or food too hot to a shepherd’s dog or to a house-dog; If the bones stick in the dog’s teeth or stop in his throat; or if the food too hot burn his mouth or his tongue, he may come to grief thereby; if he come to grief thereby, the man who has done the deed becomes a Peshotanu. He who gives too hot food to a dog so as to burn his throat is margarzan (guilty of death); he who gives bones to a dog so as to tear his throat is margarzan.

Vendidad, Fargard 15

Unfortunately, the attitude toward dogs in modern Iran is quite the opposite.

Another means of distressing Zoroastrians was to torment dogs. Primitive Islam knew nothing of the now pervasive Muslim hostility to the dog as an unclean animal, and this, it seems, was deliberately fostered in Iran because of the remarkable Zoroastrian respect for dogs.

Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians, pg. 158

River at the Edge of the World

It may presently be one of the most God-forsaken places on our planet. The Kokcha River region of Afghanistan is good for little more than opium farming and arms smuggling today, though it was once one of the great corridors between the ancient worlds of India and Iran, long before Darius and the Persian Empire.

A lapis lazuli pack train above the River Kokcha.

As early as five thousand years ago, the Pharaohs of Egypt traded for the precious, bespangled lapis lazuli that is still mined from the mountains that are still being excavated by the River Kokcha.

It is the River Kokcha that defines, more than any other stream, the natural boundary between the Pamir and the Hindu Kush. Because of this strategic significance of the river, it must have competed with Khyber Pass for traffic between ancient India and Bactria. This is corroborated by Franz Grenet, who draws clues from the Avesta that indicate that the River Kokcha may have been the major route between Bactria and India at one time. The Avestan pattern Ragha-Chakhra-Varena-Hapta Hendu appears to draw a course from the Panj (Oxus) to India by way of Chitral, Pakistan.

Grenet also suggests that the prophet Zoroaster may have been born and raised at a bend on this river. Alexander the Great would later found his city Alexandria on the Oxus at the mouth of the Kokcha, after he crossed into Bactria from India, likely by way of Dorah Pass, at the headwaters of the very same river, at the junction of the Hindu Kush and the Pamir massif, the “Roof of the World.”

Long after Zarathustra and Alexander, Marco Polo claimed to have traveled along this same river, seeing the fabled lapis lazuli mines, on his way to China:

From Hormuz to Kerman, passing Herat, Balkh, they arrived Badakhshan, where Marco Polo convalesced from an illness and stayed there for a year. On the move again, they found themselves on “the highest place in the world, the Pamirs”, with its name appeared in the history for the first time.

Marco Polo and His Travels

Even today, the majority of Afghans are Iranians. The Tajiks, who speak Persian, are about as Iranian as anybody—”Tajik” is just another word for “Iranian”. Though Uzbeks have ruled and settled the area from time to time, the Kokcha River region is primarily Tajik country. The land immediately across the passes at that boundary between the Pamir and Hindu Kush is called Kafiristan, which may translate, curiously enough, to “Land of the Infidels”. This is a subject of some dispute. It would seem to be apropos, given the great religious divides that must have existed between East and West back into the depths of human prehistory, but perhaps more important than the divisive aspect of these geo-religious differences might be the enlightening aspect of cultural cross-pollination between early Hindus, Zoroastrians, Greeks, and Buddhists over so many centuries.

Asha and Commerce

It’s easy to see the prominent role of moral dualism in Zoroastrianism. It is not always quite so obvious what the characteristics of Good and Evil are considered to be. Ultimately, I think the best answer is that Good and Evil have no characteristics. To associate characteristics with these principles is equivalent to giving names to them, and to name Good and Evil is the essence of idolatry. Of course, Zoroastrianism does offer names for Good and Evil. The question is, how can Good and Evil be associated with actual phenomena? Though we ought to take care in making such a judgment, I think it safe to say that drawing a moral demarcation between general principles is not quite so hazardous as drawing such demarcations between men.

There are two readily recognizable boundaries between Good and Evil in traditional Zoroastrianism:

  • between the Truth and the Lie (Asha and Druj)
  • between life and death

That is to say, as far as particular values are concerned, Zoroastrianism values truth and life above all else.

I’ve been thinking about the Zoroastrian idea of truth, which is called “Asha”, the cousin of the Hindu principle Rta. Asha and Rta both represent universal order, but Asha carries a strong moral connotation. It connotes societal order that results from honesty in human relations. It is such honesty that is the fabric of human commerce, and I am using the broadest definition of “commerce,” including not only the exchange of goods and services, but also intellectual commerce, social commerce, cultural commerce, and even spiritual commerce. Without honesty and trustworthiness, commerce cannot thrive and society loses its very fabric. Hence it can be seen that the two named characteristics of Good and Evil in Zoroastrianism—Asha and Druj—exhibit the emphasis that Zoroastrianism places on human relations, i.e., commerce.

In a nutshell, to value Asha is to value human society. In recent years, we have repeatedly witnessed the damage that a lack of honesty and trust can do to an economy, but that is only a particular instance of a general principle of human commerce, to say nothing of the internal, psychological society of the individual.

