Session 1: Background—Myth, Space, and Time
Why are we doing this? Why spend six weeks on the first three chapters of Genesis—a text that’s obviously just a myth? One reason is that the first three chapters of Genesis have burrowed their way into our popular culture—along with Noah and his ark and some of Jesus’s miracles—more than almost any other passages in the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures. Even toddlers in nearly every culture have heard of Adam and Eve and the apple. As a result, few passages of Scripture have received more criticism and more ridicule than this one. Countless hours have been spent over the centuries both attacking and defending these passages. I’m here to tell you that the vast majority of those hours were wasted.
Although the passages we’re going to be looking at are quite simple and very elegantly composed, unless you take the time to enter the unique environment where they exist, you’re likely to be thrashing around, trying to make sense of them from a twenty-first century perspective. Today, we’re going to begin by pointing out some of the hidden attitudes and obscure beliefs that you share with countless generations of humanity for at least the past five thousand years. That’s the time-frame we’ll be dealing with in these sessions, and we have written records of these human thoughts and beliefs dating back at least to 2900 BC. No wonder they’re obscure.
And yet, on the plus side, that’s five thousand years of shared human experience. It’s remarkable how many familiar human traits we can recognize in our bronze age ancestors. When we look at our most distant human parents, it’s obvious that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree—to coin a phrase. Technologically, our ancestors lived in a very different world. But physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, their world was very similar to our own except in its lack of complexity. Everything was simpler then, as Archie Bunker was fond of saying. When we look around, we might get the impression that complexity is not always a good thing. That’s why, as people get older, they want to simplify. Complexity makes it so much more difficult to reach down into the core of our self-understanding, and that’s where we’ll find the locus of our spiritual connections with one another and with our God. Let’s talk about myth.
What is a Myth?
When you read the first three chapters of the book of Genesis—a name that means “beginnings”—much of the story seems fanciful, especially the description of God’s creation of the universe. Science long ago provided proof that it could not have happened the way Genesis describes it. For most people, it’s a proven fact. And yet, still today, some people will fight to the death for their belief that science is wrong, and Genesis is right. The two groups of people on either side of the argument have done a lot of damage. They’re both to blame for the centuries-old controversy that pits science against faith. Both sides need to be right and—at least as far as this argument goes—both sides are wrong. Faith and science belong to two different but intermingled universes.
Let’s start with an example. Every culture from before the written word even existed told stories. They were preserved, generation to generation, by oral tradition. In time, many of these stories were committed to writing. We can still read some of the most ancient ones. We call them “myths” and we have a vague idea of what we mean by that. They’re traditional stories. They convey something, but we’re often not entirely sure what that something might be. Show a myth—a modern one or one many millennia old—to a traditional scientist, and what would she say about it? She’d probably say that it’s a quaint tale that somebody made up. She’d see no difference whatever between the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. If you asked her about the first three chapters of Genesis, she’d say the same thing.
How about you? Do you think there’s a difference between a myth and a fairy tale? If they’re not the same, how are they different? After all, they share the same structure: there’s a hero and a villain, a beginning, a complication, and some sort of resolution. There may even be a lesson or moral in either one. Aesop’s stories are ancient fables, but they’re not myths. I think we’d all agree that calling a tale a “myth” adds some dimension to it that a fairy tale hasn’t got. We’re about to discover what that “something” is. I just want to say here and now, right at the outset, that I have no problem calling our creation story in Genesis a myth, but in no way is a fairy tale.
The secret ingredient that myth adds to a narrative is the dimension of the sacred.
The Sacred: Sacred Space
Imagine, for a moment, the most amazing place of worship you ever visited. Think of how you felt when you were there. For me, it was the Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona, Spain. When I was there, the building was crowded with tourists but, for me, they might as well have not been there at all. How about you? Can you recall the feelings you had in that space? Perhaps it was peace, warmth, security, or serenity? Maybe even awe? Isn’t that what we mean when we call those places “sanctuaries”? But they were designed for that purpose, weren’t they? Our scientist might say, “Obviously, that’s a manufactured feeling.” Okay. Then explain the feeling you get when you come…home. Home exists in an entirely different dimension from any other place in the universe. You don’t manufacture the feeling of being at home, and you can’t summon it at will. It permeates just one physical space, and, when you are in your sacred space, it becomes the center of your world.
