(Curiosity) In the Beginning: a bird’s eye history of religion

In the beginning was the crisis. This is the singular belief that defines the religious history of our species, the insistence that this world, full of suffering — where the race goes not to the swift nor bread to the hungry — cannot be all there is, that there must be something more: a just world, a safe world, a humane world. The perfect place where bad things don’t happen, not to good people, and certainly not to some people more than others.

But if we are not there, and such a place exists — within time or without — that means we are separated from it. In the spiritual worldview, which starts with the simple supposition that there is a deeper truth beyond the material world, that separation, as traumatic as a birth, is the cataclysm whereby the primal singularity shattered, leaving mankind bereft. So began profane time, where everything withers and dies, as distinct from sacred time, which bubbles like a spring, eternally renewed.

In one of the earliest recorded myths, the ancient Sumerian creation story, the primal universe is a divine union of heaven and earth, personified by the god An and the goddess Ki, respectively. The pair mate and bear the sky, personified by the god Enlil, whose birth forcibly splits the divine union, Anki, apart — earth below, heaven above. In the Chinese tradition, the primal universe is encased in a great egg along with the first man, Pan Ku, who cracks the egg as his consciousness stirs. The warmer parts rise to create the heavens (yang) while the colder parts settle to form the Earth (yin). While in the Indian tradition, Atman, the absolute singularity of being, awakens to its loneliness and splits, first into two and then into all things, populating the universe through meiotic division, like a cosmic cell (or a Big Bang).

Humans arise humbly, often despicably, out of this primordial tragedy. So we read Pan Ku grew to an immense size before dying and creating the mountains and the rivers with his flesh and blood. People grew from the parasites nibbling his body. The Babylonians believed the sky god Marduk, like his Sumerian counterpart Enlil, destroyed the dark forces of chaos, which must be conquered for civilization (order) to flourish. Marduk slayed the dragon-goddess Tiamat, the monster from the depths (like the Biblical leviathan, Cthulhu, or Godzilla), then mixed the blood of Tiamat’s demon general with clay to make men, who, as offspring of the vanquished, are meant to serve him as a kind of slave race. (Thus, even if they were not a slave in this world, all men were joined in symbolic bondage.) We find many of these same hallmarks in the most famous origin story of the Western world, the Hebrew Genesis, where Yahweh also makes humans from clay after conquering the void. He also splits everything: matter from nothingness, light from dark, water from land, man from animal, male from female, and finally both from paradise.

As mere mortals, human beings cannot simply cross the gap and return to the divine, symbolized in Judaism as the Garden of Eden. However, Judaism came in the middle of history. The gulf was not always imagined so wide. For most early cultures, one’s ancestors were an immediate aspect of everyday life and their anger more pernicious to the family than the gods’, who usually had far grander interests. Tribal peoples used rituals and dance, often involving psychoactive “medicines” (like peyote and tobacco) to contact and influence the powers of the dream world, which hovered just above and beyond our own. Shamans were ordinary men and women who differed not in essence from the people they served but merely in specialty — in their knowledge of the spirit world and their skill in traversing it.

That changed at the border of history, in the era of the epic — of the Odyssey and the Ramayana. As agriculturally settled societies grew more urban and stratified, we no longer lived on the bounty of the land. Kings and priests took rents and taxes, and recurrent epidemics sapped our strength. The conditions of ordinary people deteriorated, and so their estimation of the primordial divide grew both in space and in variety. Bridging the gap required more than simply piercing a veil. It required semi-divine heroes whose fantastical exploits re-tethered our world to its divine source, lest all fall into the darkness of winter and never return — as in the Norse Ragnarok.

Thus we are told that Gilgamesh, a mythologized historical king, was one-third human and two-thirds divine. His story, the Enuma Elish, was read aloud by priests at the Babylonian New Year in order to ensure the return of spring. Similarly, that was the function of the Celtic yule, whose ritual persists in my household to this day. As with Gilgamesh, many of the ancient Greek and Indian heroes were semi-divine offspring (avatars) of gods — Heracles or Krishna. Or, like Orpheus, they were possessed of divine arts or skills, and their stories, as patterns to emulate or avoid, marked the path up Olympus or up the wheel of reincarnation.

The rift between human and divine reached its peak with the advent of high cosmopolitanism, beginning roughly 500 BCE. From then, the gods no longer wrestled with men, as did the god of the house of Abraham, nor seduced them with showers of gold, as Zeus did to the beautiful Danae. Spiritual leaders no longer straddled the worlds as a mix of both human and divine. Neither Confucius nor Buddha nor the Athenian philosophers — all roughly contemporaries — were divine, and they only ascended to heaven, if at all, on revelation, which is to say by invitation. Muslims believe as a strict measure of faith that the Prophet was entirely human, and since the end of the Arian controversy a millennium and a half ago, standard Christian dogma states that Jesus was also fully human. (Paradoxically, he is also fully divine. The important point is that, unlike Gilgamesh or Heracles, he is not mixed, despite his parentage.)

But since the prophet or saint lacks the divine powers of Rama or Krishna, since they are entirely human, like us, climbing the holy mountain — retracing the primordial crisis — becomes not a feat of legend, where Heracles alters the course of a river, but a difficult and painful task that we might hope to recreate, whereas we have no hope of diverting the Potomac, however much we might like to.

In this era in the West, the prophet typically had a terrifying, often painful encounter with an angry God, so overwhelming that the elect typically denied their calling. Moses refused God’s anointment several times until at last he was allowed the help of his brother Aaron, and Mohammed was so pained by his visions of the angel Gabriel that he too refused the call:

“[The angel] came to me… while I was asleep, with a coverlet of brocade whereupon was some writing, and said, ‘Read!’  I said, ‘I cannot read.’ He pressed me with it so tightly that I thought it was death; then he let me go and said, ‘Read!’”

