*This is a continuation of an essay I posted last week. To read the first half of the discourse on fantasy and child-like wonder, click this link.*
Take for instance this legend told by the West Coast Native American Ohlone people of the Hummingbird restoring fire to the world:
A long, long time ago, the oceans rose higher and higher, flooding the land until nearly everything was covered by water. The Eagle, the Raven, the Hawk, and the Hummingbird watched the world drown from the safety of a mountaintop. Finally, things got so bad that the Eagle decided it was time to use his mighty magic to turn back the flood and dry the lands. With the aid of the Hawk he accomplished this.
However, by now the friends on the mountaintop had grown very hungry. They had food enough to eat, but not fire with which to cook it. The Eagle, in his wisdom, knew of a place where fire could yet be found, where it had not been drowned by the rising flood. He sent his nephew, the Hummingbird, the smallest of the friends, to the Badger people who made their homes in the earth. The Badgers, however, were selfish and refused to share their treasure of fire with the birds. They sent the Hummingbird away.
When the Hummingbird returned to the mountaintop, he told all he had seen to the Eagle, who was very wroth and sent the Hummingbird back to the Badger people to get fire by any means possible.
The Badgers saw the Hummingbird coming and knew that he would not take “No” for an answer this time, so they cried out to each other, “Cover the fire! Cover the fire!” One of the Badger people put a deerskin over the fire to hide it from the Hummingbird.
But when the hunter had slain this deer, his arrow had pierced the hide so that there was a small hole through which the light of the fire shone, and through which the Hummingbird could reach his long slender beak. Doing so, he managed to steal one small ember of the Badgers’ fire and fly away.
But the Hummingbird was slow in stowing the burning ember safely beneath his armpit, so that the heat of the fire seared his throat, turning it bright red. And that is how the Hummingbird came to have a red throat and how fire came into the world again.
Now, attempting to set aside some of the more ridiculous bits of this story and get to the core of the message would be, in my opinion, a complete waste of time, because from top to bottom it is ridiculous. There is nothing that the scientific mind can take seriously in it. It is in the fancy, the fantasy, that this tale excels and resonates with the reader/hearer. Anthropomorphism has the peculiar ability to force humans to see ourselves as we otherwise would not. And yet the above tale is not exactly a great moral lesson in the same way as some of Aesop’s beast fables.
The point of this is that while anthropologists would argue for the story being the product of man’s childhood state of intellect, a primitive explanation of how the world works that must be thrust aside or crushed under the heel of all-revealing science, I would argue that the crushing boot is precisely the problem with much of the western world today. There is no mystery left. There is nothing sacred.
Nietzsche said that we have killed God. Ignoring the theological concerns of that statement, which lie well outside the realm of this essay, there is a profound truth to the statement, for God is Himself the Wonder of wonders. In making a science of everything, we have necessarily destroyed the childlike awe required for any sort of faith. “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said.
We have, as a race of beings, grown up. And like so many grown ups, we have learned to despise the things of our youth. One need only look at the hostility that continues to surround J.R.R. Tolkien’s acceptance into the literary cannon as evidence of this. Stories of elves, dragons, magic, good and evil, and heroes are evidence of a naïveté that can no longer be tolerated in the post-modern world. We are become too clever for our own good. To paraphrase Paul the Apostle: Professing ourselves to be wise, we have become fools.
Again, I stress, that I am not advocating an abandonment of science and a return to ignorance. What I am advocating is a shift in attitude. A shift that allows grown men to be boys and grown woman to be girls, to see elves dancing in the twilight, to hear nymphs singing at dawn. I do not mean that we must be immature and childish, only that we must be childlike, which is altogether different.
I have heard many a scientist claim to be in awe of nature, and no doubt they would scoff at what I have said, but each one of those scientists so in awe of nature are only so awed because the deeper they delve into science, the more complex they realize everything is. Incomprehensibly complex. Their wonder is noteworthy, but as all religions everywhere will attest “seeing and believing” is always inferior to “believing without seeing.” I do not need to be told how the hummingbird flies in order to marvel at it; my concern is that the modern “adult” mind, however, does need to be told in order to marvel. The childlike awe is lost on us and that is a lamentable state.