“. . . [T]he purpose of a myth was to make people more fully conscious of the spiritual dimension that surrounded them on all sides and was a natural part of life.” — Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth
Myth is a word that has suffered greatly in our times, but it wasn’t always this way. As used by Plato in his dialogues it had an honorable place next to logic: it carried the truth of a concept through a story. Those whom we like to call ‘the ancients’ seemed to live in a myth-ful world in which stories were told, repeated, passed on, modified, lived out and lived within — in short, a myth was a portal to a dimension of transcendence which only had to be invoked to be experienced. We are so far from that now.
“In every culture,” notes Karen Armstrong, “we find the myth of a lost paradise, in which humans lived in close and daily contact with the divine (A Short History of Myth 14).” Through many cultures and times the heavens were opened up, sometimes with a tree, a pole, a mountain, an escalator at the center of the world by which people could climb up to the god lands. These were the Golden Ages, common to most cultures around the world, a time when people and animals could commune together, and the gods walked among humans, sometimes in disguise, sometimes revealed through a flash of insight or a glance understood. These were the good old days.
Then somehow a catastrophe snapped the connection between heaven and earth. The mountain crumbled, the tree was cut, the ladder broke. As a species we’ve never been the same since. Joni Mitchell pointed out our longing in Woodstock—“and we’re trying to get ourselves back to the garden.” None of this was meant to be history, a deliberate and verifiable account of events. It was myth, stories that taught us how to live in the face of the inexplicable and to survive in the shadowlands.
We divide our world into the religious and the secular, a concept that would have been blasphemous to our ancestors. To them the world was imbued with the sacred; they walked in light that was cast by divine beings. Nothing was untouched by the gods, anything could be imbued with the sacred. The idea that we worship in a building on a designated day would have been laughable had it not been so seriously bent. For them, the divine could be seen—and heard—in a burning bush, just off the path. While the sacred was all around them it was not so obvious that they could afford to be inattentive. Moses, on the lam from a murder charge in Egypt, making a life for himself in the desert, sees a bush burning and turns aside. He is awestruck, naturally, and curious, but to our eyes the remarkable thing is what happens next. He hears a voice from within the bush telling him to take off his shoes for he is on holy ground—and he does it!
Our first instinct would have been incredulity, tinged with panic. We might have thought ourselves to be slipping, hearing things, suffering hallucinations, most likely from dehydration. A couple of long pulls on the ever-present bottled water and we’d be set right again. Back slowly away, slip around the rock and forget the whole thing ever happened. But Moses turned off the path, allowed the distraction, and met his destiny. By so doing he expanded his universe infinitely in all directions. We would contract it, reduce it, constrict and desiccate it.
I am envious of this inclination to the transcendent. It’s all through sacred writings from all cultures; it is depicted sometimes laconically, sometimes in bewildering detail. The great divide between those people and us is at the molecular level of the One versus the Many. They saw the world as one being, everything in it spinning up in the drama between heaven and earth. Somewhere along the line it was understood that “on earth, as it is in heaven,” was real. This world was a mirror image, on its best days, of what transpired in the heavens. There were people with an acute sensitivity, who saw the signs and could read the wind. You went to them because they could see from a great height what the earth looked like and where you were placed.
There were rituals, sacraments to be carried out, each one another opportunity to come closer to transcendence. It was not a matter of belief, but of practice. Beliefs came and went or wore out and had to be replaced. Or they were found to be impractical. What mattered was the doing, the deed, the action that made the ritual real. When the ancient stories were told you could see yourself in the moment: the hearing made the acting vivid. The acting recreated the story with you, this time, in the starring role. “This is the way,” you heard, “walk in it.” The world is One and you are part of it.
But you don’t get science that way. In order to understand the whole it must be seen through the parts. Not for nothing do we talk about “breaking it down” in analysis. Our metaphors build categories; without categorization there is no possibility of analytical thinking. Usually this works well for us: we see the world as it is; we break it down into parts and then build it back up into a new form and hope there are no little pieces left out in the rebuilding. Thus we can separate action from belief, understand the process, see where the system gets clogged or breaks, and make our repairs. By reducing the world to the lowest common denominator we see what energizes it from the inside. This is what gives us immunizations, molecular biology, synthetic drugs, and nanobots.
But I long for Jacob’s ladder, with the angels going about their business, magnificent beings who barely gave him a glance. He was dumbstruck, touching himself to see if he was dreaming all this and hoping it was real. It was as real as it needed to be because he felt the weight of the numinous, the holy, and he shouted, “Surely the Lord is in this place!” And he placed some stones together to mark the spot, for in the absence of angelic footprints he needed to find it again when he passed by that way. And he called it Beth-el, the house of the god El. And for everyone who came by that place the stones spoke of an experience that was had by someone that was worthy to be remembered. In the remembering one might enter that experience too and feel oneself transformed.
But there’s an inevitability here that can become tragic. A man has a transcendent experience at a nameless desert scree and piles the stones to mark the spot. The story gets out, the people come in hopes of their own experience. The crowds pour in, the tents go up, the hustlers work the crowd, t-shirts are sold, and miracles performed. In time, a city springs up, the temple at its center. There are opportunities for business and investment, legends grow, and soon the religious tourism is booming. And if you should be able to slip out at night, where the buildings give way to sand and desert rocks, and you lie on your back and look up, you must shield your eyes from the glare, but faintly against the sky you might see a moving star, a satellite. No angels, no ladder, no brush of the wind against your cheek, just the clear and certain knowledge that your texts and calls are being carried by that point of moving light.
And yet . . . and yet . . . we may still find the power in the myth if we’re willing to see with our imaginations and suspend our need for irreducible certainty. The world is One and Many, God is in this place, be it Syria, Iraq, Capitol Hill, or Orange County. We will find what we need if we act on our beliefs. ‘I believe, help my unbelief!’