A Myth For Our Future
Mary H. Reaman
Unitarian Universalists have always been innovators. We are all familiar with the stories of our Unitarian ancestors who began to see God as one, instead of three. Equally familiar is the history of our Universalist forefathers and mothers who believed that everyone, not just a select few, was capable of salvation. In the early 1900’s our people created a movement known as Humanism, which claimed that humans are in charge of their own destiny, with no celestial strings. Lately Unitarian Universalism has been drifting back towards spirituality, what ever that word means. Now, it seams as though we are almost stuck. On one side we have the Humanists, with their insistence on reason at all costs. On the other side are the people that demand something more “spiritual” from their UU churches and fellowships. We need a breakthrough! I believe that a breakthrough has already come. This breakthrough is easiest to understand by examining the writings of a 20th century comparative mythologist named Joseph Campbell.
Joseph Campbell was born in 1904 in a suburb of New York City. His family was Irish Catholic, and Campbell was active in his parish as an alter boy. At the age of 7 his parents took him to see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Madison Square Garden. It is difficult to overestimate the influence this event had on Joseph’s young life. He became obsessed with Native American lore. Campbell read his way through the children’s section in the New York Public Library and was admitted to the adult stacks at the age of 11.
Campbell went to Columbia University in New York where he completed a BA in English and an MA in medieval literature. Upon completion of his master’s degree he received a grant to study in Europe. While there Campbell became fluent in German and French. Years later, after he had become a famous comparative religion scholar, Campbell was often asked if he prayed or meditated. His response was “I underline sentences”. He wasn’t kidding. Campbell was a scholar who read 10 hours a day for 70 years. A biographer once noted that Campbell’s books by Frederick Nietzsche were underlined with hundreds of little margin notes written in German.
While in Europe, Campbell studied every available piece of material on the Grail myth. He also began to notice similarities between the myth of the Holy Grail and other mythologies. Campbell started to entertain the notion of getting his PHD at Columbia. His idea was to expand his dissertation topic beyond the Grail myth to include parallels with psychology, literature and art. While this topic does not seem far out to us today, it was way ahead of its time. His teachers at Columbia turned him down flat. Disappointed but not deterred, Campbell set out to study the subject anyway. The great depression had begun and there simply were no jobs. He gave up the idea of getting his PHD and became an itinerant scholar. For the next five years he traveled the country, living on practically nothing and reading his normal 10 hours a day. It was during this period that he met many influential thinkers and artists such as John Steinbeck and Carl Yung. In 1933 Campbell was hired by Sara Lawrence College, where he stayed for 39 years. Sara Lawrence is an ultra liberal, almost experimental college in New York City, and Campbell thrived there. He married one of his students named Jean Erdman who became a prominent dancer and choreographer. They lived for many years in a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village. The one bedroom was Campbell’s study. The couple slept on the couch. Having the advantage of living in New York, Joe and Jean traveled in an impressive circle of important artists and intellectuals.
In his long career, Campbell wrote and edited over 20 books. His breakthrough book was A Hero with a Thousand Faces published in 1949. This book established Campbell as the preeminent comparative mythologist of the 20th century. Before the publishing of this book, myth had been looked upon as old stories in dusty old books. Campbell changed all this. What was really different about A Hero with a Thousand Faces was that it made a connection between ancient stories and the emotional concerns of modern life. As Campbell so interestingly observed, “the latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stands on the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, waiting for the light to change.” He used myth to illustrate psychological principals. Campbell brought a mythic sense of the world back into our everyday consciousness.
