For those of us interested in spiritual studies – and I guess that covers most of the readers of this blog – we would all probably agree that we need constant reminding of the great spiritual truths: otherwise one experience, one good book on the subject would be sufficient for a lifetime. For whatever reason, whether it is because life is so tough, so distracting, that we simply keep forgetting, or whether it is because the voices of skepticism are so strident these days, we still need to remind ourselves of the spiritual. After almost fifty years of studying spirituality, I find I still need to read about spiritual ideas, I need to be inspired by mystical poets like Rumi or Rilke, I need to attend events which uplift my soul. It’s as if my soul needs feeding as much as my body – which is why just one meal is not enough, and why I turned to the new book by Jonathan Black, The Sacred History.
In The Sacred History, Black puts the central question of how we view life in stark terms: it all boils down to whether you are a materialist or an idealist. The materialist viewpoint is the predominant paradigm amongst western intellectuals: there is no inherent meaning to life, life evolved bottom-up through the mechanism of evolution. You can wonder at Nature’s beauties, but when you die that’s the end, and the only point to life is one that you might want to impose upon randomness. Black, who studied Philosophy and Theology at Oxford, reminds us that there is another way of looking at the world. The idealist believes there is an inherent meaning to life, that the physical cosmos evolved from the spiritual, from the Divine – not that man created God in his own image, as a materialist would say, but that God created man in his own image – to use that sexist but familiar expression of the idea. A materialist view states that mind is a consequence of the brain’s electrical activity. No brain = no mind. The idealist view, which is the view taken by all religions, all spiritual approaches, the Perennial Wisdom and Mystery traditions, and much philosophy and Transpersonal Psychology, is that the brain is not the cause of mind but a result: Mind caused the brain, and everything else, to come into material manifestation. No brain = no matter, still Mind!
This is the starting point of the extraordinary The Sacred History. I say extraordinary, because it is quite unlike any book I have ever read about spirituality. The author begins by laying out his stall in the first few pages, explaining in simple terms these two approaches, and then saying ‘What if the idealist view is the one we should adopt?’ Watch him talk about this for 4 minutes, and in this clip you will see how he makes this philosophical point relevant to our own personal lives. He talks about how in idealism we each have a personal destiny, and how we are tested in life:
And then the book begins its ambitious task of recounting a history, not only of the world but of the Cosmos, from its beginnings to the present day. And Black does this by re-telling folk tales, legends, and religious stories from around the world, giving just enough to convey each story in an evocative way, without overwhelming us with so much detail we think we have stumbled into an encyclopedia of world mythology by mistake. After each story he connects it with a phase in the evolution of the physical world. As he writes: ‘You can see that on one level myths are collective memories of great turning points in human evolution and that they may be put in a proper chronological order.’
Now you may not agree with this – plenty of students of myth might find reasons to dispute this suggestion, but what an idea if it were true! The Sacred History may be easy to read in terms of style and accessibility, but I did not find it an easy book which was ‘preaching to the converted’ and to which I was simply responding ‘Yes, yes, I know that.’ Instead I found it challenged my beliefs from the very beginning. Do I really believe mythology relates to physical events? Do I really believe that if I ‘look with imagination’ I can see waves of angels coming out of the ‘mind of God’ as Black writes? ‘Look at this mystic version of events more closely, look with imagination, and you can see that these waves of thoughts are actually made up of millions of angels. The first wave is made up of gigantic angels who fill the whole cosmos. Next comes a wave of lesser angels which the greatest angels have helped to create, and together these generate a third wave of smaller angels. This sequence flows down until we finally reach minute spiritual beings. They work to weave together what we recognize as the material world around us, the rocks and stones and trees.” And then I think again, and I believe I can see what Black is doing. The great conundrum for those of us who write on spiritual subjects is that we are often using our analytical minds to describe the transcendent, the mystical, which by nature defies too much analysis. As so we need to move from logos to mythos and back again – honouring the mind’s need for clarity and understanding, but also honouring the Mystery, and the soul’s need for imagination and beauty. Hence Black’s appeal to read his book, and consider his ideas, with the eyes of the imagination, and when I do this, yes, I do see waves of angels descending to Earth.
Books can I believe offer gifts. And The Sacred History has given me at least three: it has challenged my ideas (there are some strange and difficult ideas in there I can assure you), it has given me summaries of all those mythic tales I have been meaning to study, but have never found time for – Greek myths, stories from the Bible, the Hindu epics, the Arabian Nights and more – weaving them together to tell the history of the world in an utterly original way; and thirdly it has renewed my faith in the fundamentally spiritual nature of reality.
The book is available as a hardback, paperback, e-book and audiobook. Amazon UK link, Amazon USA link. Watch 3 minutes of Jonathan Black talking here about the ‘outrageous question’ that lies at the heart of his book: