All religions, spiritual traditions, and even philosophies, economies, politics, and science consist of myths. They are stories that we tell ourselves about our origins, the meaning of life, the nature of the world, how things work, and where everything is headed. Some may try to answer the existential questions of where did I come from, why am I here, and where am I going. Historian Yuval Noah Harari has called these stories that surround us “fictions,” and yet he says they are “vital,” for they give structure and meaning in our lives, and facilitate our cooperation.
And these myths continually evolve. They change, they are reinterpreted. People come up with new myths, new stories, new narratives to tell the tale of the human being. And these are not merely the ancient legends and indigenous tales that we hear about, but even our scientific theories of today are just new stories we are telling ourselves about the world we live in, they are new shadows on the cave wall. But just as the scientific theories of yesterday were replaced with the ones of today, so too will our theories of today be replaced tomorrow with “better” ones. It’s hard for us to imagine this, for we take our scientific understandings quite seriously today as “the truth.” We always do.
The Creation of Myths
I’ve suggested before that myths may not be created as myths. They may be created as a very literal description of what the people of the time actually think about the nature of reality and of history. Who would believe a myth if they knew it was merely a myth, a made-up story? No. I think the people surrounding the origins of myths believe in them quite straightforwardly, that they are real, they are how the world actually is. They think these stories are the way the world is, was, and will be. And these stories serve to give people real hope, direction, meaning, and faith in their lives and in life itself. It is “true,” for a time.
But gradually over time, those myths fall out of favor, for any number of reasons. Perhaps new understanding invalidates the literal interpretation of the myth. Perhaps new storytellers, shamans, authorities create new myths, new symbols, new metaphors for the human condition. Maybe the original meaning of the myths is lost and the story becomes meaningless. Maybe the myths just lose the power they once had to inspire hope and meaning in people’s lives. The story begins to fail, and it is thus no longer “true.” People don’t believe in it anymore. What was once “true” has become “false,” and the time is ripe for a new story.
I think we are called to not keep our metaphorical, theological, scientific, and philosophical language and symbols perfectly intact and unchanging, but rather continually evolve them, reinterpret them, create new metaphors of reality, new narratives, new myths, otherwise the old ones can grow old, stale, and lose their power of transformation and sustaining life.
The Cycling of Myths
I think we are seeing today a rapid cycling of myths, far more quickly than in the past, particularly our spiritual myths. It used to take millennia for such myths to change and evolve, simply because the world was so “large” and communication so slow. Traditions endured for ages before they were supplanted. But now I think we’re seeing it happen in decades if not quicker. Things are accelerating in this new globalized technologized world, where we have the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. We are seeing radical paradigm shifts, one after another, and I think we have to evolve our spiritual symbols as well, rapidly and radically, or they will simply become impotent. They will lose their transformative power. They already are.
I was just looking at this chart the other day. In just the last 30 years the “nones,” or those who say they have no religion, have gone from about 7% to almost 25% of the population of the USA (at least according to this study). I think that’s reflective of this rapid cycling of myths. The old myths, the traditional religions, are just not holding the same transformative meaning-fulfilling power they once did, so people are looking elsewhere. And this time the change is happening fast! They are looking for better symbols to make sense of life, they want new myths that have more explanatory power, new interpretations of the meaning of life that are relevant to our day and age.
And these are not merely people who are turning to agnosticism or atheism, as those numbers appear to be relatively unchanged, but a new category of people is emerging, the so-called “spiritual but not religious.” People are becoming skeptical of religious institutions, organizations, and hierarchical authority, and strict oppressive laws. They want a deeper, more direct, authentic, unmediated, genuine spirituality, knowing the source of all law. Many may want mysticism, but they may not know to call it that.
It’s not that the old myths and symbols are bad or wrong, but just that they don’t fit as well in today’s scene, in our modern culture, with our current understandings of the cosmos and of life on Earth. For example, it is just not possible today for many people to believe in a literal Garden of Eden, and an Adam and Eve, when we know humans have been evolving for millions of years from earlier lifeforms. And even though these symbols still contain powerful metaphors about the human condition, they are beginning to fail for many people who cannot believe them.
