by Michael Maciel
In our Post-Truth world, we need to find a way to interact with those for whom belief is more important than facts. And nowhere is this more important than in the arena of religion and religious beliefs. Unless we find a way to understand why so many people are adamantly against science, the world’s political climate will continue to heat up, and we will all be the worse for it.
The problem lies in the antagonism between the scientifically-minded and religious believers. Each side denies the legitimacy of the other side’s views because each side holds their views as sacred. Any view that contradicts their views is, by definition, sacrilegious. And that’s just cause for going to war. One side doesn’t understand the meaning of “myth,” and the other doesn’t understand its purpose.
Let’s look at one example of a sacred myth, the Virgin Birth of Jesus. It has both a symbolic meaning and a scientific purpose. Once these are understood, its historical meaning will become obvious.
The literal version of this story is essential. Because it is a scientific impossibility presented as a supernatural fact, it causes the rational mind to reboot and dig deeper into its version of “reality.” This is important because unless it does this, a wider, more inclusive perspective is impossible. We cannot see what is new until we are at least willing to put in abeyance that which is old.
The mind, you see, is set up to protect what it knows and to reject what it doesn’t. (Failure to do this results in cognitive dissonance.) This is what myths are for. It’s what Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are for. It’s what the New Testament miracles are for. They are a way for the ideas they symbolically represent to gain access into our conscious awareness without being shot on sight.
We all have a need for the transcendental, the supernatural, the mystical. These stories make them available to us by poking a hole in the filter of the rational mind, letting us experience a broader, more holistic view of reality, one that includes the physical but also transcends it.
Let me say that again: INCLUDES but TRANSCENDS. The significance of this will become evident shortly.
Myths have a very definite function (like icons in the Orthodox Church and the statues and paintings in the Catholic Church) which is to “hack” the filters of the conscious mind. They are designed to get around the ego, which automatically and aggressively rejects anything that threatens its sovereignty.
Spiritual adults (those who have their egos under a modicum of control) don’t take the icons or the myths literally, but they don’t dismiss them, either. In fact, most of us hold them close to our hearts where they are protected from the ravaging brutality of the rational mind.
Like King Herod who sought to destroy his competition while it was still in its infancy, the rational mind wants to kill any new perspective that presents itself, before it has a chance to threaten it’s position of authority. The mind has a way of vetting new knowledge with extreme prejudice.
On the other hand, the symbolic interpretation of a myth is for those who have provided the literal interpretation a safe haven in their hearts, in the “cave” of their being — the stable of the Nativity. Having been denied a room in the inn (the rational, conscious mind), the seed idea is sent around back, out of public view. Allowing it to enter into our awareness in the form of a belief makes it possible for the mind to accept it without too much scrutiny. But if we disallow it, even as a belief, then the seed idea will be lost altogether, and the benefits of a wider, more inclusive understanding will be lost along with it.
The reason why this is so important is because it’s a link, a bridge between science and religion, between the rational and non-rational functions of the mind. Myths serve a scientific function in that they give us a way to circumvent the filters of the rational mind, which is incapable of transcending itself. And without transcendence, the mind’s ability to form new thoughts atrophies and eventually devolves into superstition. In this way, faith and science go hand-in-hand; faith is the doorway through which rational thought can expand its horizons.
This is what drives fundamentalists in their insistence that the literal interpretation of Scripture is the only interpretation that is true. They sense that it’s important, but they don’t know why. Their own rational mind has inappropriately assumed that the myths are literal facts, and this has caused them to morph into superstitious beliefs. And in so doing, they have succeeded where Herod failed.
When asked by a fundamentalist whether we believe in the Virgin Birth (or any other icon), a spiritually mature person can in good faith say yes, because he or she understands the nature of beliefs and how they function. But if we deny it, then we deny ourselves access to the spiritual energies (gifts of the Spirit) the higher levels of thought convey.
Accepting stories such as the Virgin Birth in ourselves is a matter of what we were brought up to believe. The child part of us lives within us throughout our entire lifespan. The adult part of us can be very abusive to it by not allowing it to keep its childlike views, which are important to our ability to transcend the limited aspects of the rational mind. “Except you be as little children…” and all that. As adults, we should be protective of those things that are under-developed or still growing, including the cherished beliefs of others who have not yet adopted a wider view of religious symbols and iconography.
The important thing, I think, is to recognize that beliefs have a role to play in our lives — an important one. If we can allow that in ourselves, then we can allow it in others, and that would go a long way towards world peace. At the same time, we have to push for a greater understanding, which will be a lot easier if we don’t deny the reverences of others.