In Religion and the Snow Cone Universe (October 2014) I offered this simple image as a way of understanding the relationships among science, spirituality, and religion. The ball of our snow cone, I suggested, can stand for the great cosmic environment arching overhead and surrounding us. This is the realm of scientific research, also called “external reality,” referring to what exists outside of and separate from our mind. Underneath, but really descending inwardly to the grounding mystery of being, the cone itself represents the realm of spirituality. This I call the “inner ground,” the essential source and support of consciousness itself.
And managing the intermediate zone between external reality and the inner ground, I suggested that a main task of religion (from the Latin religare, to connect), at least until very recently, has been to facilitate a dialogue between psyche and cosmos, between our inner experience of being and its outer manifestations. The various transformations and historical development of religion reflect our expanding knowledge of external reality through advances in research technology and theoretical comprehension – as well as an intensified awareness of our own existential depths.
Religion’s relevance – its timely truth – is thus a function of how well it manages this dialogue of spirituality and science.
The unique province of religion is what many of us today recognize as the meaningful world and our lifetime of adventures inside it. Whereas primitive and archaic cultures may have been less self-aware of our human role as myth-makers and storytellers, of how our stories actually construct meaning and the meaningful worlds we inhabit, our recent shift from a modern to a “post-modern” mindset and worldview was activated on this very discovery. The intermediate zone, once managed by religion and its mythology, turns out to be a very active construction zone.
With “organized” religion losing relevance, directing its energies into dogmatic debates with science and spirituality rather than creatively facilitating a contemporary mythological experience for people today, we should be asking (and having some considerable concern over) what is taking its place.
Who is telling the stories, hanging the veils, and constructing the worlds we are living for, dying in, and trying to find our way through?
This intermediate zone (or mitwelt) isn’t going away just because organized religion has abandoned its responsibility for constructing meaning and officiating the rites of passage through a life of purpose. These added dimensions to my snow cone image, of the “quality world” and our individual “hero path,” are now on us to figure out.
This is both good news and bad news. Good because we now have an opportunity to bring science and spirituality back into dialogue again, in a worldview and way of life that hold contemporary relevance. But it’s bad news in that a great majority of us have fallen into erroneous assumptions over the centuries regarding external reality and our own inner ground.
From inside the construction zone of meaning (our quality world), external reality is seen through the lens of mythology – all the stories we use to construct the meaningful world we live in. The ancient mythology of higher cultures once educated their people to look into the sky for the heavenly abode of god, and through the narrative corridor of myth, legend, and apocalypse for a proper understanding of history.
It would take many centuries for us to discriminate between reality as it is (external reality) and our mythological constructs (quality world). Our disillusionment was accelerated by the resistance of institutional religion to the current discoveries and changing cosmology of science. It grew increasingly difficult to adjust the sacred stories – putting heaven outside the observable galaxy, for example, or interpreting a “day” in the Genesis myth of creation as an indefinite period of time – and still keep up with the new scientific understanding.
On top of that, science was rapidly branching off into numerous specializations, each one dissecting and analyzing reality into its more basic elements – meaningless, mindless, and lifeless – until there was no place left for human values. Many gave up on the inherited quality world and accepted this scientific picture of things, of a cosmos empty of ultimate meaning.
What struck terror in the heart of the 17th-century mathematician Blaise Pascal, as he contemplated “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces,” would leave Albert Camus in the 20th only in quiet resignation before a universe “indifferent” to human values and aspirations.
Besides serving as the lens through which premodern societies looked at and interpreted external reality, the quality world of mythology also provided a way to understand our human adventure of identity through time, in what is known as the “hero path.” This path tracks (1) our rise into self-consciousness (often depicted as a “fall”), (2) a venturing-forth from tribal customs and beliefs in search of our own way, (3) a confrontation with and recovery of the parts of ourselves (i.e., our shadow) that we had to deny, dismiss, or actively suppress in order to fit in and feel loved in our early years, and finally (4) leads us back to where we started, but now as a self-conscious, internally reconciled, and fully awakened adult.
Inside this archetypal story-cycle, many more stories were told and ritually enacted to help us address the critical concerns of our journey through life as a child, youth, adult, and elder. At whatever stage or Age in life we happened to be, the topography and symbolism arranged at the surface of those stories served to focus our awareness of the inner ground, of what we are and are evolving to become in our essential nature as a human being.
This grounding mystery was acknowledged as deeper than the personality and its quest for identity, as the true origin of our quality world; the contemplative depths of being itself. Our own life and destiny, along with the life and destiny of everyone and all things, were regarded as manifestations of this ground, thrusting us all into time as participants in the higher wholeness of a provident universe.
Analogous to the way our quality world brings into meaningful focus an external reality beyond our mind, the hero path once facilitated our gradual acquaintance with and full embodiment of the grounding mystery within us.
Along with the disenchantment of our (quality) world and the consequent loss of a meaningful universe, the lack of a coherent mythology and life-directing hero path has led to a popular belief in the soul as nothing less (and little more) than an immortal ego. The inner life of consciousness has been emptied of mystery and made into a metaphysical ghost riding inside our body until it expires (or Jesus comes), at which point it will be freed to live forever in heaven – if we managed to believe and do all the right things, as prescribed by our religion.
In the meantime, we just need to hang on and try to keep from getting dirty.