A New Myth
We need a new spirituality, even a mysticism, for the 21st century that will point as powerfully to the divine Self as the traditional religious narratives did anciently, new narratives of our deepest human condition and unitive identity that make sense to us today, here and now, in post-postmodernity, perhaps what we might call mysticomodernism. We need new myths, new stories, not merely metaphors for how we think the world is, but how we actually think it is, and I think we’ll find this is deeply mystical. That is how new myths are formed, it seems to me. They will naturally be metaphors without our trying.
How do I think the world is? What might this new mysticomodern myth look like today? It might briefly go something like this:
Energy itself exploded some 13.787 billion years ago, unfurling spacetime. It radiated out, blinding light-energy, ringing, expanding, unfolding, manifesting. Gravity attraction collapsed it into the first elements, fusing subatomic particles together. Gradually the elements collapsed into great enough clusters to heat up and ignite into the first stars. In the intense pressure inside of these stars heavier elements were born. In supernova explosions of the stars, heavier elements still were born. Eventually molecules began to form, elements clustering together into new patterns of being. Fast forward a few billion years, and all these elements began to collapse to form planets.
Eventually, under the right conditions, life as we know it began to emerge on these planets. The cosmos woke up and came to life. The elements began to form new patterns which were self-replicating, and these evolved into greater and greater complexity, fueled by the light-energy of their nearby stars. Eventually these self-replicating molecules and organic forms began to become conscious of their surroundings, they developed the ability to detect and respond to their environment through nerve cells and nervous systems, in order to aid in their life and replication. Consciousness arose within them, a “knowing” of the world around them. And these conscious beings have evolved over billions of years, continually growing in complexity and self-consciousness.
When the organisms became vividly conscious of their own selves in humans, they began to be worried. They formed a limited “self” identity around their particular localized existence in the world, knowing that this existence was fragile, mortal, changing, vulnerable, weak, seemingly apart from the world around them. They become overly concerned with this limited self.
Occasionally their consciousness transcended this constructed small identity to realize the greater identity in the whole of the world, made up of the elements and energy of the cosmos itself, and knowing itself as That. They began to understand that they were not merely separate and distinct organisms, but were all part of a greater whole, like cells in a body, not merely the cells, but the Body! Their deepest identity was not merely localized to a particular mortal body-mind, but was found in all lifeforms, and they realized the cosmos itself had incarnated itself as all these body-minds and even all forms throughout itself.
The future of these organisms was greater and greater complexity still and ever more fantastic and beautiful experiences of consciousness and self-consciousness as the evolving cosmos itself, if they could learn to transcend their limited finite sense of being separate bodily identities, realize their deeper unity, and come together as One Body of Life, and continue growing to greater and greater Being.
Maybe this sparks something in you. Maybe it gives you a glimpse of the possibility, and of our true identity. If we look closely I think we’ll find the same story told in many of the world’s myths, narratives, fairy tales, fictions. It is the monomyth, the perennial philosophy, the Hero’s Journey, the Hero with a thousand faces. That Hero is us. It is our deepest identity in this cosmos, as this cosmos, as we discover who we really are as a manifestation of the One Cosmic Life. We are not our own. We are the Cosmos. As the astrophysicist Carl Sagan once intuited:
The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.
Our lives are a journey in that knowing, in that unknowing, in that Self-discovery, in the unfolding of the cosmos itself, knowing its Self. Eastern philosopher Alan Watts said, “You are the big bang, the original force of the universe, coming on as whoever you are.” We are that cosmos unfurling itself, the Tao naturally manifesting its Self. I will be what I will be. As Jesus said:
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.-John 3:8
The word for wind and spirit in the Greek is the same—pneuma. We are that wind, that breath, that Spirit, that is blowing where it pleases.