Saturday, October 25, 2008

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth (1988)

The search for eternal truth ...

Joseph John Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987) was an American mythology professor, writer, and lecturer best known for his work in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work is vast and covers many aspects of the human experience, and his philosophy is often identified with the phrase he coined: "Follow Your Bliss".

When I first watched the Moyers-Campbell exchange in the early 1990s on PBS, I understood very little of what Campbell said. I was still "seeing" myths, etc. from the "disciplined" perspectives of religion or science (psychology, structural anthropology, etc.) and I tried to fit his comments into "my" world view.

I have just finished rewatching the DVD version of these taped interviews, and I now understand more of what Campbell is saying. I've been watching this series with another person who is "searching" and he keeps saying "I don't get that." I want to help him "get it" and I sometimes feel I must appear like Burt Reynolds in one of his films where he took a "New Age" course and rolled on the floor and said "I've got it!!" Campbell says, when you think you've got it you haven't. So all I can say is--I feel I've got something more than I had.

Campbell says human beings will die for a metaphor. We are like the 10 blind men with the elephant--each with a part of the whole, interpreting it through our cultural spectacles. And many of us will die for our interpretation of what "God" is. Even the word "God" is connotive of a belief system. One has only to look at the ideological conflicts the world over to see the results of differing world views. And, it isn't just "religion" either. Beliefs systems underlie economic behaviour as well. Everyone has a belief system--the alternative is madness, which is probably yet another belief system of some sort.

For those raised in a religious tradition (most of us) the notion of giving up the idea of a personal god is painful. And yet, Campbell says one must give up this idea--and that is all it is--an idea. Something you have conceived and believe. Think about it -- "personal god" -- the divine as interpreted by a human (person). Who can do that??

Our metaphors (idea of the divine) form the organizing priciples we address through myths. These myths are the communal poetry of our group, and do what plain old language cannot --approach the divine. Still, singly they fall short.

Campbell compiled and studied myths from around the world and he said these myths reflect the human experience of the divine--or whatever you want to call IT. Of course, I can hear my old anthropology professor saying you cannot lift a "myth" like a sack of flour. The best any of us can do regarding other people's myths is interpret them via our own myths.

At any rate, Campbell has studied myths and seems to think they are like the many strands of fiber in a tapestry--each reflecting a particular aspect of an attribute of the divine and togther they form a whole cloth. He says these reflections or threads and even the cloth should not be confused with the "thing that stands behind."

(pictures from another source)

By what authoritiy does any of us call another's religion "savage" "backward" "barbaric" or worse? Oh I admit, I find some "old time" religions pretty scary and some modern ones too. Campbell says we should not judge...but it is hard not to judge, and if I judge, I use my own interpretation of what is true and good for me.

Campbell was not a religious man at the end of his life, although he began life as a Roman Catholic. One might describe him as a spiritual man. He seems to have believed in a higher power or a divine--something. I think he felt it permeated everything and belonged to everyone and to no one and that no human could fully apprehend it. Bill Moyers (Southern Baptist) says his faith was strengthened by his exchanges with Campbell but in watching the two men on these tapes I have had the impression Campbell was talking past Moyers at times. Moyers still believed in a personal God. Such is the nature of faith in metaphors. By Dianne Foster

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