Sunday, December 13, 2009

#60. Symbol, Myth & Meaning

ARCHIVE. For a list of all my published posts: 

This is the second of several posts dealing with an understanding of religious ritual in the context of cosmic evolution.

I'm aware that the very idea that there might be a connection between religious ritual and the evolution of the universe sounds strange to many readers, so it's important that we keep in mind that humanity is in the midst of an Immense Transition-- from a static to a dynamic worldview-- and that we are now at a new religious moment in the history of the world.

I see giving our attention, at this time, to the place of religious ritual in the evolutionary worldview as a creative activity on the growing edge of the immense Transition.

My main point is that religious ritual is how we humans plug into the energy of the cosmos; it's the means by which we are empowered to participate in the evolution of the universe.

A major problem in talking about all this is that most of the words we have available only have meanings left over from the static worldview. 

In post #59, I listed six of them.

Three are familiar: symbol, myth and meaning. I'm sharing my thoughts about them in this post. The other three-- wisdom, cosmology and creativity-- are much less familiar and I plan to talk about them in the next post.


One of the main difficulties with all this is that the more familiar terms are often used in less than precise ways in everyday life. And the first two ("symbol" and "myth") are commonly used with meanings which are the very opposite of the ways we need to understand them in order to make sense of the links between cosmic evolution and religious ritual.

An added difficulty is that all three terms are frequently used in confusing pairs; examples include "myth and symbol," "symbolic ritual" and "meaningful symbols." And Myth and Meaning is the title of one of the most significant books for contemporary religious studies.

Of that first group, the word "meaning" offers a special challenge. I think it's the key to sorting out all the other words. My experience has been that it's only when we're comfortable with what "meaning" means that "myth," "symbol" and "ritual" make good sense.

So I'm going to tackle the meaning of "meaning" first.

But a caution: It's important not to get lost in words here. My intention is not philosophical or linguistic analysis, but simply to clarify the meanings of these words in order to share my thoughts about the connections between religious ritual and cosmic evolution.


MEANING. As I said in the previous post, "Of course, we know what 'meaning' means. At least we feel that we do." In that post I asked readers to think about how they would describe the meaning of "meaning" for an intelligent high school student. (I received one anonymous comment in response that was quite good.)

The best understanding I have of "meaning" comes from Claude Levi-Strauss, the "father of modern anthropology" and author of the book Myth and Meaning I mentioned above. His name is familiar even to many who've no idea what he may have been saying. (He died only recently, in October, 2009, at age 101. The New York Times has a good obituary.)

Essentially, Levi-Strauss says that what we mean by "meaning" is how we understand anything-- that the meaning of something is our understanding of it.

At first hearing, this sounds simplistic-- or maybe even incomprehensible. But the more we think about it, the more good sense it makes.

Whether we're talking about a physical object, an event, or a story, what makes something important to us is the depth of our understanding of it.

Note that what's being said here is that things do not have meaning in themselves. We tend to think they do, but when we reflect on it we can see that it's our understanding of something, not the thing in itself, which gives us its meaning. And we can also see, then, that the more ways we understand anything, the more "meaningful" it becomes for us.

The classic example is a wedding ring. It's not the gold or silver but our understanding that makes a wedding ring meaningful. In our rationalist patriarchal culture-- still preoccupied with money and afraid of relationships-- the best we can do in expressing "meaning" in this case is to say that the wedding ring has "sentimental value." It's almost a dismissal.

Patriarchal cultural does a bit better with its use of the term "significant other." What makes a person "significant" is our depth of understanding of them. Although you won't find CEOs and politicians talking about relationships with "significant others," it is precisely our understanding of our relationships which makes persons "meaningful" or "significant" for us.

Both tribal peoples and traditional religious language offer some good terms for expressing the meaning of "meaning." Plains Indians use the word "wakan," for example, to say that the buffalo is of great significance to them. And in English we have familiar religious words like "sacred" or "holy" to say the same thing.

In a dualistic religious context, such words are usually reserved for "spiritual" (non-material) things; but most people probably wouldn't give you an argument if you referred to something as sacred as a photo of your long-dead mother as a "holy" picture.

In any case, we need to keep in mind that whether we say "holy," "sacred," "wakan," or use a less religious-sounding term such as "important" or "significant," the "meaning" of something isn't in the thing itself but in our understanding of it.

