As Joseph Campbell explained: “The goal of Western religion is not to bring about a sense of identity with the transcendent. The goal is to bring about a relationship between human beings and God, who are not the same… How in this tradition [Christianity] do you get related to God? The relationship is established within an institution. This may term the first mythic dissociation in that it dissociates the person from the divine principal. The individual can only become associated with the divine through the social institution.”
A New Reformation
The Same Old Wine
The change goes deeper than the content of your mind, deeper than your thoughts. In fact at the heart of the consciousness lies the transcendence of thought, a newfound ability of rising above thought, of realizing a dimension within yourself that is infinitely more vast than thought” Eckhard Tolle
Music of the Gods
There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical
These short reflections are an attempt to demonstrate the poetic nature of religious propositions. They will briefly examine the relationship between religion and language and suggest an aesthetic alternative to the prosaic tyranny of religious fundamentalism.
Religion and language share many fundamental characteristics. Like languages, religions can understand one another, and meaningful translations and understandings can occur between religions because they share a common function and purpose. Religions are attempts to articulate experiences of the sacred by extending a creator/creation metaphor, within a particular cultural context.*
As with languages, religions can be classified by their places of origin. We speak for example, of Romance languages, and by that, we mean a family of languages that a linguistic “stock”, a cultural milieu. Religions sharing the same cultural milieu, also share in common religious myths and symbols of the sacred.
Like languages, religions, also develop in accordance with the natural progression of cultural evolution. Cultural evolution is the result of intrinsic dynamics within a culture, and external dynamics (cultural assimilation) resulting from contacts with other cultures. These cultural dynamics provide the creative matrix in which cosmologies emerge and evolve. Religions are always thought out within the framework of a cosmology and are articulated within the boundaries and limitations of these understandings and beliefs.
The Judeo-Christian religion is a prime example of a religion which has undergone many exposures to a variety of cosmologies over time, which has had a profound effect upon its own historical and religious development (Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Roman). It is clear that the cosmology of the Old Testament, when Gods would walk on the earth, fornicate with earthly women, live on tops of mountains, and drop in for a quick meal, is significantly different from the Jewish Apocalyptic and Gnostic Redemptive thought forms of the New Testament. Compare, for example, Mediterranean Christianity to Northern European Christianity; compare American Christianity to African or Latin American Christianity. Obviously, a religion which does not adapt itself to the natural progression of cultural evolution, becomes obsolete, and like a language which fewer and fewer people speak over time, it will eventually become extinct.
Mythos and Logos
There are many other fascinating and enlightening relationships between language and religion, but I would like to make just one more comparison, which I believe to be the most theologically provocative. Like language, religion has boundaries and the transgression of these boundaries leads not only to spiritual confusion, but often spiritual tyranny.
I would suggest that the true language of the human being, that is, the original language of the human being was poetry (mytho-poetics), and that religious propositions are sourced and referenced within the context of a poetic consciousness. The function of mytho-poetic language is to attempt to express or give meaning to that which is beyond both meaning and expression; that to which language can only point, the inexpressible, the mystical.
The very forms of poetic expression (meter, rhyme, cadence, etc.) are indications of the inability of discursive language to express the ineffable. That is, when language reaches its conceptual boundaries, its “speed of light,” the physical forms of language begin to change, just like forms of matter change as they approach their physical limits. Words begin to bend, they elongate or shrink, they morph or transform into meter, rhyme, cadence, and they resemble notes of a musical score, more than propositions of history and science. They begin to be part of the song of earth, the music of the spheres; they begin to share in the aesthetic structures of what they are trying to express. They become true religious symbols, not only pointing to, but actually participating in the reality which they seek to express.
The truth of mythos cannot be expressed through the language of logos. The logical structures of language lack the revelatory power of poetry and song. This is one of the reasons, why historic religions, what we call religions of the book, will inevitable fall short of their ability to mediate the beauty of God. Logic is the language of time, history, objectivity, and knowledge-the language of a book. Poetry is the language of place, immediate experience, subjectivity, and wisdom – the language of a community.
Confusing mythos and logos leads to the reification of religious myths and symbols, which inevitably results in spiritual tyranny; the tyranny of a people who have lost their poetic nature, who have reduced metaphor to fact, connotation to denotation; a people who have lost their sense of the Sacred. When religious metaphors are mistaken for facts, religion becomes merely assent to dogmatic beliefs, beliefs which are easily co-opted for political purposes. The birth of heresy is the death of religion!
Recovering a Sense of the Sacred
The well-known Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said so pointedly: “That which we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence.” Yet, within that silence, that space beyond language and meaning, that space beyond religion and understanding, that space which T.S. Elliot called the “shadow,” there dwells the intonation of the Spirit. For those who seek to hear, for those who need to hear, or those who are simply graced to hear; in the silence, there is a song, sung by the earth herself. I know this because, as a child she would sing her song to me, she would sing her song through me. I lost myself in her song. I became her song. My thoughts would come always in meter and rhyme for hours on end; in the woods hearing the song, feeling the song, becoming the song.
