Mesopotamia, 2700 B.C.
Somewhere on these ancient plains, early on a still night, perhaps after family, guests, and servants ready themselves to take their leave for sleep, we might imagine this great king, one of the first warriors and dragon-slayers to rise out of ancient mythologies and take on the figure of a real historical personality (Carroll 1985), staring into the setting darkness. He feels the moon’s presence. The stars begin to shine and the animals of the night begin to make noises in the sand and shrubs. This is the time of day when one is alone and able to think. This is, perhaps, how an ancient hero slips unnoticeably into a sort of quiet time, a few moments before retiring when a great mind can reflect. As the servants finalize the cleaning and make preparation for bed, our king moves a little further outside. Tired, he puts his hands on a short, stone wall, leans on his arms, surveys the land, and wonders.
He is a conqueror. He is a defender. He is a master. Recently, he threw back his bitter enemy Agga, king of Kish, the perennial, pestilent threat who time and again sought our great king’s land. This time it is for good, our king hopes. “To the pit of Hades for Agga!” he might mutter to himself if he had any notion of hell. After defeating Agga, the king built a city wall, the first one of its kind, protecting his stronghold. The inhabitants feel safe again. Our king is noble and the people honor him. Yet, beneath all this activity, all this accomplishment and glory, he is deeply unsettled, and he wonders.
Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, lives in an early time, a time before the Bible, a time before religious tradition as we know it passed down as dogmatic truth, a time before the world’s major religions of either Western or Eastern origin could compete for his attention. There is no self-help literature, no infomercials, no New Age movement, no Islam, no Catholicism, no Protestantism, no Buddhism, and, most likely, no real mature Hinduism. Our king has none of the religious “baggage” we take for granted, and in this sense, he might be considered free.
Alternatively, he might be considered lost.
This great king is in a position we rarely imagine today. He attempts to put life together – its point, purpose, and end – in a meaningful way and without the aid of the world’s established religions as we know them. Gilgamesh struggles with life just as we struggle, thousands of years later, in our post-industrial, high technology world that he never imagined. He is great; yet, he feels small. He accomplished much but feels empty. He wants to conquer the world but begins to wonder what happens after that. He needs to know where he is going and what his life means. In other words, like us, he wants to hope.
Gilgamesh, though, is particularly contemplative and solemn tonight. The reason that this night is different than the rest is that his contemplation now allows him to articulate and define the problematic stirrings in the deepest part of his soul. If we probed his thoughts by attempting to draw out these ideas, we might hear him sound slightly evasive; we might sense that he is holding back, that he is not telling us everything that weighs on his heart. What is it great Gilgamesh?
We are now at an interesting juncture in our story. Let us temporarily take an imaginary remote control, press the fast-forward button, and move thousands of years into the future.
The year is now 1971 A.D. A very popular modern pop star named John Lennon, a revolutionary emerging out of the dark period in Western history called “The Sixties,” recently wrote and published a song that particularly caught everyone’s attention. It remains hugely popular in the new millennium and many consider it to be a work of spiritual genius. The song is virtually a creed for a creed-less, non-religious, one-world spirituality. Titled “Imagine,” it speaks eloquently of a world without religion, dogmas, borders, and such. We are encouraged to believe that if we attained this perfect world of “no religion, too,” we would be very happy. This is, of course, nothing but the superficial imaginings of Eastern spirituality which ravaged the Western world after The Sixties due, in part, to fellows like John Lennon.
The essence of “Imagining” seems to be that we must throw out the hang-ups and baggage from man-made institutional religion in order to usher in a true humanism based on some version of Eastern spiritual “nothingness.” There, we have no right or wrong, no objective moral good or evil, except, of course, the evil of religious dogma (traditional Western thought), usually referred to as “intolerant,” “dualistic,” or “divisive.” Mr. Lennon admits in his song that many likely will see him merely as a dreamer.
However, I have great news for our pop star. We can study this matter after all, at least to some degree. Gilgamesh, for John Lennon’s benefit, lived before religion, creeds, dogmas, and religious tradition. From the dawn of man, the ancients worshiped nature, animals, and sun gods; however, Gilgamesh knew nothing of the “man-made” dogmas developed millenniums later. This would delight Mr. Lennon. We shall see what happens in such a “utopian” world. Gilgamesh, though not a perfect test case for a world without religion and dogma, is probably the best we have from a historical perspective. No major work of literature than that which we attribute to him dates before 2000 B.C. (Carroll 1985) He is the closest tangible study we have to “imagining” a world with “no religion too.”
Now, let us rewind to our hero and king, knowing that in him we witness a spectacular point in history, a point where we observe the spiritual insights of a man in a much purer time, in John Lennon’s dreamy time, just as we gaze through modern telescopes into the deepest parts of space to witness the dawn of an ancient but purer universe.
As we turn back to Gilgamesh, we sense that he remains disturbed and evasive in his speech because he realizes that despite his victories and glory, there is one enemy, one nemesis, whom he must face, and for the first time in his career, he sees no path to victory. This great enemy is death. Gilgamesh – warrior, king, conqueror – has no answer.
