Religion & Philosophy

Sundays with Uncle God-Momma: Truth and metaphor

Perhaps the fundamental catastrophe of religion is what Joseph Campbell called, “mistaking the metaphor for the truth that it describes”. We divide the realm of spirituality into myth and religion. The former being silly tales of bygone eras for unsophisticated barbarian types, while the latter is deadly serious and important. Those silly fools who believed in Zeus flinging thunderbolts were terribly mistaken in their conception of the world, but there is nothing less than literal truth in the bearded white guy on a throne unleashing a world-encompassing deluge. This literal interpretation of myth brings us the great and terrible silliness that is both fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam; both are confusions. Worse, they have led to secularism guilty of infanticide in the course of draining the bath.

Returning myth to its psychological function within the context of established religion is difficult, if not presently impossible. The seeker will find few allies, certainly none among the religion’s adherents constrained in their infantilized psychology of literal interpretation and few among the secular who set themselves up against the religious adherents in a battle for supremacy of the nursery floor.

The transition from “…mythic identification, ego absorbed and lost in God, [to] its opposite, mythic inflation, the god absorbed and lost in ego,” (Joseph Campbell; Oriental Mythology; 80)  is a fascinating moment in human history that can be seen quite clearly. It is not, however, our present concern. What we see in modern religion is clearly mythic inflation. What we seek is mythic identification, because it is in the identification that myth’s psychological power flowers. To find it we must dust of the stories and ways of old, generally relegated to literature departments as fanciful tales told by people far less advanced than we like to imagine ourselves.

Thomas Mann: “The Ego of antiquity and its consciousness of itself was different from our own, less exclusive, less sharply defined. It was, as it were, open behind; it received much from the past and by repeating it gave it presentness again . . . ’imitation’ meant far more than we mean by the word today. It was a mythical identification . . . . Life, or at any rate significant life, was the reconstitution of myth in flesh and blood; it referred to and appealed to the myth; only through it, through reference to the past, could it approve itself as genuine and significant.” (Supra, 54)

It was this ego that myth was presented to, and the openness that Mann describes allowed cross-pollination between myth and everyday reality. This mythic situation can be found in most places, from S. America to taiga shamanism to the Melanesian vegetal myths. And it did not end cleanly with the identification to inflation transition as it occurred in Egypt. Unfortunately, the content that would show broad context to Western minds is mostly unknown to even the educated. But it is clearly visible in the Greek myths, with which many of us have some familiarity.

F.M. Cornford: “Greek theology was not formulated by priests nor even by prophets, but by artists, poets and philosophers. . . . There was no priestly class guarding from innovating influence a sacred tradition enshrined in a sacred book. There were no divines who could successfully claim to dictate terms of belief from an inexpugnable fortress of authority.” The gods, then, are not literal concretizations, like Yahweh, but personifications of ideas that rise from human imagination. Or as Campbell expands on Cornford’s idea, “They are realities, in as much as they represent forces both of the macrocosm and of the microcosm, the world without and the world within. However, in as much as they are known only by reflection in the mind, they  partake of the faults of that medium—and this fact is perfectly well known to the Greek poets, as it is known to all poets (though not, it would appear, to priests and prophets). The Greek tales of the gods are playful, humorous, at once presenting and dismissing the images; lest the mind, fixed upon them in awe, should fail to go past them to the ultimately unknown, only partially intuited, realities and reality that they reflect.” (Supra, 31-2)

Mythic inflation puts us in the pious and submissive position of Job rather than that of a similar mythological figure, Prometheus. Unlike the innocent Job, Prometheus committed an act of his own free will that led to his torture. Yet it is Prometheus, not the meek Job, who is willing to say, “I care less than nothing for Zeus. Let him do what he likes.” We have one set of mythic instruction leading us toward our human power and another leading away. The question, then, is which set of instructions is better able to contextualize the human condition and give individuals the ability to develop psychologically.

Like the nursery environment, mythic inflation is protective. The ferocity and power of the world-at-large (or what occurs internally) can be held back, but not without the myth sacrificing its own power in the bargain. The symbols all remain but they are impotent, unable to point beyond the metaphor to the underlying – and eternal – truth. In their impotence, they must be taken literally or lose all power. And when they are taken literally, they actively block access to the depths because the symbols must be final terms in themselves.

Dr. Jung took up this idea and pointed out that mythic inflation taken to the point of dogmatic credo, “protects a person from a direct experience of God as long as he does not mischievously expose himself. But if he leaves home and family, lives too long alone and gazes too deeply into the dark mirror, then the awful event of the meeting may befall him. Yet even then the traditional symbol, come to full flower through the centuries, may operate like a healing draught and divert the final incursion of the living godhead into the hallowed spaces of the church.” (Supra, 46) In other words, the inflection is replaced by identification gained the hard way.

But that is the path of heroes, poets and prophets. It is easier to remain in the nursery, ensconced in the protection of family (Church), never alone and avoiding even a glance into the dark mirror. That way, unfortunately, is the path of neurotic modernity where the poets, artists, philosophers, great gods and their stories are left to molder in the dusty corners of academe. Our brave new world is, essentially, the same world that we have always inhabited; it is only lacking the tools of human imagination made mythically real and brought into the collective consciousness. The poets and artists who might be tasked with this essential process are smothered by symbols rotten from disuse, not to mention a population in thrall to mythic inflation.

It is now left to the individual to find his own way, if he can, to the numinous. Should he make it, he is unlikely to have the means to share and validate the experience with his fellow man. Should he only make it half way, he is likely to go insane or be shadowed by depression. Should he-like most-refuse the call entirely, he is likely to go to church where mythic identification can be replaced with mythic inflation. And so the individual saves himself, sacrificing the world on the altar of his ego. It used to work the other way around.

5 replies »

  1. Because it would have been half again as long. I like all of that novel, but “The Grand Inquisitor” is a highlight reel section. It deserves its own essay, but what i discussed is certainly a facet of Dostoevsky’s meditation.

  2. The great uncertainty of WHY is the last connection between a very old person, and the awed child he or she used to be. The more I read about theology, the more wondrously confused I am. The more confused I am, the more certain I am that it all means something.

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