Bringing together science and myth in order to consider religions scientifically as entities that evolve over time, we can begin to see how ideas within them change. One of the most unexpected, perhaps, of these changes is that of the idea of that which supposedly does not change: the eternal.
There are few ideas as inspiring as that of the "eternal." It is one of those notions that has lasted through the ages--it has itself proven rather eternal, so to speak. But the meaning of "eternal" has proven quite the opposite. Over the centuries it has taken on different meanings in different contexts, betraying its own mutability. Furthermore, today's intellectual climate is completely overturning how the ancient world thought about the eternal. Where the sensual world of becoming was once scorned in favor of the "changeless" realm intelligible only to the mind or spirit, the empirical sphere of the senses is today revealing universal order while dogmas of the spiritual realm are growing ever more splintered, diverse, and unreliable. The eternal is becoming mutable, and the mutable eternal.
By and large, the ancient world valued the changeless over the changing. Seasonal cycles and other signs of natural order made an impression on early thinkers. Cyclical notions of an eternal return, or changeless pattern underlying change, characterize many early myths and cosmologies. The Greeks, like many peoples all over the world, contrasted their own perishable lives with those of the gods, who were deathless. Immortality is of course none other than exemption from the ultimate change, namely death. Early astronomy revealed remarkable order in the heavens, and this contrasted starkly with the confusing turns of fortune common in earthly politics and daily life. In this intellectual milieu, philosophers in both India and Greece began to seek a changeless being or substance underlying the world of impermanence.
In India, the Upanishads transformed the polytheistic religion of the Vedas into a monastic philosophy aimed at oneness with Brahman, the eternal being which is neti, neti ("not this, not this"). Jains likewise sought release from the round of worldly rebirths through union with the eternal Purusha. Buddhism preached non-attachment to impermanent things, in favor of awakening to the eternal way of the dharma. These paths developed out of still earlier traditions, possibly shamanic in origin, practicing detachment from worldly sense experience in order to achieve spiritual or magical power. Common to all these Indian traditions were ascetic practices of varying degrees aimed at detachment from the world of the changing.
Later, in Greece, similar developments took place. The pre-Socratic philosophers sought a unified substrate underlying variable forms. Thales proposed water, Anaximander the infinite, Anaximenes air, Heraclitus fire, Pythagoras number, and Empedocles the four elements. Meanwhile, Skeptics deconstructed the world of the senses, pointing out optical illusions and other apparent absurdities in order to lay to rest any hope of obtaining true knowledge through the sensual realm of change. Cynics practiced a radical ascetic lifestyle to detach from the deceptive and illusory world of appearances.
Of the Greek monists, Parmenides was perhaps the most radical. He divided all things into Being and non-Being. Being was absolutely changeless and eternal, while all things subject to change were relegated to non-Being. Only Being was real, everything else was mere deception. All value was therefore granted to the changeless, and withheld from the mutable. When Plato laid out his philosophy, which would become the foundation of most later Western thought, he was responding to Parmenides. Plato's theory of Ideas mediated between Being and non-Being. While all was ultimately unified in the infinitely simple and changeless One, through a process of increasing complexity the universe of particulate, changing things came into being. Platonic philosophers practiced detachment from the senses in order to concentrate on the realm of changeless Ideas. This pattern developed into what is now called Neoplatonism, which was in turn absorbed into Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Both in India and Greece, true reality was sought via the mind or spirit, while the senses were considered unreliable. The changeless was associated with the real, the changing with the unreal. The ancient notion of the eternal was thus that of a unified, unchanging reality accessible only via the mind or spirit.
But that was not the whole story. Other currents of thought existed. In Greece, the atomistic tradition of Democritus, taken up later by Epicurus, grounded its reasoning in the empirical world of the senses. It still advocated a simple life of disciplined desire in order to navigate the turbulent waves of fortune, but did not categorically reject the world of change. In India, materialism was preached by philosophers quite a bit earlier. Buddhism, too, though it sought release from the changing world, did not ignore the world but sought insight into change via the senses. Back in Greece, the Stoics endeavored to live according to changeless reason in a changing world, but without ignoring or seeking escape from the world and its politics. Thus, while thinkers of the ancient world largely valued the changeless over the changing, there were also those who placed some value in the changing realm of the senses.
When Christianity achieved hegemony in the late Roman and Medieval periods, the earlier patterns were taken up and continued. Changeless reality was transposed onto the next life, mutability onto this life of mortal toil. Though the concept of time was no longer cyclical but linear, the basic nature of the eternal remained as it was: changeless. Traditions of the ancient philosophies found expression in Christian monasteries, where ascetic disciplines enabled detachment from the world of change and concentration on God and the hereafter.
Key to all these traditions was the promotion of doctrines purporting to reveal the changeless way of the universe. By and large, authority lied in theories laid down by founding teachers and developed by ensuing disciples. Each attempted to account for changeless reality according to their separate theories. But if reality was changeless, it did not require multiple theories. There could be only one best way to describe it. The ceaseless debates between the traditions betrayed the flaw of their project: the world of the mind or spirit did not reveal one unified, changeless reality underlying the changing world. Rather, it gave rise to a myriad of competing speculations.
But the world was not yet ready to admit this. The rise to dominance of Christianity seemed able to promote a unified theory once and for all. Clerics in power did their best to make it so, convening to decide what would and would not be included in the canon. A myriad of competing Christian sects were gradually corralled into a unified doctrine. Thereafter, the official theory of a central, organized Church enjoyed hegemony, despite perennial outbursts of dissenting activity.
