At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, but neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
– T.S. Eliot
DEVELOPING NEW MYTHS
Humans encapsulate our core truths and find our meaning and place in the world with the help of stories. The human person is a story-telling, metaphor-loving, symbol-making being for whom myth encapsulates information regarding fundamental, existential meaning. The human person relates on a psychological-spiritual level to stories, narratives, icons, and parables.
By myth we mean grand-narrative. The story may be true or not in terms of facticity, but on some level enduring myths contain some aspect of truth. Not all myths are religious, one can think of the myth of progress or the myth of American exceptionalism. Myth as grand-narrative weaves its way deeply into a culture, influencing how people see and understand themselves.
Myth provides a culture with central narrative(s), thus establishing the framework for wisdom – a collective sense of purpose, place, identity, and set of shared values. Therefore, the language of spirituality is that of myth, metaphor, and symbol.
As our once central myths erode (those of Judeo-Christianity), the West currently suffers from an increasing disunity, loss and even anarchy of meaning and value – we’ve lost an overarching, unifying cultural mythos.
Shatter the shared mythic narratives and symbols that provide a culture with its basis for collective thought and action, and you’re left with a society in fragments, where biological drives and idiosyncratic personal agendas are the only motives left, and communication between divergent subcultures becomes increasingly difficult because there aren’t enough common meanings to ground lasting dialog. (Loyal Rue, Amythia, p. 85)
The only way to avert the ongoing slide into fragmentation or even nihilism is to reassemble around a new, common myth – and one that aligns with science and reason. However, such a task is essentially religious in terms of its function. (Thomas Berry, The Great Work, p. 3)
We need to embrace a common story of life and civilization, one that is radically different to our present story of a consumer-driven culture based upon exploitation and the myths that encourage alienation, tribalism, and separation. This would be a story that nourishes our deeper selves with a sense of connection to our actual place in the world and others.
The mythic narrative that lends itself to our task is evolution – the story of primal creativity, emergence, and dynamic existence. The story of cosmos emerging rather than chaos. The story of life taking shape from inanimate matter. The story of swirling galaxies, green planets, developing species, and diversity writ large.
Speaking about evolution in this way combines various parts of science – astrophysics, biology, evolutionary theory – that aren’t evolution in the strictest sense. Rather, this manner of speaking is shorthand for all the processes that have produced our universe – from the Big Bang to the coalescing of our galaxy, to the formation of the earth, to the emergence of life, through the development of complex organism, to the emergence of humans – and beyond, since evolution is ongoing.
Evolution has the strong advantage that it is everyone’s story, a narrative we all share and take part in. We all emerge from the same stuff, our lives are sustained by the same things, we are, above all, the same species, before we are any of our particular differences. The mythic and practical aspects of evolution unites all of us.
The narrative of evolution explains our common origins, emphasizes the dignity and value of life, and reminds us of our universal responsibilities to each other and the environment which supports our life. (Thomas Berry, The Great Work, p. 31)
From an evolutionary-mythic perspective, nature is considered sacred in that it is considered worthy of our ultimate concern – it is our source of origin and sustains us – its beauty, value, and awe inspiring qualities are worthy of spiritual respect. Nature unfolds on an ever-turning wheel that spirals through time – and our lives are woven in these patterns that shape all life – birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth. (Donald Crosby, A Religion of Nature, p. 41)
The resulting evolutionary spirituality has the potential to be an integral way of thinking and being in the world rooted in experience of nature, the seasons, and the progression of our own life grounded in the ongoing, unfolding of nature and the cosmos. (Starhawk, The Spiral Dance, p. 6)
While we understand evolution, we do not directly encounter it in our daily lives, it remains abstract. Evolutionary change is slow, imperceptible, happening all the time, but also over eons. Our daily experience is of a relatively enduring world that changes along the margins.
Our touchstone with evolutionary forces are the cycles, patterns, and rhythms of nature, as well as the patterns and changes of our own lives – cycles of birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth, cycles of winter, spring, summer, and autumn, cycles of ploughing, seeding, cultivating, harvesting, and returning to fallow. Such things are our immediate conduits to evolutionary processes.
Evolution is a factual reality, a dynamism of nature. To be rendered mythically it requires poetry, art, metaphor and symbolism to tell the captivating story. Doing such calls out the existential meanings more readily, allowing them to become imbedded in our singular and collective imaginations.
THE DEATH OF SANTA GOD
Many people misunderstand Nietzsche’s prophetic and savvy proclamation that “God is dead.” This mocking announcement was not the heralding of a blanket atheism (as many mistakenly think), it was the recognition that the West had killed off and moved beyond many of its ideas about God and that, for all intents and purposes, the God of the common culture, was in fact, now dead.
Suffering is one example of this disconnect.
Theodicy is the logical disconnect between the claims made about God and the reality of superfluous suffering in the world. God as healer, benevolent influencer, bestower of blessings, source of all goodness, kindness, and love – doesn’t align with our experience of reality. Any honest person understands the disconnect between the all powerful, all loving God of goodness, and children dying of cancer, tornados wiping out homes and lives, genocide, famine, even the simple setbacks in life and the inevitable decay of aging and the loss of death.
Five hundred million people died of smallpox in the 20th Century, many of them infants. God’s ways are, indeed, inscrutable.
– Sam Harris, Atheist Manifesto
If God is all powerful and all loving, then either God can do nothing to stop suffering, or cares not to. God is either impotent or evil. Suffering is visceral, God is not. The mental gymnastics performed to resolve the contradiction of theodicy fill volumes – and remain unconvincing. Most of the attempts at defending God are misanthropic and illogical.
