Mankind, up until recently, has been a spread out bunch of (often warring) tribes all looking for meaning in the universe. Somehow language developed for communication and with it came the collective unconscious/collective mind (which was there in animals but on a much more primitive and instinctive level). And with the development of the collective unconscious/collective mind (society) came the subconscious (individual mind) which threw up all kinds of symbols to the conscious mind in man's search for meaning. And the web of those symbols gave us dreams and myths. A myth is a society's dream and a dream is an individual's myth. Since the dawn of time we have looked to the symbols of our dreams and myths (for Beethoven his relationship to his art was his relationship to God) to point to the deeper truths (which of course are things which cannot be defined for they are too vast and so defy description - the description the symbol is never the thing itself). But until recently those symbols have not necessarily been universal. In the West for example an owl represents wisdom, yet in certain cultures (China, Egypt, India) the symbolic meaning of an owl is associated with death. It was revered as being the guardian of the after-life - a highly respected emblem indeed, but at the same time, for many it became a negative symbol.
Many symbols have great power - the Christian cross symbolizes the power of forgiveness - that life is something eternal bigger than the illusion of the body....The Aum Symbol (Amen sounds suspiciously similar - no?) in Buddhism and Hinduism relates to the the Eternal Syllable. According to the Mandukya Upanishad, "Om is the one eternal syllable of which all that exists is but the development. The past, the present, and the future are all included in this one sound, and all that exists beyond the three forms of time is also implied in it" Om is not a word but rather an intonation, which, like music, transcends the barriers of age, race, culture and even species. It is made up of three Sanskrit letters, aa, au and ma which, when combined together, make the sound Aum or Om. It is believed to be the basic sound of the world and to contain all other sounds (Aa starts at the back of the mouth and ma finishes the sound at the front with pursed lips...then silence). It is a mantra or prayer in itself. If repeated with the correct intonation, it can resonate throughout the body so that the sound penetrates to the centre of one's being, the atman or soul.
Why no universal symbol though? Until now mythologies have all been based on in-group mentalities. The borders of our universe have been forests and seas and an "in-group"-myth protects us and makes sense of the world within our borders. It explains the world for our particular tribe. But of course such limited group mythologies don't work anymore. Look at the clash between the Muslim world and the largely judeo-christian world of the West that is going on today. They are all part of the Abrahamic tradition but they still clash because they are not all-embracing mythologies - they are mythologies with very clear fences and borders - which worked perfectly well in another age - but which are no longer suited to where technology has brought us (ie a world without borders - the rocket engine, the radio, the internet, etc has destroyed all of that). In a way the only mythology that can work today is the myth of Buddhism which sees every individual as a potential Buddha being. Now of course enlightened Christians can say the same of the Christ. The Christ is not a man. It's an energy that resides within us - the "anointed one" of correct perception. And of course the word Krishna comes from the same linguistic root. To be blessed with the insight of knowing what your true nature (and consequently the true nature of your fellow human) is of course what all the wise ones are talking about (and it's the task of the spiritual life). But sadly the religions that dominate in the world today are not ones lived out by enlightened people - they are based on outdated mythologies that persist in creating and maintaining fences between "my group" and the "other." Which is foolish and very destructive in a world where technology has made a mockery of all the traditional borders. Our common humanity is the only sane focus left to us.
So what will the new myth be? What will the new symbols be? When the astronauts first went to space and started photographing the Earth - then, for the first time ever, we got to see the real borders of our home. A beautiful green and blue globe floating in the emptiness of space. And maybe that is the most universal of symbols in today's world. In biology today there is even one view of life (the Gaia hypothesis) that sees the planet as an organism - in which all of life is intricately connected in a marvelous homeostatically-balanced experiment floating in the darkness of space.
Einstein once said, "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind. I do not believe in a personal god and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. In his book The World as I See It, he wrote: "A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man."
In Spinozism, the concept of a personal relationship with God comes from the position that one is a part of an infinite interdependent "organism". This of course maps back well to the Gaia hypothesis and the views of modern quantum physics which have proven the interconnectedness of everything (see http://in.youtube.com/watc
Additionally, a core doctrine of Spinozism is that the universe is essentially deterministic. All that happens or will happen could not have unfolded in any other way. Spinozism is closely related to the Hindu doctrines of Samkhya and Yoga.
Einstein was most influenced by Spinoza's thesis of an unrestricted determinism and the belief in the existence of a superior intelligence that reveals itself in the harmony and beauty of nature.
Of course our newest myth is science and it's interesting to see how the greatest scientist of our age saw God (see above). Scientists may argue science is not a myth. But it is a myth. A myth is just the current map man is using to explain the world around him - how it works, our place in it etc and like every myth science has heroes and tricksters, holy grails and tales of sacrifice. A scientist might argue that 3.14 or pie is a universal symbol for truth and in a way it's as good as any. Indeed it was one of the symbols NASA used when it launched its space probes into the deepest darkest reaches of space. Yet I think the only symbol truly worthy of our attention today is the planet.
Will leave you with the words of Joseph Campbell and Chief Seattle (who poetically resonates with the way Einstein and Spinoza see things). In Chief Seattle's words there is this overwhelming sense of reverence for nature and the feeling that we need to honor all creeds and that is really at the heart of challenges of our age and I know of no greater symbol for that than the planet herself.
"Myths and dreams come from the same place. They come from the realizations of some kind that have then to find expression in symbolic form. And the only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is one that is talking about the planet, not the city, not these people, but the planet, and everybody on it.
And what it will have to deal with will be exactly what all myths have dealtt with - the maturation of the individual, from dependency through adulthood, through maturity, and then to the exit; and then how to relate to this society and how to relate this society to the world of nature and the cosmos. That's what the myths have all talked about, and what this one's got to talk about. But the society that it's got to talk about is the society of the planet. And until that gets going, you don't have anything.this is the ground of what the myth is to be. It's already here: the eye of reason, not one of nationality; the eye of reason, not of my religious community; the eye of reason, not of my linguistic community. Do you see? And this would be the philosophy for the planet, not for this group, that group, or the other group.
When you see the earth from the moon, you don't see any divisions there of nations or states. This might be the symbol, really, for the new mythology to come. That is the country that we are going to be celebrating. And those are the people that we are one with.
Bill Moyers: No one embodies that ethic to me more clearly in the works you have collected than Chief Settle.
Joseph Campbell: Chief Seattle was one of the last spokesmen of the Paleolithic moral order. In about 1852, the Untid States Government inquired about buying the tribal lands for the arriving people of the United States, and Chief Seattle wrote a marvelous letter in reply. His letter expresses the moral, really, of our whole discussion.
"The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?
"Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
"We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are a part of the earth and it is a part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky creast, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man, all belong to the same family.
"The shining waters that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each ghostly reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father.
"The rivers are our brothers. They quinch our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give to the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.
"If we sell our land, remember the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sight. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.
"Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.
"This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
"One thing we know: our god is also your god. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap comtempt on its creator.
"Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.
"When the last Red Man has vanished with his wilderness and his memory is only a shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left?
"We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother's heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you received it. Preserve the land for all children and love it, as God loves us all.
"As we are a part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you. One thing we know: there is only one God. No man, be he Red Man or White Man, can be apart. We are brothers after all."