There are two views of the cosmos which find expression in early myths about the world’s origin: an “open” worldview and a “closed” one. To the open worldview the universe is an immense house, as it were, with transparent walls. But outside it is night. Beyond the transparent walls lies the darkness of mystery, the invisible presence of the utterly Other, nameless, imageless. And as humans try to understand the mystery in which the world is embedded, they begin to project images onto the walls of glass behind which lies the night of the Great Question.

Poetic imagination creates images of the Invisible, a wall of images that turns out to hide more than it reveals. The darkness of human loneliness and estrangement in the world becomes filled with dreams. At last we can become so preoccupied with the dream images our own mind has projected onto the walls of our cosmic house that we lose the power of looking through at the night. The transparent walls become opaque and finally a closed worldview denies that any mystery at all could lie beyond.

As we study the worldview of ancient peoples, going as far back as we can in history and prehistory, the picture of earliest religion thus revealed stands in sharp contrast to the preconceived notions anthropologists had in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They simply took it for granted that all religious notions and the human mind in general must have developed step by step in close parallel to physiological evolution from a “savage” stage to ever greater refinement. Within our century, however, a wealth of objective material has been accumulated which proves that the most ancient cultural stratum to which we can penetrate by anthropological methods is simple but by no means “savage.”

One remarkable feature of the oldest known religious beliefs is the notion of a Supreme Being who is beyond the world, in no way part of the cosmos, and often said to be its maker and sustainer. Sometimes the way in which this Supreme Being made the world is described in elaborate myths; sometimes only the fact of creation is stated, as when the Baining of New Britain say: “He brought all things into being by inexplicable ways.” Frequently the Supreme Being is described as making the world by thinking it, by a word of command, by singing or by merely wishing it to be. The Wijot in northern California, for example, say: “The Old Man Above did not use earth and sticks to make men. He simply thought, and there they were.” At this point we must remind ourselves that a creation myth, though cast in the form of an historic account, is basically a metaphysical statement. It is a story. A story in answer to a question: What happened in the beginning? But “the beginning” is here a temporal expression for an ontological insight. When the child or the childlike mind of the mythmaker asks what happened before, always this question concerns the link between all that is and the source of it all. It seems to be more difficult for the adult mind than it is for the child to intuit that the Source of all there is cannot possibly be an additional something. It is Mystery.

Filled with wonderment like a true philosopher, the child says: “the world is so you have something to stand on.” We sense that the world is perceived as but a small island surrounded by deep mystery. In fact, we must put this definition of a house side by side with that of a floor. “A floor,” says the child,” is so you don’t fall into the hole your house is in.” This is what it means to see the world on the background of mystery. What really counts for the child and the mythmaker is the relationship of things to that background. That is the real concern of a creation myth.

So they stood by the man and looked him over. “Pretty good,” said Creator.

One of the most charming and profound statements about this relationship is embodied in a creation myth by the Jicarilla Apache of New Mexico:

Dog was going around with Creator. Everywhere he went, Dog went, and watched all that he did. When Creator finished one job and moved on to another, the dog went too.

“Are you going to stay around here all the time?” said the dog. “Or will you have to go away?”

“Well, perhaps someday I shall have to live far away,” said Creator.

“Then, Grandfather, will you make me a companion?” So Creator lay down on the ground.

“Draw a line around me with your paw,” he said.

So Dog scratched an outline in the earth all around the great Creator. Creator got up and looked at it.

“Go a little way off and don’t look,” he said. The dog went off a little way. In a few minutes he looked.

“Oh, someone is lying where you were lying, Grandfather.”

“Go along and don’t look,” said Creator. The dog went a little farther. In a few minutes he looked.

“Someone is sitting there, Grandfather,” he said.

“Turn around and walk farther off,” said Creator.

The dog obeyed.

At last Creator called the dog. “Now you can look,” he said.

“Oh, Grandfather, he moves,” cried the dog in delight.

So they stood by the man and looked him over. “Pretty good,” said Creator.

