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The Labyrinth & the Bible

F. Earle Fox

[COMMENT: the email below originated in a discussion on the "labyrinth" during the Christmas season back about 2000.  It was planned along with several other articles for the website, but never got put up until now (6/20/05) prompted by a query from a person in that prior conversation.  This is a very expanded version of the original.  Hopefully this discussion will help Christians make clear the differences between Biblical and non-Biblical faith. 

A labyrinth, as used today (popular with New Age folks), is generally a circular maze through which you walk, trying to get in touch with your own internal spiritual self as you approach the center.  It has a long history in paganism and the occult.  The circular maze or labyrinth is related to an Eastern symbol, the mandala.  The mandala likewise has layers of circles, usually with a figure at the center, symbolizing the self as the eternal godhead within.  

See below on how Christians can turn the tables and use the labyrinth for Godly purposes.    E. Fox]

Greetings, Fellow Christians,

1. Paganism, Uroboros, and the "Closed Circle" Cosmology

I have followed with great interest the discussion on the labyrinth, and am adding some thoughts on the matter. I taught a course in mythology in 1970 and 1971 at Trinity College, Hartford.  (Trinity had long before abandoned any semblance of being Trinitarian, and has become a paganized institution, but I had been blessed with two priceless Christian professors 15 years previously when I was an undergrad in the middle '50's.)  Teaching the mythology course was an amazing epiphany for me on the nature of paganism, and a great help in understanding the movement of western culture into paganism and away from secular materialism.

I was astounded to see western culture abandoning the basic foundations of science. Science had been used to beat up on Biblical faith. But I knew better -- that science per se was never on the side of secularism, and that the battle for the 19th and 20th centuries had been lost because we Christians had abandoned God-given science to the secularists.  If we had been successful at integrating science with faith, reason with revelation, the 20th century would never have been the 100 years of violence and debauchery it has become.  But that is another story which I am pursuing on my website (http://theroadtoemmaus.org). 

Back to the labyrinth. 

As I was preparing for my course on mythology, I found two works in the library, "The Masks of God" by Joseph Campbell (a 4 volume set), and "The Great Mother" by Erich Neumann.  Both were Jungian scholars, well prepared to present pagan mythology in all the seductive power which it has held over the human mind -- with the single exception of any culture built on Biblical principles.  Almost everybody in 1970 thought theology was a bore, and that mythology was "in".  But I knew that mythology would be a super way to sneak in comparative theology.  And I had a ball.

I ran into a symbol, a serpent figure making a closed circle by biting its own tail.  You still occasionally see this symbol, sometimes as jewelry, often a ring. The symbol occurs in many cultures around the world, generally meaning the same thing, the cosmos as a self-contained entity.  There is no creator God "out there" somewhere -- because the cosmos is a self-sufficient, eternal entity.  In Greek mythology, the serpent is named Uroboros.

All that happens, all that exists, is controlled inexorably by the laws of that closed system.  There is no appeal.  The two basic governing principles are always -- fate (destiny, absolute determinism), and chance (fortune, total freewheeling luck).  Two exact opposites.  (See Isaiah 65:11)

In every case, the origin of the cosmos is an ineffable, unknowable "substance", symbolized in Chinese mythology by the Yin-Yang, the coincidence of all opposites, everything and its logical opposite.  Black and not-black.  Good and not-good.  Purple and not purple.  Etc. 

All theories of cosmic evolution emerge out of this kind of scheme -- whether secular materialist or ancient Hindu.  All things emerge out of the least formed, least complete, least real of all things, an absolutely impersonal kind of "stuff", a cosmic soup of being/non-being, the two ultimate opposites.


2. The Cosmic Tree, the Minotaur, & the Labyrinth

Another symbol occurs in ancient mythology, a tree meaning essentially the same thing as the serpent biting his own tail, it too representing the cosmos as a self-contained, self-sufficient entity.  All that happens, happens within the circle of that tree. 

In Scandinavian lore, it was called Yggdrasill.  There is a similar tree in Hindu lore.  The overarching branches of the tree symbolize the heavenly regions, the ground under the branches is the "living space".  In the Scandinavian version, there is a doorway to a tunnel leading down to the roots, deep in the earth, at the base of which are serpents, the place of the dead.  Below the tree, below the roots, the unknown and unknowable. 

