While contemplating my current series of posts on Genesis, I felt the need to remind myself, (and explain to any interested reader), where I’m coming from, and what is one key source to which I keep returning. Here’s an edited quote from the Prologue to Volume One of “The Masks of God” by Joseph Campbell. It’s an excellent summary of something that makes a lot of sense to me, and that poses a question, on our answer to which, a great deal may depend …
“The comparative study of the mythologies of the world compels us to view the cultural history of mankind as a unit; for we find that such themes as the fire-theft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth, and resurrected hero have a world-wide distribution – appearing everywhere in new combinations while remaining, like the elements of a kaleidoscope, only a few and always the same. Furthermore, whereas in tales told for entertainment such mythical themes as taken lightly … they appear also in religious contexts, where they are accepted not only as factually true, but even as revelations of the verities to which the whole culture is a living witness and from which it derives both its spiritual authority and its temporal power.
No human society has yet been found in which such mythological motifs have not been rehearsed in liturgies; interpreted by seers, poets, theologians, or philosophers; presented in art; magnified in song; and ecstatically experienced in life-empowering visions … Every people has received its own seal and sign of supernatural designation, communicated to its heroes and daily proved in the lives and experience of its folk. And though many who bow with closed eyes in the sanctuaries of their own tradition rationally scrutinise and disqualify the sacraments of others, an honest comparison immediately reveals that all have been built from one fund of mythological motifs – variously selected, organised, interpreted, and ritualised, according to local need, but revered by every people on earth.
A fascinating psychological, as well as historical, problem is thus presented. Man, apparently, cannot maintain himself in the universe without belief in some arrangement of the general inheritance of myth. In fact, the fullness of his life would even seem to stand in a direct ratio to the depth and range not of his rational thought but of his local mythology. Whence the force of these insubstantial themes, by which they are empowered to galvanise population, creating of them civilisations, each with a beauty and self-compelling destiny of its own?
And why should it be that whenever men have looked for something solid on which to found their lives, they have chosen not the facts in which the world abounds, but the myths of an immemorial imagination? Are the modern civilisations to remain spiritually locked from each other in their local notions of the sense of the general tradition; or can we not now break through to some more profoundly based point and counterpoint of human understanding?”
It seems to me that our future, if we’re to enjoy one, mustn’t be determined either by cast-iron religious fundamentalism, or materialistic scientific exceptionalism. The transcendent, which lies outwith the scope of both of these, is best approached, not by way of dogmatic literalism or blinkered rationalism, but of open-minded and open-hearted contemplation, intuition and imagination. Great mythology, literature, poetry, drama, fine art and music should play their part in this, as well as not so much sitting and thinking, as just sitting and being ‘aware’. Nietzsche’s “the old god is dead” wasn’t a cry of triumph, but a word of warning. Being the kind of beings we are, our globalised future calls for a fresh shaking of the age old, fundamental elements in Campbell’s ‘kaleidoscope’, and the emergence of a new understanding of beliefs which will draw us nearer together, rather than drive us further apart.