“He’s wonderful,” said the dog.

Creator went behind the man and lifted him to his feet.

“Put out your foot,” he said. “Walk. Do this.” So the man walked.

“Now run,” Creator. But the man said nothing.

Four times Creator told the man to talk. “Say words,” he said. Finally the man said words. He spoke.

“Now shout,” said Creator He gave a big yell himself and showed the man how.

The man shouted.

“What else?” he said.

Creator thought a minute.

“Laugh,” he said. “Laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh.”

Then the man laughed.

The dog was very happy when the man laughed. He jumped up on him and ran off a little, and ran back and jumped up on him. He kept jumping up on him the way dogs do today when they are full of love and delight.

The man laughed and laughed.

“Now you are fit to live,” said Creator.

So the man went off with his dog. (1)

[quote text=”If we listen attentively, we perceive a deep sorrow in this myth about the creation of laughter. It is a fine but firm bond that links laughter and sorrow.”]

I selected this particular myth for three reasons: It is one of my favorites; it exemplifies the open worldview with great clarity; and it hints already at the threat of a gradually closing worldview. What makes the central image so unique in this myth is its subtlety: The origin of human life is connected with its mysterious source by an empty outline, an outline drawn on the ground by an animal’s paw, yet mysteriously containing the master mind of all there is – for that is what the Creator stands for.

Will this Creator always be near? No, perhaps some day he will have to live far away. Will have to? Yes, because the man went off with his dog. If we listen attentively, we perceive a deep sorrow in this myth about the creation of laughter. It is a fine but firm bond that links laughter and sorrow. That only we humans can laugh stems from the fact that only we are capable of a sorrow, a grief too deep for words. People tell each other about their little pains. About their great sorrows they are silent. All the myth tells us is that “the man went off with his dog,” – eloquently silent about this alienation from Mystery.

The anthropological data agree with this poetic vision: the Supreme Being is pushed into the background as people become more and more preoccupied with “deities associated with his daily needs, that is, with the minor gods. The Supreme Being thus develops into what has been admirably described as an otiose deity, one resting on his laurels after the creation of the world and leaving it entirely to its own devices.” (2)

“When his work was done, he disappeared,” say the Pomo Indians of California. “Hold together,” he told the world, for the last time, and disappeared. (1)

In other myths estrangement from the Supreme Being is explained by a misunderstanding, by human disobedience, or by some fatal coincidence. Often death and sickness and all human misery are said to result from this estrangement, sometimes as a punishment. But whatever the cause of the estrangement, it sheds a new light on the world. Now the human mind perceives the world in the light of this estrangement. Or shall we call it the “darkness” of estrangement?

It is a darkness filled with dreams. At first this worldview remains “open” toward that which lies beyond the cosmos. But this Beyond is the altogether Other, the great and painful Question raised by everything around us, cross-questioning a person’s innermost heart as he or she “walks off with his [or her] dog.”

Encounter with mystery is our basic religious experience; it is our confrontation with the “Holy,” with a power beyond our comprehension which challenges us, and to which we yet feel akin.

In connection with creation myths, the more ancient concept of a Supreme Being long persists even in a more complex cultural environment, at least in the form of one supreme head of a hierarchy or family of gods. But these minor gods are much closer to human concerns than the transcendent Creator who made both humans and the gods. For they are personifications of the powers which most preoccupy people in daily life, especially in agrarian cultures: the earth, vegetation, sun, moon, and stars, the seasons, or the weather. Sometimes they are magnified figures of ancestors. The more their characteristics are projected onto the image of the Supreme Being, the more the concept of creation changes from a “making” to a “begetting” of the world by the gods, or to an impersonal evolving of both gods and world out of primordial chaos. Where this process is completed, people no longer take the transcendent into view. Their worldview becomes a “closed” one.