Sad to say, I have lost this ability to hear nature’s song so clearly, but I still recognize something of the tune as it expressed in the countless stories of the Native American Community. These are stories, peopled by a multitude of animals. In them animals speak a language and human beings understand them. They not only communicate to humans via language, they often save human beings from their own follies, and some even invite humans to live with them in their dens and burrows, and adopt them as their own.
Humans transform into animals and animals into humans. Animal species are called nations, and people take on animal names. In some stories of origin, the humans are actually descended from the animal nations, and so, are indeed, relations in both a biological and spiritual sense. Humans have a treaty, an understanding with the animal nations, a mutual and reciprocal relationship of respect and honor.
This sharing of a language, these intimate bonds between animals and humans, the ease with which humans and animals can transform and morph into one another are symbols of the elemental harmony between the human being and all forms of life. In other words, these storytellers understood themselves as being part of that animal nature and that animal realm, and they understand this common nature was shared by all beings.
I would suggest, this elemental, poetic reality, this unity of all being – is, has been, and will continue to be, the true and proper referent, the meaning of what we intend to express when we say, “God.” God is a song. Nature sings that song, and as our brother Jesus once said, “Let those who have ears to hear, hear.”
* Imagine the world to be a creation, the ingression of a preexisting eternal ordering providing a formal structuring of the cosmos. The structure of the cosmos is understood as being derived from the “mind “ of the creator, hence the reasonability of the cosmos; the real being able to be articulated through the forms of rationality. Note-not all spiritualties are religions.
Religion and Science
Both religion and science develop in accordance with the natural progression of cultural evolution. Cultural evolution is the result of intrinsic dynamics within a culture (cultural growth), and external dynamics (cultural assimilation) resulting from contacts with other cultures. These cultural dynamics provide the creative matrix in which cosmologies and religions emerge and evolve. Religions are always thought out within the framework of a cosmology and are articulated within the boundaries and limitations of these understandings and beliefs.
Obviously, a religion which does not adapt itself to the natural progression of cultural evolution, becomes obsolete, and like a language which fewer and fewer people speak over time, it will eventually become extinct.
The fact of the matter is that religious consciousness, like the rest of nature evolves. Historic religious consciousness emerged from pre-historic religious consciousness, and today, many of us are living proof of the fact that our understanding of history, as well as our understanding of God is undergoing a radical transformation.
We are not only experiencing tremendous advances in the world of global technologies, global markets, and global communication systems, but we are also experiencing a new age of spiritual development. A flowering of spiritual intelligence, an evolution and transformation in global religious consciousness.
Certainly part of that transformation and growth involves the challenge of relating science and religion. In the past, religious fundamentalism has presented a hindrance to this endeavor. However, with advancements in historical and biblical theology, scriptural interpretation is lending itself to a compatibility with evolutionary and cosmological advances in contemporary culture.
We need to develop a theology of this place, and for this time, we need to develop a contemporary North American theology, informed by the past, but not enslaved to it. And certainly a great part of that development with have profound implications for the understanding of how science and religion are related and interact with one another.
Noah and his amazing Ark
Hollywood and the religious right
At last, Hollywood has made a movie about Noah’s Ark-can a movie on Jonah and the Whale be far behind? I suppose it is inevitable that good old Noah would be memorialized on film by, no less then Russell Crow. Not only is the Flood story fascinating to children, it has indeed captured the mythic imagination of people for over three thousand years.
Don’t we all wonder- how did Noah fit all those animals on the Ark? How did he and his passengers repopulate the earth, especially, since they were all related? Weren’t there rainbows before the great flood? How could a good God destroy the world?
Yet, in spite of such rational and moral quandaries, the story has achieved religious archetypal status, even to the point where Hollywood thinks it can make a buck or two in its contemporary reenactment. And of course therein lies the problem.
For many people, especially Americans, the film will be seen as a movie about an historical event, much like the movie “The Passion of Christ.” One can only imagine many thousands of Sunday school children being taken by their churches to see the “reenactment” of Noah’s success. The story about how once upon a time, God hated everyone on earth, destroyed the whole world accept for sparing the ancient forefather of our faith, along with some skunks, snakes, badgers and gerbils.
Once successfully portrayed on film, there will be little doubt in the children’s mind that the story actually happened, because, after all it just did before their own eyes. This is one of the ways religious fundamentalism is handed down through ages. There is something about seeing a myth re-enacted on the big screen that lends itself to a prosaic reification of mythic symbols and stories.
I remember quite vividly having my faith in the Bible confirmed, when as a child my mother took me to see Charlton Heston (Moses) part the red sea. and drown all the bad guys. What we didn’t know at the time was that Moses would later join the NRA, and advocate for marksmanship for the next generation of saints and martyrs of the church. I too, would later, not only become a Lutheran minister, but would also become a certified professional marksman (NRA) by the time I was twelve. Art can, in fact, imitate life- or is it the other way around?