Suffering has always existed, but informed, reflective, and educated people are now willing to say, “the emperor has no clothes” to the worn out Christian explanations of why we suffer. And the lack of clothing goes far beyond explanations about suffering to include a host of other issues.
Standard astrophysics and evolutionary theory are clear in their contention that complex, improbable design in the universe arises from simple origins and principles. Other arguments about intelligent design and the emergence of “irreducible complexity” have been demonstrated as incorrect. There is no need for God as part of the explanation, at least the personal God of classical theism. (See Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, and Stephen Hawkings, Brief Answers to the Big Questions.)
There is no compelling reason, from the standpoint of sound philosophy, to posit the universe as existing contingently rather than necessarily, and therefore requiring a transcendent ground and sufficient reason for its existence. If there is such a thing as necessary existence, it can apply to the universe itself rather than to God. Philosophical arguments about time requiring a starting point or the contingency of the world are interesting, but logically problematic and often flawed. (Loyal Rue, Nature is Enough, p. 111)
Astrophysics has moved toward the claim that the universe has always existed in some form or another, and likely will continue to do so. Creatio ex nihilo is a theological doctrine, not science. The universe, as far we can tell, did not arise from nothing, nor was it created from nothing. In fact, nothingness is not even a meaningful concept. (Loyal Rue, Nature is Enough, p. 163)
The emerging theoretical trends in astrophysics lean toward the universe being the result of ongoing cycles of expansion and contraction and/or offshoot emergence from other, preexisting universes. This means that something has always existed and always will, and that this something is engaged in a never-ending set of complex processes. One is welcome to insert notions of God into the above, but doing so doesn’t resolve or really demonstrate anything. (Loyal Rue, Nature is Enough, p.91)
GOD AS METAPHOR?
Humans have long recognized the patterns of order within the world. Despite imperfections, there is a regularity, a measure of harmony, and predictability to reality, enough for the ancients to speak of the nature of our world as cosmos as opposed to chaos – meaning an ordered world rather than a random, disordered one. Cosmos implies an interconnected system of cycles and rhythms, a dynamic harmony of changes, not all perfect or good, but more or less ordered and balanced. Further, cosmos also implies a world of meaning, whereas chaos implies a nihilistic reality.
The source of cosmos are the principles of being and physics themselves. Gravity, electromagnetism and the other forces and laws of physics and nature produce a somewhat ordered universe. These forces are multiple, impersonal, and don’t serve well for producing poetry, appealing to in some form of spiritual ritual, or moving the religious imagination.
Therefore, some religious naturalists advocate retaining God as the metaphor for the ongoing creativity in the universe – the life-giving, creative, ordering power within the emerging into being of all that is. God is a unified shorthand, a metaphor, for the totality of creative-ordering forces in the universe. God is the metaphor for those powers permeated throughout nature.
Recent developments in cognitive neuroscience and linguistics have helped us see the crucial role metaphor serves in the mental inference that makes thinking and the imagination possible. The common stereotype is that a metaphor is something imaginary and not real. On one level this may be true, but at the level of neuroscience and cognition, metaphor is, literally, everything. It is the basic working cognitive unit of our minds and it is by using metaphor that all our concepts are formed and learned.
Using this metaphor runs some risks. We need be careful not to anthropomorphize the metaphor, using it as an excuse for sloppy thinking that turns us back to unwarranted theistic visions. This is God as metaphor, not God as a conscious, willful, interactive personal power that might respond to human beckoning. God may serve as poetic shorthand in conversation, ritual, meditation, and poetry – but we don’t worship metaphors.
There may be value in avoiding the word God and opting instead for divinity, the eternal, or even goddess. God is such a ladened term, carrying with it the accumulated baggage of so much bad theology and poor reasoning. Words matter. Those of us willing to retain some notion of the god-concept, even metaphorically, need to choose wisely.
“Goddess is the name we put on the great processes of birth, growth, death, and regeneration that underlie the living world. The Goddess is the presence of consciousness in all living beings; the Goddess is the great creative force that spun the universe out of coiled springs of probability and set the stars spinning.”
The God metaphor does not assert something posed over and against the universe, in addition to it, nor the universe itself. This notion of God does not count God as a being, at least in the way that a tree, a person, or a personal god is a being. God as metaphor is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of object at all. (David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, p. 143)
God is the metaphor and symbol for the creative principles in being – the creative power(s) infused throughout all things – the underlying, organizing force that brings order out of chaos and potentiality that drives emergence into ordered complexity and toward life. In this sense, retaining God as a metaphor aligns with the Western concept of monotheism as the apprehension of a unified transcendent value source.
The creative mystery that some call God serves as a foundational symbol for our culture. For many people, it functions as a primary focus for orientation to the sacred, creative principle driving the mystery of reality – that there is something and not nothing, and that this something is orderly, and produced conscious life that can ponder questions of meaning.
God is the concept of unity among the diversity of being – a symbol of the great oneness that speaks of the truth of the interconnectedness of everything. Such notions underlie most mystical experience.
Individuals are free to retain God as a metaphor or reject the concept altogether. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.
Religion, much of it, in a fundamental sense, is about contemplating, experiencing, and aligning with this mystery of creativity manifest throughout the universe is quite awe-inspiring, calling forth emotions of gratitude, love, peace, fear, and hope, and a sense of the profound meaningfulness of human existence in the world. We are the creative fruit of serendipitous creativity itself.