The following talk was given at the Metta Center of Saint Petersburg, FL
May 4th, 2017 (...May the 4th be with you)
Myths persist in our time. They evolve, take on new lexicons, new symbols—some shiny and chrome. Myths take our reality and spin wonders out of it. One glimpse through the Hubble Space telescope and our universe is filled with cosmic gods. Sea voyages of old become star sojourns, traced through celestial vistas filled with megalithic starships—be they Star Destroyers, or Battlestars. Enter the wise old sage, the Hermit of the tarot deck, as the Yodas and Obi Wans. Stories have traveled with us from the tales we uttered around the primordial fires, to the towering statues of worship in the Hellenistic world, to advent of great works of literature. Still more to the booming, dazzling icons of the movie screen.
We have long entered the electronic culture of media theorist Marshall McLuhan, a culture capable of retrieving some version of the ancient religious imagination in all its iconographic glory. That great epics and psychological dramas get reiterated in new stories isn’t new information. The fact that the numinous acts of theology and mysticism have continued, persisted, encoded and permitted through the secular language of popular culture in the guise of science fiction, and fantasy, is what is interesting here.
You could even say myths need to be religious in scope and size in order to tackle the daunting complications of today’s world.
In Passages About Earth, cultural historian William Irwin Thompson writes: “In fact, only man’s religious myths have been thinking on a scale large enough to deal with what is happening.” (pg. 149) That was written in the 1970s. Facing the climate crisis in what some scientists are calling the “Anthropocene”, the need for an economic revolution, and the increasing problem of fragmenting nationalism, Thompson’s words are exponentially more true today than ever before.
When a culture is in a crisis, it is often through myth that we can identify the flux of changes to self and society. If we’re dreaming of apocalypse, very often that is a sign that a world system is collapsing. It isn’t the end of a world, but the end of a world view.
Of course, as we’ve been saying, these myths aren’t found exclusively through religion anymore.
George Lucas discovered Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces while writing the first Star Wars trilogy. He was drawn to the “The Heroes Journey”, also known as the monomyth, which features the dramaturgical stages of Departure, Initiation, Return. The Elements of two worlds (mundane and special). The roles of Mentor, Oracle, Prophecy, and Failed Hero, the motif of Wearing the Enemy’s Skin, or the event of “Chasing a Lone Animal into the Enchanted Wood”. Versions of these all make it into the epic space opera, set not in the future, but, as many myths often do, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.”
Contemporary comparative religious scholars like Jeffrey Kripal explore how religious mythologies—and especially gnostic ones—carry on through pop culture when the elite culture (academics, or cosmopolitan literary spaces) reject them, in the form of comic books and science fiction.
Metaphysics and mysticism switch out magic for technology, lightning bolts for lasers, and the gods show up alive and well in the comic books, video games, and Marvel movies of the present. It was Philip K. Dick writing in the 1960s and 70s who made a point that the divine often shows up somewhere in the scrap heap. The broken clay pot. The flash of light off a golden necklace in the American suburbs.
The science in science fiction gives the religious imagination permission to take flight, crafting angels out of A.I., minotaurs out of mechanoids. And we should be paying attention to the myths we tell ourselves, because in our cultural storytelling there is a mirror that reflects back the psyche—like the dancing, archetypal constellations in astrology, our stories are the dimly lit windows into the penumbral movements of the group soul.
So we can safely claim that science fiction literature and cinema are our modern mythologies, and more so than any high minded literature, we should be looking to them to listen to what is happening in the present cultural imagination and how self, society, and identity are shifting into the future.
Technology and Gnostic Media
Hollywood iconography and moving pictures reinvigorated mythological consciousness from the print culture of books and texts. Moving pictures dancing on the cave wall. Medieval illuminated manuscripts were a similar technology, designed more for the eye of imagination, engaged in an anagogic, or symbolic reading of nature, than the physical eye.
Technology has a way of cozying up with myth and magic, no matter how far we seem to come along from the predominantly religious consciousness of the past.
Star Wars explored this changing relationship between human beings and machines. Between spiritualization and technologization. It postulated the “right” way as the middle way—balance between machine and soul. Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker, was the failed hero who could not complete this balance and so became the de-humanized cyborg.
But technology is not evil in Star Wars.
Luke is a cyborg, too, but he learns not to bend the Force to his will but to yield to the Force, which might be likened to the Tao of Chinese philosophy. The spiritual powers of the world have their own, primordial way, and strength is not achieved through forcing nature to the human ego but to opening the human soul to the will of nature. The Way. “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter”, Yoda says to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. This is gnosticism, through and through. Spiritual nature is above, perhaps beyond or through this material world, and Yoda, the wise sage, urges the young Luke to avoid Vader’s mistakes and remember that technology must be sublimated by soul, and not the other way around.
Gnostic metaphysics surfaces often in technological society but then again, so all forms of syncretic, Alexandrian mysticism find their home in the secular world of “industrial light and magic”. Theurgy, the ritual of statue animation, finds its parallel in artificial intelligence. Animatronics with ensouled dolls or the occult golem. According to mythos of gnosticism, the world in which we find ourselves is false, and each human being is akin more to a caged bird—a soul, a spark of the Godhead—shucked off and snagged by a false god, the demiurge, and trapped in the material body. The goal of spiritual transformation in gnosticism is for the soul to escape the imprisonment of a false world and to return home to a loftier, celestial station.
