Tag Archives: creation myths

Creating Science

Religion and science. Cats and dogs. We’re used to hearing these two just can’t get along. High profile scientists sometimes denounce religion tout court, and some religionists doubt science’s claims implicitly. Human beings, truth be told, are both rational and spiritual. Often not both at the same time. Edward O. Wilson is a biologist who believes, as expressed in The Origins of Creativity, that the humanities and science are both essential and that the hope of humanity is that both will be embraced. It’s a fine vision—guided by science but aware of the values brought by art, we would live in a world utilizing the best our species has to offer. So, why don’t we?

Apart from the obvious fact that humans are also irrational and non-religious—what else could justify wars?—Wilson has a rather odd answer. The belief in creation myths, he avers, is what leads to much unrest in the world. Not religion per se, but creation myths. Muslims, Christians, and Jews share basically the same creation myth. Their divergences come in other forms. Many don’t much care about the creation myth of their tradition so much as about issues that are based on outdated understandings of humanity. Wilson doesn’t condemn religion per se, which is refreshing, but he does seem to circumscribe it far within its natural boundaries. I suspect his real target is creationism.

In this very insightful little book, another curiosity lurks. Wilson, although he supports the humanities and advocates for them, stresses that they are problematic by being limited to humans. I think I get this, partly. There is much to the world beyond human ability to perceive. Our senses of smell and taste are especially limited. We can’t see as well as an eagle or hear as well as a bat. Incorporating their experiences into the humanities would be way cool, but we would never experience them ourselves. This is terribly speciesist of me to say, I know, but humanities are all about what it means to be, well, human. We are limited. Rationality is limited. We don’t have all the facts, and if history is anything to go by, we never will. Accepting limitations is very human. So is attempting to exceed them. The humanities at their best embrace both. Wilson acknowledges that the study of religion is important, and that our universities let us down by not giving the humanities their due. Science can take us only so far. Creativity is about the most godlike trait we possess.

Infinite and Expanding

Show me the birth certificate. Whoa! It seems the universe padded the figures by about 80 million years. To you and me that’s 80 million years. To old universe, it’s merely the blink of a cosmic eye. The news has been humming with the results of the European Space Agency’s Planck Space Telescope picture of the microwave background radiation of the universe. From what I can see, the universe forgot to say cheese. Unless, of course, it’s swiss cheese. Further and further science confirms our big bang of a beginning, and, quite literally, it has been downhill from there.

PLANCK

Cosmology is the most theological of the sciences. I’m sure many cosmologists would demand to differ on that point, but the inexorable draw to find out how it all began had its humble origins in religious thought. The mythologies of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Israelites, among many, many others, explored options for how the universe (as they knew it) might have begun. The curiosity is deeply embedded in the human psyche—we want to know our origins. Physicists, of course, play by the rules. Astrophysicists use incredibly complex formulas that all point to a big bang that nobody has ever heard. The inevitable question is, however, what happened before that? Could it be there was no before? A time before time? It seems to me a religious question.

The Planck telescope tells us that our middle-aged universe also has more girth than it admitted previously. No surprises there, after all the theory of the universe’s growth is called “inflation.” I sympathize. All of this information is wonderful news on an intergalactic scale, but it hasn’t solved many of our problems out here in this corner of the cosmos. Reading the rest of the news headlines, after I wipe away the tears, I see that our universe really is showing its age. We are older than we thought, but are we wiser? Scientists are examining fossilized light with glee, but we still can’t figure out that if a guy loves another guy (or girl another girl) that it’s just another instance of what happens after the big bang. We can’t accept that our industrial greed has messed up the weather—has anybody been outside lately? We know that one percent control almost all the wealth and yet we buy lottery tickets and hope for the best. And these are only a few in a long series of echoes that can’t seem to allow some people to think clearly in this girth-challenged, more-than-ancient universe. It must be a religious issue after all.

