Let’s try to return to basics (so I’m not writing anything new). One of myth’s functions was enabling people to find meaning in, and feel comfortable with, the cosmos. A myth was a story that tried to make sense of life as it was experienced, day by day. People wondered how and why they existed, how the sea, land and sky had been made, and where such abundant animal and plant life came from. Why did the world supply the things needed for life, yet sometimes cause injury, pain, distress, and death? Why did people die, and was there any kind of life afterwards?
They told stories reflecting their experience of the world as it appeared to their five senses. So it was like a giant plate, both rugged and smooth, floating on an ocean, below a canopy with a bright lamp by day, and a lesser one by night with a host of pin pricks of light. Experiencing things beyond understanding and control, they felt that forces greater than themselves kept everything going. Unseen, these most likely inhabited places above the sky, under the world, or inside natural objects and happenings. Earthquakes, landslides, and volcanic eruptions suggested underworld forces inclined to malevolence, whereas light, warmth and refreshing rain suggested more benevolent forces above.
Myth and religion were one, and these stories, reflecting this three-decker cosmos, evolved into tales of gods inhabiting a ‘heaven’ above, and of demons terrorising a ‘hell’ beneath. This model endured for almost 200,000 years, until Greek thinkers began to consider how reality might perhaps differ from appearances. Religions, however, tend not to welcome questioning of the myths that originated, informed and maintained them, (think Galileo), and so it’s only over the last 500 years or so, that these age-old walls have crumbled, as a vastly different cosmos has come into view.
We now know its extent is beyond anything our limited minds can grasp, and the same must be true of a ‘god’ responsible for its existence. There is now no ‘up’ or ‘down’, no divine beings above the sky, and no demonic beings below the ground. There is only the inconceivable emptiness, darkness, and silence of interstellar space, except for occasional asteroid strikes, catastrophic super-novae explosions, or the eating up of stars by the insatiable mouths of gravitational ‘black holes’. To me, the only credible ‘god’ is no longer a ‘locatable’ being but, in the words of the Christian thinker Paul Tillich, is the transcendental “ground of Being-itself”.
Unfortunately, the world’s religions tend to be emotionally, if not entirely intellectually, wedded to their ancient books, and the creeds, confessions, catechisms and hymns they’ve given birth to. These still reflect a model of the cosmos which, taken literally, can no longer be a foundation for credible religious thought, speech and writing. It’s surely small wonder, that so many of today’s young people think religion is, at best irrelevant or, at worst (as the new atheists tell us) “poisons everything”, especially in the hands of last-gasp, die-hard fundamentalists.
Buried in these old books, if understood as myth and metaphor, are some of the deepest, greatest and most needed insights and values, such as the revolutionary power of ‘unconditional love’, which has the potential to make a profound emotional and spiritual impact on the human heart, and so on human society. If antiquated imagery has lost its power to communicate this, then we surely need new imagery, and perhaps the greatest artistic, musical, literary, scientific, philosophical, psychological and anthropological ‘minds’ can assist us, if we’re ‘minded’ to listen.
Is it, perhaps, telling that the impact of the Star Wars movies led so many people, on a census form, to describe ‘Jedi’ as their religion? ‘Jedi-ism’ would be a religion, not about a ‘supreme being’, but about a transcendental ‘force’. And that ‘force’ would not be all powerful, all knowing and all good, but would itself evolve with time and circumstances, and would itself have a ‘dark side’, to be constantly watched for and guarded against. That is ‘imagery’ that seems to offer to make sense to me.
It wouldn’t, of course, be ‘Jedi-ism’, but I wonder what a new mythology might be that would ‘re image’, and reawaken the deepest, most important and most needed values for coming generations. The best of the old needs to be newly presented and re-discovered. As a believer in evolution as a universal principle, I’m by no means without hope, even though I won’t be around to see if, or when, it happens.