Thinking Mythically

During the first half of the episode “The Message of the Myth” (part of “The Power of Myth” television series), interviewer Bill Moyers appears somewhat uncomfortable with comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell’s metaphorical treatment of religion.  It feels as though Moyers only grudgingly accepts Campbell’s views, particularly when applied to Moyers’s own religion.  However, Moyers eventually reveals the true essence of his feelings and, when he does, the moment is remarkable.  He expresses that “far from undermining [his] faith, [Campbell’s] work in mythology [had] liberated [his] faith from the cultural prisons to which it had been sentenced.”  Moyers’s realization resonated very deeply with my own outlook on religion: ritual may be divisive, but faith – or as I would describe it, spiritual inquiry – is universal.  When the restraints of ritual rigidity and literalism are removed, all faiths become one and the same.  Therefore, instead of focusing on the rituals, scriptures, and labels that separate us, we can focus on the common beliefs and the common narratives that unite us.  We can choose to think mythically.

The various tenets of Joseph Campbell’s theories have been thoroughly questioned and critically assessed by the academic community, as is appropriate and necessary for all scholarly work.  However, I have noticed that most non-academic/public opinion criticism of Campbell tends to be directed towards one of his claims in particular: religion should not be taken literally.  Campbell argues that “every mythology, every religion is true…[when regarded] as metaphorical of human/cosmic mystery.”  He (and I) would suggest that the value of scripture and ritual lies not in their physical technicalities but rather in their symbolic significance.  For example, instead of adhering to and only to the literal implications of a resurrection like that of Jesus or Ganesha, believers can take away the greater metaphorical message that the soul is permanent and persistent. If one chooses to focus on this mythically conscious interpretation, the stories or the figures are not diminished in any way.  On the contrary, a deeper, lasting connection is made with an underlying spiritual truth.

Nevertheless, most modern religions remain committed to fighting off the label “mythological.”  For many believers, to be mythological is to be false, to be whimsical, to be hollow.  It is an unsavory marker reserved for other faiths, for other cultures. As Joseph Campbell often quipped, “Myth is what we call other people’s religion.”  But why must “myth” be an insult at all?  Why use this word to disparage and divide, when the same word could be used to uplift and unite?  For me, mythology is not a lie: it is the purest form of symbolic truth.  Mythology concentrates and concretizes the fundamental images and themes inherent to human psychology, and thus the emotional reality expressed by mythology is perhaps far more powerful than any material reality presented by science or history.  There may be thousands of cultures and thousands of belief systems, but there is one shared human condition and one shared human journey.  Once a mind can “separate truth from temporal inflection” (Campbell), all mythologies and religions ultimately tell the same meaningful narrative.

Every human is asking the same great mythical question: why?  Every human is searching for a fragment of meaning in this infinite whirlpool of cosmic mystery.  Various cultures and religions may phrase that search differently, but the search is the same.  In the words of Joseph Campbell, everyone is “seeking the experience of being alive,” “the rapture of being alive.”  Life is intense; life is all-consuming.  Life may be sorrowful, but in its sorrow lives a greater, transcendent joy.  Every faith that seeks this joy of existence is equally valid to me.  Every faith that teaches curiosity and self-understanding, every faith that teaches truth and compassion is equally valid to me.  “Each religion [may be] a kind of software…with its own set of signals” (Campbell), but all religions are machines with the same fundamental functions.  When one broadens one’s perspective and focuses on the metaphorical significance – instead of on the literal description – of various faiths’ narratives, all drops of known mythology and spirituality coalesce into one vast ocean.

Religion is but a vessel, keeping us voyagers afloat as we make our way through the mysteriously mythical waters of the self.  The ultimate goal, therefore, should not be to remain within our own contained vessels; it should be to find the transformative force, truth, or energy that drifts undiscovered all around us.  After all, as reflected by the laws of thermodynamics, energy is fundamentally constant.  Societies might come and go.  Religions might come and go.  Rituals might come and go.  However, our quests for peace, for love, for meaning will persist.  As long as there are humans, a common human mythology and a common human experience will always persist.

Orated by Rama Godse | College Class of 2019

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