It was this same Church and its symbols of dominance that brought about a change. Demand for ever more wondrous cathedrals to dominate the land led to a rediscovery of ancient architecture. Return to the architectural principles and mathematics of the ancients, preserved and developed in the Arabic world, precipitated the Renaissance. Ancient styles of sculpture, literature, and philosophy rattled Christian Europe. With their nude bodies, sensuously-described myths, and rational philosophies dealing with appearances, they appeared sensuous and vibrant by comparison. A new interest arose in the changing world of the senses.
Meanwhile, the invention of the printing press allowed new theories to be disseminated widely. This caused a change similar to that of the Internet today: the flow of information could no longer be effectively controlled. Though the centralized Church attempted to keep its pet theory on top, it could no longer do so. The Reformation began as Christian thought splintered once again into a myriad of competing theories about the changeless.
Simultaneously, the printing press also enabled wider dissemination of new theories about the world of the changing. Empirical experimentation based on the senses developed out of the mingling of influences in the Renaissance. Gradually, modern scientific method began to emerge. By the 18th century, empirical investigation was firmly established as proper scientific method. Isaac Newton had already laid down his theory of gravity, and Descartes had forged his purportedly-empirical reductionist philosophy.
It was in this context that the ancient pursuit of a unified, changeless reality began to be turned upside down. Instead of being contradicted by the changing world of the senses, it began to be confirmed by it. No longer was order found only in the stars above but in all aspects of nature. Despite the apparent impermanence of worldly things, there was a permanent order behind it, a natural order. Levoisier managed to demonstrate empirically that matter is never destroyed but only changes shape. This led to the periodic table of elements. Faraday showed that electric and magnetic forces were one, and this led to a unified concept of energy. These and other experiments laid the foundations for our modern scientific concept of the universe. No longer placing authority in theories laid down by teachers like Parmenides, whose Being was absolutely distinct from the "unreal" world of the senses, science found being (no longer with a capital B) in the empirical realm of becoming.
There was a growing confidence that the scientific study of nature could reveal the eternal. This manifested in Deism, which captivated many 18th-century thinkers, including many of America's "founding fathers." Deism is the belief that a supernatural being created the world but has thereafter refrained from intervening in it. Thus, the laws of nature revealed the plan of the creator, the very mind of God. This miraculous revelation was accessible through empirical, scientific study using the five human senses. The world of the senses, once scorned for being mutable, was now the very locus of spiritual truth. The changeless laws of nature revealed the eternal.
Meanwhile, another important development was taking place in the 18th century. The Romantics became interested in passion, which was always viewed with a wary eye by ancient philosophers. Passion was disdained principally for its variability. But the Romantics saw meaning in it. Lord Byron wrote of moody, flawed characters, while William Blake composed the following poem entitled Eternity:
He who binds himself to a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise
In this four-line poem, Blake encapsulates a new perspective on the eternal: no longer is it changeless and forever; now it is fragile, fleeting, and interwoven with emotion, namely joy. In other words, instead of extending vertically across the linear march of time, or through cycles of time, the eternal now begins to expand horizontally to fill the depths of the moment. Eternity can last but an instant, just long enough for a kiss, but that instant is full of depth and meaning.
Blake was deeply influenced by the religion of Emanuel Swedenborg, which taught that each person could know God through deep, intuitive, personal introspection. This idea that the divine could be found by looking within - not without in scripture or above in the unchanging stars, but within the mortal person, the very body that aged and would suffer the ultimate change of death - permeated the ensuing centuries. In America, it found expression in Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists, who idealized the power of personal intuition and the natural world. Henry David Thorough's Walden made a spiritual adventure of a return to nature, and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass drenched its readers in rich sensations, the very sensations so mistrusted by the ancient world.
Today, this direction continues. Joseph Campbell observes in Myths to Live By that the old spiritual orientation of the universe, with the divine above and the mortal below, is no longer convincing now that we have traversed the farthest reaches of the sky and beyond into outer space. The new orientation is within and without, with the spiritual being located somewhere deep inside the person. The growing popularity in the West of meditative practices, which give an experience of one's inner being, supports this observation. From New Age gurus to Oprah Winfrey, the message is that the new spirituality is to be "in touch" with oneself.
At the same time, the old notion of a single, unchanging, monolithic truth engraved as doctrine has lost much credibility. Protestant denominations now number somewhere in the thousands, and all the major religions espousing exclusive truth are comprised of sects and sub-sects with different versions of that truth. There is no doubt that this has made an impact on the modern mind. Trends toward ecumenism and interfaith dialogue seem to acknowledge that there must be something else to religion besides the ceaseless variation of these "changeless" truths. While those of the ancient world, such as Plato, sought the eternal in that which is intelligible only to the mind or spirit, seekers of today are realizing that such a route produces not one unchanging truth, but endless diversity and change.
So, what is the meaning of the eternal today? Is there still something of the old idea of the forever changeless, or have we embraced completely Blake's eternity of the fleeting moment? As in the ancient world so today, there is plenty of diversity on this point. By and large, however, it seems apparent that the modern age has developed a radically different concept of the eternal than that of ancient Greece and India. This change was not sudden, but developed over millennia, as charted in this historical overview. The eternal may still have something about it that is changeless and forever, but it also connotes a rich depth of experience capable of embracing even the most fragile, the most fleeting, the most changing of moments. Correspondingly, the eternal is no longer located exclusively in scripture or the stars above, but also in the natural world of the senses and our own mortal selves. Seekers of the eternal now look within.
This consideration of religious ideas as entities evolving over time, a view bringing together science and myth, has uncovered a most unexpected change within the very idea of the changeless: the eternal.