Societies and civilizations are concrete manifestations of worldview, realized through the actions and efforts of their citizens. Worldview is an insanely complex map of Reality that we hold in our heads, but that we also share with others in our culture. Often Worldview, being more complicated than can easily be talked about, is expressed through a culture’s mythology. So it’s possible to say that societies are built on foundations of Myth (or the deep seated stories that we tell to one another), and that Rituals bring those Myths into daily life, imprinting them onto Reality.
That might be a lot to digest right off the bat, but hear me out.
Ancient societies such as the Sumerians or the Maya or what have you, were founded on Myths about various Gods. This rendered a World in which human beings occupied a lower rung on the cosmological ladder than they do today. Whereas, our Scientific Materialist civilization rests on the Mythic (read ontological) assumption that only objective reality (that which can be measured) is real. This has generated a World in which human beings have seemingly infinite power. We extract resources from the Land at will and create machines that allow us to zip across the surface of the planet at high speeds, we smash tiny particles together and investigate the properties of the creation of the Universe, we manipulate the very building blocks of Life and design organisms to suit our needs. It’s pretty amazing really.
Our tendency is to look back at ancient cultures and dismiss their Myths as superstitious nonsense. Those people couldn’t build solar panels, so what they believed about the nature of reality must have been bogus. However, it bares noting that these societies lasted for thousands of years, whereas our Rationalist worldview is only about 500 years old. Anyone who’s paying attention will likely agree that chances are slim for our technological civilization to have anywhere near the longevity that these more “primitive” cultures could boast.
You might say that our way of life is teetering on the verge of global collapse (see catastrophic ecological decline, destruction of topsoil, massive wealth inequality, etc.), because the mythological underpinnings of our society are hollow and empty. The Rationalist worldview states that God Is Dead… There is no “Spirit World”… Everything out there, rocks, trees, rivers, even other people, are just a bunch of stuff, with no deeper Soul… “You” are an individual immersed in an indifferent reality, who must fight to gain control over that reality in order to survive. It’s a story based on a fundamental assumption of Self and Other, which manifests itself in every facet of life… from our two party political systems (WE are right, and THEY are wrong) to our action movies (in which a HERO fights to destroy a VILLAIN). One might say that our belief in the need to dominate and control the world is creating a world that is spiralling rapidly out of control.
SO… again, the Materialist worldview states that only Objective Reality is real. Only that which can be measured is a valid means of interpreting the universe. Perhaps though, this assumption is totally arbitrary. Could we not just as easily state that Subjective Reality holds the more validity? Isn’t it easy to recognize that the most important things in Life are those that can’t be measured? How ridiculous to tell your spouse “I have eighteen units of love for you”. Indeed if there is anything that we can say we really know about Reality, it’s that we are experiencing it… Subjectively.
Now then… Societies are based on Mythologies, and Myths are imprinted onto the real world through the enactment of Rituals. Imagine an Indigenous tribe who re-enacts their creation myth every year when the rains come in the spring. They believe that if they were ever to stop this practice the world would end. Our Rationalist response may be “That’s ridiculous, that tribe could lose it’s language and every member be assimilated into Industrial Society, and the world would continue to exist.” But subjectively the world that this tribe existed in would have been destroyed. From their perspective, their Rituals literally keep the universe together.
From the outside we can easily identify the Rituals of that Indigenous tribe, but the Rituals that spring from and maintain our Materialist worldview are largely invisible to us, like water to a fish. They are simply, “The Way Things Are” and it rarely occurs to us to question them. A particularly shining example could be the Ritual System of money. We go to the grocery store and wave a plastic card around with the faith that some disembodied numbers are flitting across an invisible world, and that we’ll be allowed to take our bunch of bananas home. We don’t really understand how the system works, but we trust that the elite priesthood who maintains it through the manipulation of complex symbols and arcane language will keep things going on our behalf. We recognize on a deep level that if anything catastrophic were to happen to the financial system, the world as we know it would cease to exist.
However… aren’t we also starting to lose faith in that system? Aren’t we starting to taste the metallic ring of it’s hollowness? Don’t we see the traders on Wall Street accumulating vast sums of money without creating anything of value? Don’t we wonder how an economy can grow infinitely on a finite planet?
We are in a time of transition. The Old Stories about Us vs. Them are no longer feeding us. We see the destruction wrought by these ways of being and we long for a better way. There is another story (Eisenstein calls it a New and Ancient Story) brooding inside of us, waiting to be enacted and to birth a New World… But for the time being we are stepping into the space between. Every transition includes a period of disorientation, the caterpillar dissolves inside the chrysalis before it re-forms into a butterfly. This time of doubt and uncertainty is a necessary part of the process. As the Old World crumbles we have a brief taste of primordial Chaos before the next one can begin.
What will the Myths of the New World look like? What Rituals will we perform to bring them into our daily lives? What sort of Society will anchor itself in their depths? Will asking a bunch of questions at the end of a blog post make me seem deep and unfathomable? It’s hard to say…
These ideas have been a mishmash of the thoughts of Charles Eisenstein, Jimi Eisenstein, and Jordan B. Peterson, all of whom I highly recommend checking out if you feel so inclined.
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