“The virtues of the past are the vices of today.” – Joseph Campbell
Think back on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Fictional protagonist, Professor Robert Langdon – matter-of-fact, symbologist, impossibly-deep knowledge of esoteric cultures. The dude he was modeled after was much, much cooler.
Joseph Campbell – a mythologist, author, and popular lecturer – spent his entire career in the pursuit of the human experience. It was his assertion that myths, religions, and traditions are, in their essence, the same story, the reason being that we all share the same subconscious needs, fears, and desires from 2015 back to the dawn of time.
A year after his death in1987, PBS aired a six-part documentary of Campbell discussing these ideas with journalist Bill Moyers. Somehow perfectly, the majority of it was filmed on the Skywalker Ranch in California. Campbell credits George Lucas for being one of the modern mythmakers due to his ability to give eternal themes a contemporary face. Mercifully, Campbell died before the collective human psyche conjured Jar Jar Binks.
Portions of the documentary’s transcription were compiled in The Power of Myth. In the Introduction, Moyers offers a warm account of his friendship with Campbell and explained his role in their conversations in a way I have always described my experiences in journalism: “A journalist, it is said, enjoys a license to be educated in public; we are the lucky ones, allowed to spend our days in a continuing course of adult education.”
The education here is akin to a Comparative Religion class on steroids. Campbell’s knowledge is impressive, but his ability to analyze that knowledge was his greatest asset. As someone who constantly “groups like things” and who seeks the patterns in life, I felt a surge of enlightenment at times, that some of what Campbell said were things I instinctively knew all along. My experience was in line with Campbell’s belief that myths reflect what our spirits yearn, but fail, to express.
Particularly resonant was his contention that religion is failing at its job – to bring people to the divine. He references famed psychiatrist, Carl Jung, who claimed religion, “is a defense against the experience of God.” In my church-going youth (exclusively Christian), I often lamented that the religions I had been exposed to were glorified social clubs that taught you how to be a better member of the club and not much else. My transcending , deeply-impacting spiritual moments occurred well outside any church walls. I’m firmly one of those, “I’m spiritual, not religious” types who seek solace and peace, but usually only find it in nature, experiences, and knowledge.
Campbell appears to have felt the same way, saying, “The old-time religion belongs to another age, another people, another set of human values, another universe. By going back you throw yourself out of sync with history.” He compares myths to poetry, a language of beauty and symbolism allowing for interpretation, whereas religion turns the poetry of experience into prose that demands a literalness of all things, an exactness that erodes our understanding of ourselves.
Further, that the Bible in particular makes an enemy out of nature, that our natural selves should be rejected. Campbell expounds, “Nature religions are not attempts to control nature, but to help you put yourself in accord with it. But when nature is thought of as evil, you don’t put yourself in accord with it, you control it, or try to, and hence the tension, the anxiety, the cutting down of forests, the annihilation of native people.” In all my years of church attendance, I heard the many lessons on finding peace, yet none of their professed knowledge on how to attain it ever succeeded. Reading Campbell’s philosophies expanded my understanding of why.
But this was a personal read for me. By no means is the book meant to preach or convert or disrespect. Campbell truly had a passion for our collective story. Why it matters and how it continues to matter. This is evidenced by his foundation’s website, which has an extensive amount of resources to further his work (both free and for sale, of course, because money is a popular god in its own right).
Campbell was a man famous for saying, “Follow your bliss.” Find your own purpose, make your own path to happiness. Some argue it is impractical, reckless advice in a cutthroat, capitalistic world. Others find the audacity of a structure-less approach to spirituality offensive. I’m inclined to believe it is eternal wisdom too important to ignore.