Gilgamesh walks further into the open land, and, following closely behind, we hear a cry pour forth from the depths of his soul:
“I saw a dream this night.
The heavens roared, the earth resounded……He transformed me,
Mine arms were covered with feathers like a bird.
He looks at me, leads me to the house of darkness,
To the dwelling of Irkalla;
To the house from which he who enters never goes forth;
On the road whose path does not lead back;
To the house whose occupants are bereft of light;
Where dust is their food and clay their sustenance;
They are clad like birds, with garments of wings;
They see no light and dwell in darkness.
In the house of dust, which I entered.
I looked at the kings, and behold!
The crowns had been deposited.”
(Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet VII n.d.)
Now, we understand the king’s dilemma, his soul-searching sickness. Gilgamesh realizes that he has no hope. He is brutally honest about his agony. This explains his troubled, evasive, and quiet demeanor tonight. Our great king, who is a shadow of historical reality walking out of the mist of ancient mythology, stands in the place that neither we nor John Lennon can really “imagine.” Yet, Gilgamesh is actually there, experiencing the naked and primordial reality of origin sin which brought hopelessness and death to humanity; though, he has “no religion, too” informing him. Nevertheless, he feels the fall of humanity in the depths of his soul, yet has no answer for it. Having “no religion” does not help him; it only leaves him in despair. We see that a world without religion, Lennon’s romanticized world, is not happy after all; it is merely lost. Eastern religions like Buddhism or Hinduism grapple with that sense of loss, but only when God becomes man, leading us out of darkness, do we actually become found, truly enlightened, and happy. The ancient writings about our great king demonstrate that early man felt the exact pain of loss that Augustine did in the 4th century A.D., and the same that we feel today. However, they had no clue what to do about it. Early man felt the effects of the Fall but knew not where to search for answers. Myths, legends, and a plethora of truly “imagined” gods would have to suffice.
However, something very unique will happen well after Gilgamesh takes his final resting place in the earth. The answer for which the king searches will be manifest.
Centuries later, someone will write down a literary treasure. His words will smash through the stone wall that encircles Gilgamesh’s soul; they will free Gilgamesh and the rest of the world with him. They will give us hope. Somewhere not far from our king’s land, a person unknown to posterity writes down the answer that THE God reveals to him. He transcribes what late-night story-tellers spoke for centuries. God wants all generations to have hope and know that he created the world from nothing out of love. He will personally save us from our tragic self-inflicted exile. God desires that we know he created us for a purpose and that life has meaning both during and after our earthly lives. God wants us to understand that he will open the door to the dark house Gilgamesh saw in his dream and allow the sunlight of the heavens to pour forth. God will destroy death and the myths surrounding it. God prepares to enter into space and time to heal the dark world ensnaring our souls. A world with “no religion, too” results in hopelessness; the true God comes bearing hope. Here we find the beginnings of true religion.
Our mysterious writer begins with words that will echo forever through the ages, destroying desperate myths and hopelessness. Our writer, likely not comprehending the ageless and universal effect of his work, transcribes these immortal words:
“In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
The most dramatic story the world will ever hear or read is about to unfold. The truth about creation comes forth. Thousands of years later, enemies of God will claim that science refutes these passages, but they will be so dangerously wrong. In their erudite and rationalistic hatred of God, they will prove that they are blind to even a glimmer of that light God reveals. Our ancient writer does not create a scientifically naïve explanation for the world’s beginning; he explains its purpose and source. Genesis is not about science; it is about purpose, authorship, and meaning. The truths of the first chapter of Genesis remain unscathed by modern atheistic materialism because the materialists do not understand what that chapter communicates.
You probably know the rest of the first chapter of Genesis. Our hearts gladden and open wide in thanksgiving as God informs us that he created us and that there is both a reason (logic) and rhythm (mysticism) to this creation. God created us, and he did so with the most inspiring pattern, a pattern bringing forth both mathematical logic and artistic rhythm. Our writer’s words continue describing the methodical, mystical, and mathematical flow of creation: on the first day…on the second day…on the third day…etc. There are no more mystically haunting, inspiring, and beautiful lines in all of literature than those in the opening chapter of Genesis. As Pope Benedict XVI puts it:
“These words, with which the Holy Scripture begins, always have the effect on me of the solemn tolling of a great old bell, which stirs the heart from afar with its beauty and dignity and gives it an inkling of the mystery of eternity.” (Ratzinger 1995)
God initiates his plan to save us. Creation is the foundation of this plan.
“Creation is the foundation of ‘all God’s saving plans,’ the ‘beginning of the history of salvation.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church n.d.)
Scientific discovery will never remove this veil. Genesis remains unscathed by materialistic atheism through every generation.
With this unimaginably great news, our writer pauses a moment, and we imagine that he reflects on the Epic of Gilgamesh. Then he whispers to the heavens, “There is hope great king, Gilgamesh.” We further ponder whether or not John Lennon heard this same whisper, having so egregiously missed the point in his song.
I hope so.