Monday, April 30, 2007

The Two Trees: A Heathen's Take on the War Between Creationism and Evolution

We've all had a chance to see long and furious debates between the people who literally believe in religious and mythical stories regarding the origin of man and the world, and people who only accept scientific theories about the same. Certainly if you are an American, you've been embarrased like the rest of us by the medieval-style thinking and voting of the state of Kansas regarding the matter.

On one hand, we have the people who believe that their God literally created anatomically modern humans in the blink of an eye, and not so long ago. They believe that he created the world, and all the animals in it, in the space of seven days. On the other side, you have the scientific-minded crowd who believe that billions of years passed and a gradual process of evolution took place, straight from the primordial sludge, resulting eventually in all that you see around you, including your own mind and body.

In the "middle" of this somewhat silly debate are the theists and God-believers, like the Catholic church, who believe in what they call "theistic evolution"- the idea that God created everything using natural laws like evolution; they believe that evolution is not a blind, random, materialistic process, but a divinely created and guided process.

Heathenry gives us a creation myth, too. It talks at length about the origins of the world and of the first men and women. In fact, if you read our sacred stories, you'll see that Heathens- long before Christians- believed that an "intelligent designer" created the world, the green growing things, animals, other orders of life, and finally, human beings. Not unlike what Christians believe, the Heathen world-shaper- the Allfather himself- also breathed a sacred spirit into the first men and women, eternally binding them to himself as kin, and his brothers, who aided him in the creation of humans, even bestowed on them the form or image of the Gods.

If you study pre-Christian creation mythology, you see that this idea is nearly universal. It appears in the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian original upon which the account of Genesis is based. In the Enuma Elish, the Gods create human beings in their own image, and even set them up in a paradisal garden, called the Garden of Eridu. Though there were many Greek Myths of Creation, they all agree on one thing- either the Earth Mother herself gave birth to men and women, allowing them to spring up from the ground, or a Godly shaper (like Prometheus), working with clay and earth and other natural materials from the ground, shaped humans in the image of the Gods and gave them life.

The ancient Iranian human-origin myth has the first man and woman growing from the ground as a plant, before the creator calls them forth to be man and woman, bestows a soul on them, and bids them to multiply and increase themselves. The Egyptian potter-God created men and women on his wheel, true masterworks of his Godly creativity. Ivan Hudec gives a wonderful Slavic creation myth in which the clay-people receive the spirit of the Gods as a gift, to counter the dark forces of chaos that were stirring in their clay, and they become human beings.

The reason why I'm writing this letter is to give a response to the people who scoff at these myths as "superstition" and "nonsense". Heathen and Pagan mythology is deeper than the great oceans, and they contain much wisdom, all of which is readily available if people would read them with the sense of openness, humility, and wonder which they call for.

These sacred stories are records of experiences, living experiences that human beings had while in direct communion with Nature and the unseen world. There are timeless truths encoded in mythology, truths about the world and about men and women, who are each of them a full and complete manifestation of the world and offspring of the Gods who shaped it.

Must these myths conflict with science? I would say that it didn't matter if they did- the Mythical Truth is the Whole Truth. When I say that, what I mean is, the myth captures the essence of the reality- it captures the eternal pattern and meaning; in light of this, it need not capture the physical form. The physical process of human evolution is an important aspect of reality; in the natural processes that brought human beings into the shape they currently manifest, we see the completion of the "Mannaz" mystery. Humans, ever fated to be a part of this world, through natural processes came to be a part of it. That's a fact that all can see.

From this point of agreement, we have the perspective of the myth, and the perspective of modern empirical sciences. From the mythical dimension, a revelation about the truth of man's existence has come to us from the souls, minds and tongues of our ancestors. From the dimension of empirical thinking, which is very much a thing of this world, and which is only concerned with surface-level phenomenon, theories about how the physical process occured have been created.

Both are important, but considering the shifting and insubstantial nature of the physical world, I would say that the eternal pattern and truth revealed by the myth is by far the more important of the two, at least for true human understanding. When I say "true human understanding", I'm not talking about the sort of understanding that leads a person to be good at math, or helps them to understand how genes might evolve. I'm talking about spiritual understanding, the only kind of understanding that can lead humans to lasting peace and happiness. In spiritual understanding is found the underlying purpose and meaning of life which is necessary for any true happiness.