Reconstructing Zarathustra

I am not as interested in Zarathustra the actual prehistoric man, if he ever existed, as much as I am interested in the name Zarathustra as a label for—or a personification of—the core ideas of Zoroastrianism.

For me, the essence of Zoroastrianism is the existentialist basis of cosmic dualism: the value-laden character of phenomena, or perception. As we’ve discussed here before, Plutarch considered this aspect of Zoroastrianism to be the essence of Zoroastrianism, though of course he did not discuss the idea in existentialist terms. Plutarch identified an essential correspondence between Zoroastrian cosmic dualism and the dialectic of Heraclitus. For Plutarch, all things contain a mixture of good and evil, hence existence is characteristically value-laden.

How might we imagine such an idea might be personified?

We have inherited a fairly rich body of Zoroastrian legend, archaeology, and philology from which we might assemble a myth that is both plausible and true to the meaning of Zoroastrianism.

We can certainly imagine Zoroaster as the legendary prophet who retreated to the mountains, but it seems untrue to the myth to see Zoroaster as a man who began as a prophet. What brought the man to the mountains before his epiphany—his revelation?

I’m inclined to envision the young Zoroaster as a man of some status. I do not dare suggest that a barefoot bronze age serf somehow pulled himself up by his bootlaces. Was he a priest? I think he would have had to have been, given the apparent stratification of ancient Iranian society, but the key is that we don’t necessarily need to envision him as a fully-employed priest. Perhaps he was a disillusioned son of a priest who found work as a herdsman. Perhaps seeing him as a merchant would work even better.

The marketplace is intimately tied to common views of morality that consider actions (AKA sacrifices) to be payments made toward some form of compensation, however postponed. The compensation might be delivered by a government, a god, or a force such as karma. There is a single rule at work, and Zarathushtra is no exception to it. The difference with Zarathushtra is that this celestial justice can be seen as serving a higher principle that is intrinsic and fundamental to our personal experience: the Good. The fact that Zoroastrianism makes the salvation of existence itself the priority reinforces this point. Other principles such as karma may imply the existence of a higher Good, but only Zoroastrianism can be seen as making the relationship explicit. When the Good is only implicit, it can be casually merged with notions of celestial power, which has the effect of reducing the Good to a partner—or worse, a servant—of Power.

The idea, where Zoroastrianism is concerned, is that an economy of moral commerce could be conceived. It would be imagined that this economy might trigger a “renewal of existence”. The challenge would be to motivate people to engage in this exchange of “goods.”

Perhaps this mythical moral capitalist—our prehistoric Adam Smith—might have first found work as a herdsman, and then found something to trade. That commodity could lead him to think about value and exchange. One commonly accepted translation of his name “yellow camel” may even hint that he may have been a traveling merchant. Alternatively, he could have partnered with a merchant. A partnership between a merchant and a priest could be the ideal birth of Zoroastrianism.

The UUA's New Covenant

The latest draft of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s New Principles and Purposes starts with an interesting twist: The “Principles and Purposes” heading has been replaced by the term “Covenant.” I suppose that’s forgivable, but I feel a strong urge to admit that the word “covenant” makes my skin crawl. Maybe it’s just because I was raised a Bahá’í, or perhaps others such as Mormon apostates get similar cases of the creeps from the word.

But maybe the word, like so many others, needs to be reclaimed and redeemed. My guess is that Unitarian Universalists want to make it clear that they’re serious about their faith, serious enough to take vows. Why should covenants be the exclusive domain of closed minds?


The next thing that one is likely to notice is that this new Covenant is twice as large as what it’s replacing. Much of that bulk is due to the introduction of elaborations on the UUA principles, which I can generally do without.

Phrases like “we … move toward solidarity with all beings” and “protecting all beings” prompt me to ask, “shall we seek solidarity with tuberculosis?” I can do without such brotherhood.

One elaboration suggests that we be “grateful for the gift of life”. I prefer to celebrate the life that is essential to our very being. I have no one to thank.

Another elaboration asserts that “we are called to live in right relationship with others.” What does this mean? Is it a Buddhist thing?

Another elaboration suggests that “we become more willing to relinquish material desires.” Yeah I get it, but it sounds too dualist and negational to me.

Sometimes the Unitarian Universalist idea of “liberal religion” seems more like a cross between a new age fad and the Green Party than a philosophy of open religion. And, yes: I am a Green.

I’ve generally been of the opinion that the UUA is more an interfaith association than a religion, but perhaps I’m prepared to change my mind. The liberal idols that once lurked behind the principles and sources are now in the process of being canonized.


These new elaborations of principles do have some highlights that I happen to like.

The text for Principle #2 suggests that we be “mindful of our own mortality”.

The text for Principle #4 asserts that “Unitarian Universalist religious authority lies in the individual”. I like this one very much. Still, I would not call it a statement of faith.