It is as if the Western world — which is to say, the western half of Eurasia — had become so stratified and unjust that we believed ourselves completely alienated from the divine. Mohammad stood ready to throw himself off a cliff rather than face his people bearing a message from the Almighty. The world owes the great and lyric poetry of the Koran, the greatest of all medieval literature, to Mohammed’s faithful wife Khadija, who sent her servants to find him.

In the East, the prophet or saint typically experienced a peaceful revelation of the human condition: that all is One. The Hindu yogi comes to this heightened self- and universal-awareness — that everything is a fragment of Atman — though deep meditation, sinking inside her self and away from the world. Thus, it is through a reverse recreation of Atman’s first stirrings, where it split into all things, that one heals the original rift. The Buddha Sakyamuni, working within this tradition, escaped suffering through an act of nonviolent resistance. And in China, the Daoist sages urged peaceful surrender the unspeakable and indescribable Way.

In both cases, East and West, prophets rarely — if ever — brought a revelation, despite what you were told in Sunday school. Rather, they bring a restoration, a rediscovery of the original crisis, which had become degraded through history. It is for this reason that major faiths become quickly conservative; they are imagined so from the beginning. Consider that after having a vision of the Sun as the one true God, bringing monotheism to Egypt 2,000 years before Mohammad, the Pharaoh Akhenaton (circa 1350 BCE) attempted to erase the traditional gods of Egypt. Immediately after his death, it is he who was erased as bands of scribes and masons scoured the architecture of the Nile valley to chisel away any reference to “that criminal.” According to the Koran, the Prophet is only the last in a long line that has touched all the people on the Earth. “…there never was a people, without a warner having lived among them.” And while Confucius may be the most revered man of classical China, he worshiped the memory of the mythical rulers that preceded him — Yao, Wen, and the Duke of Zhou — whose virtue was an example for all time.

“I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge,” says The Master. “I am the one who is fond of antiquity and earnest in seeking it there.”

And of course, Jesus famously asserted that he had not come to change the laws of Moses but to fulfill them. (Jesus started as a Jewish reformer and he would have remained a Jew if not for the conceited efforts of Paul to usurp the disciples with his vision of a God for all people.)

Having rediscovered the ancient path, the saint carries us along by the strength of his works, which are a treasure trove of merit. In order to experience the cosmic reunion, to cross the void between this world and the next, we climb to God as it were on the back of the prophet. This is the function and purpose of ritual, which has the penitent invoke the plight of the saint as a sort of credit against the debts of our soul. Christian sinners partake of the body and blood of Christ, which was broken on the cross, and indeed, most cathedrals are shaped like crosses with the sacraments taken at the heart. Catholics repeat the rosary in much the same way that Mahayana Buddhists of the Pure Land tradition, which identifies nirvana with a kind of heaven, repeat the nembutsu, the invocation of the Amida Buddha. It is the grace and work of the compassionate saint — Mary or Amida — that elevates the impassioned sinner, who could never make the crossing on their own, to the sacred eternal land where the twins, Illness and Inequity, are stopped at the gate.

Of all rituals, however, the pilgrimage is the most powerful as it physically recreates the crossing by engaging the penitent in the agony of the saint. This is captured in the Hindu word for pilgrimage, tirtha-yatha, which derives from the Vedic root referring to the ford of a river, and of course the great Ganges is for Hindus the connection between this world and the next, the place to bring one’s honored dead, as was the Nile in ancient Egypt. Even today, Muslims participating in the largest pilgrimage in human history, the Hajj, literally follow the footsteps of Mohammad and Abraham and recreate the banishment of Satan, who bars us from Allah, by casting stones at pillars.

In the beginning, everything split — and we all stood looking back at it, at sacred time. That is, until the modern era. Today, even China (nominally) worships a German materialist philosopher. Modern ideologies, even conservative religious ones, are fundamentally different from previous worldviews — what C.S. Lewis called “the discarded image” of the universe. Such views were fixed on sacred time. But ideology is fundamentally materialist. It does not admit of such a thing. In our era, the divine gap hasn’t grown. It’s disappeared.

For what replaced it, ideology, the rational ordering of the society is the new holy mother. In her womb lies Utopia, waiting for the faithful to clear a path so that she may be born. Conservative ideologies, bearing the mark of the parent, still orient that utopia in the past, but it’s a profane past, not a sacred one — a historically ambiguous time when men were strong, women compliant, and our weapons larger than everyone else’s. Liberal ideologies place utopia in an equally ambiguous future, but both make the same promise as religion: that through the ritual practice and forced application of a certain set of beliefs, known to be true, mankind will realize an end to suffering, that it can happen, that it will happen, if only we try hard enough.

Arguments about social justice, then, are fundamentally religious in that they require the same faith and invoke the same eschatology. Both liberalism and conservatism demand you step out of your authentic present, where your only self resides — good times or bad, amid ascension or decline, facing justice or persecution, feast or famine — to worship a prophesied coming. Just like religion, ideology recruits you to its aims rather than your own. The significant difference is that, where the primitive animist typically knows that’s what he is, no one today believes they are a liberal or a conservative, a feminist or a fascist, in the same way that Paul was a Christian. Paul worshiped Christ as Lord. Ideology preaches that we are its master, not the other way round, making it both more pernicious and harder to escape than religion. And indeed, in the 20th century alone, more people were slaughtered for ideology than in all religious wars combined. Ideology is the next, more sophisticated meme running on unchanged wetware. I suspect it will reign for some time.



cover image: “Father of the Sun” by Timofey Stepanov