Times of Illusion: The Power of Myth
by Maira Butt
Myths are stories. Stories of the human experience. Stories of the Universe and its existence. Those we intuitively tap into and give shape to with our words, experiences and emotions. Myth underlies all of philosophy, theology, spirituality and even science. It is the elephant in the room, the unsaid assumption behind all the questions and answers, meaning making and knowledge seeking in which we engage every minute.
Do we delude ourselves when we seek a universal narrative (whether we be believers or atheists)? For example, I can’t help but feel that myth is intimately tied to time as a linear concept. There is a beginning, middle and end to myth. In which case, where does it all end? This creates some contradictions between New Age and “traditional” thought.
Our modern day New Age “myths” are inherently evolutionary. They seem to imply that we as a species are only getting better; that man-made destructions are the inevitable growing pains of a New Age. But then, religion and its eschatology implies that we live through entropy, and only unravel our spiritual potency as time itself unwinds, getting weaker and more misled.
I first came across Charles Upton’s work after taking a book out from the local library entitled ‘Findings in Metaphysic, Path and Lore’ (Sophia Perennis, 2009). I asked him a series of questions centred on the conflicts between New Age and religious thought, including the ones on myth and narrative touched on above.
The answers have been presented in interview format in a series of 4 blog posts entitled ‘Times of Illusion’, of which this instalment is the penultimate post.
- God in the New Age
- Thoughts Become Things
- The Power of Myth
Charles Upton, a Sufi poet, author, metaphysicist and veteran of the counter-culture, developed an interest in metaphysics via ‘mythopoeia’, and having survived the social upheavals of the Sixties, and the psychic allures of New Age occultism, awakened at the end of the Eighties to the esoteric teachings of the traditionalists, eventually becoming initiated into Sufism. His critique of New Age occultism and modernism is his best-known work and is published under the title, ‘The System of the Antichrist: Truth and Faleshood in Postmodernism and the New Age’ (Sophia Perennis, 2001). Sophia Perennis has published many other books by Charles Upton. His most recent book ‘Day & Night on the Sufi Path’ (Sophia Perennis, 2015) was published last year. He is also the founder of an international movement of Muslims to combat terrorism and defend persecuted Christians called ‘The Covenants Initiative’. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, in Lexington, Kentucky.
How do we intellectually reconcile the need for narrative in our personal lives, often feeling we are at the centre of the Universe with the fact that in the vast expanse of existence, our lives are meaningless? The Qur’an says: ‘whatever you do is for your own benefit, God does not need His servants’.
Where did you get the idea that “in the vast expanse of existence, our lives are meaningless?” As human beings, as bearers of the Trust, we reflect all the Names of God. The sizes of the stars and the distances between the galaxies are nothing but material magnitudes; they have nothing to do with intrinsic meanings of things. Our lives are supremely meaningful because only human beings can discern meaning. To the degree that we live in our egos we have no center, so we are condemned to live on the contingent, mutable surface of things. But considered in terms of the Fitra, the primordial human nature, each of us is the center of the universe—not by our personal history, but by our “theomorphic” nature as human beings. Whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. (Q. 5:32). Nowadays the idea that “man is the measure of all things” is seen as foolish arrogance. But the truth is, we really are the measure of all things, because only we—not the rocks, not the animals, not the stars—can see the universe as a unified system composed entirely of signs of its Creator. To see it like this is precisely our function in the divine economy. The notion that the human being is “the center of the universe” is also posited by modern physics, with varying degrees of accuracy, in terms of the “strong” or “weak” Anthropic Principle, based on the discovery that the constants and parameters of the universe are finely “tuned” so as to make the human form not only possible, but necessary. One of the best books on this, at least from the biological perspective, is Nature’s Destiny by Michael Denton.
It is natural for us to need “narrative” in our lives because we are real human beings with real destinies; the annihilation of self-identity over the course of the Spiritual Path should never be taken to mean that we are worthless or meaningless, but as an act of supreme gratitude by which we return the precious gift of existence to the One Who gave it. Until recently most people thought of themselves as having a “life story”; the idea that our lives are meaningless collections of random events is a fairly recent development; it is evidence of the degeneration of humanity in the latter days. The electronic media are a big factor in training us to see things this way. We are now in the time when human beings have become as thickly-scattered moths (Q. 101:4), depleted of substance and without stable form. It is true that Allah doesn’t need us, but he has nonetheless willed us. If He didn’t care for us, if He didn’t wish for us the greatest good, He would never have sent the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and the Noble Qur’an.
To perceive ourselves as occupying the Center of the universe is in no way arrogance, since only those who have transcended egotism are capable of seeing God as their own Center, and knowing that Center as equally present (virtually or actually) in all other human beings, and ultimately in all things. The arrogant individual, on the other hand, is wrapped up in himself, unable to see the Divine Center in others because he can’t see It in himself. The eye of his Heart is blind; he lives only on the shallow, agitated the surface of life.
