A Myth to Call Our Own
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 30, 2003
The great teacher and scholar Joseph Campbell, perhaps the twentieth century’s leading expert in the area of myth and mythology, would delight in telling this story:
Toward the end of a long and contentious radio broadcast, during which the host of the program wanted nothing whatsoever to do with Campbell’s intimations of mysticism and spirituality, the interviewer finally said to Campbell: “Curious thing to devote your life to a myth. Myth is a lie.”
“No, myth isn’t a lie,” Campbell responded. “Myth is metaphor. Mythology is an organization of symbolic images and narratives that are metaphors for the possibilities of human experience and fulfillment at a given time.”
This went right over the interviewer’s head, of course; still, he would have none of Campbell’s claptrap. “I’ll say it again,” he repeated. “Myth is a lie.”
This guy doesn’t have any idea what a metaphor is, Campbell thought to himself. “Give me an example of a metaphor,” he challenged the host—who quickly tried to change the subject. “Give me an example of a metaphor,” Campbell prodded. Finally, the interviewer came up with one: “Jack runs very fast. People say he runs like a deer.”
“That’s not a metaphor,” Campbell responded. “It’s a simile. The metaphor is ‘Jack is a deer.’”
“That’s a lie!” the host responded
“That’s a myth!” Campbell says. And with that, the broadcast drew to a close.
So, which are they, these myths which form such a large part of our cultural history—myths of heroes and gods and goddesses and warriors and saints? Are they lies which delude us or metaphors which inspire us?
Certainly, the tendency within our own language has been to equate the word “myth” with something that we know, ultimately, just isn’t true—for example, the “myth” that knocking on wood will ward off evil; the “myth” that one group of people is superior to another. Myth has become synonymous with falsehood; when we call something a “myth”, we’re saying it’s a lie, that it’s just not so.
But in more recent years, I think our perspective on the word “myth” is changing. Now, through the work of men like Joseph Campbell, and the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, and others; through an expanding interest in the work of the philosopher Carl Jung; through an increased appreciation for the insights offered by Native American spirituality and the religions of the East; and through profound new insights on Western religion offered through the insights of feminist spirituality, the word “myth” is being redeemed in our culture. Over the past couple of decades, a major change has begun to set into our consciousness. More and more people are coming to understand that while “myth” may be a four-letter word, it need not be a term of reproach or condemnation. More people now understand that, in dubbing something “mythical”, we, in fact, invest it with an even more lustrous aura than it might otherwise have had. To say something is “mythical” can be to intimate that it possesses a somehow deeper wisdom; that it has important lessons to teach us—lessons which go beyond the boundaries of literal factualness and falsehood. To grasp the mythic possibilities in existence is to grasp the holiness of each moment, and to know the truth that we live not by things, but by the meaning of things, as St. Exupery put it. It is to understand, at last, that one need not believe something literally truth in order to believe the truth which something has to tell.
It has not been an easy coming of age for us as religious men and women, nor will it be. It has not been an easy change for this culture which declared (in deed, if not in word) that God was dead. And with the (supposed) death of the all-knowing, all-power Big Guy in the Sky of the Judeo-Christian tradition, came the death of all the myths that sustained and supported Him. If Jehovah God was dead, then so was the mythology of the Judeo-Christian heritage, and into the void left by that demise rushed a kind of materialistic totalitarianism which reduced science to mechanics; ethics to relativism; and culture to the insipid and incessant demands of the marketplace.
Of course, in many ways, it was time for a changing of the gods. The development of modern science gave us answers to explain so many of the mysteries of the natural world: We had, at last, some knowledge of the individual processes at work in this great process called Life. There was no longer any need to rely solely upon metaphysical and mythical explanations. Enlightenment thinkers pushed away the constrictive boundaries of their own day, and opened new worlds to the insights of human reason. An age of exploration proved that there were no demons or monsters haunting far-off skies and seas. So it was that the Western world’s mythical sensibilities went the way of the native peoples who still held to them, decimated before the onslaught of modernization. Myth went the way of the sea monsters and dragons that once haunted an Earth thought to be enchanted. The natural world was not enchanted any longer; it was now just the great means of satisfying human wants: a great inanimate venue for man to exploit for his own purposes and transform in his own image.
“What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology?” the journalist Bill Moyers once asked Joseph Campbell.
What happens is “What we’ve got on our hands [now],” Campbell replied. “If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals [or myths] read the New York Times.”
What we find there is, in many ways, a society adrift. “The news of the day,” Campbell continued, “including destructive and violent acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilized society.” According to Campbell, myths that are meaningful to us—that we internalize and make part of our beings—help to form the connections we need between our individual selves and the society and culture within which we live, and the universe of which we are part. When we truly find a myth that relates to our true being, that myth can serve three very important functions for us:
The first function is mystical. By embracing a mythical view of the world, rather than a strictly linear-rational one, we can begin to see once again that the world truly is enchanted. We begin to discern that this world is not merely that which meets the eye; it is not just that which can be weighed and measured and analyzed and bought and sold. Our myths open our eyes to the truth that creation is a wonder—and that each and every one of us is a wonder, too. We are not just random collections of molecules and atoms and chromosomes. We are living wonders, inhabiting an enchanted world! This mystical knowledge (and it is also a knowledge that is deeply based in science) can empower us to lead our lives fully and confidently and creatively. When we see the world as enchanted—and the ground we walk upon as holy ground—then we open ourselves to experiencing what Rudolph Otto called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans—the tremendous and fascinating mystery which is Life.
This experience of the mystical is fundamental to our humanness, and its absence can cost us dearly. In his book, The Reenchantment of the World, Morris Berman writes:
Remember these words of Albert Einstein:
The first purpose of myth is to restore some sense of the mystical in our lives.