Sacred space, wherever you encounter it, is the center of your universe when you’re within it. Sacred space, then, doesn’t share the same characteristics as physical place, even though they may seem the same. Sacred space has no dimensions—neither length nor breadth nor height. And sacred space has no location, except the place where you are when you’re there. “’Do not come any closer,’ God said, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’” [Exodus 3:5]
When you’re finishing up your day today, before you head off to bed, I’d ask you to take a few quiet minutes to try to locate in your imagination where your sacred spaces might be. If you’re lucky enough to do this in your sacred space, become aware of what it feels like to be there and how different it is from all the other spaces you inhabit. I’d also like you to think about the rituals you perform to acknowledge your sacred space. Do you take off your shoes when you enter? Is there a special place you put your keys? When you come in, do you need the light to be a certain way? Turning on only certain lamps? Adjusting the shades or curtains? What does it feel like when something’s out of place? What do you need to arrange to feel “at home”? To feel “centered”? Now, do you think you can carry that experience with you as you discover other sacred spaces? What happens when you bring someone else into your sacred space? What does it feel like when you consciously enter theirs?
So where is sacred space? What a question, right? It is wherever you need it to be—wherever you encounter it. The “where” comes from the physical world, the “space” from the world of the sacred. Here’s one of the very important lessons we can take away from this session: we need to realize—to become aware—that God does not dwell in a physical place. God dwells only in sacred space. That’s where we seek God; that’s where we find God. Get it?
Let’s circle back to where we started. What about myth? Myth takes place in sacred space, without dimensions and without place. Myths may have a relation to some physical entity like an island, a desert, a city, or a mountain, but they can’t be identified with them. You can’t travel to Mount Olympus and expect to experience the gods. You know what it’s like. Haven’t you ever gone back to visit somewhere where you used to live? A place you used to call home? It’ll never feel the same as it once did. You can never go home again because home is wherever your sacred space is. Why do travelers tell stories of home? It’s their way of getting back in touch with their sacred space. As such, stories of home are true myths. The details lose their importance…it’s the connection that counts.
That’s only one aspect of the dimension of the sacred. Myth takes place not only in sacred space, but in sacred time.
The Sacred: Sacred Time
Just as sacred space mingles with physical places, but is not confined to them, so sacred time happens in physical time, but is not constrained by it. When do we encounter sacred time? Here’s another obvious example: ritual happens in sacred time. We ritualize our entry into sacred time by performing opening rites and we ritualize our exit from sacred time by our closing rites. What happens in the middle is timeless—words and actions that don’t really belong to the here and now, do they?
How about a not-so-obvious example. What happens when you “lose track of” time? Did physical time actually stand still? Nope. Any clock will show you the difference. But, somehow, duration—that experience of existing within time—went away. I’m sure you can come up with many examples of incidences where time stopped behaving itself. Time flies when you’re having fun. A watched pot never boils. Just like sacred space has neither dimensions nor place, sacred time has neither duration nor direction. It’s senseless to ask how long sacred time lasts. It’s equally senseless to ask when something happened in sacred time. The answer is always the same: “It’s happening now!” Sacred time has no direction. It has no “was then,” it has no “will be,” it has only “is now.”
The leader of the Passover meal declares, “We were slaves in Egypt.” The Passover events, even though they had an historical antecedent, now take place in sacred time. The Passover of the angel of death, the flight from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea and the wandering in the desert are all happening here in our sacred space, now and to us. The celebrant of the Eucharist declares, “This is my body; this is my blood.” The last supper, suffering, death and resurrection of Christ happened once in physical space and time but now exists in sacred space and time. Then and now are united and become the same. Ritual and myth take place not only in sacred space, but always in sacred time. If you attempt to enter the world of myth without entering the dimension of the sacred, you enter a world of absurdity.
The world of the sacred is populated by sacred beings.