It's this thought that we need if we are to make good sense of the terms "symbol" and "myth," and-- eventually-- of the connections between religious ritual and cosmic evolution.


MYTH. In the fitness center where I attend tai chi classes several times a week, a large poster recently appeared advertising a "Workshop on Cardiac Myths." It wasn't necessary to explain that the topic was "commonly held but incorrect ideas about heart-related exercise."

We need a more positive understanding of "myth" if we are to make sense of religious ritual and its connections with cosmic evolution.

While most of us are familiar with the classical Greek myths (stories about Zeus and Athena, for example), many of us are only vaguely aware that every cultural group-- from the tribal peoples of Tierra del Fuego to 21st-century North Americans-- has such stories.

One of the best known myth-stories, found throughout all the world's cultures, is that of a Great Flood. In the western world we know it, of course, as the story of Noah and the Ark; it is included in the sacred scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

When early anthropologists first began to study mythology back in the 1800s, they made several unconscious assumptions about the stories of the tribal peoples they were studying.

One assumption was that the myth-stories of these "primitive" peoples were attempts at what today we would call "scientific" explanations of the workings of the world. These 19th-century scientists assumed that tribal myths are descriptions of the behavior of stars and planets and especially of the animal herds on which the people's lives depended.

They also presumed-- in their rationalist arrogance-- that they were superior to the primitive peoples they were studying. As typical products of their time, the early anthropologists saw tribal stories as attempts at primitive science on the part of people who lacked the skills, talents and superior intelligence which those 19th-century scientists assumed they had.

Today, we know better. For a start, we know that "primitive" people weren't all that primitive: we know that human beings who lived five or ten thousand years ago had exactly the same kind of bodies, brains and mental ability we do today. We also know, now, that their attempts to make sense of the world by way of stories wasn't so far off the track.

While tribal myths are indeed about the behavior of stars, planets and game animals, we can see much better today that humanity's myth-stories are also-- and primarily-- about the workings of the human mind. 

Their central concern is psychology and social life.


If you are interested in these ideas, you might like to read Levi-Strauss' Myth and Meaning. It's readily available in libraries, short (only 50 pages!) and quite easy to follow.

It's comes from a series of radio talks he gave for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the 1970s. In them he expresses such a wonderfully broad, human, concerned viewpoint and depth of understanding that he leaves most talk along those lines-- from church people and politicians, for example-- in the dust.

It's so impressive to see a person like this actually talking to real people. 

He is able to be not only clear but quite precise about the results of our attempts at understanding ourselves and the world. I can promise that if you're interested in religion or science, you'll like this book.

For a more difficult challenge, there's Levi-Strauss's earlier 1958 work, Structural Anthropology. If nothing else, I urge you to look at the Wikipedia article about his significance with regard to those perspectives in the human sciences known as structuralism.


Structuralism is defined as "the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity." Levi-Strauss was one of the first to see that humanity's mythical stories have an underlying structure that in fact makes good sense, even though that underlying structure isn't obvious on the surface. It's that underlying structure that we understand.

The Biogenetic Structuralism perspective I've mentioned many times in these posts is a similar structuralist understanding, but it's a further advance, in that its context is the neurologically-informed evolutionary worldview that was not yet available to Levi-Strauss.

When we see ourselves as part of the naturally evolving world, we can see that even our minds are a part of the cosmic process, so that our myths are not just stories about our understanding of the workings of the world but also about our understanding of ourselves.

It's easy to lose track of the main points here, simply because most of these thoughts are so unfamiliar. For the record: my main point is that the world's myth-stories are precisely about meaning. Myths are the expressions of global humanity's self-understanding.


In the New Cosmology's dynamic-evolutionary context, that self-understanding is quite rich! When we ask, What is the cosmic process about? ("What is the Universe Doing?" as I put it in post #17), we can see that the universe is making persons. We know ourselves as nothing less than personal and unique expressions of the universe become conscious of itself.

We can also recognize that there is much in us that has not yet become conscious. While we can "phenomenologically apprehend" many of the patterns of the way the world works-- in terms of cause and effect, as Dr. Jakob Wolf, whose ideas I discussed in post #53 (Bridging the Gap), helps us so well to understand-- it is also the case that many of those patterns of the world's workings remain unconscious to us.

What psychologists call the "unconscious psyche" is nothing less than the entire universe other than our conscious awareness. C. G. Jung says that the unconscious world within us is even bigger than the physical world outside us.