It has not always been sufficiently stressed that the open and the closed worldview are two diametrically opposed metaphysical perspectives. But we must also stress a psychological similarity, in spite of their metaphysical opposition. Metaphysically the Mystery on which the open worldview focuses is altogether transcendent, although it will not be neatly distinguished in every case from mysterious phenomena which belong to the cosmos. For the closed worldview, on the other hand, there is nothing beyond this cosmos, nothing transcendent, and so mystery is merely that which lies beyond peoples’ comprehension. But psychologically, mystery is in both cases the “real reality” behind everything; in both cases it is known through symbol, expressed through myth and shared through ritual. Myth, symbol, and ritual are the forms of humanity’s encounter with mystery, and so they will bear the marks of this encounter, which has one typical emphasis within the framework of the open, and quite a different one within the framework of the closed view of the cosmos.

Encounter with mystery is our basic religious experience; it is our confrontation with the “Holy,” with a power beyond our comprehension which challenges us, and to which we yet feel akin. This experience places us humans at the crossroads of two tendencies: the tendency to give ourselves over to this power (the religious attitude toward the Holy), and the tendency to lay hold of this power, to make use of it according to our own will (the magic attitude toward the Holy). Most often we find both tendencies expressed side by side in primordial no less than in contemporary religion.

[quote text=”We can become aware of reaching the center of the universe, the mythic point of contact with transcendence, whenever we return to our own inmost heart.”]

The religious attitude will be emphasized to the extent to which a person’s world is “transparent” for the transcendent. This stands to reason. For the only appropriate attitude toward the “all-Powerful,” the “Un-explainable,” is reverence and obedience.

We can become aware of reaching the center of the universe, the mythic point of contact with transcendence, whenever we return to our own inmost heart. There, at the very core of our being, we encounter the nearness of that mystery which surrounds all things beyond the farthest horizon. In discovering this polarity of center and periphery, we discover our own life as the Cosmic Tree springing up from the taproot of creation and branching out into a region beyond space and time. We discover Mystery at the center of our own heart and sense the staggering possibility that our little life may become ultimately meaningful as celebration of that Mystery in which it is rooted.

But among the Greek philosophers contemporary with the Hebrew prophets, this purely intellectual approach breaks through as a new power, a power destined to shape the world with ever increasing impetus.

Ritual brings us to this center. For the open worldview, this center is the point at which the cosmos is open toward the trans-cosmic. Symbol is the static expression of this openness, ritual the dynamic one. For the function of ritual is to bring a person to this center, to this point of communication. The ritual center becomes the place of meeting as ritual brings about the moment of encounter. Through ritual, space is open toward that which is beyond space; time is open toward that which is beyond time.

For that trend of Greek thought that was destined to give rise to the modern worldview, there is no “beyond” whence light could come. Myth, symbol, and ritual of this opaque world could not be transformed; they were bound to be destroyed. “Man does not worship what he thinks he can control” (3), and when, through the intellectual adventure of the Greek mind, science and technology evolved, people could begin to hope that they would gain control over cosmic powers. That there are no other powers was tacitly taken for granted.

We shall see how important this assumption became in the course of a development which has already lasted twenty-five centuries. Only in recent times was this development enormously broadened and accentuated through the use of scientific experimentation and the use of modern technology. But in seed it was all prepared from the moment the Greek philosophers began to approach mystery reflexively, no longer taking it for granted as children do, but approaching it with the skepticism typical of adolescence.

Like a child, “early man was confronted not by an inanimate, impersonal nature – not by an ‘It’, but a ‘Thou.’…. Such a relationship involved not only man’s intellect but the whole of his being – his feeling and his will, no less than his thought. Hence early man would have rejected the detachment of a purely intellectual attitude toward nature, had he been able to conceive it, as inadequate to his experience” (4). But among the Greek philosophers contemporary with the Hebrew prophets, this purely intellectual approach breaks through as a new power, a power destined to shape the world with ever increasing impetus. One of the leading physicists of our time, Erwin Schroedinger, borrows a phrase from John Burnet and describes science simply as “thinking about the world in the Greek way.”