Campbell retired from Sara Lawrence College in 1972 to concentrate on writing. One of Campbell’s ever growing numbers of devoted fans was filmmaker George Lucas. Lucas freely admits that the ideas for his Star War movies, premiering in 1977, came from the writings of Joseph Campbell. Campbell died in 1987. Soon after his death The Power of Myth, a six part television documentary, hosted by Bill Moyers, was broadcast on PBS. The public reaction to the broadcast was simply overwhelming. The Power of Myth became the most successful program ever seen on public TV. The book from the series became a best seller. Surely, Campbell would have been embarrassed by all of this adulation. He avoided the lime light and never wanted to be anyone’s guru. As Newsweek magazine put it “Campbell has become one of the rarest of intellectuals in American life, a serious thinker who has been embraced by the popular culture”
Through his scholarship, Joseph Campbell developed a theory of human history. He saw four stages of human development. The first stage was that of Shamanic Hunters and Gatherers. Human burial sites have been found dated to 60,000 BC where animal skulls are ritually buried along with human remains. This proves that early humans were in a symbolic relationship with the animals they hunted. The humans honored their prey with a ritualistic burial. The first stage of human development was the appearance of symbolic thinking. The second stage of human development was the Agricultural Societies. The invention of agriculture around 10,000 BC allowed more food to be produced, leading to larger populations. The myths and rituals of early agricultural societies emphasized the birth, growth, death and rebirth aspects of the planting seasons. The Goddess played a major role in the mythology of early agricultural societies.
The third stage of human development was the City State. The mother goddess who had reigned supreme was overthrown. In her place, masculine gods now reigned, interpreted by a ruling dynasty and a professional priesthood. The myths of the Bible come from the stage of the City State. Interestingly enough, the professional priesthood led to the ending of the City State stage. The educated priesthood began to recognize a predictable order to the planets and stars. This was the beginning of scientific thinking. By 1750, the forth stage of human development, The Modern World, had begun. In this stage, which we are still in, humans can comprehend illumination as an internal state. Myth in the modern world has changed, in that it no longer has any literal meaning. But myth, and its symbolic meaning, is just as important to human existence as it has ever been. The challenge of the modern world, as I see it, is to create meaningful, symbolic myth that gives direction and purpose to our lives.
What were these ideas that Joseph Campbell talked about that so captured the public imagination? To start with Campbell talked about the existence of two sets of stories. The first set of stories describes humankind’s development throughout history. These are the stories of our outer world that are literally true. The other set is stories of our inner world. These stories describe universal themes constant to the human race and are metaphorically true. Campbell was fond of illustrating his points with examples from the art world. Think of the idea of time. Time is a very important factor in our outer world. Our meetings start at a particular time and we shouldn’t be late. Our schools let out at a specific time, and we need to be there to pick up our kids. We are also familiar with Salvador Dali’s image of a melted clock face spilling over the edge of a plane. This is time in our inner world. In our inner world we don’t need to be anywhere at a particular time. Time in our inner world does not need to be acted upon. Dali portrays time more like an object to be noticed.
Campbell explained that a myth was a set of stories that tries to make sense of the world and our place in it. Myth provides a path through the cycle of life from infancy to old age. Early comparative mythologists were confronted with gods and goddesses from literally thousands of cultures. It was a monumental task of scholarship to dig through all these myths, and the work is far from finished. However, little by little, certain great themes emerge form mythology that are the same in all cultures. These great mythic themes can be used as a road map to our inward journey. Campbell does not judge myths as right or wrong, but effective or ineffective. An effective myth provides us with an experience of the world that satisfies our needs both as practical humans and humans with an inner dimension. To many people, myths seem like quaint superstitions. Of course they are not literally true. The importance is in the symbolic value. It is a healthy process for people to invent stories to explain the mysteries of life.
Good myths, myths that we can live by, do not contradict known facts. We in the West had a set of myths from the Bible that explained the mysteries of life rather well for a long time. Then the enlightenment came along and science began to prove that many of these myths contradicted known facts. Few of us think that Jesus ever walked on water. Most of us do not believe that Yahweh parted the Red Sea. The problem is that many of us through out the old myths and never replaced them with anything. Many of us just became Humanists. Not that there is anything wrong with being a Humanist. I am one myself! But I am a Humanist that believes that life can be greatly enriched by telling stories, and participating in rituals, and singing songs that attempt to explain the mysteries of life. I think that is what we are trying to do every Sunday morning in our UU worship services.
Campbell considered all Western religions hopelessly literal in their thinking. He thought that the Old Testament of the Bible was problematic, in that it portrays a deity who favors one group of people over other groups, and sanctions violence against their enemies. He saw the New Testament not as literal truth, but as one version of a set of mythic stories that can be found in many cultures. Campbell often pointed out that virgin births are common in many traditions. Campbell was critical of all religions. He especially criticized monotheistic religions because they concentrated on God, rather than the metaphor. Campbell used to say “the trouble with Yahweh is that he thinks he is God”.