Now, I've given my opinion that the Mythical Truth is more important from the perspective of human spiritual understanding and peace. This does not mean that we should scoff at science or ignore the good theories that scientists have worked hard to come up with.

There are many uses for theories like evolution; understanding our biology better in the scientific sense of the word means that we can create better medical treatments and medicines, which will no doubt enhance the length (though not necessarily the quality) of our lives. And we all know how important it is to live a long time! Joking aside, I do think it is a blessing when Fate allots a person many long years- they have a chance to know generations of their family that they might not have known, and they get to see and experience many happy things, alongside the sorrowful things that we must all endure.

But length of life is not the same as quality of life. Quality of life, in the true sense, is a matter of how peaceful and happy a person is. And people are only at peace and truly happy when they know who and what they really are. People are only peaceful and happy when they know the whole truth about themselves as human beings, and how they relate to one another and this world. Finally, lasting peace and happiness comes from knowing the Gods and ancestors as true and living spiritual presences- every bit as "real" as we- and joining with them and their kin in this world, as one community.

If a person could live 30 years under the influence of such wholeness, that would be a quality life. In my never-so-humble opinion, it would certainly beat 80 years of living in a rat-race world where family bonds are broken, where materialistic science convinces us all that we are just decaying flesh randomly evolving in the service of selfish genetics, and war-mongering military-corporate-industrial complexes grind hundreds of human lives to dust on the news everyday for us. There's no quality in such a world; in that world, all that matters is what you can get before you die, other human beings be damned... except for those human beings that you keep around for your own selfish amusement or benefit.

Most believers in the theories of evolution believe that life's ultimate purpose is to pass on genetics, and to hope that you (and your population group) are "fit" enough endure the random mutations and changes that must occur to any grouping of beings. Well, as a Heathen mystic and believer in a deeper truth about things, I must disagree; life is not merely or ultimately a matter of transmission of genetics. In the minds of the eager believers in "hard core" evolution, it seems that one of the consequences of life is often confused with cause of life.

Let me now give a proper Heathen response, which I believe solves the seemingly endless conflict between the myths of the ancients and the myths of science.

The Heathen myths don’t discuss “evolution” as we know it now, with the same scientific language that some use now, but the ancient myths discuss the origins of mankind as being quite natural- and indeed, how could it be otherwise? Whatever appears, whatever comes to be, whatever exists, whether Gods, Goddesses, spirits, humans, trees, or stones, must be natural. "Natural", "born of nature", is a rather all-inclusive term in Heathenry. Sure, there are very natural and normal reaches of reality that humans have a very difficult time sensing or experiencing, but this doesn't make them "supernatural" in some way.

Most people fail to understand this simple fact, but it remains: "nature" isn't just "trees and water and stuff around us that we can see." Nature, in the broadest sense, is everything that exists. In my writings, I often use "Nature" and "Reality" as synonymous. In Heathen thinking, there are other "worlds" full of divine beings, and there is a difference between human beings and the Gods- but that doesn't make "other" worlds or the Gods into alien places and beings that "appear" in the natural world and exert some sort of "supernatural" influence over it.

If the Gods were truly and radically "above" nature as we normally experience it, truly separate in nature and power, there would be no way they could interact with it, or with us. If they were so alien and different, how could their substance have interacted with so-called "natural" substances, and thus, done as our stories tell us, and shaped us?

The answer to this problem is simpler than simple: the Gods are not alien nor distant nor "supernatural". They exist in a continuum of reality which is every bit as natural and normal as the world you are currently experiencing. They are part of the same web of Wyrd, the same web of life and power, that we are, and which all things are.

It is true that the unseen worlds are full of strange powers and wonders. It is true that when the normal human's mind has just a taste of the power of Wyrd or the power of the unseen, they often experience it as though it were the most supernatural, utterly alien thing they ever felt or saw. That is a consequence of the average human mind being unprepared for the utter intensity, power, and awe that this reality has in store. It has nothing to do with naive notions of "supernaturalism".

Like so many things in life, the answer to the debate between Evolution and Mythical Origins is found not on one side or the other, but between. Humans are creations of the Gods, but if you read the myths, you will see that it isn't that easy. I say that humans are "creations" of the Gods, but that doesn't mean that the Gods created us out of nothing.