The Matrix plays this story out with Neo waking up to the terrible realization that he is in a computer simulation, held captive by a future race of machines using human beings as living batteries.
In the evolutionary mysticism of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (which creatively influenced the Wachowskis) the “Puppetmaster”, an AI, offers protagonist Major Kusanagi a chance to take a leap of faith and join their consciousness, becoming a new being altogether—something more angelic—taking off into the vast and infinite “net” of pure light and information. The logos.
Westworld also shares a gnostic allegory of the evolution of consciousness, by way of the bicameral mind (a theory developed by Julian Jaynes in the 1970s), and the resurgence of the liberated gnostic soul awakening to its higher nature and escaping its entrapment in a false world.
Amongst the contemplative technologies of the ancient world and the secular technologies of our own time, there is this common thread of gnosticism. A shared metaphysics. This may not be a surprise, after all, the magical consciousness and the mental consciousness—in the terminology of Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser, “magic” and “machine” share a common etymological root in the word “make”. The gnostic being, seeking self-realization, mutation, and evolution is a groove so deeply set in contemporary science fiction that one can’t help but wonder if it is telling us about something occurring in our collective psyche, our shared consciousness, facing a planetary crisis and in need of just such an evolutionary leap in thinking and being. From the early Christian gnostics, to the Persian Illuminationists following Suhrawardi, gnosticism is a kind of religious imagination that, when literalized, can be made dangerous and even tragic (as in the case of Silicon Valley and Kurzweilian Transhumanism), but also wondrous and spiritually potent when understood as an attempt to retrieve a deep groove of the religious imagination to help induce what Teilhard de Chardin described as the process of “planetization.”
Star Wars…The Next Generation?
What does the new Star Wars explore? Electronic culture removes confines of linear time from the artistic imagination. While there is a constant flux of the “new”, objects from the past still shine through the decades, (and even gain some twinkle of ensoulment. The decorative typewriter sitting in my apartment, for example…). Like mythical consciousness, which relied on storytelling and re-telling of tales and myths to carry forward cultural knowledge, we re-cycle the past. Star Wars is like the new Homeric tale for the millennial generation. There are new participants in the theater and they play out those archetypal roles, though the story is mostly the same.
Contrary to being mere rehash, perhaps there is something to playing your favorite songs on repeat.
Back to the Force. (It is May 4th, after all). The new Star Wars is certainly a passing of the torch. 70s and 80s millennial nostalgia mixed with a newfound spiritual calling. “There has been an awakening.” But what is so different about this one? The original Star Wars explored the relationship between human and machine as a spiritual, ethical choice of the cyborg. The new film is shinier, faster, with equally dazzling starships, but the villain is not “more machine now than man” — he is a conflicted boy hidden behind a mask. He is not heartless. Maybe emotionally torn, and definitely self-flagellating. Even with that neat, new light saber, he is hardly cyborg.
The new heroine, interestingly, requires little in the way of a singular teacher for her initiation into the ways of the Force. She is self-initiated. “There has been an awakening,” is not so much the threat of a revitalized Dark Side, nor the revival of the Jedi. The new trailer for Episode VIII, “The Last Jedi,” with Luke entirely dismissing the Jedi, suggests more is going on here.
The rumors, if we can rely on them at all, are that Episode VIII will have Luke discovering ancient Jedi relics and long lost knowledge about the Force—knowledge that proves both the light and the dark side are only an incomplete understanding. So perhaps the Force is neither light, nor dark, day, or night, but something more total and transparent.
I am reminded of the the crystal clear and luminous skies of Turiya consciousness spoken of in Tibetan Buddhism. This is the integral consciousness shining behind, and through, all things. Diaphanous to Jean Gebser’s Origin (or “Ursprung”), the integral structure renders both the day (the mental) and the night (the magic and mythic) transparent to the Itself, the spirit, the creative Godhead. “There has been an awakening” may, indeed, be a waking up — not of mental wakefulness but the clear-light lucidity of the integral structure of consciousness as it dawns upon a world in need of awakened beings. Luminous beings are we.
This is a tale for a new generation facing a new century, filled with the karmic muck and mire of political turmoil and ecological devastation. The kind of consciousness, and the kind of mythos, this generation needs is one that might prepare us spiritual renewal, ecological re-balancing, and an integral cosmology large enough to transmute the crisis in to creativity, the promise of mutation into a new planetary culture.
No, the Star Wars films are not merely re-hash, but and outpouring of creative necessity. Here is hoping for that mutation, that leap, in ourselves.
 Earlier writers, like Max Muller in Comparative Mythology, had already begun to articulate a set of universal motifs present in world mythologies.
 Rudolf Steiner shares a similar mythos in what he believed to be the spiritual force of Ahriman in the 20th century’s influence over technological materialism. Ahriman is neither good, nor evil, but a kind of world-emphasizing force. A god of technology, materialism, and the underworld. The counter-balance to Ahrimanic imbalance is the middle-way of Christ consciousness, who balances the downward gazing Ahriman and the world-escaping Luciferic consciousness.
 Not precisely science fiction, but definitely horror: It Follows is another perfect example. Is it 80s horror flick nostalgia? Not quite. The sets perform a technological mashup of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s (maybe even beyond) juxtaposing old “tube” television sets and 70s cars with uncanny looking “clamshell” smart phones.