Campbell transformed mythology from a musty academic pursuit into a popular path that leads to a richer understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. Myth presents us with a story template that can be forever reworked and revised. Mythic stories used to be told around campfires by wise tribal elders. Now they are in our novels, and our movies, and our worship services. If we choose wisely, myths will not be old and dead, but alive and vital. Through them we can learn the norms of our culture and obtain valuable clues as to how to navigate our way through life. When many people think of mythology they think of books. Campbell talked about mythic imagination which suggests experience. The mythical life is a prospective, a way of looking at things. Campbell saw myths everywhere, playing themselves out through the lives of everyday people.
Why is there so much interest in this subject these days? Campbell said that it was because we were in a period of cultural fragmentation. In other words, we are lost! We are a society that does not have myth to support what we are doing. We are in trouble because we have a sacred text that was written somewhere else, by another people, a long time ago. We are separated from this sacred text because it has nothing to do with our lives. Our sacred text in the West speaks of man as superior to nature. It is an example of a petrified mythology that has dried up and stopped working. Campbell often drew a sharp distinction between our spiritual lives and those of our ancestors. While we are richer, healthier and better fed than our ancestors, they had a much better idea of what there lives were about.
How then, do we take the ideas of Joseph Campbell and put them to the practical work of imbuing our life with meaning? It is important to realize that we are not starting from scratch. There has already been a lot of work done in this area. In the 60’s and 70’s, Catholic priest Thomas Berry and mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimm did inspiring work merging scientific understanding with a reverence for the universe. In A Dream of the Earth, published in 1988, Berry wrote:
“It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. . . Our traditional story of the universe sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purposes, and energized action. . . . We need something that will supply in our times what was supplied formerly by our traditional religious story. If we are to achieve this purpose, we must begin where everything begins in human affairs—with the basic story, our narrative of how things came to be, how they came to be as they are, and how the future can be given some satisfying direction.”
This sounds like it came right out of Joseph Campbell! I am not a good enough scholar to know how much Thomas Berry was directly influenced by Joseph Campbell, nor is that important to me. The important point is that there are a lot of really smart peiople who are talking about this. For all of the humanists that through away all of the old stories because they no longer made sence, this could be big! Not only is this a new way of thinking about life’s meaning, it has a very direct UU connection.Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, members of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, have dedicated their lives to telling “The Great Story”. They describe “The Great Story” as the 13.7 billion year story of the evolution of the universe, based on science, yet infused with sacred meaning and awe. This myth could work! It presents evolution as something to be worshiped as well as studied.
You might be saying “Wait a minute! Are you making evolution into a myth? Myths are not true! Evolution is based on scientific facts!” To that, I would respond, myths have only been untrue since, say, the Enlightment (1750 or so). Before that, people embellished their myths because they didn’t understand science or they didn’t care. These were stories they lived by. The coming of the scientific method made accuracy very important. The thinkers of the Enlightenment began the process of finding scientific inaccuracies in myths. Here is the important part! What we should have done is changed our myths to incorporate the new scientific knowledge. Instead we “flash froze” our myths and claimed them to be gospel truth. Now we find ourselves in the impossible situation of having the very stories that are supposed to tell us how to live our lives actually contradicting the natural world we live in. The reason that we should embrace the story of evolution as myth is that we are not going to just tell the story. We are going to sing the story, and paint the story, and dance the story! We should imbue the story of evolution with art so we can weave it into the fabric of our society. Just because the story of evolution is consistent with known scientific facts does not mean that it can’t be dramatized.
Joseph Campbell often gave practical advice as to how to put meaning back into the modern world. He described a three step process. Step one was to to embrace the myth itself. “The Great Story” is a wonderful example of a myth that should be embraced. Step two is to create ritual around the myth. The song that we heard today did this by changing “Lord God Almighty created them all” to “Evolution created them all”. Campbell describes the third step as creating sacred art around the myth. The picture of the earth from outer space presents us with the prototype a new religious icon for the next milinemum.
It is not unusual for an outsider to comment “What on earth do you people worship?” It is not inconsievable that sometime in the future we might be able to respond with confidence, “We worship the natural world and the process that created it”.