This Greek way of looking at the cosmos is characterized above all by its pre-occupation with the world of phenomena, by its power of abstraction, and by a passion for consistency. These three factors operate within the framework of the closed worldview, and are in some way its expression, because each one of them implies an important restriction of vision. The preoccupation with the phenomenal world cuts out meaning and purpose in order to focus, sharply, on observable facts alone, oscillating, however, from the beginning between the extremes of taking them for the only reality (Democritus) and denying them reality altogether (Parmenides). Abstraction becomes objectivity and tries to cut out as far as possible the human observer. And the Greek passion for consistency, finding its expression in “the hypothesis that the display of nature can be understood” (5) and predicted, must, at least for methodical reasons, eliminate Mystery, the Unpredictable. We can easily see that there is no room for myth, symbol, and ritual in this world of mere science.

[quote text=”The human heart communicates with the mystery in which the universe is embedded, like those inland lakes that communicate underground with the ocean.”]

“Mythos,” in its original sense, means a statement of ultimate truth accepted on the authority of tradition; “logos,” in contrast, means originally a statement of truth derived from discursive reasoning. And this discursive reasoning now replaces tradition as the only valid authority. Myth is replaced by logic. The “symbols” with which this logic manipulates are not symbols in the sense in which we have been using the term. Here the dimension of mystery in which things partake, thereby becoming symbols in our sense, must be excluded from consideration in order to make terms manageable within an exclusively intellectual frame of reference. What used to be a whole “thing with meaning” is now split up into observable facts and abstract terms. These are the realities which count within this frame of reference. And since ritual is the means of one’s participation in that reality which ultimately counts for him or her, the new “ritual” must be logical speculation and scientific experimentation.

When the Greeks, looking at the cosmos, asked for the “origin,” what they sought was not understood in the terms of myth; they asked for an immanent and lasting ground of existence. For the first time the universe was conceived as an intelligible whole without reference to any transcendent reality. It is intelligible because human beings can comprehend the cosmic order:

Heraclitus asserted that the universe was intelligible because it was ruled by “thought” or “judgment” (Logos) and that the same principle, therefore, governed both existence and Knowledge. (6)

It is important to note that the essence of this Logos concept is not an optional superstructure but the very foundation stone for “the Greek way of thinking about the world.” Unless a unifying principle gave order to the cosmos, and unless a person could grasp this principle and thus in part, at least, comprehend that order, all science would break down.

Have we thus found an inner cosmic light to make the world meaningful for us without reference to Mystery? Heraclitus makes a statement that seems to express as closed a worldview as one could imagine: “This ordered world, which is the same for all, not one of the gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living fire, flaring up according to measure and going out according to measure.” The measure of its flaring up and its going out is determined by the Logos that brings forth harmony from the tension of opposites “as in a bow or in a lyre.”

All seems self-contained. And yet, this is the point where the Greek worldview does remain open after all. For, by definition, the human mind has a share in the Logos. And the Logos is unfathomable. Our mind, that “clearest-selved spark” (7) of the Logos fire, is dark unto itself; it cannot sound out its own depth.

We have Heraclitus’ own word for it: “the soul’s frontiers you could not find in your wandering, though you traveled every road: so deep is its Logos.” The human heart communicates with the mystery in which the universe is embedded, like those inland lakes that communicate underground with the ocean. We can comprehend the sustaining principle of cosmic order, but only as pointing beyond itself toward mystery. The fire of Heraclitus, the Dark One, as they called him, is a dark fire.

The perennial roots of myth, symbol and ritual cannot be destroyed. For we can never settle down to live content side by side with the unknown.

