Joseph Campbell and the spiritual shift

I finally read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which examines our religions, myths, folktales and legends, and pulls out the core element in them all – the monomyth, as he calls it. Ever since my teen years I’ve considered myself an atheist, but I’ve always been perturbed by certain atheists with a – and you can’t describe it any other way than this – dogmatic outlook and haughty disdain for people with “faith”. I’ve always found this feeling hard to put into words, but Joseph Campbell has done it masterfully, with the clear and eloquent language of a genius.

Myths and religion are not to be taken literally, which would make them easily dismissable as outright lies and childish fairy tales; they are not fantastic tales machinated by an evil mastermind to control people; rather, as folktale after folktale, myth after myth, religion after religion have proven when carefully examined, there is always a common message. The actors may change their garb from a tunic to a loincloth, the scenery may change from the desert to the Amazon, but they all share the same profound realization of “oneness”. The scope of Joseph Campbell’s book is astounding.

The point is now we are in a new age – heralded by Nietzsche in the 19th century – where we must still come to the same conclusions as the great religions came to. We have not outgrown our need for them. “The aim is not to see, but to realize that one is, that essence; then one is free to wander as that essence in the world.” That’s what the religions did when the skyline was our boundary and when the great oceans dropped off of precipices into the great unknown. The problem is that science is not the final answer to the “why”. Science may show us how a certain concatenation will lead to one event or another, but it will not explain “why” – and therein lies the power of the myth and religion. Perhaps now we need a change of values and consciousness on a global scale, and it won’t come with our antiquated religions, or mere science.

The universal triumph of the secular state has thrown all religious organizations into such a definitely secondary, and finally ineffectual, position that religious pantomime is hardly more today than a sanctimonious exercise for Sunday morning, whereas business ethics and patriotism stand for the remainder of the week. Such a monkey-holiness is not what the functioning world requires; rather, a transmutation of the whole social order is necessary, so that through every detail and act of secular life the vitalizing image of the universal god-man who is actually immanent and effective in all of us may be somehow made known to consciousness.

That’s a spiritual shift, and no amount of decoding the human genome, smashing protons, or obsessive interpretations of the Torah, the Koran or the Bible will solve it. Nietzsche was so right about the age we are now in.

Campbell also says:

The differentiations of sex, age, and occupation are not essential to our character, but mere costumes which we wear for a time on the stage of the world. The image of man within is not to be confounded with the garments [which is the whole point of asceticism]. We think of ourselves as Americans, children of the twentieth century, Occidentals, civilized Christians. We are virtuous or sinful. Yet such designations do not tell what it is to be a man, they denote only the accidents of geography, birth-date, and income. What is the core of us? What is the basic character of our being?

This is my kind of thinker. We need to get out these false categories we make up for ourselves and confront who we really are.

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