The second function is educational: Myths can teach us how to lead decent human lives under any circumstances. They provide for us larger-than-life role models, exemplars, paradigms which we can seek to reflect in the day-to-day living of our own experience. “Myths are the clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life,” Joseph Campbell once said. They let us know what we are capable of knowing; they free us to experience our full humanity. The heroes and gods and goddesses of myth can point the way for us as we live out the story—the history—the epic—of our own odyssey upon this Earth. They provide us with models for bearing with suffering; models of heroism and valor; of love and compassion. They can inspire and instruct young people as they seek to come to some knowledge of who they are; they can show us what it means to age with grace and what it means to die with dignity and courage. Myths can provide us with deep psychological patterns which we can reflect in our own experience—indeed, which we must reflect truly to experience the depths of our humanity.
Such mythological role models are critical to us as we strive to learn what it means to be human; as we strive to live lives imbued with coherence and meaning. It may be that certain manifestations of our popular culture do possess the kernel of the mythical within them. There may be something of worth, something heroic, in the adventures of John Wayne or Luke Skywalker, and maybe even Dragon Ball Z and the “Adventures of Pokemon”. But the problem in our culture is that everything has become so blatantly manipulative and commercial, as well as so fleeting and transient, that it changes every moment like the flicker of a television screen. Today it’s one thing; tomorrow something different; so that nothing has the time it needs to work its way into our souls before it’s been replaced by the latest fast-selling fad of the hour. Our frenetic culture gives us celebrities, not heroes; that’s not the same thing, at all. Heroes exist on a deeper level; over time, they come to transcend the failings and flaws of their own particular mortal existence—which all human beings are bound to have. They come to symbolize something more, something universal and timeless. There are still heroes in this world of ours, of course: Martin Luther King, Jr. was one, of course; perhaps Mother Theresa of Calcutta; there are many others, too—at least one special hero for each of us, and we can still learn the lessons they have to teach.
The third purpose of myth is sociological: myth attempts to provide cohesion for a particular culture; it validates a particular society’s ways of doing things. In this context, obviously, myths can vary widely from one place to the next, and among different cultural contexts. One society might develop an entire mythology defending polygamy; another culture, one that sustains monogamy. These two cultures can coexist quite nicely with one another in the world—as long as there is no interaction between them. As long as cultures remain self-contained units, their mythologies—their guidelines for what it means to lead a “good life”—can usually provide sufficient cohesion to keep things together and functioning.
The profound challenge arises when mythologies collide—and when the sociological demands of each comes into contact with a conflicting set of mores. This is the acute challenge of our postmodern world, where cultures now are continually thrown into contact with one another. Certainly, our human record on this score up to now has not been very encouraging. Usually, the contradiction gets resolved through violent conflict, with proponents of one worldview forcibly repressing those of another.
The sociological power of myth to unite a culture presents dangers in a world that feels as small as ours does now, In an interdependent world, we can no longer afford the luxury of a mythology that fails to consider the “others” with whom we share this Earth. In his interview with Bill Moyers, Campbell pointed to the situation in Lebanon as a prime example of what can happen when an exclusionary view of religion holds sway. Campbell said:
Of course, we need myths to live by; myths which empower and inspire us where we are, in our own culture; myths which are true to the historical tradition of the culture in which we live. We cannot just copy the faiths of others, second-hand, and attempt to impose the experience of others on our own. We ought not just borrow other people’s myths and rituals and appropriate them as our own. To internalize a faith—a mythology—genuinely, we have to let its light pass through the prism of our own experience. So it is that genuine faith is never experienced by two people—let alone two cultures—in precisely the same way. I have a deep respect for the religious traditions of the East; I think that these traditions offer import insights to our times, But I also believe that the experience of these traditions for us in the West cannot be the same as that which was experienced by their original practitioners in Asia. The mythology we choose to live has to reflect our particular culture and our particular history.
But in order for this whole interdependent world of ours not to degenerate into one great Baghdad of the soul, we need constantly to be widening the circle of our consciousness. The circle we draw around our world today must be an open circle if we are to survive.
We dive as deeply as we can into our own tradition, and feel it reverberating profoundly in who we are. The particular spiritual tradition we choose is the home to which we can return “when the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long”. That tradition can help us to make sense of the joys and sorrows we will meet along our way; it provides us with a sense that this reality is a cosmos with reason and purpose, and not just a random series of disjointed accidents. Within the tradition we choose, we find answers that work for us; we embrace a mythic structure that teaches each of us how to lead an authentically human life. Then, with the fires of our faith still warming our hearts, we remember that our picture of the holy is not the Holy itself, and we bow in humility before the choices that others have made. For we know that those other paths, as different as they might seem from ours on the surface, are, in reality, one with ours: just as the world is one; just as all thing are connected, like the blood that unites one family.
It is possible to drink new wine from old bottles. It is possible to reawaken the old myths with a new vision. It is possible to delve so deeply into them and internalize them so truly, that we can glimpse the truth of the original divine spark which brought a particular tradition to birth. We can glimpse the holy fire, freed from all the human-made accumulation that has obscured it over the years. We can breathe new life into forms of old, as Emerson said.
It may also be true that a new age needs new myths by which to live. We can help to bring these new manifestations to birth—through our art; through our creativity; through our work and play as we seek to be true to our humanness in this ever-changing world.
If there is a new myth emerging in our time, it will have at its heart this Earth which is our common home. Not “my tribe”. Not “my nation”. Not “my particular religious group”. But this Earth—this home—this heart we share together—which we must all strive as heroes to save; which we must all strive as lovers to cherish; which we must all strive as tribesmen (tribesmen in the family of all living things) to share, and sanctify, and redeem.