Sigmund Freud regarded dreams as the “royal road” to the unconscious. His breakaway student, Carl Jung, used this same approach in his interpretation of the great cultural dreams known as myths. Whether the images and strange storylines come up for the individual at night or arise from a “collective unconscious” of human nature, these two analysts were convinced they provide insight into the deeper conflicts and waking potential of our species.
For millenniums the dreams of culture have been spun like webs out of our mythic imagination and then inhabited as the narrative structure of a peculiarly human world. As I have argued in recent blog posts, the inspiration for this construction of meaning originates in our spontaneous experience of the present mystery of reality, as the provident uplift of being itself. The world picture we construct needs to be sufficiently compatible with the actual facts of objective reality to be relevant to our given situation. Thus spirituality as contemplative engagement with the ground within us, and science as the investigative engagement with the universe around us, are where the human web of meaning is anchored to reality.
In former ages, religion is what cultivated the connection (religare, to tie back or connect) between spirituality and science. It authorized the myths and symbols representing this link between inner and outer, as well as choreographed rituals and ceremonies uniting the tribe around a common focus. Religion’s primary role was to supervise a liturgy (literally the work of the people) that maintained meaning and kept the world (Peter Berger’s “sacred canopy”) intact.
But while the deep experience of the grounding mystery is likely the same today as it was thousands of years ago by virtue of a relatively identical nervous system across our species, our understanding of the universe has advanced dramatically. We don’t any longer hold the world picture of a three-story cosmos, with a celestial realm above the clouds for god and the saints, a nether realm underground for the dead and damned, and an earthly realm in between where the living work out their mortal destinies. Our current cosmology contemplates a universe that is perhaps 14 billion years old, where time is relative and space warps and stretches under gravitational force. There is no “up” or “down” to our universe, no heaven above our heads or hell below our feet.
It was as these discoveries were being made that religion made the fateful mistake of insisting on the literal truth of its myths. Rather than acknowledge sacred story as produced out of the mythic imagination, a “corrective” explanation was provided, claiming that the stories were eye-witness accounts of supernatural and miraculous events that really happened long ago. Perhaps part of what motivated this unfortunate bit of illusionment was the heavy investment religion had already made in the institution of symbols, rituals, sanctuaries, and inherited beliefs. Of course, the more time that passed, the more intellectually incredible the stories became, requiring still more corrective explanations to keep them in play.
As a consequence of this shift from a deep reading of myth to one that takes it literally, the literary gods – compelling forces in the narrative storyline – became literal deities instead and essentially lost their significance. The fact that no contemporary person encountered a literal deity didn’t deter belief. Eventually, in fact, a willingness to believe in the invisible existence of god became a religious mandate on all “true believers.” Believing it anyway testifies to the sincerity (and apparently the veracity) of belief, effectively putting it beyond argument or even evidence to the contrary.
Let me see if I can illustrate this shift I’m speaking of, from a deep reading to a literal reading of myth. Above is a “Magic Eye” design, where a three-dimensional figure is embedded in the two-dimensional pattern. A literal reading of myth is like trying to figure out what this design means by scanning its surface. There is some obvious redundancy in the pattern, with very slight discrepancies in detail – but these discrepancies are substantial to the real meaning of the design. There seem to be some humanoid figures, or is it bovine? Is that a flash of lightning or a fish of some sort? And then there’s all that fuzzy confusion in the middle.
A literal reading of myth stays on the surface, just as we’re doing when we scan the two-dimensional pattern of the Magic Eye design. Pattern itself is intriguing to our brains, and they will invent it where one isn’t obvious (think of the star constellations representing mythical creatures, a different set depending on the culture and its native mythology). Unless you are suspecting something more than just what’s on the surface, you will eventually make up a meaning. If tool-use separates us along with other primate and non-primate species from the rest, and tool-making separates the primates from other mammals, then meaning-making is what sets homo sapiens apart from our evolutionary cousins.
But what if the design holds another dimension, inside its two-dimensional arrangement? What if a religious myth is something more than what scans from left to right or reads from “The Beginning” to “The End”? As I said, unless you are open-minded to the possibility, all the sharp detail and drama at the surface will prevent you from going deeper. But if you could, what would you find? If you could stop taking the myth literally and start cultivating an appreciation for it as an artistic product of the mythic imagination (individual or collective), what might it bring to awareness?
Take another look at the Magic Eye design, but this time don’t screw your focus down so hard on the two-dimensional pattern. Instead, let it relax. Let your eyes blur a little as your gaze rests lightly at mid-field of all that visual complexity. Gradually you will feel something pulling on your eye muscles, trying to stretch your attention deeper down into the pattern, toward a three-dimensional image crossing in and out of focus. Be patient. If you’re taking it literally and have been doing so for some time, it will take a while for your eyes to give up their fixated hold.
The exact same can be said of a mind that has been conditioned by culture to read its myths literally. As long as religion reads, teaches, and defends its sacred stories as literally true eye-witness accounts of supernatural and miraculous events, more and more people will opt out. Human beings need relevance, and a myth that’s been reduced to its surface – one that is thousands of years out of date – is perfectly irrelevant.
Despite religion’s coercive effort in arguing otherwise, believing in the factual accuracy of sacred stories is not a demonstration of faith but only of the willingness to cast aside common sense, suspend responsible thinking, and ignore evidence or the lack of it. When the early Christian theologian Tertullian (160-225 CE) defined faith as “believing because it is absurd,” he was admitting that biblical mythology had begun to lose relevance even back then.
So relax and open up. This story may be time-bound by its historical and scientific references, but it came from a deep place outside of time that mystics call the Eternal Now. This place is within you as well. If you look without an expectation of what should be there, of what orthodoxy says must be there, the truth might be revealed.
A deep reading of religious myth allows the transient details at the surface to fall aside, revealing a mirror into its creative source. The myth is an invitation to self-awareness, far below what you assumed it was all about.