And that is precisely why Hollywood re-enacts Christian myths, not because they are interested in the moral teachings of the stories, the transcendent spiritual truths of the symbols, or the spiritual power of the metaphors, rather they know only too well that many millions of Americans are afflicted by the disease of religious fundamentalism.
For thousands of years human beings have been reenacting their religious myths, through ritual and dramatic performance. There is nothing new about that. We also enact stories, plays, fables etc.., as well as historical events. The problem is that film lends itself to a literal belief in myth. Film makes the stories that Hollywood tells us seem real. They make us believe these things really happened once upon a time, or yesterday in New York. We suspend our disbelief and loose ourselves in the magic of cinema. Movies are powerful and they can be deceptive, and manipulative. “Don’t cry it’s only a movie.” This is not intended as a criticism of the art form, rather an assent to its power.
Have you ever had the unfortunate experience of going to the movies with someone (usually a man) who is constantly criticizing the movie for its historical inaccuracies; it’s quite annoying and indicative of a lack of imagination on behalf of the critic. After all, most people understand that, “it’s not supposed to be real, it’s supposed to be a movie, not a documentary- relax and enjoy it, use your imagination.”
The cinema encourages us to suspend our disbeliefs and to loss ourselves in the imagination of “as if.” And that is precisely the problem with fundamentalists, they have no imagination. They have lost their ability for “as if”, they have forgotten how to suspend their literal belief, and so have lost the ability to play and have fun; with that loss, also comes the loss of a true religious consciousness.
“It is inevitable that children should be taught in purely concrete terms. But then the child grows up and realizes who Santa Claus is. He is really Daddy. So, too, we must grow in the same way in learning about God, and the institutional churches must grow in presenting the message of the symbols to adults.” Joseph Campbell
For many viewers, instead of Noah being a really cool movie, full of visual effects and weird animals, they will experience the film as an historical re-enactment of a real event in ancient times. However, they will receive little help from their churches in trying to get to the real truth of this powerful myth.
An Alternative Interpretation of the Story
…half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies. Joseph Campbell
I remember as a child and even into my early adulthood, hearing of various mountaineering expeditions whose goal was to try to find remnants of the ark itself. Like mounting an expedition to discover a pot of gold at the end of rainbow, or searching for Unicorns in the forest, the ark, an obvious mythic symbol, has been reified into a fact. And so, once again, with Hollywood’s help, we are in the process of relegating religious consciousness into the realm of the infantile nursery.
Let me suggest another, interesting, and historically probable interpretation of the story of Noah’s Ark. This interpretation comes from a book by the name of “The White Goddess- A historical grammar of poetic myth,” written in 1948 by the poet, novelist, and perhaps greatest mythologist of the 20th century, Robert Graves.
At the end of this esoteric and massive work, Graves is speaking of the distinction between what he calls, “the ancient intuitive language of poetry” and the more “modern rational language of prose, universally current.” He speaks of a friend of his, a Bishop in the Anglican Church who is “complaining that a majority of reactionary bishops would like to insist on a literal belief of even in the stories of Noah’s Ark and Jonah’s whale.”
“The Bishop is right to deplore the way in which these venerable religious symbols have been misinterpreted for didactic reasons; and to deplore still more the church’s perpetuation of fables as literal truths…. The story of the ark is probably derived from an Asiatic icon in which the solar spirit of the solar year is shown in a moon-ship, going through his habitual New year changes- bull, lion, snake and so on; and the story of the Whale from a similar icon showing the same Spirit being swallowed at the end of the year by the Moon-and-Sea goddess, represents as a sea-monster.”
In other words, the story of the Ark is a story coming to us from the realm of astral- theology. A story that ancient people would tell one another sitting around campfires looking at the night sky and imaging the stars, the planets, the moon and sun as actors in a great cosmic play. A drama that each year renewed itself with the passing of the winter solstice. A drama not only about the God’s, but also providing clues how you and I can live in harmony with this cosmic order, which mystifies, beautifies, unifies, and guides are life on earth. The story of Noah being a cultural amplification and interpretation of the original story about the solar moonship.
Now doesn’t this interpretation make more sense, and doesn’t it make the story much more interesting than literally believing in the historic truth of religious metaphors?
A Final Thought
“Mona Lisa’s and Mad Hatters, sons of bankers, sons of lawyers, turn around and say good morning to the night, for they can not see the sky, they can’t and that is why, they know not if it’s dark outside or light.” Elton John
We might not be able to find the ark on the top of Mount Ararat; however, we may still discover its reality by seeking it’s eternal voyage in the beauty of the night sky. But of course, one must be able to see the night sky, in order to understand the true meaning of these mythic voyages. Perhaps that is why a country of such advanced weaponry, technology and communication systems as ours, can still perpetuate the absurdities of a literal belief in religious metaphors; not because we are particularly foolish but rather, because we have simply have lost our way among the stars.