I was a big fan of Joseph Campbell’s work at one point but sensed a huge piece missing from his studies; namely God. He puts the individual at the centre of the universe, implying that his redemption alone is intimately tied with the redeeming of humanity writ large. He almost likens this to Prophethood. You have also implied that the idea of evolution of consciousness (which seems to be the foundation of New Age philosophy) does not make rational sense as it implies something missing from the conception point of creation.
Campbell was important to me too, and I still believe that a good understanding of comparative religion and mythology is an important part of being well educated in today’s world. But Campbell was uncertain as to the objective validity of his knowledge in terms of God and the metaphysical order; that’s why I moved on to a study of the writers of the Traditionalist/Perennialist School, who understand that the doctrines of the various religions are pointing, from their providentially varying perspectives, to a single metaphysical order and a single Absolute Reality. Campbell, like many people, apparently believed that a grand synthesis of all religions and all myths would coincide with the unification of humanity—though I once heard him say in a taped lecture: “I’ve studied all the myths and religions but have never made a real commitment to any one of them; consequently I will never be a saint.” From my point of view such a unification, in which all the religions would be relativized and lose their independence, would necessarily be a hegemony of the globalist elites leading to the regime of Antichrist. A unification of the world’s religions could only take place either under an essentially secular authority, or under the authority of a “counter-traditional” elite (to use René Guénon’s term) administering a false, humanly-contrived One World Religion.
To the degree that Campbell associated redemption with the individual, he was right: only individuals, not collectives (religious or otherwise) can be redeemed. God is the Transcendent Center of universal Being, but the human form, as God’s khalifa, is the center of the created Universe. We can nonetheless effectively lose or betray this position through the kind of arrogance that makes us forget we are not only khalifa but ‘abd—God’s slave. Lo! We offered the Trust unto the heavens and the earth and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man assumed it. Lo! he hath proved a tyrant and a fool. (q. 35:72). The raison d’être of any religious collective is to provide conditions conducive to the redemption of as many individual souls as possible. But as for the redemption of humanity as a whole, no religion has ever had this as its goal—except perhaps Buddhism, which speaks of the Enlightenment of all sentient beings, though it does so in terms of the universal compassion of the Bodhisattva who vows to enlighten them, not necessarily as a true collective possibility. As you say, I do not see the spiritual evolution of the human collective as such a possibility, and it would certainly appear that the spiritual degeneration of humanity, as predicted in the Bible, the Qur’an, the Hindu Puranas and even the Buddhist scriptures, is what’s actually happening. A lot of the impetus behind the New Age movement has to do with the denial of this depressing fact and the attempt to replace it with faith in a perpetually-expected “paradigm shift”, even though all the basic collective paradigm shifts I’ve seen in my lifetime have been toward greater spiritual degeneration and social chaos.
The word “evolution” does not mean “progressive growth” but “unwinding”. Any religion is most complete, spiritually speaking, in the era of its first revelation, after which it “evolves” not by adding to its spiritual potential, but by unwinding or unpacking the various potentials hidden or implied in that first revelation. After a revelation’s entire potential is actualized in time and history, it is exhausted—or would be except for various partial “redresses” or “renewals” sent by Providence.
If the idea of the evolution of consciousness is inherently flawed, how does the concept of Ages work? There are also others who state that we are at the end of this present cycle of manifestation. Does this not mean that the next stage will be more advanced?
The doctrine of the Ages is probably most clearly expressed in Hinduism, though it can also be found in Greco-Roman mythology, among the Hopi, the Mayans, the Lakota, and in various African tribes. It is also alluded to, though not so explicitly, in the Bible and the Qur’an. In the traditional doctrine, the ages that make up an entire cycle of manifestation (usually but not always four in number) are devolutionary, not progressive, as if they were an illustration of the concept of entropy posited by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The collective receptivity of humanity to Divine Reality is greatest in the first or Golden Age, whereas the last age, the Age of Iron we are now living in, is the one most resistant to spiritual perception. The earlier ages have a more spacial quality, the later ones are more eaten up by time, which continues to accelerate as the cycle winds down, till at the end we have hardly enough time to breathe, and the very passing moments seem in the process of being torn apart from one another. This end is rapidly approaching. The next age—or rather the next cycle of manifestation—will be in the next world, the world after death, and how we live our lives while we are here on earth has everything to do with whether it will be more advanced or more retarded. We often think of a posthumous life as less real than life in this world, less expressive of the human drama—a kind of ghostly existence where “real” life is over and done with. But who is to say that our life in this world, both individual and collective, is not in some sense the “afterlife” of an earlier life, an earlier world? Human eternity cannot be measured by earthly time. I believe that our life on earth is one step in a chain of real worlds, not abstract realms of disembodied existence but higher worlds of form, and that we travel through these worlds by an ongoing process of death and resurrection. That at least was Guénon’s view. This does not describe the reincarnation of a single human soul in different human bodies (which Guénon denied), but the transmigration of what we now experience as our human consciousness through ever higher (or lower) worlds, until it is either consciously identified with the Absolute via the pole of forma or Essence, or ultimately dissolves into the unconscious substratum of things via the pole of materia or Substance, thus making its return to the Absolute through darkness rather than light.