Thursday, 15 November 2018
Some Thoughts on Myth and Science
Sorry for the long delay between Unbound updates - I've been working so hard on the book, and the tweets and what-have-you, I realise I have been short-changing my long-suffering subscribers. So here are some thoughts on myth and science. I expect the section on Isaac Luria's mythological "big bang" will evolve, as a new book on his kabbalistic thought arrived just this morning, and a translation of the earlier kabbalistic Book of Creation, Sefer Yetzirah, is on its way.
If versions of the Big Bang theory were being collected from scientists by ethnologists from one of the parallel universes whose existence is suggested by the superstring theories of quantum physics, they would classify them as variant myths, not as scientific facts.
These myths of the Big Bang would be printed alongside the Orphic theogony, in which Time “in his boundless coils” is born from “ancient Chaos”,[i]or the Hindu creation, in which the mysterious First Cause creates the Golden Nucleus (Hiranyagarbha, which can equally be translated Golden Egg, Golden Embryo, Golden Womb, or Golden Germ), in which Brahma, the first consciousness, sleeps in nothingness until he wakes, and breathes out the universe, which will last for a day of Brahma—two billion years—before he breathes it back in, in a never-ending cycle of creation.[ii]
Jewish tradition already has its own version of the Big Bang theory, in the sixteenth-century kabbalistic thinking of Isaac Luria, who imagined a kind of mythological “big bang”. In Luria’s thinking, God, is an infinite being, beyond existence and time yet also containing and sustaining “all that is, was, or could be.”[iii]In a paradox worthy of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, this infinite being must contract and withdraw to make a void in which finite worlds can exist. As Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav taught: “Now this void was essential for Creation, for without it there would have been no room for the universe to exist.”[iv]
The primal elements of this creation were the ten Sefirot, vessels for the infinite divine light. However, when God refilled the void with the light he had withdrawn, they shattered, in what Luria called “the Breaking of the Vessels.” Everything was rent asunder in a great cataclysm that sent shards of the vessels tumbling through the void, capturing as they fell sparks of the divine light. These sparks, encased a lifeless outer shell, were separated from God.
Luria’s vision is of a world in which every element is in exile, and everything is out of place. The role of mankind is to mend the world, in act of tikkun, restoration, freeing the imprisoned sparks of divine light and reuniting them with God. “In so doing, mankind completes creation and, in a fashion, gives full actuality to God himself.”[v]
In the Lurianic myth, God is both Being and Nothingness, a being that causes itself.[vi]
The complexity of Isaac Luria’s thought, of which the above is a highly-contracted summary, shows that behind the dogma of scriptural authority, in the Genesis account of creation, there is still room for mythmaking and mythtelling. The subtleties of Jewish commentary on Bible stories allow this myth-space to open up, and enrich the scriptural account. This is in sharp contrast to the literal interpretation of the metaphors in the Biblical myth exhibited by Christian fundamentalists, who use the same text to underpin the anti-scientific doctrines of Creationism and Intelligent Design. A fundamentalist interpretation of any myth is a simplistic misreading of that myth, for the essence of myth is multi-layered and ambiguous.
For instance, the fundamentalist rejection of evolution was pre-empted c.400 CE by the Jewish commentary on Genesis known as the Genesis Rabba, which says that while God created Adam in his own image, this likeness to God only lasted until Enosh, son of Adam’s third son Seth, after which humanity degraded and acquired faces like apes. The Genesis Rabba also says that early humans had tails like animals.[vii] Interestingly, the very first line of the Genesis Rabba is. “It is forbidden to enquire what existed before creation.”
[ii]See Dimmitt & van Buitenen 1978, pp.16-19, p.32
[iii]Sanford L. Drob, “The Lurianic Metaphors, Creativity and the Structure of Language”, 2003, newkabbalah.com, accessed 13.11.18
[iv]Green 1992, p.311, quoting the 64thteaching in Liqquṭey MoHaRaN.
[v]Sanford L. Drob, as noted above.
[vi]The ens causa sui, in Sartre’s terminology, Sartre 1943, p.XX.
[vii]Genesis Rabba XXIII.6, XIV.?