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, where bad things don’t happen to good people, or at least not to the poor over the wicked.
If we are not there — and it is obvious we are not — then we are separated from it. In the spiritual worldview, that separation, as traumatic as a birth, is the cataclysm whereby the primal singularity shattered, leaving mankind bereft. In one of the earliest recorded myths, the ancient Sumerian creation story, the primal universe is a divine union of heaven and earth, Anki, who mate and bear the sky, Enlil, whose birth splits the divine union apart — with the heavenly father, An, above and the earth mother, Ki, below. 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). In the Indian tradition, Atman, the absolute singularity, awakens to its loneliness and splits, first into two and then into all things, populating the universe through meiotic division, like a cosmic cell. So too Yahweh, who splits matter from nothingness, light from dark, water from land, man from animal, male from female, and finally both from paradise.
Humans arise humbly, often despicably, out of this tragedy. Pan Ku grew to an immense size before dying and creating the mountains and the rivers with his flesh and blood. Men grew from the parasites on his body. After the Babylonian sky god, Marduk, slayed the dragon-goddess Tiamat — the chaos from the depths, like the Biblical leviathan, Cthulhu, or even Godzilla — he mixed the blood of her slain general with clay to make men, who, as offspring of the vanquished, were meant to serve him as a kind of slave race. And in the most famous origin story of the Western world, the Hebrew Genesis, humans are born from dust and unto dust they return.
As mere mortals, humans cannot step across the gap to return to the divine. That gulf, however, was not always 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 concerns. 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 our own. Shamans were ordinary men and women who differed not in essence from the people they served but in specialty.
That changed at the border of history, when we crossed into in the era of the epic — of the Odyssey and the Ramayana. As agriculturally settled societies grew more urban and stratified and the conditions of ordinary people deteriorated, so grew their estimation of the primordial divide. No longer were we separated from the Beyond by a veil, to be pierced by a shaman. The gods now lived atop mythical mountains or in lands so distant they could only be reached by divine heroes, whose fantastical journeys — beyond the horizon or down to the netherworld — re-tethered our world to its source, lest it fall into darkness, as with the Norse Ragnarok. Thus the story of Gilgamesh, a mythologized king said to be two-thirds divine, was read aloud by priests at the Babylonian New Year in order to ensure the return of spring in much the same way that Celts lit candles and adorned evergreens at the yule, the depth of winter, when the world is darkest. The heroes of ancient Greece and India were semi-divine offspring (or avatars) of gods, like Heracles or Krishna, or else, like Orpheus, they were possessed of divine arts or skills, and their virtue-tales of tragedy and truimph marked the path up Olympus or along the wheel of reincarnation.
It wasn’t until the advent of high cosmopolitanism, beginning roughly 500 BC, that the rift between human and divine reached its peak. The divine realm could no longer be reached by crossing the sea or diverting the course of a river, as Heracles did, and so was out of reach even of heroes. It appeared only by invitation. Confucius, Buddha, and Socrates, all roughly contemporaries (and all fully human), ascended to heaven, if at all, on the revelation of virtue. In the West, the prophet typically experiences a terrifying, often painful encounter with an angry God. Socrates was killed for his beliefs, while Mohammed was so pained by his visions of the angel Gabriel that he 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!’”
In the East, by contrast, the call of the prophet is the resolution of a crisis rather than its onset. 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 a peaceful surrender the unspeakable and indescribable Way.
We call these revelations. In truth, they are restorations, rediscoveries 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 BC) attempted to erase the traditional gods of Egypt. Immediately after his death, it was 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.” Jesus famously declared that he had not come to supplant the laws of Moses, but to fulfill 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.”
Having rediscovered the ancient path, the saint returns to show us the way. 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.
Of all rituals, however, the pilgrimage is the most powerful as it physically recapitulates the agony of the saint. The Hindu word for pilgrimage, tirtha-yatha, derives from the Vedic root meaning 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 the Nile was 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.
Today, ideology has replaced religion. Even China nominally worships a German materialist philosopher. In contrast with the spiritual, the ideological worldview, even a conservative or religious one, is fixed on profane (rather than sacred) time. If one has faith, it is said to be for logical reasons. The divine realm, previously distant, has now disappeared entirely. Where 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. And indeed, in the 20th century alone, more people were slaughtered for ideology than in all the religious wars of the last 2,000 years combined. I suspect it will reign for some time.
cover image: “Father of the Sun” by Timofey Stepanov