The labyrinth is another such symbol -- the cosmos as a closed system.  No appeal beyond the borders of existence.  Once in (once you are born, once you exist as a person) you cannot get outside of the labyrinth any more than you can get outside of Uroboros.  If you try to go further out, Uroboros simply smiles and stretches a little to include you.  You cannot step outside of your own existence, and you cannot avoid the laws of the cosmos.  (Sort of a paganized version of the story of Jonah....  You cannot escape the law of God.)

In all versions of this mythology, all personal beings, including Zeus and all the other "immortals", are eventually swallowed up.  Eternal life is almost unknown in this kind of cosmos.  I.e. eternal life for personal beings such as you and I.  You can evaporate off into the cosmic substance, be swallowed by the Great Mother, merge with cosmic consciousness, enter the state of Nirvana (non-being).  But you cannot survive as the individual real you.  Personal, individual beings all die.  No exceptions.

In the Cretan myth, there is a Minotaur who devours all who enter the labyrinth.  None escape. 

The Cretan Princess Areadne rescued her Athenian lover, Theseus, from death in the labyrinth by sacrificing her knitted sweater (or ball of yarn) which unraveled as he walked into the labyrinth, which he could then follow back to the entrance. 

But no one escapes the cosmic labyrinth.  The ultimate labyrinth is the cosmos itself, the closed system, no appeal beyond its borders -- nothing, nothing at all beyond the limits of its walls.  And deadly enemies lurk within from which there is no escape -- Uroboros, the Minotaur, etc., aka Satan.  Everyone dies.

In modern usage, walking the labyrinth is an attempt on the part of those who live trapped in that cosmos to come to terms with that which will one day devour them.  It is the perennial task of labyrinthine inhabitants to learn to flow with the cosmic forces.  That is the universal task of pagan religion because that is the best way of surviving -- at least for a while.  But in the end, it almost always comes to the same thing.  A shadowy life in the underworld -- hades, sheol, hell. 

Religion, as the Dalai Lama has said, is for times of trouble, a palliative, an anesthetic from the pain of life.  So then, if life is going well, you do not need religion.  Religion is not a way of life, it is a way of trying to forestall the inevitable dark end of life.  You do not "love" the gods, nor do they love you.  You use them when they are convenient.  (And they you.) 


3. The Biblical World

The Biblical recognition of these pagan symbols is the truth that we cannot find our own way out of the fallen world to a non-destructive world.  God has to enter the Fall for us to escape.  Once fallen, we stay that way unless God intervenes with His Areadne thread.  What paganism searches for -- stability and meaning, only Christ can supply.  

The sole consistent exception to the pagan scheme of things is thus the Biblical worldview in which the cosmos is called into being by a pre-existing, eternal Creator.  A Somebody, not a something; I AM, not an impersonal divine substance.  In the Biblical view, all things come from the creative power of the most real, most complete, most individual, and most personal of all things -- our Creator God. 

God pre-exists the creation, and lives "outside" of it.  So the circle of creation is an open circle, there is communication between us in the circle and God outside of it.  We are not locked into whatever laws might exist in the cosmos.  We can appeal to God who is in control of all creation and all of its laws. 

When God told Adam not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, He was NOT telling Adam that he ought not use his intellect.  The phrase "knowledge of good and evil" was a Hebrew idiom, the rough equivalent of our "knowledge of everything from A to Z".  It meant the tree of universal knowledge, the tree of omniscience.  It meant much the same as Yggdrasill, the tree of independence and autonomy.  In a closed-circle world, you are compelled to seek omniscient so that you can do battle with the cosmic forces, or at least forestall their attack on your welfare and safety.  Omniscience is a requirement for survival.

God was telling Adam and Eve not to try to be independent, not to try to be as the pagan gods were imagined to be.  If they really wanted to be like God, stay and live in His presence.

And who is in charge of that forbidden tree?  None other that the serpent who bites his own tail, who pulls around us the deadly shroud of the illusion of autonomy and self-containment.  Satan's trick was to persuade Adam and Eve that they could "be as god", i.e. self-sufficient, autonomous decision-makers (exactly the goal of secular humanism, and of our government-controlled school systems - values clarification, etc.  Anyone who thinks Uroboros - aka Satan - is not busily at work in this way, read Beverly K. Eakman's book, "The Cloning of the American Mind - Eradicating Morality Through Education" -- for "morality" substitute "the word of God".)

