Final paper for “Gilgamesh to Gnosis: An Archatypal History of Western Religion” with Professor David Ulansey at California Institute of Integral Studies, Spring 2003
It is difficult to explore our historical relationship to and between time and religion because you end up in a kind of chicken or the egg type question. Who is to say which informed the other? Both are mutually informative of one another. Thus, perhaps it would be beneficial to look at both abstractions through an underlying trend which links them and patterns the flow of our changing relationships through and with time and divinity. One story of the growth of the Western world, in which our relationship to time and religion are embedded, is the story of increasing control. This central trend has informed our relationship to our surroundings immeasurably, thus equally informs our relationship to time and to the divine, as we will explore through the history of Western religion, delving deeper than the transition from cyclical to linear time to see that of unconscious dreamtime integrating with the control of logic and consciousness.
To begin to imagine how our understanding of time and religion has changed throughout history we have only our intuition and the scanty evidence fate has deemed necessary to preserve and bring to our attention. Thus we are informed by the ancient epic of Gilgamesh, the Old and New Testaments, general knowledge of the mythological climate from which they both arose, and our intimate knowledge of today’s culture as informed by these models of relating to the world. Around these touch stones we can weave a myth of our relationship to time and its role in our spirituality.
The most innate desire of all living beings is the desire for life. Humans have developed the secondary desire for control as a means to maintaining life and its conscious correlate, identity. Thus, when faced with death, living beings reinforce their self-preservation instinct and freeze, fight or flee. For conscious beings the threat of death elicits parallel responses not in bodily action, but in the mental and social realms of internal and external manipulation for the sake of identity preservation. One mechanism of identity preservation and control is that of creativity. By creating boundaries in the spatial, temporal or mental worlds we enhance our ability to manipulate and use that which is contained by our boundary constructions for our own purposes. By creating a story of your place in the world you control your place in the world. To preserve your identity, you create something that will live beyond your body, writing, children, art, or knowledge. Thus we try to use our time by consciously dividing it amongst meaningful pursuits, in order to defeat time. Adding consciousness to life quickly multiplies our options and escalates the complexity of response from that of freeze, fight or flight to conform, persuade or avoid.
Perhaps the first manifestation of this instinct of self-preservation via conscious creation exists in cave paintings dating back to 15000 BC. But the drive becomes more obvious, and even explicitly reveals itself, in the form of writing. One of the oldest stories that we have managed to piece together is The Epic of Gilgamesh. Written about 2,600 BC, Gilgamesh is a rambling tale of multiplicitous plots and adventures. Distinctively dreamlike in nature while simultaneously grasping for control, it marks a boundary and an intermingling between the dreamtime of early humanity ruled by the instinctual collective unconscious and the emergent rational and self reflective mind. The tale explores the birth of civilization, the break with the natural world, the shift out of abusive complacency to challenge and adventure, the meanings of dreams, the powers of sexuality and of relationship, confrontation with death, and quest for immortality. Each of these themes can be read as a means to self preservation via control and creativity.
Most explicit in relation to time, however, is Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. We see a king who has all he could desire; nothing is beyond his grasp; no creature is greater. Only when time reasserts its divine right and seizes his beloved Enkidu from him does he realize the limits of his control. Thus he aspires to divinity and immortality, yet fails. He can not stay awake for 7 nights and the plant of immortality is stolen from him by a snake. He returns to his city a mortal. He dies, and “will not rise again.”
One reading of the epic’s implications for people’s relationship to time during this period is that of a shift from a cyclical notion of time to a linear notion of time as emphasized by Gilgamesh’s rejection of the goddess Ishtar, preferring to seek an immortality of his own rather than subject himself to the cycle of death and rebirth in which she contained her previous lovers. But it seems to me that the development is much less black and white, a little deeper and much more subtle than is characterized by the cyclical/linear dichotomy. It is the interplay of uncontrollable dreamlike fate that time bestows upon us and the power of our rationality to direct and control our use of and subjugation to time.
