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Beyond the Mark

I’ve been reading The Power of Myth today while my family was attending their church meetings. The overwhelming impression that I get is that we have misunderstood the purpose of our myths.

Myth comes to us from people who have experienced reality from another perspective. These poets, shamans, and mystics have left the mundane world and its concerns to experience transcendence of the self. They have sacrificed themselves on the altar. They have died and been reborn to bring us the bread of a new life beyond the illusion of duality and separation. Their stories point the way along the path that they have followed and beckon us to join in the journey.

We have missed the point entirely. We take our myths literally while ignoring the larger reality behind their words. We believe in the literal existence of a sky-father who sits on a cloud listening to the cries of his children and intervening in the world of humankind. We believe that our selves will continue in a world of joy after we die. We have polluted our myths with simpleminded, comforting stories to ward of the fear of death and to assuage our shame.

Our myths are not about facts. They are a call to transform ourselves, to see ourselves in our true relationship with the world.

It’s as if we believed in a literal Pinocchio, a puppet with a growing nose, but failed to learn about honesty. Our religious failure is not that we don’t trust enough in our religious stories, but that we have mistakenly taken metaphor for literal truth. If we truly understood, it would make no difference to us whether or not there was a literal first father and mother named Adam and Eve. We wouldn’t care whether Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth was literally crucified. The question of the existence of a personal God is entirely the wrong question to ask.

Is there a God? Mu.

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  1. mel said,

    May 28, 2007 @ 9:07 am

    If it is true that we moderns tend to take these myths more literally than they were meant, and I think you’re in good company with Campbell, then I wonder whay exactly it is that has drawn the human mind into it?

    I’m thinking of Joseph Smith and the way he taught so much literal interpretation and presumably in an effort to shore-up faith against … what? Why were people searching and doubting … or even falling to apathy after what I imagine were aeons of human contentedness in the cradle of myth and mysticism? (I’m not entirely sure this romantic view is accurate but at very least the answers of myth must have been good enough for most people, most of the time.)

    Could it be possible that the rise of science itself is to some degree responsible for the a type of human fall from innocence? That in having our eyes opened to a powerfully literal view of the world we were also tempted to view our myths in a similar light … for better or worse?

  2. Kullervo said,

    May 28, 2007 @ 4:09 pm

    It’s a direct result of modernism.

  3. Jonathan Blake said,

    May 28, 2007 @ 4:37 pm

    I think we’ve always tended to take things literally. I don’t know if it’s a problem that has gotten worse through history. Maybe only the myth-makers really understood the myth.

    On the other hand, perhaps myths weren’t even fully understood by those who first told the stories. As accretions of many stories, each of the myths that have reached our ears may be more properly understood as the creations not of a single author, but of an emergent mind rising out of the individual minds of humanity.

  4. Jonathan Blake said,

    May 28, 2007 @ 10:49 pm

    I just learned that the ideas I expressed about myths aren’t exactly original. Darn! But they are on par with a “an uber-sophisticate” professor of philosophy. Yay! The idea that the question of God’s existence is irrelevant is called antirealism.

  5. mel said,

    May 30, 2007 @ 12:41 am

    I don’t care what context it is in … to see the word “realist” used in favor of god’s existence and “antirealist” as the antithesis … this is just wrong! :) But I see your point. It’s a question of whether religion is real as in literal, or antireal as in mythical/symbolic.

    I’m still going to toss my hat in with the realists. If I can’t have the literal then I don’t want it. In this modern age, if we can’t find a better way to speak about the abstract and less understood than to use mythological constructs which subsequently tempt us to confuse them with reality, then I would rather stick to speaking about what we can understand using literal language. But I think we can do better. Science does quite well at framing the abstract, etc in non-mythical language. Let’s try more of that. And let’s turn over the mythic to the place it rightfully belongs: abstract and impressionist art.

    And maybe the Muslims have the right idea: maybe we shouldn’t be painting or making any other images of god? Let’s just agree not to do that any more — not because god is too sacred, but because it’s false advertising.

  6. Jonathan Blake said,

    May 30, 2007 @ 7:22 am

    I see your point. Literal thinking will always be a temptation in connection with myth. Perhaps that causes more problems than it solves.

    I wonder what would happen if all myth and sacred history began not with “Once upon a time…” but with “This story never happened…”. :)

  7. mel said,

    May 30, 2007 @ 8:52 am


    My guess that is that people would stop listening.

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