In the Beginning: a very short history of religious thought

It starts with a crisis, the singular belief that defines the religious history of our species: that this world, full of suffering, where the race does not go to the swift nor food to the hungry, cannot be all there is. That there must be something more.

So it is, the divine singularity, the unity of creation, shatters. And mankind is left separated from the divine. In one of the earliest recorded myths, the ancient Sumerian creation story, that the universe is a cosmic mountain, a union of heaven and earth personified by the god An and the goddess Ki, respectively. The pair mate and bear the great sky god Enlil, who spawns the world when his birth forcibly splits Anki apart. In one 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 lighter parts rise to create the heavens (yang) while the colder parts settle to form the Earth (yin). In India, Atman (absolute being) grows lonely and mitotically populates the universe.

Painfully separated from the divine, humans arise humbly — even despicably — out of the primordial tragedy, which is why we’re forced to wander a cold and indifferent world as we search for a way home. It is, it seems, our lot to suffer. So we read that Pan Ku grows to an immense size before dying and creating the mountains and the rivers with his flesh and blood, while people grow from the parasites on his body. According to the Babylonians, the high god Marduk destroyed the dark forces of the dragon-goddess Tiamat, who represents formlessness or chaos and who must be conquered for order to appear. Marduk mixes the blood of Tiamat’s slain general with clay to make humans. And in the most famous origin story of the Western world, Yahweh creates humans from dirt after splitting form from void, light from dark, and water from land. He finishes by splitting female from male and finally both from paradise.

According to most religions practiced today, we cannot cross the gap on our own. But it was not always so. In mankind’s earliest understandings, the gulf between human and divine, while present, was easily tread. Early tribal cultures frequently imagined the spirit world as a formless limbo hovering over the land, where one’s ancestors were an immediate aspect of everyday life and their anger more pernicious to the family than even the gods’, who usually had far grander interests. Tribal peoples used rituals and dance, often involving psychoactive “medicines” (like tobacco) to contact and influence the powers of the dream world, which was so close to our own that we visited it every night in our sleep. Mediums and shamans were called forth from ordinary men and differed from them only in knowledge of the spirit world and skill in traversing it.

But that begins to change at the border of history. As agriculturally settled societies grew more urban and stratified, writing developed, and the conditions of men deteriorated, our estimation of the divide between the human and divine grew both in space and in variety. The Aztecs, like Plato, believed that the world of man was an impermanent dream or refraction of the divine, which alone was truly real and which could only be contacted abortively by a priest with specialized training. The only people who can move across the widening gap — prophets, saints, or heroes — are now imagined as semi-divine and their exploits are responsible for the state of men, exploits that must be honored and often recreated to insure the continued operation of the natural world, such as the arrival of the harvest. 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, many of the ancient Greek heroes were, like Heracles or Achilles, the half-divine offspring of gods or, like Orpheus, possessed of divine arts or skills. They alone can cross. Indeed, the only people here in regular communion with the divine are oracles and priests, who demand rents for their labors.

After the advent of high cosmopolitanism around 500 BCE, the rift between human and divine reaches its peak. No longer do the gods wrestle with men (as does the god of the house of Abraham) or seduce lovely maidens with showers of gold (as Zeus comes to the beautiful Danae), and spiritual leaders no longer straddle both worlds as a mix of human and divine. Neither Confucius nor Buddha nor Socrates — all roughly contemporaries — were divine, and they only ascended to “heaven,” if at all, on revelation. 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 fully human.

What’s more, neither could climb Mount Olympus on their own, but both were brought to heaven by God only after suffering, horribly, the primordial rift in reverse. In the West, prophets have a terrifying, usually painful encounter with an angry God, so overwhelming that messengers often deny their calling. Moses refuses God’s anointment several times until at last he’s allowed the help of his brother Aaron. The Prophet Mohammed was so pained by his visions of the angel Gabriel that he thrice refuses 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!’”

Indeed, 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.

But where in the West we’re all servants of Satan and just don’t know it, in the East we’re all God and just don’t know it. Here the saint usually experiences a peaceful (rather than painful) 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 oneself and away from the world. Thus it is through a reverse recreation of Atman’s first stirrings, where He split into all things, that one heals the original rift. The Buddha Sakyamuni, working within this same tradition, escaped beyond being itself to unify with the essential nature of the universe, which is emptiness (sunyata). And the Daoist sages urge peaceful surrender the unspeakable Way of all things.

But in both cases, East and West, modern saints do not bring revelation. Rather they bring a restoration — a “proper” recognition of the original crisis, which had become degraded. It is for this reason that major faiths become quickly (and damnably) conservative. 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.” Jesus, on the other hand, 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.) 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 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 timeless path, which had been betrayed, 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. Indeed, most cathedrals are shaped like crosses with the sacraments taken at the heart, and 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 pure land.

Of all rituals, however, the pilgrimage is the most powerful as it both physically enacts the crossing of the primordial rift and engages the penitent in the agony of the saint. The Hindu word for pilgrimage is tirtha-yatha, from the Vedic root referring to the ford of a river, and the great Ganges is for Hindus the connection between this world and the next, the place to bring one’s honored dead. 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.

It is sometimes suggested that our era, beginning about the year 1500, is one of Enlightenment, where we have turned round completely and no longer find salvation in a mythic past but look instead to a mythic future of material comfort based on reason rather than faith. But it has never really been so. Most people alive today — the vast majority, in fact — still find peace and hope in the personal victory of a saint, just as it has been for the entire history of our species. Widespread reorientation of our basic myth, if it is to come, is likely as far from us as we are from ages past.


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


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