The Sacred: Sacred Beings
Events in sacred space and time involve living beings. They are heroes. Myths celebrate the heroes and disparage the villains, holding the one up as a model, and the other as a warning. Some sacred beings have their roots in the physical world, others do not. Regardless, all beings who exist in sacred space and time share common features with us physical beings, but they are not subject to the same physical limitations as we are. The gods of the ancients and the angels of our Judaeo-Christian traditions evidently are not constrained to our place and time, yet somehow, they interact with us and we with them. The heroes who are celebrated in myth perform their mighty deeds still. These sacred beings serve both as messengers from God and, through them, we encounter God. They are paradigms of virtue and models of heroic strength and power. They are our angels and saints. They are our heroes and heroines. They live in sacred space, and, because they exist in sacred time, they are immortal. They are the ones we bring with us into our sacred space and time.
The world of the sacred is not only peopled with sacred beings, it’s also furnished with sacred objects.
The Sacred: Sacred Objects
These sacred objects are very special, like everything in the dimension of the sacred. They share our physical space and time, and we interact with them, but they are not of space and time. When we acknowledge something as a sacred object, we identify it as consecrated. It is set apart from everyday use. When we consecrate an object, we relegate it to sacred space and time. They act as doors to the sacred, and, as such, we want to be close to them when we enter our sacred space and begin our sacred time. They can be anything. There are sacred mountains and sacred rivers. There are sacred stones and trees. Some, we call “relics” because they connect us with certain sacred beings like our loved ones and our saints and they allow us to share their energy. Everyone has special objects that connect us with the world of the sacred, and we experience sacred space and time when we are consciously in their presence.
We have still one more aspect of the world of the sacred we need to consider. What lies outside sacred space and time?
Beyond the Sacred: Chaos
What does the outside world feel like when you’re safe and snug inside your home? Do you lock your doors and windows? We do. The owners of the house next door are often away. A few months ago, during the night, their house was broken into, and the thieves backed up a truck and took everything. Since then, we’ve been turning our alarm system on not only when we go away, but when we go to bed at night. Why do you think we do that?
And, when you’re away from home, away from your sacred space, especially traveling, how does the world feel? Strange? Foreign? Somewhat out of control? When we’re out of our sacred space, the unknown presses in upon us, doesn’t it? And what about when we leave our sacred time and re-enter the world of past, present, and future? The mistakes of the past weigh on us. The uncertainties of the future cause us anxiety. We feel insecure about our jobs, our income, our resources, and we fear for our loved ones, don’t we? All of these things send us running back to our sacred space and time, but, when we’re there, they tend to sneak in and try to drag us back out into the world of uncertainty. The experience of these distractions we call chaos.
Chaos surrounds us. Chaos presses in upon us. Chaos energizes our insecurities. Chaos is a timeless and universal human experience. You might think that the gods and goddesses of the ancients served to explain creation and to answer prayer. Maybe. But their primary role has always been to keep chaos at bay.
We humans have only two responses to chaos: despair before the inevitable or hope for something better. But, humanity is, above all, hopeful. We come, we see, we conquer. Doesn’t every parent hope that their children will have a better, easier life than they had? We strive even in the face of overwhelming obstacles. The role of myth, then, is to point beyond the chaos toward sources of hope from the realm of the sacred. Even our scientist who closed her mind entirely to the sacred embraces a myth that provides her hope amidst the current chaos. “Someday,” she believes, “science will have the answer. After all, the role of science is to create a better world.” Since everyone feels threatened by chaos, everyone relies on myth to open the door for them to the sacred. That’s true regardless of how we experience that way forward.
So, there we are. Next time, we’re going to take what we’ve learned today, and apply it to the cultures that existed at the dawn of western civilization. It’s from those foundations in our common human experience that the creation stories we find in Genesis arose. If you haven’t read the first three chapters recently, I suggest that this coming week, you take a few minutes to re-read them and look for those aspects that I’ve talked about today: sacred space, sacred time, sacred beings, sacred objects, and the chaos that surrounds them. If you look, you’ll find them all.
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Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1959