The new “inclusion” section suggests that we be “Dissatisfied with mere non-discrimination”. Unfortunately, this would-be UU happens to be dissatisfied with mere dissatisfaction.


One new feature of this draft Covenant is its identity statement, which I find to be a good idea, though it serves to remind me why I have mixed feelings about Unitarian Universalism:

The Unitarian Universalist Association is composed of congregations rooted in the heritage of two religious faiths: the Unitarian heritage ever questioning and ever seeking the unity in all things, and the Universalist heritage ever affirming the power of hope and God’s infinite love.

From my perspective, this statement draws a sharp line between Unitarians and Universalists. Whereas I strongly concur with the Unitarian “heritage” described here, I consider the Universalist heritage somewhat regressive. Should love be regarded exclusively as a possession of God? We need not look to God for love; it’s right here within us. Love could be made the heart of the UUA, but it seems that love will have to remain a mere attribute of the Trinitarian side of the UUA heritage, and just another descriptive term for how church members should interact.

In Unitarian Universalism, “Unitarian” remains a mere adjective. I wouldn’t mind that so much if the noun it modifies meant “love.”

Interview with the Prophet (Part 2)

Continued. When we left off, Zarathushtra was explaining his reasoning for enforcing morality with Heaven and Hell.


Idol Chatter: Even if the punishment fits the crime and Hell has an end, don’t you think this kind of compensation for good behavior undermines our esteem of virtue itself?

Zarathushtra: There is certainly that danger, but at least virtue has entered the conversation. The hope is that once men believe that they have the ability to choose the Good, then they are on the road to the realization that the Good lies within them.

IC: Fair enough; but still, shouldn’t virtue be considered its own reward?

Z: Ultimately, the word “reward” ought to be dropped. Virtue needs no reward.

IC: Great, but what do you have to offer the person who already recognizes this, who is not motivated by greed?

Z: Nothing! They have no need for my preaching!

IC: But why not try to instill natural good will in people?

Z: Why instill what is natural? My task is only to lead the horse to water. The horse will enjoy the water enough without my goading. To speak of individual virtue at all is to miss the point. Ultimately, virtue is not an individual trait; it is a shared experience.


IC: It is said that you rejected the capricious gods of the Indo-Aryan pantheon and replaced them with a moral God, or was it a moral pantheon?

Z: One god; two gods; three gods; one god with three personas: what’s the difference? So long as the gods serve the Good, it is good religion. Most of the old gods were gods of might, and worship of might, whether of one almighty God or of a pantheon of celestial powers is worship that is misdirected.

IC: How so?

Z: Might is essentially amoral. To whatever extent divine might is revered, divinity becomes that much more a tyranny. God must be a servant to the Good.

IC: And what is “the Good?” Who is to say?

Z: I see the Good as Plato did; the ultimate universal. I see Good as the unification of ethics and metaphysics, the two branches of philosophy. Wisdom—sophia—is intimately tied to the Good.

IC: Lord Wisdom: Ahura Mazda.

Z: Precisely. It is as the poet said: “truth is beauty and beauty is truth,” only I think the poet did not understand that aesthetics is a subspecies of ethics. You and I both know the Good, but we have no blueprint for it. There are no names for it. We only know that it is good. We may often mistake it for evil, but it cannot be anything but good.


IC: It has long been reported, since Plutarch, Herodotus, and perhaps farther back, that the distinctive doctrine of your religion is cosmic dualism, the idea that the world is a battlefield between the forces of Good and Evil, but some modern reformers contest this.

Z: Yes. Some modern Zoroastrians are ashamed of the idea, but I suspect that is because they, like many of their forebears, read the idea too literally.

IC: Let’s look at the idea more closely, then. Would you contend that nothing in existence is morally indifferent?

Z: That is one way to put it, yes.

IC: But surely you would not attribute evil intent to, say, a landslide.

Z: I don’t see it as a matter of intention. The morality of a landslide is not intrinsic; it is a matter of the suffering, or even aesthetic joy, that it brings about. If there were no joy or suffering, there would be no good or evil; and the converse applies as well.

IC: Would you say that good and evil are subjective?

Z: Not strictly. Much of good and evil is a common experience, though we experience joy and suffering as individuals. We have no reason to believe that joy and suffering are not in part objective, or even fundamentally so.

IC: But do you think that existence is fundamentally moral?

Z: I suppose my best answer for that is that all our perceptions are fundamentally moral, and all that we perceive is all that matters. A more contemporary, existentialist way to say this is that all phenomena are value-laden.


IC: I’ve long wondered: is it true that you were killed in a siege of Bactra?

Z: That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it!

IC: If that is the case, how can I be talking to you here and now?

Z: Well I was reborn, of course.

IC: You don’t mean that your soul was reincarnated.

Z: Of course not. Just another avatar, nothing more.

IC: Of course. Say, could you do me one final favor?

Z: I don’t see why not.

IC: Could you sing the opening verse of Fat Bottomed Girls? You know: “I was just a skinny lad …”

Z: Hah! If I could sing, do you think I’d have time for you? [winks]