Should we consider it mere coincidence that Hebrew prophets proclaimed the Great Sunrise on a transparent world at the very hour at which Greek thinkers destroyed the mirror world of the closed worldview? Thales of Miletus who says that “all things are full of gods,” but goes ahead and treats them as mere things, implicitly agrees with the psalmist who sings: “All the gods of heathens are nothings.” Of course the psalmist adds: “but the Lord made the heavens” (Ps. 95:5). The “lesser gods” who are part of the cosmos may one by one be dethroned as scientific knowledge of the universe expands. The Transcendent One will not be affected; he lives beyond Olympus. If the Greek way of looking at the world gradually removed myth, symbol, and ritual from the closed world, biblical religion merely remarks that what could be destroyed in them had never been worth preserving. The perennial roots of myth, symbol and ritual cannot be destroyed. For we can never settle down to live content side by side with the unknown. Sooner or later we will rise to face it. And as long as anything remains unknown, the Unknowable has not been completely ruled out; mystery (the unknown) implicitly points toward Mystery (the Unknowable).

Does this not imply that the further we discover the world, the more magnificently will the frontier expand at which we meet God? Indeed, not only will there be more points of contact, as it were, but there will be new and deeper vistas. As far as the Biblical view of the cosmos is concerned, Revelation merely opens our eyes to the light. Only through living, loving contact with the things around us will we actually see. And science is one form of this contact with the world, a limited one, that is true, but one of great importance. Through their transformation by the pre-Socratic philosophers and the Hebrew prophets the two worldviews became compatible and complementary. Only together do Revelation and science give us a concept of the world which is both right in perspective and correct in detail.

One might smile at this optimistic approach, or even get angry and point out the clashes in the past. But we shall not be able to make a true and full view of the cosmos our own unless we realize that these clashes were not at all between Revelation and science. How can science, which never claims to explore anything but this universe, clash with the revelation of that which lies beyond? The clashes of the past were never between science and dogma (i.e., the necessary and legitimate formulation of Revelation), but between scientism and dogmatism. Scientism, which restricts humanity’s whole worldview to the limited perspective of science, and dogmatism, which makes the world image of a certain period in history an absolute – these two must clash. And the deadlock between them is one cause of humankind’s present dilemma.

Science, as we saw, happened to grow up in an environment with a closed worldview. That is why from the beginning scientism grew up along with it. The gods of Greece, personifications of natural forces and of human desires, must necessarily totter and fall before a new way of looking at the cosmos. But beyond Olympus the Greeks knew no transcendent heaven. Was it not logical, then, to extend the approach of science to the whole of life? This was all the more alluring as it made humanity “the measure of all things.” To retain the illusion of being the absolute, human beings must of course keep their eyes closed as best they can to that which by definition transcends their comprehension. One can hardly call that an outlook; but for lack of a better term let us call it the profane outlook on life, the negative extreme of the closed worldview.

Just as scientism grew up with true science, so dogmatism with true dogma. And just as scientism is but one symptom of the profane outlook, so dogmatism is but one symptom of what I would like to call “domesticated religion.” Myth is the proclamation of mystery; but domesticated religion cuts mystery to size and reduces it to dogmatism; it keeps mystery at arm’s length by turning religion into a social convention. Symbols call for awe; but domesticated religion thinks it can “manage” mystery through a “sacramental automatism” which approaches magic and is, of course, a perversion of the Catholic concept of sacrament. Domesticated religion perverts myth, symbol and ritual by turning the personal reality of Mystery into an object. The profane outlook denies the existence of Mystery altogether, and so leaves no room for myth, symbol, and ritual. Thus neither the one nor the other can attain to a worldview in any true sense. There can be no vision without acceptance of Mystery.


1.  Maria Leach, Beginning: Creation Myths Around the World (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1956.)

2.  Paul Radin, Primitive Man as Philosopher, (New York: Appleton & Co., 1927.)

3.  John L. McKenzie, The Two-Edged Sword: An Interpretation of the Old Testament(Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1956.)

4.  H. and H.A. Frankfort, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.)

5.  Erwin Schroedinger, Nature and The Greeks (London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1954.)

6. Frankfort and Frankfort, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man.

7. From G.M. Hopkins’ poem “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and Of the Comfort of the Resurrection.”

Reprinted from Parabola
(Vol. II, #3, 1977: pp. 6-13)

Br. David Steindl-Rast
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author
Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.