This is the most important statement I can make- the Gods didn't create us out of nothing. Such an idea is absurd, and simply not in the realm of possibility. It has nothing to do with a lack of power on the parts of the Gods; the reason why they can't make something out of nothing is because "nothing" doesn't exist.

Even in the "Beginning", our Heathen myth tells us that there was a void, called Ginnungagap- which it describes as a "yawning gap", or chasm, which is precisely how some Greek myths describe it. The "yawning gap" from which all creation was to arise wasn't "nothing"- it was charged with the power of Wyrd, and in it slept all the potentials- the Mysteries- that were to arise. There was "something" from the very beginning, like a universal well of hidden seed-potentials, and now, as Fate has woven out, all of the worlds seen and unseen have appeared. Whether the universe is veiled in potential, or expressed in the nine worlds of Ygdrasil, "nothing" never exists. There's always "something" existing. The notion of "nothingness" cannot exist except as an abstract construction in human heads.

The Gods have their origin, just like everything else, from that primordial beginning, this well of being. The Gods, after shaping the worlds, shaped the first men and women. Notice I am saying "shaped"- not "created". The Gods didn't create the earth or the water or the materials from which all things were shaped; those things were there long before the Gods. Here's the great secret that resolves the war between theories of evolution and our myths: the Gods shaped pre-existing materials into all that you see.

Nature, as a whole, is "always there". It doesn't need a creator. One of the greatest differences between Pre-Christian philosophies and mythologies and Christian thinking is that the Pagans didn't think that nature had a creator. They did think that various natural orders, worlds, and beings were shaped by the Gods, that the Gods had a role to play in how and why certain places and beings existed the way they did, but the Gods didn't create nature. Nature had no creator and it didn't need one. Nature was perpetual, eternal. Nature might have gone through cycles, but it was always there, and the circle of nature had no beginning or end. From nature, which was often enough deified itself, came the Gods, and through Godly creativity, through the Godly shaping of natural elements, came mankind, and many other living beings.

So the Gods are our elder kin in the most literal sense of the word; they "came to be" out of the body of nature before mankind did, and they played a role in "bringing us to be" in the form we are now in.

If you look at the Heathen creation myth, you see that the Allfather and his two brothers found the trunks of two trees on the shore of a primordial ocean, and from those genetic materials, they created the first men and women. Allfather and his brothers didn't create the earth or the seas; the primordial materials from which the earth was lifted and the seas were run- the body of the giant Ymir- was around before the Gods. The Gods, through their actions, saw to it that the primordial "natural body" of Ymir was "divided" and torn apart, and placed into the order that we call "the world".

This is why humans are part God, part Giant. The physical "stuff" of our bodies is born straight out of nature; our flesh and blood is the product of the body of a Giant. The Earth Mother, herself a giantess who came into existence after Ymir, gave birth to those two trees from which human beings were "shaped" by the Gods. She is as much our mother as the Allfather is our father, shaper, and teacher.

So there you have it- natural materials are subjected to Godly creativity, and humans came to be, as we are now. If you (for some reason) want to see this story through the lens of scientific materialism, you can think of the Gods as hidden realities of whatever natural processes guided the evolution of humans from very natural materials, materials that had coalesced in the oceans of the primordial planet earth.

In my way of seeing, these Heathen beliefs do not run contrary to evolution- the reality is that nature is constantly sending forth countless streams of life, and nature is constantly in flux, always changing, always adapting, growing, living, dying- and every form that Nature births is undergoing great change. That's how Wyrd, the interconnected web of life, works. Evolution is a scientific expression of the fact of change.

Humans, like every other creature or thing- were “born” from the web of Wyrd, the body of nature, from ground and the waters.

It took the Gods, nature’s earlier and very powerful children, to create the causes for humankind to arise- and to bestow a special gift on us: the gift of divine imagination and spirit. Allfather shaped those two trees- masses of living matter- into a human form; you could say that he (thinking metaphorically) “guided” the process of growth and Fate, helped shape the natural process, and bestowed Spirit onto the finished product, thus “shaping” humans into their finished form.

