Friday, September 24, 2010

The Great Pyramid Scheme

I saw a fascinating programme last night on the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza in the Egyptian desert some 4,500 years ago.

One can only marvel still at this truly wonderful achievement and what a stunning spectacle it must have been on its completion! Indeed is there anything in our modern technological civilisation that bears comparison? I think not!
Though it is impossible of course to build any physical structure that is indestructible and guaranteed to last for ever (as the Egyptians intended), you have to admit that at least they gave it a damn good try.

The Pyramid at Giza is the oldest physical structure still standing (and the only survivor of the seven wonders of the ancient world). Also, for some 4000 years it remained the tallest building in the world.

As we know it was built during the reign of the pharaoh Khufu requiring an amazingly gifted and organised group of workers over a 20 year period. I was just thinking as I watched that here we had the ideal example of the advantages of the division of labour around 2,500 BC that was incomparably more impressive than Adam Smith’s famed account of his visit to a pin factory in the 18th century AD.

However what is perhaps even more impressive regarding this ancient civilisation is that that it had already begun to grapple with the deepest spiritual questions and provided - within the limits of its understanding - an impressive response that we could do well to seriously ponder in our modern age.

What is the ultimate meaning of life? What happens to one’s soul after death? How does one properly prepare for inevitable death?
Well - at least within some sections of Egyptian society - answers had already been provided to these searching questions.

For these Egyptians salvation was not already secured but dependent in a sense on creating a successful bridge between Heaven and Earth. Heaven was identified with the skies and the regular patterns of the stars. It seems that one such alignment of the stars served as the basis for the Giza pyramid. So it was intended that it should be built so that its own construction would perfectly fit with this alignment (considered as indestructible). Success in this regard thereby guaranteed eternal life to the King as the supreme incarnation of the Divine and then through the King to all the workers involved with the project.

We often question whether we are deriving true meaning from our work and very often to be honest it is apparent that it provides little genuine fulfilment.

Now contrast this with the Giza Pyramid project! Not alone was this so massive and awe inspiring from a construction viewpoint, its successful completion was understood to guarantee – not alone immortality for the King – but also for those involved in the work.

So for the Egyptians the basic religious impulse was interpreted in a this-worldly immanent fashion identified with the construction of a lasting natural monument (to match the permanent nature of the Heavens).

It struck me that the Christian revelation – which subsequently exercised immense influence on the development of Western culture - fell roughly half way as between the time of Khufu and the modern day.

There are indeed important similarities here with earlier Egyptian thinking.
1. Christ was likewise viewed as a King (King of the Jews).
2. Christ was also understood as a unique incarnation of God (i.e. God the Son).
3. His own (successful) resurrection would likewise guarantee immortality for his faithful followers.

However, he had a very different kind of revelation in mind from what his followers expected.

Thus it was clear that Christ viewed his role essentially in otherworldly transcendent terms. “ My kingdom is not of this world” .
So rather than a harmonising of Earth with the Heavens as it were, in Christian terms salvation was seen in terms of overcoming the world so as to attain redemption.

Though there are definite strengths to this position in giving a purer spiritual emphasis to the task of salvation, there are also residual problems.

One problem with Christianity is that it has never provided a truly balanced way of reconciling secular with religious concerns. Not surprisingly, even in our own day to be a Christian is generally identified as being thereby opposed to many aspects of secular society.

It struck me while reflecting on the programme that this Egyptian society (or at least a special segment) in some respects offered a better solution to life’s eternal issues than subsequent religious revelations. What I mean by this is that temporal concerns i.e. in the - literal - desire to build a lasting natural monument were invested with more meaning than with subsequent - unduly transcendent - spiritual beliefs.

So perhaps another great revelation awaits in the not too distant future where the immanent aspect of spirituality can at last be properly married to the transcendent.
In some way this will require the realisation that eternity is not something than unfolds after human life is extinguished but rather continually exists here in the present moment while we live. In this way though all secular concerns may be transient and relative (from a phenomenal perspective) yet they also possess universal meaning as the potential expression of the divine.

Thus the true religious impulse should not be necessarily opposed to secular developments but rather see that the right interpretation of such events as inseparable from authentic spiritual development.

Perhaps someday in the future our spiritual will also be our secular leaders enabling us to work out our salvation in authentic fashion through everyday engagement in affairs.