The dreamlike quality of the epic is emphasized by intense emotionality, rambling fluidity and symbolic language. The rambling fluidity of the epic is a stark contrast to its contemporary cuneiform logistical record keeping, the later genealogical listing of Genesis and even the systematic plot, setting and character development which become more prevalent as the logical mind comes to regulate the musings of the unconscious mind toward specific purposes. Yet even as permeated by this dreamlike nature, there is the growing element of mental striving against the flow of time. In the same manner the conscious control and time delineation we inflict on our daily lives prevent contrast with the less structured world of our dreams. The emotional content as a main focus of out lives also fell under the shadow of the novelty of intellectual play
To enter at the time when the Epic of Gilgamesh was written, is to enter the love story between humanity and time at the midpoint, where the love is being lost. Perhaps, if we can see our epochal history recapitulated in our daily lives, the Epic of Gilgamesh would represent our desperate attempt to recall and record our fleeting dreams as morning awakens us. There was a great deal of relationship occurring before it could be captured in words. So perhaps a more accurate description, beyond the cyclical / linear dichotomy, would be that of awakening from atemporal dreamtime into the logic of cause and effect which textures our experience of linear time, a shift from going with the flow, to swimming against it. It is not a smooth process but one of partial fits, bursts and regressions. Even now, some of us are still trying to recall our collective dreams, our histories, in the recounting of tales of the past, and to interpret their meaning for our lives today. Our quest for control has been our crawl out of the ocean of dream time and onto the land of conquering consciousness.
We control by dividing. Creation myths teach us this from the very beginning. Tiamat, of Babylon’s second millennium BC Enuma Elish, the watery sea monster of chaos was slain and divided into heaven and earth, so that order could be established. Destruction of division from control into chaos, as epitomized in the Babylonian New Year celebration which reverses the roles of kings and peasants, of dead and living, and culminates unity of division as the heirosgamos, sacred marriage. Sexuality is the ultimate of instinctual unconscious dreamtime drives to dissolve all division into incomprehensible unity. In this process of uncontrollable merging destruction which creates constructive division and control in the form of new life, the creation story can be told again and the earth recreated anew.
In the same way Gilgamesh rejected the instinctual sexual power of dreamtime merging in preference for a self made power of conscious division, domination and control and failed, so does the Christian church repress sexuality and dreamtime in favor of individuation, division and conscious control without yet seeing its failure. We see the beginnings of this divisiveness in the Genesis story of the Christian tradition, which grew out of Babylon’s creation story. The voice from the silence, the light from the dark, the land from the waters, heaven from earth – all of these divisions bringing about order, the last one in parallel with Babylonian myth. The conquering of the sea monster is continually referred to through out the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible and Old Testament). Although we see evidence of the influence of Babylon in the Jewish tradition, the tradition of division manifests itself in the concerted effort made by the people of Israel to dissociate themselves from that past.
The beginning of the Jewish tradition is based explicitly on the division and segregation of a people. We first see division from their Babylonian heritage in the reversal of meaning in stories, the isolation of one God from many, and as Abraham leaves Ur. Story reversal is evident in the role of sexuality which leads Enkidu to the God-like wisdom of civilization in a positive light, whereas the God-knowledge achieved in Genesis results in guilt, pain, and suffering around sex and civilization, thus the turn from the absolving power of sexuality to the isolating power of consciousness. The snake, a symbol of life and continual renewal in Mesopotamian tradition, becomes deceptive and demonized in the Jewish tradition. In this way, life, previously reverenced, became and obstacle, a “vicious circle”. It was acceptable for the snake of cyclical time to take immortality from Gilgamesh because that is the way of life, death and rebirth. This cyclicity is communicated via symbol. More intuitive than logical, a symbol is like a “just knowing” experience in a dream where the appearance of something does not determine what you know it to be. So we see once again the embeddedness of cyclical time within and emerging from dreamtime.
Not only was the nation of Israel severed from Babylon, but their identity was further solidified in their descent to Egypt, the Exodus and final firing in the Babylonian kiln, during the exile of 587 BC. During all of these migrations, the people were in “flee” and “avoid” mode, all the while creating their inner identity independent of those around them. In the Old Testament the law sought to control the people and their behaviors, thus establishing identity and distinction. By establishing interiority they were able to establish a coherent manner of being in the world which allowed them a certain type of communal access to dreamtime.
The unique characteristic of the Israelites which differentiates them from other collective identities of the age was that their identity was not intrinsically developed in relationship to a specific place of origin. They came to the land of Canaan as conquerors and claimed it as their own. Their lack of place led to immense energetic investment in construction of identity glue to hold the tribe together internally because there was nothing to do it naturally in externality. They were not localized in the same relation to the land as collectives that had arisen in relationship to their place as sacred. This key difference is what prevented the demise of the Israelite identity as others were dissolving around them because of the Hellenistic Age
With the Hellenistic Age quickly making individuals of people via increased mobility, each person was thrust in to a larger, foreign, novel world. When all that you know surrounds you for your entire life, there is little difference between you and it. To establish that distinction you must experience novelty. Once there is difference, there can be cause and effect. Once there is cause and effect, time is born. Prior to this experience of individuality and separation, the experience of time was more an experience of mutual arising than of step by step progression. There is no “because” in dreamtime, it merely is. Dreamtime is the wholeness of all things, rather than the wholeness of an individual. Individuals, now forced out of the dreamtime trance of archaic ontology, had to start thinking in terms of trans-symbolic systems, like the logic of cause and effect, because the old ways were no longer applicable in new contexts.
