Joseph Campbell, the Sarah Lawrence College professor credited with opening the minds of Americans to the religions of the far East, had a wonderful line recounted in “Myths of Light”:
The term ‘nature religions’ has become the object of rejection and abuse. But what else are you going to worship? Some figment of your imagination that you have put up in the clouds? A strange thing has happened. It is so extreme that if you don’t believe in a figure, you don’t have anything to worship. Now everything is lost!
As Covid-19 creeps into our societies, like the green vines of some alien species seeded under the beds at midnight, we seem to have become stuck partway through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief wondering what to believe. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. As of late March, politicians and pundits are still bargaining — regional governors want more supplies shipped to them, the U.S. president muses whether we all just go back to work, Congress nitpicks over the details of economic stimulus. What was first denied by some leaders (that Covid was going to ramp wildly) and then caused xenophobic anger (it was all the Chinese’ fault!) has now turned into some form of extended contract negotiation.
Clever observers see our society is caught in a version of The Trolley Problem, the classic ethics puzzle in which a runaway trolley is barreling down a track to kill, say, 12 people. You have an option to throw a switch to divert the speeding trolley to another track, where 2 people stand unaware.
Do you take no action and let fate kill the dozen? Or do you step in to swing the switch, responsible yourself for killing 2?
Get to work. Shelter in place. Economics and social distance are now the bargain we must strike over how many to kill and when.
Kübler-Ross goes on, of course, to suggest the final, inevitable stages of grief are Depression and then Acceptance. Strong minds don’t like either, since opposing a threat is what we must do in the world, we must fight! … but if our inevitable decay and death are not just likely, but preordained, then shouldn’t acceptance be our final mercy?
Personally, I’m still stuck in the middle at bargaining. I stroll the house, confined, like a caged animal. The first move was to stock the home supplies a bit, food, water, and yes, toilet paper. Then, when disaster still seemed a few blocks off, I drove out once to fix the home TV stereo setup and buy a few more dumbbell weights for the garage gym. And then, it’s work from home.
Now I wake up in the morning wondering if the dry lump in my throat is the onset of Covid, and then worry about my wife, who still commutes daily into a regional hospital to help others, and walk the halls back to the office over the garage. Then I glower at the screen, typing on projects, trying to smile when the video green light clicks on.
But bargaining seems creaky and the stormclouds of depression loom. Instagram and Twitter have tossed their usual rainbows and rages to meet somewhere in the middle, a neutral land of strange outreach, of avatars of empathy. An agency friend whom I’ve never met IRL pinged me, “hey, you doing OK?” Tough snarky souls have started sharing motivational sayings, recipes. Home video clips are everywhere. Suits, ties and makeup are tossed to the wind.
Like a beautiful-but-crowded oceanfront beach where the tide has suddenly raced out to sea, pulled by a looming vortex, we all wait, looking at each other, wondering.
Nature has surged back in this pause. Dolphins are swimming in the unpolluted waters of Venice; owls can be heard in quiet U.S. suburbs before dusk; overhead the sky is unmolested by jet contrails, just wisps of real clouds before the blue.
This pause before the surge.
Humanity isn’t done mucking with the world, of course. Concrete still clutters the planet, and at night, with our electric grid hum, light pollution still dims the stars. A utility worker came by our house last weekend with some water filtration supplies, and as I asked how he was doing, he smiled. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re a stubborn species.” His face was red. I wondered if it were fever. It is these splashes of frisson, of nature emerging from the tides of commerce, that interest. A friend wrote me that she can perceive the world is changing, just out of sight, and she’s waiting, alert, watching for it.
This tension between death and life reminds me of a 1940 story. As Germany bombed England during “The Blitz,” Churchill’s civil servant John Colville wrote in his journal about a trip back to London:
The night was cloudless and starry, with the moon rising over Westminster. Nothing could have been more beautiful and the searchlights interlaced at certain points on the horizon, the star-like flashes in the sky where shells were bursting, the light of distant fires … never was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness.
The question I have when Covid-19 really begins to kill is: What will I believe?
Many of us, immersed in modern secularism, digitally removed from nature, have fallen into Joseph Campbell’s mental trap: We are not certain whether to trust the religions of our youth, but absent specificity, is all really lost? Nature beckons for some. Leonard Shlain has claimed in his history of religion, “The Alphabet versus the Goddess,” that female-nature deities were the origins of human belief, and only later, as we encoded our societies with the linear alphabets of writing and math, were our brains rewired to believe in male father figures. Perhaps the feminine, empathic side of spirituality is more in line with our true nature.
This is not to say that God doesn’t exist, but the Yahweh and Elohim of the Old Testament are mysterious beings, where even the singular/plural pronouns are confused, and no where is this deity described as an old man with a beard. With more than 300 religions in the world, the odds of any one being exactly right are less than 1%, but the commonalities within their myths and stories — almost every religion has an Adam and Eve story, and the Noah’s flood tale has different versions across dozens of cultures — suggest there is either something true about them, as Campbell hints, or a mass delusional projection from our psyche, the vote of Carl Jung.
Intellectuals often favor Jung, saying belief in God or Goddess is just a warped projection of our inner needs and fear of death; Campbell seemed to believe there was an inner truth within all these stories, and that their common traits should give us hope.
The irony of our modern age is science is beginning to back religion.
At first glance, physics would seem at odds with a caring God. The second law of thermodynamics says entropy (disorder) increases, until all that will be left is a universe of static, unmoving heat death, of tiny particles that no longer vibrate at all. Hardly a fitting end to creation. But science has two counterpoints: Biology and Astrophysics.
Biology begins with the ever-growing complexity of creation. If things fall apart, how do bodies get put together? Even Charles Darwin, the founder of the theory of evolution, was troubled by the “eye,” a construct of aperture and lens and clear liquid and retina that is so perfectly constructed, like a wonderful camera, he questioned how his own theory could ever put together something so beautiful. It was as if you threw a bunch of paper clips in the air a million times and down fell a silver Leica.
Add in the hidden forces propelling the universe’s expansion, and something creating things seems real. Science is coming around to admit there are hidden secrets: dark energy and unseen matter of the universe being forces that continue to create, to expand, pushing the manifold of spacetime out to the new. When scientists peer into our galaxy and count the stars and planets, they find there is just not enough mass to hold the spiral together. Something unseen makes it turn, pulls us forward, binds what we see to the unknown. Even science doesn’t have a name for it yet. “Dark energy” is an obvious fudge.
Things are bound to fall part. Things are destined to be created. Death and birth go hand in hand, in the huge unseen wheel turned by nature.
As we modern humans, typically insulated from death with our old ones stashed away in retirement homes, suddenly encounter the Covid-fever thought that we really will die, perhaps belief will make a resurgence. God and nature are partners in every mythical system. If you can’t believe in one, perhaps try the other.
Myths are not lies; they are simply pathways to understanding.