So those who "walk the labyrinth" in the pagan manner have (either through ignorance or rebellion) abandoned any personal relationship with the living God, and are trying instead to tune in with the forces of the impersonal and ultimately lethal cosmos.  Those forces are the "elemental spirits of the universe" of which Paul speaks, and of which people of his time were well aware. (Col. 2:8, 20, etc.)

We have a Good News to preach -- Uroboros and the elemental spirits do not have the last word.  The cosmos is not a closed system.  It is by creation and by nature an open system, and our personal lives can become open systems also if we will allow the incarnation of the Spirit of God into our lives: "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above...." (Col 3:1 ff)

The Incarnation is God quietly breaking into the closed circle, and the Ascension is God busting a gaping hole as He exits and draws us up in heart and mind to the heavenly throne.  Pentecost is the coming of the Holy Spirit so that we can wage war right here in enemy-held territory -- open the rest of the circle and prepare for the return of the King. 


4. Turning the Tables...

God owns the whole world.  Satan has neither authority over nor ownership of anything but his own willful behavior.  Satan does not own numbers such as 13 or 666.  They belong to God.  Satan does not own any shapes, spaces, or containers, such as a mandala or a labyrinth.  His asserted ownership is part of his deceit against the human race to deceive and confuse us about his power in the universe.  A labyrinth does not belong to him, it belongs to God.  The only thing Satan can do is persuade us that he does own it, and/or to put it to his uses. 

The same is true, for example, of yoga.  Various exercises, such as sitting in the Lotus position, do not belong to Satan, they do not belong to Buddhism, they are one of the possible positions in which, for any number of reasons, humans can sit.  But all of those possibilities belong to God.  The question is always, What are we intending by our behavior, or by numbers, or by shapes or containers?   If we intend by walking the labyrinth to get in touch with our inner divine nature, we are deceiving ourselves.  But we might equally have Godly purposes.

For example, suppose we picture ourselves as three concentric circles -- body, soul, and spirit, with the body on the outside, the soul (intellect, will, emotions/feelings) in the middle, and the spiritual center at the bull's eye.  It looks like a mandala, but the spiritual center differs from the Eastern mandala because it has a self which is not the autonomous divine self within.  The Biblical self is a creature of God standing on the Hand of God before His Throne to hear His Voice. 

The Hand of God represents the power of God to give us being, our existence, the basis of our dependent nature.  The Voice of God is the command, purpose, and law of God.  We are to rest the weight of our being in the Hand of God (that is, trust God for our ontological stability, our stability of being, our salvation), and we are to obey the voice of God for our reason for existence (our sense of meaning and importance, our goal in life).  There before the throne of God we fallen beings receive restoration of our broken being and forgiveness for our sins.  The closed circle cosmos is the world of the Fall, which leads to meaninglessness and death. 

The spiritual center is thus the throne room where we meet God face to face, the Holy of Holies.  So it represents the exact opposite about our selfhood from the Eastern religion mandala, that we are not ourselves God, that we are separate by nature from God, that we are His creatures, to be dependent and obedient, trusting and obeying.  The spiritual center is the Biblical answer to the two deep questions of the human heart echoing down the centuries:  Do I have stability of being?  Does my existence have purpose? 

On this Biblical view, the Hand of God is the Ground of my Being, which is a deeply personal relationship.  I am not an impersonal emanation from a physical or spiritual substrate, as is true of all theories of evolution.  I am created to be a child of God. 

Christians can therefore recapture another shape for God by putting the labyrinth to Godly use.  We can show how the revelation of God gives us the answer to the cry of the human heart felt by all peoples.  One can walk the labyrinth with the intent of listening to God, of opening oneself to the Spirit of God for learning, repentance, forgiveness, or any of the gifts of the Spirit.  And then the center stands for the goal of our human journey, Holy Communion, that peace which passes understanding, acceptance of our full dependency on God and our total obedience to Him, leading then also to holy communion with one another.   

                                                                      Christmas Blessings,
                                                                           Earle Fox

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