“Woe to the nation that departs from religion into belief,” Kahlil Gibran has written. By this he refers to the ossification that creeds bring, the assumption that a new authority has defined the ineffable and determined its limits on earth. Religion is more than belief.
Elsewhere, Gibran writes that civilization begins when human beings sow seeds, and religion begins when they witness the growth of those seeds. Religion has best been understood as an expression of wonder and an attempt to articulate wonder at the mechanisms and processes of the universe. It is the birth of art and creativity in response, imitation, celebration, synchronicity. For Gibran, art is the appreciation of the mystery of life, of the sun and the seed and the sower. Finally, in typical ironic humor, he concludes: “Philosophy is when men eat of the sown and get indigestion.”
The transformation of religion into belief dominates the Western scriptural religions, especially with the passage of centuries. Dogma and doctrine replace ethics and life, commandments replace beatitudes, hell replaces heaven, and heaven replaces life.
A great historical tragedy was the shortness of Jesus’ life. A clear trajectory of the teachings of Jesus signaled a new religion, a renewed religion, a new wonder, based on principles far more mature than what he had inherited. Assuming that the strands of what was interpolated are teased out of the inherited canonical gospels, we can recompose and — with the help of gospels recovered in the 20th century, plus a fresh understanding of the nature of religion — we can see a living historical personality engaging a living historical tradition, a young person with enormous potential for bringing about the maturation of an entire religious system. If anything characterizes the Abrahamic religions, as Robert Wright says in his The Evolution of God, it is the potential of God to mature morally.
Such is part of the project of veteran author Karen Armstrong in her latest book, The Case for God. Armstrong has fully plumbed the history of God in Western tradition in her many books, and has lately informed her views with a look at Eastern thought. She makes the important distinction between religion and belief by reintroducing the concept of myth.
The concept of myth is familiar; from Rudolf Otto to Carl Jung to popularizer Joseph Campbell, the fundamental expression of religion in archetypes — and later in creative narratives such as epics and tales — defines myth as a container of expression, a vessel of symbols and rituals and inklings, flexible, universal, vital. Myth presents actions of heroes that represent the obscure workings of the psyche. Freud and Jung early used myth to identify that which influences thought, behavior, feelings and actions. Archetypal myths transcend cultures, or rather are the same fertile soil for each culture’s expressions.
The most important observation to be made of myth is that, as Armstrong puts it,
A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time [emphasis hers]. … Religion was, therefore, not primarily something that people thought but something they did. Its truth was acquired by practical action.
It is no use reducing the self to the abstract logos or reason that governs sequences and processes like mathematics or alphabets or musical notation or mercantile affairs. We will learn less about ourselves or the universe with such reductionism. Rather, we must enter the processes to see the workings of spheres and dramas and music, enter so deeply that it shakes our behavior, shapes our behavior, makes an impact that touches us more profoundly than any literalism of reason.
Armstrong identifies this deep sense, this profound and ineffable resonance with the self, as the Greek ekstasis. The word is not quite “ecstasy” as we understand it; literally it means “stepping outside” of oneself, outside of the norm. It is not our modern swooning with pleasure but a sense of identifying a hidden flow in the nature of things. The early Taoists considered this “outsideness” as a preliminary to returning “inside” of the flow but with a new awareness, even a new skill, a self-forgetfulness that lets the self accomplish and realize things that plain reasoning cannot do.
The necessity to actually do it, to practice, is inherent in Eastern thought. The Zen master does not begin by teaching philosophy (“indigestion”?) but by having his students sit and practice meditation. Only then will they be ready to comprehend. Practice is a skill in the mundane sense but, more importantly, it is the breakdown of thought, of deliberative reasoning or abstraction, of the ego’s chatter and judgment and criticism and fear-mongering. The self can engage in contemplation, meditation, or selfless service (like the Zen master who went to live under a bridge with the poor and homeless in order to better understand the world).
At a social level, practice is symbol and ritual. The Dalai Lama disdains popular religion and will avoid attending ceremonies and rites whenever possible or for just a few minutes’ appearance at the outset, but concedes that because of his station he must make an appearance. He understands, with empathy, the need for the average person to engage in outward forms, in the same way that one with a higher consciousness enters practice.
Practice brings transcendence. Ironically, transcendence has a practical angle that belief, with its inflexible dogmas, lacks. For while the Taoist Chuang-tzu, for example, offers mundane examples of “getting into” something like working a wheel or chopping wood, we can see that creative expression such as literature and music have a greater dimension for lifting us into a transcendent state — by which we mean transcendent from the literalism that is merely the words and sounds. What is it about a poem or a piece of music that can evoke feeling without reference to a specific event? Is that not exactly what myth intends?
The rise of science and rationalism reduced religion to the modern extremes of fundamentalism and atheism, notes Armstrong — forms of literalism that cannot comprehend mythos and the subtle functions of the psyche, especially in a social context. In that sense, the two extremes need one another desperately. They cannot generate or even countenance a larger net for the inclusion of a mature understanding of God, an understanding of the ineffable, an understanding of not belief but symbol and ritual.
In his late writings (1950’s), Bertand Russell tempered his rejection of Christianity (or, perhaps more appropriately, what today would be called fundamentalism) by shifting his concern to the more general issue of active versus contemplative, of the issue of trying to reform the world versus reforming the self and acting in grace and charity towards others in the present. This shift anticipated the social implications of the teachings of an historical Jesus, which have been developed especially only in the last few decades. Armstrong’s work helps develop the groundwork for this deeper understanding of the social context of religion.
Engagement, whether of self in contemplation or self in charity towards immediate others — approaches the notion of meaning or meaningfulness. Anything else, a too big “target” as in the work of the reformer, leaves the individual open to worldly ambition, the plaudits of ambition, greed, consumption, and power. Engagement of the sage heals self and neighbor. The engagement of the sage is disengagement from the world. The insight of myth will make the sage’s work all that matters, for myth contains the inexpressible, like a healing herb contains needed vitality for well-being.