Jung and Freud were the first in modern times to recognize that the cosmic process shows itself in our dreams and unconscious waking behavior-- that the patterns of the way the world works seep out, even if barely, into conscious expression-- and that that is where our myth-stories come from.

Far from being "commonly held but incorrect ideas," humanity's myths are meaningful-- important, significant, sacred-- because they are expressions of the underlying patterns of the way our minds work. And it's because our myth-stories allow us to understand ourselves as unique expressions of the evolution of the universe that "myth" and "meaning" go together.


SYMBOL. The word "symbol," too, is often paired with "meaning" (as in "symbolic meaning" or "meaningful symbol"), so that at first glance there seems to be little difference between myth and symbol. It's confusing because we have two different kinds of things we call "symbols." Some occur in nature, while others are the inventions of human culture.

Culturally invented symbols are like myths in that their meaning is our understanding of them. The arbitrary arrangement of letters and numbers in the symbol "H20" is a good example. We culturally agree to understand it as standing for water, just as we do with the sequence of the five letters w, a, t, e, and r.

But water itself-- the stuff that falls from the sky, that we swim in, wash ourselves with and drink-- can also be a symbol. So can food. So can fire.

It's these naturally occurring symbols that we need to understand if we are to make sense of ritual. What's so special about things like water, food and fire is that they grab our attention.


People have known for many thousands of years that naturally occurring symbols like food, fire and water are "attention-grabbers." But it's only in modern times-- thanks to our understanding of natural selection at the primate level-- that we know how they work.

We know today that the minds and brains of our animal ancestors evolved to continually scan their environment; their very survival-- both as individuals and as a species-- depended on their finding food and water and avoiding danger.

We are not the descendents of those animals who, for some genetic reason, lacked that scanning ability; they didn't live long enough to pass on their genes to us. We are the descendents of the ones who survived because their attention shifted every few seconds.

We know from experience that our attention, too, is constantly shifting from one thing to another-- just like that of our primate ancestors. We also know that we can help ourselves stay focused-- to be "mindful," as Buddhists say-- by practicing meditation exercises.

Those things in nature which powerfully grab our attention also make it easier for us to be mindful. Think of how water in almost any form-- a heavy rain, a stream, a river, a lake, a pond, or the ocean--holds our attention. And how we are fascinated by flames and fire-- from the smallest birthday candle to a burning building or a glorious sunset.

Note that such natural symbols are different from myths as well as from the kind of symbols we use in math and science: while myths are expressions of our understanding of ourselves, these natural symbols are tools which help us to focus on our self-understanding.

In religious ritual we use the psychological, attention-grabbing power of natural symbols to counteract our brains' constant scanning activity. 

Calling them "tools" doesn't demean them. The reverse is true: they help us to consciously enter into the very meaning of our existence.


If you're thinking that none of this sounds much like the religious rituals you have recently experienced, you're right. Ours is still a patriarchal culture-- alienated from the world and seeking escape from it-- so most of our conventional religious rituals involve only minimal use of these powerful natural symbols, and some church services omit them totally.

But we are now at a new religious moment in the history of the world: we're coming to see ourselves as belonging to the evolutionary universe and called to creatively contribute to it.

That's why creativity and cosmology are the topics of my next post. They are as essential as symbol, myth and meaning for understanding the relationship between evolution and ritual.

Meanwhile, you might like to share how you feel about what I've had to say in this post.

Do these thoughts about symbol, myth and meaning make much sense? Any at all?

Send me a note!

+++ === +++

The comment section of the blog seems to have recently acquired a limit of only 300 characters. That's not much, so please send your comments (thoughts, questions and suggestions) to my e-mail address above. (No limit!)

To email a link to this post to a friend, with your own message, click on the little envelope with an arrow (below).

If you would like to be notified when I publish a new post, let me know; I'll put you on the list.

I have dealt with the ARCHIVE TECHNICAL PROBLEM (more or less). You will remember that since I started this new series of posts (with post #51), each time I publish a new post, an earlier one vanishes from my Archives list; they're still there, just not visible. (Sounds like the Nicene Creed!) From now on, the Archive will include a post with the title LIST of ALL PUBLISHED POSTS, which I will update with each new post. (If you are a tech person and know of a better solution, I would love to hear from you!)

+++ === +++

1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.