Bad Eggs

Over the past few months I’ve discovered Jasper Fforde. While my leisure reading tends toward heavier material, Fforde has an amazing sense of wit that makes his writing nearly irresistible. I recently read The Big Over Easy, a gritty detective novel about the case of Humpty Dumpty. Throughout the story nursery rhymes are presented in literal and improbable ways, juxtaposed with the daily life of a down-on-his-luck cop. The reason that I mention the book on this blog, however, has to do with the character of Prometheus (some mythological characters also make their way into the story). Having taught Classical Mythology over the past two years, I’ve had occasion to read quite a bit about Prometheus. He is one of the more intriguing mythological characters posited by the Greeks. The creator of humans, Prometheus has a soft spot for our development that angers the other gods, jealous as they are of their privileged places.

In The Big Over Easy, Prometheus is explaining to the protagonist and his family why he thought it was worth having his liver pecked out daily in order to give humanity fire. He then tells them that he also gave people the fear of death. When asked why, he declares that the fear of death makes mortals appreciate life. There are the negative side effects such as war, hate, and intolerance, but Prometheus maintains, “I’ve seen the alternative. Eternal slavery under the gods.” Greek creation myths leave no doubt on this point; people were created to serve the gods. If we challenge that decree that we simply inherited, we are guilty of hubris, stepping over that line that separates them from us. Gods appreciate no such challenges.

It is ironic that nations based on the ideal of freedom so readily bind themselves to the strictures of the divine. The latest aggressions in which our nation has involved itself purported to be in the cause of “liberty,” “freedom,” and “democracy.” These sentiments were uttered by politicians who believe such principles ought to be bound by archaic instructions handed down through a mythological lawgiver. Our freedom ought to be circumscribed by mythology. The irony is so thick here that it is difficult to believe anyone can take such rhetoric seriously. Perhaps Prometheus brought us fire in vain. Not to worry, however. Jasper Fforde is an author of fiction only, and the arbitrary storms of Zeus no longer strike us when the gods are angry. Unless, of course, you have forgotten Hurricane Irene. Old myths never die, and, like bad eggs, once encountered they are not easily forgotten.

The Original Mud-bloods

“Let Nintu mix clay with his flesh and blood.
Let that same god and man be thoroughly mixed in the clay.”

This quote is from the myth of Atrahasis (Benjamin Foster’s translation; my Akkadian’s a bit shaky these days), an early version of the flood story. Although I have a burning itch to write about the flood, I would rather focus on the creation of humanity in this post. Maybe it is because in my unemployed mode it is easy to think of myself as only dirt and blood, but maybe it is because in my evening class we’ve just been talking about creation stories.

One of the benefits of polytheism is the lack of a pressing need to ascribe uniformity to your myths. Ancient peoples who believed in a multiplicity of gods had a wide variety of versions about how the world was created, where people came from, who sent the flood, and so forth. They were not writing about what actually, factually happened — these were myths, for the gods’ sake! Nobody was there to see the creation of humanity, so who’s to say what really happened? One element that is repeated in ancient accounts, however, is the creation of people from dirt.

Perhaps it is because people often treat each other like dirt, frequently with religious motivation, but a more likely explanation is that in ancient times the dead were known to return to soil after they were buried. Logic dictates that if the dead turn to dirt, their living version must have been created from dirt. So far, so good. But dirt isn’t exactly alive. The ancients differed on what animated this soil with a soul.

The Bible presents a lofty account of God breathing air into the soil-man. It is clear that the Hebrew Bible equates breathing to being alive. A person is alive when they first breathe; when they stop breathing, they die. At the same time, blood is an essential component too. This is so much the case that the Bible dictates that “the blood is the life” (Deuteronomy 12.23). For this idea the Israelites were indebted to the Mesopotamians. As seen in the Atrahasis Epic, humans are a mix of clay and the blood of the gods, the original mud-bloods. For all their differing opinions, the ancients realized that in this messy world of dirt and dread, human beings, for all their problems, had a bit of the gods within their very veins.