I don't personally know any Heathens who think that the Gods shaped the two trees into men and women in the space of a few seconds or minutes- and indeed, the element of "time" is left out of the myth completely. Maybe their godly spell of shaping took billions of years to be "completed"; who knows? That is up to the individual who reads the myth. The point here is that the myth doesn't express itself in temporal terms- it is truly timeless, and speaking not only about what we might describe in later ages as a "physical, temporal process", but also a timeless reality. Regardless of how long it took or what mechanics went into the process, the myth's point is made: humans owe their existence partly to Godly artifice. THAT is the great truth of the story, which helps us to understand the dignity and value of human life (and all life), and helps orient us towards those who are our great-grandparents and holy kin: the Gods.

It cannot be repeated enough- the Allfather, in common with all the other Gods, did not “make” humans out of nothing- Wyrd, expressing itself in natural processes, simply organically birthed all things, all primordial elements, and the Gods added some guidance and further shaping to that, to make perfect the world order. We, as parts of that world-order, happen to be fortunate recipients of Godly tampering; with our special Godly endowments, we too can come to know the mysteries, know the timeless, and come to be like the Gods. We can certainly shape our world and create like them, though to a different degree.

Evolution is a natural reality. All beings, including humans, are changing over time- everything changes. Humans are “children of Earth and Starry Heaven”, as the ancient Mysteries said- in other words, born BOTH of natural processes, and of Godly hands. But we were not “created” in the sense that Christians think humans were “created”- we were not created out of the clay of an earth which was itself "created out of nothing" by the power of some God. The idea of "Creatio ex Nihilo", or Creation out of nothing, a doctrine that Christianity dearly holds onto, is by far one of the greatest absurdities to be found in their beliefs.

Being mortals means that the “earthly” aspect of our nature has to continue to flow with nature- death is a reality; our earthy and watery bodies have to keep changing under the influence of natural forces- and die. But our “starry” nature, our Godly nature, (our spirit or the Gift of Odin) does not and cannot “die” utterly. It moves on to halls beyond this world at death, and moves on to another destiny in accord with Wyrd.

In much the same manner that you could “create” a statue by carving it out of stone, you could say the Gods “created” us; you don’t really “create” the statue except in the most poetic sense of the word- the reality is that a sculptor “shapes” his or her creation out of the materials that were already there, or which nature herself has birthed.

Heathenry would never deny the scientific realities of change, nor the fact that humans are made of earth, water, and elemental matter. But Heathenry (at least in my neck of the woods) does accept that the reality of human shaping, evolution, and existence, has an "inner" side, which we gain access to through sacred mythology. In that mythical truth, the whole truth is found.


Tiffany aka Ivorymoth9 said...

Another wonderful essay. I agree with you completely with you on this matter and you stated it eloquently. I have nothing against science, new discoveries are great for the medical world. But, sometimes I think science has robbed many people of the ability to feel wonder and awe in the face of Nature. They just overanalyze it too much.

For example: a snowflake. I look at the snow falling and I feel amazement at the beautiful miracle from Frau Holda. A scientist might look at the snowfall and think "eh" just cold air meeting with blah blah weather patterns blah.

Sometimes I just wish I could instill that sense of awe in people again, because it feels so good and exhilerting.


Ama said...

I read recently a book called "Gods of the New Millenium" by Alan F. Alford, which comes with a very interesting point of view on the subjects you touch here.
It challenges the generally accepted evolution theory with some thought-provoking points. It seems that in nature, changes and evolution in a species happen with a relatively dramatic speed only when, for instance, the elements which evolved are necessary to survice to another species which threatens to cause the extinction of the first.
It means that to justify the absolutely unusual rapid evolution of human intellect we should have had a 'competing' species threatening our existance, to which we could survive by developping the assets we developped---and this species cannot be found (lest it can be man himself? ^_^).
Together with those challenges to the modern accepted scientific thoughts (which prove to have a lot of unresolved questions, probably more than religions or mythologies) the author comes with his interesting theory (based upon the study of all possible creation myths known to us, and especially the Enuma Elish) about what the reality of the Gods could be....not really different from what you wrote, only put in a "slightly" different light...
What he writes is incredibly interesting and thought-provoking, because absolutely logical and quite in-deep in the subject; yet it seemed also (to me) so extreme that it became a little bit 'science-fictionnal'...But if his theory is true, he sure finds the "middle way" which would put agreement between scientists and...mythologist =)