Quickly bored with beach vacations, I ventured off last summer to Belize not only to snorkel with the fishes and down a few rum punches, but also to explore Mayan ruins. The Mayans built their great pyramids in that part of Central America because below the jungle were extensive cave systems. Their ziggurat-like temples topped with altars were clearly an attempt by the primitive people to ascend as high as possible to the sky gods while the archeological remains in the caves indicate that they also went down to encounter and appease the gods of the underworld.

The sky temples and cave shrines are evident in the remains of most primitive societies. They climbed the holy mountain, and they descended to the underworld. Where there was not a holy mountain they built one: the pyramids, the Mayan and Aztec temples, Silbury Hill and Angkor Wat. Where they could they went below, building shrines in caves and making sacrifices to the dark lords of the underworld.

The debunkers of myth in the early twentieth century—Tyler, Frazer, Muller and Bultman—decried the non-scientific belief in the “three-tiered universe.” They observed that the ancients thought the sky gods lived on the other side of the clouds and the demon gods lived underground. “Science,” they argued “relieved us of such literalism.” We now know that when we fly up into the air we do not see gods and goddesses, nor when we go spelunking do we encounter demons, devils or the bloodthirsty Kali with her necklace of skulls. They blamed the ancients for being literalists, but they were the ones who were being crudely literal.

The ancient Mayans may have gone underground to offer sacrifices to their dark deities, and they may have gone as high as possible to make offerings to their sky gods, but it is doubtful that they imagined their deities lived there with bodies like theirs in the same physical space and time dimension. The ancients knew the gods and goddesses were invisible and did not dwell in their own time and space. The rationalist de-bunkers of myth suffered from a failure of imagination and did not understand the nature of religious ritual and the importance of symbolism to the human imagination.

Human beings went underground to be in touch with the spiritual beings they associated with the darker forces of the universe. They climbed their ziggurats to contact the spiritual beings they associated with light and life. Going down physically into the dark, underground places put them in touch with the mysterious dark forces they knew were operating below their own conscious lives and culture. Going up to the high places was their way of making a transaction with the mysterious forces of light and life they needed to for survival. They knew these forces were invisible, but they believed contact was made and a contract agreed by a kind of sympathetic and ritualistic journey up to the sky or down to the underworld.

The curious thing about modern life is that we continue to do the same thing, but unconsciously. Why the passion for taller and taller skyscrapers? It is not simply because real estate in Manhattan or Shanghai is expensive. Otherwise why build towers in the sky in Dubai or Kuala Lumpur? We build great towers in the sky because we are trying to achieve the same things the Mayan temple builders wanted: unlimited prosperity, power and prestige. They built their temples to their gods of power and wealth—Teo or Kinich Ahau. We build our sky temples to our gods of power and wealth—the dollar and the stock exchange.

Nor do we neglect the seamy underbelly of the cosmos. Why do we call them “nightclubs” and why are they so often in basements? Do not we refer to the crime lords as the “underworld” and do not our dark goddesses of destructive sexuality dwell in the “demi monde”? Do not illicit activities “go underground”? Have you noticed in popular culture how nearly every movie hero has to go through the ordeal of the underground in some way? It may be a basement or the subway. It might be a cave or an elevator shaft. He may have to escape through a sewer, or a storm drain or he may scramble to safety through the bowels of a building in ventilation conduits.

My point is that we are not so different from the ancients we call primitive. We still ascend to the heights for power, prestige and prosperity. We still descend to the depths to explore the dark forces that drive us and the chthonic realm of our deepest and darkest desires. The difference is that the ancients were aware of what they were doing whereas we stumble about in a shallow and materialistic daze—our religious senses stunted and our imaginations worm eaten with ignorance and cynicism.

This is where traditional religion has something to offer modern man. It is only through a belief in the three-tiered universe that human beings can deal effectively with their lofty aspirations and their chronic obsessions. Traditional religion still uses the terminology of the three-tiered universe. Heaven and Hell are real possibilities. They are not only theological terms or eternal destinations, but concepts that give depth and meaning to human existence in the here and now. The religious sense is nurtured and the imagination enlivened by the reality of heaven and hell in contrast to the materialistic mundanity of modernity.

Of course we do not believe in a literal physical heaven on the other side of the fluffy clouds or a lake of fire beneath a volcano somewhere. Neither did the ancients. These are spiritual realities—places that exist in another kind of place. A religion that keeps these realities alive is a real religion because that is the coinage of religion. A religion that does not deal in the spiritual realities of heaven and hell is not a religion at all. It is a methodology for making the world a nicer place. In other words, it is not a religion. It is an ideology.

The sort of religion which is therefore most relevant to modern man is not one which is completely concerned with food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless hostels and political activism, but one which is concerned with the reality of heaven and hell, transactions with the divine and the interface between this world and the next. This sort of religion is most relevant because it enables modern man to grapple with the ancient and universal ambitions of aspiration and dark desires from below, giving them meaning and transforming them from unacknowledged human urges to transcendence and meaning. This sort of religion is supremely relevant not by attempting to be relevant, but by attempting to be religious.

This kind of religion must be ritualistic. It is through the symbolic vestures and significant gestures—the routine rituals and formalized liturgies—that the human mind and heart are opened to the greater realities of the world above and the world below. Ritualistic religion allows modern human beings to connect with ancient and universal instincts, giving them the means to travel through the dark underworld of their psyche and ascend to the heights of accomplishment while also preparing them for an ultimate destiny above and not below.

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The featured image is by Daniel Schwen, and is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.


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