Joseph Campbell used to tell a story about a conversation he overhead, between a young boy and his mother. The boy had written a paper about evolution for class. His teacher told him that evolution was wrong and that Adam and Eve were the first human beings. His mother actually agreed with the teacher, and when the boy pressed on and said that his paper was scientific, his mother got angry. Science, she said, was just a bunch of theories. To which her son replied, yes, but this theory has facts; scientists have found the bones.
Campbell told this story thirty years ago. At the time many people, Campbell included, thought that science would be the final nail in the coffin of widespread Christian belief. Not because science was "true" and Christianity was "false," but because our mythologies should be compatible with the science of the times and Christianity was not compatible. At least, not the way that it was commonly read and interpreted. Read as history, as "fact," Christianity doesn't make much sense. Metaphorically, taken as a mythology, it's quite rich. But for reasons that are beyond me, the idea that Jesus really lived has proven more popular than pursuit of the Christ-like dimension in each of us.
Campbell thought the misplaced insistence on historical, literal truth would dry up the last little drops of spiritual and psychological juice. But unfortunately, we're experiencing more and more heated and ridiculous arguments like the one the young boy had with his mother thirty years ago, and the hardening, the blind determination to literalize and factualize our beliefs and theories has infected scientists as well as theologians. It's touched many of us. Living with ambiguity is tough.
The symbols and the metaphors that we use to point to the ineffable can and should change as the cultural, historical, scientific context changes, so that they remain fluid and relevant. To truly operate as vehicles for religious (or mystical or mythical) experience, the concrete expression of belief must open out to something bigger. The whole has to be bigger than the sum of the parts. "The tao that can be spoken is not the Tao; the tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao," says the Tao te Ching. Rigid dogmas and creeds can become ends in themselves. When you mistake the statue for the god so to speak, you've lost the experience of the god.
Image courtesy of the UK Space Agency.
Science, as an intellectual enterprise based in uncertainty and fueled by hypotheses, has the potential to provide us with metaphors and images that inspire the kind of wonder and awe necessary to mystical or religious experience. Contemplate the fires burning at the core of the earth, for example, and how little we know about them. What I am slowly learning about the earth is blowing my mind. After years of avoidance, science has become another way to probe the mystery that surrounds and permeates me. I hope to get more articulate on the subject.
Campbell thought that the image of the Earth, seen from outer space, could inspire a new mythology of global unity. It's an intriguing idea and I'm also inspired by the prospect of one human family and a planet-wide community of beings. Can such an image, one result of the quest for scientific knowledge, provide some raw material for a new mythology or ecopoetry? Maybe, if the inquiry is open-ended and the minds stay open, and if we are alert to the cultural myths that influence our questions and the answers that we accept.