In losing the atemporal dreamtime experience people also lost a sense of connection and meaning. The depth of experience had been cut off from them by the quantization of time. Now time was an unstoppable force pushing them headlong towards death, and they were scared. To alleviate this fear there had to be some sort of relationship maintained with dreamtime. Often the atemporal experience was lost. But it could be developed between the boundaries created for the sake of control. So people developed access to this realm within themselves, dreams gained importance, and Israel dreamed, and interpreted, collectively, within the community.
As the friction between the external world of individuality and the Jewish community increased, their identity, and thus communal access to dreamtime, was threatened. Dreamtime fought for its existence, asserting its power via threats, in the form of apocalyptic literature. And they desperately tried to control it, by writing it down, by deciphering its symbols, by forcing it to be what is was not – logical. They used the mechanism of control they knew best – divide and conquer.
So, naturally, in order to conquer time one proceeds dividing and sub-dividing until it can be figured out and controlled. Luckily, time is a little too divine and a little to powerful for our puny grasp to pin down. And we only find that that which we seek to preserve slips right out from under us, by our very attempts to hold onto it. Again and again we fall flat on our faces grasping for time. Even to this day we divide our days into so many careful pieces, so as to best utilize its entirety, that it passes and is lost while we orchestrate the past and the future.
The transition from Gilgamesh’s grasping for immortality, which led to failure, to Jesus’ acceptance of death and rising, is the profound lesson of paradox which time bestows and which we are still grappling with today. Ironically, while in living in the tradition of the Jesus story we completely miss the point of the reality and acceptance of destruction, as we see only the resurrection and seek to bring that under our control. Desire for control leads us out of the paradoxical dreamtime into conscious life where our control is powerful, but limited to realms of meaninglessness. Meaning and divinity can only be touched in the realms of mysterious paradox, the acausal dreamtime.
The feeling of this meaningless half-life of conscious creation, without destruction, manifests itself in the repression of sexuality, the repression of the shadow, the desire for affirmation via proselytization and conversion, and the demonization and oppression of the divisively constructed “other”. This is Jesus’ legacy as constructed by Paul during the oral tradition. By playing upon people’s susceptibility to novelty as evidenced in the 100 AD story of “Alexander the Quack Prophet”, it was easy for Paul to allay the fears of burgeoning individuality and impending death by constructing a community of believers around a trans-imperial symbolic system of positive afterlife.
The offering of structure, something to believe in and something to do (convert), freed people from the responsibility of facing reality and consciously creating their own structure for living. In this way they were able to cheat to maintain the happiness of embedded trancelike dreamtime which relies on tradition more than novelty for its adaptations. “Whenever two or more are gathered in my name, I will be there.” In other words, there is the connection to meaning which is lost in logical linear time. In hear the followers of Paul took comfort.
Alternately, the Gnostic interpretation of Jesus’ teachings chose to emphasize the intensification of the individual conscious experience over the comforting camouflage of the communal, and discover dreamtime within themselves. “The kingdom of God is within you.” The meaning, the atemporality, the dreamtime can also be found within each individual. In a world that had lost its dreamtime, Jesus offered a way to live both consciously and spiritually, fully man and fully God. By maintaining this connection to the atemporal he was able to accept death. Because Jesus was able to hold both the flow and the eternality of time his message was able to reach outside of the Jewish context. Not limited by fear of lost dreamtime, as an individual, Jesus appealed to those seeking the connection on their own. They were able to find not only dreamtime access, but the safety of community, conformity and camouflage to hold their individual realities.
Christianity, as most of our inventions, consciousness included, is both a curse and a blessing. The story of the role of time in Western religion is that of the novelty of mobility brought by the Hellenistic age, which jars us from our sleep of embeddedness and meaning, insisting on justification, division and domination and our attempts to hold the infinite depths of eternity in a bounded moment. Only through accepting our consciousness and responsibility as a means to sink into the atemporality of meaningful dreamtime will we be able to achieve the healthy balance necessary for our persistence on this planet which we threaten. There’s no where to run. We can not freeze. We must act, not just to alleviate the pressure of cognitive dissonance, but to dissolve it’s root by accepting the importance of unification, destruction, and chaos as the complement of consciousness’s creative division and control.