Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mysticism, Myth and Make-Believe

Religious teachings and ideas consist of three things: mysticism, myth, and make-believe. Or, as I've said somewhat less precisely in another context, inspired wisdom and comic-book stuff.

Where does religion originally come from? Of course one may provide a cynical answer to this question; one may assert that religion comes from a desire for power on the part of a priesthood, or from a desire to explain the unexplained, or from a desire for immortality or fear of death, or from a desire for certainty in an uncertain world. But while all of these are factors in determining the beliefs that make up a religion, there is one other element without which religion wouldn't even exist: mysticism.

By "mysticism" I mean the direct personal experience of -- well, of those things that mystics experience. Call it the Underlying Reality, or UR for short. Any words I might use to describe exactly what the UR is would be metaphorical at best and misleading at worst. If you reading this have undergone mystical experience, you know what I mean. If you haven't, unfortunately, I can't tell you. But there are states of consciousness which the human mind can achieve either spontaneously or by various methods, and in which one comes to an intuitive understanding regarding one's identity and place in the cosmos. Mystical awareness has been called many things: communion with God, union with God, communion or union with the universe, eradication of the ego or of the self, awakening from sleep or from a dream, penetration of the illusion to find reality. All of these are metaphors, which is why I'm using a vague term here like UR, which really doesn't mean anything and so, if it fails to inform, should at least also not confuse. Again, if you've been there, you know.

One thing that has sometimes happened is that mystics have felt a compulsion to communicate their teachings to other people. I guess most of us go through that desire at some point or other (and look, here I am surrendering to it yet again). Something interesting happens when they do. Two interesting things, actually. The first is that hardly anyone understands them (only other mystics, who don't need the instruction, can really comprehend it). But the second is that what they say often resonates with a kind of unconscious awareness we all have. It's as if the understanding of mystics is stored inside our brains where we can't normally get at it, and pops up to say "Hey! Here I am!" whenever it gets any encouragement. And so when a person reads a parable of Jesus from the Gospels or the teachings of the Buddha from the Sutras or the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tze or some of the more seminal passages of the Baghavad Gita, the thoughts expressed in those words touch off little explosions deep inside the soul. And so the mystics attract followers who don't really understand what their teacher or guru or whatever is talking about, but know that they like it and want to follow it.

And then another thing happens when the mystic teacher dies, as is of course inevitable. The written teachings are then all that's left, and there is usually no one around anymore who really understands them, but there remain enthusiastic followers who want to believe. And that's where all those other contributions to religious thought come in: the desire for power, to explain the unexplained, to deny death, or to achieve certainty.

Now, within most religions or at least within an esoteric branch of them one can always find a framework for pursuing mystical enlightenment, together with techniques for achieving it. Since it's only possible to know the UR by personally experiencing it, this sort of instruction within a religion -- instruction as to how to personally experience it -- is the only religious knowledge that can be conveyed directly and straightforwardly. That's mysticism: the first category of religious teaching.

One can also find plenty of myth, and by that I mean ideas and stories that provide metaphorical descriptions of the UR or some aspect of it. Myths, like the teachings of great mystics, resonate in the brain's hidden recesses. But we must always remember that myths are metaphors; its their resonance with the buried mystical awareness that's important, not their literal truth. The central Christian myth of the Resurrection is a perfect example. Many Christians actually believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead; I regard that as extremely improbable for obvious reasons, but that's not really the point here. The point is that the Resurrection as myth is more important than the Resurrection as fact even if it IS fact. What this story says about the process of awakening and the experience a mystic goes through to come to that point is what's important here. And the same is true of other myths in other religions. It's not important whether the Buddha was actually raised with such imposed naivety that he never saw sickness or poverty or death until he became a teenager and jumped over Daddy's royal wall. (Yeah, like he never suffered a childhood disease . . .) It's not important whether his mother had a dream in which she was impregnated by a white elephant. It's not important whether Moses really brought monstrous plagues down on Egypt or caused the sea to part or obtained God's will inscribed on stone tablets by the divine hand itself. What's important in every case is the symbolic power of these stories, the way they resonate (once again) with that hidden knowledge we all carry.

The final category of religious thought is make-believe. Now, make-believe can have the same contents as myth sometimes. In fact, that's very often the case. Those that believe a myth to be literally real and (more importantly) make a big deal of this, so that it sets their religion apart from all others, are engaging in make-believe.

Make-believe in religious thought and teachings generates a narrative that aggrandizes a religon's power and importance.

God, the creator of the universe, selected one particular tribe of humans as his particular servants, and expects more of them than from others, and visits them with blessings when they live up to these expectations and with tribulations when they fall short.

God sent his son to sacrifice himself for the sins of the world, so that those who follow his religion can be saved from hell and achieve eternal life in bliss.

God has addressed mankind via a series of prophets, and we who follow the last of the prophets have his real, true teachings, all previous prophetic teachings having been either superseded or corrupted or both.

See the pattern? In reality, awareness of the UR is something that all human beings have as a potential. It's there, separate from any religion, ready to guide and lead. The experience of finding it is something often hinted at in the teachings of all religions, and all religions should consider themselves to be signposts pointing the way towards the reality at which they can only hint. When all religious teachings are properly understood to be what they are -- myths and metaphors -- how can any religion ever claim to possess THE truth, or to be true while all others are false? Literally speaking, there is no such thing as a "true metaphor." (Or, of course, a false one.) When a religion takes this kind of humble approach and accepts that its teachings are not THE truth, but only one version, one myth, one pointer towards the knowable-but-not-tellable, then it will leave make-believe behind and deal only in mysticism and myth.

But when it obsesses over the make-believe aspects of its teachings, then it ceases to be a guide to the UR and becomes a barrier between it and the believer. And that is also when it becomes potentially something dangerous.

No matter how sophisticated our knowledge of the universe becomes, there will always be a place for both mysticism and myth. But there really should be no place for make-believe outside of fiction.

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