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The Topography of Myth

If you had three choices and you had to pick one, which of these words would you choose to name your core value: attachment, autonomy, or achievement? By ‘core value’ I mean a priority concern that is positioned at the solar center of a system of associated values. Attachment has connection, security, and belonging orbiting around it. Autonomy is anchor for the values of control, freedom, and self-determination. And Achievement is at the center of purpose, progress, and success.

Most likely you recognize the importance of all three core values, and we should more accurately think of them as comprising a cluster rather than as mutually exclusive alternatives. But still, you can probably identify one over the others – at least at this time in your life – as having priority. Which one?

My returning reader might hesitate in choosing attachment as a core value, since I tend to regard it as complicating factor in our development toward creative authority as individuals. The larger multicultural discussion around the topic of attachment acknowledges it as the positive bonding characteristic of healthy relationships (Western), but also as a compensatory maneuver whereby we cling to other people with the impossible expectation that they make us secure, happy, and whole (Eastern). In reality it’s both the connection that makes for positive partnerships and the latching-on that can ruin them. I’ll let it be a paradox (both/and) for you to sort out.

In this post I’d like to reflect on what Joseph Campbell identified as the hero’s journey, the particular shape and pattern that myths from around the world share in common. Beyond their local differences and unique climes, these stories describe a path that is universal. As Campbell pointed out, we might attribute this similarity to cultural diffusion, where it moved outward from one (originating) society to the others by way of migration, conquest, commerce, or evangelism.

His own study inspired him to adopt a different explanation, however, which traces these universal themes, symbols, and storylines into the depths of human psychology. In this case, hero journeys across cultures trace a similar mythos (or narrative plot) because they emerge from and speak to what human beings everywhere experience in common. Another influence on my thinking was Northrop Frye, who in The Great Code: The Bible and Literature conducted an archaeological dig into Western literature, following the diamond vein still deeper into biblical myth, and there uncovered the archetypes of our storytelling imagination.

I will pick up here, in fact, by taking the major moves of the Bible as myth – not merely of the myths found in the Bible, but the Bible itself as constructed on a primary mythic pattern. Here we find three major moves anchored to geographical locations that serve more as timeless archetypes than specific places (here or there): the Garden, the Desert, and the City.

Genesis itself begins in a garden, and Revelation ends with the fulfillment of all things in a New Jerusalem, the city of God. In between is the desert, where the Hebrew slaves made their escape, the exiles reinvented Judaism, Jesus endured his temptations – and through which each of us must pass on our way to adulthood.

My proposal is that these three themes – Garden, Desert, and City – correspond to the three major phases in our growing up as human persons. Thus the Garden represents childhood, the Desert is the setting of youth, and the City stands for our establishment as adults. The storyline that links them together is the hero’s journey.

Part of the reason you selected the core value that you did has to do with your individual experience on this journey, a good portion of which was supervised by your parent(s) and other taller powers of the adult world. Your taller powers were responsible for you, and for your journey to be a success they needed to provide certain things to you early on.

The Garden is where (and when) your most basic needs for survival, comfort, and intimacy found their ‘answer’ in reality. You needed to experience reality as provident, as sufficient to your needs and a safe place to be. In a word, your parent(s) and other taller powers were responsible for your protection. In my diagram I have placed a triangle to symbolize what in psychology is called a secure base, which originally referred to mother and subsequently was transferred to other things, places, and people.

In the beginning it was natural for you to seek protection in your mother and attach yourself to her (in the positive, Western, sense of attachment). But eventually you needed to internalize your secure base, to self-soothe and rely more on your own ability instead of grabbing onto whatever and whomever could make you feel better (in the negative, Eastern, sense of attachment).

Just because you may have picked attachment as your core value doesn’t necessarily mean that you are insecure and emotionally dependent on others. You may have had a very positive and supportive experience in the Garden, which instilled in you a strong preference for connection, security, and belonging.

But as is required of every one of us in growing up, you eventually needed to let go of mother and leave the Garden for the journey ahead, on your way to becoming a self-standing and responsible adult. The Desert between Garden and City is a region of trials and tribulations, as we can find in hero myths all around the world. There is no ‘covering’ (the literal definition of protection) to hide beneath; exposure to the sun, extreme temperatures, and predators is a real danger.

As the Garden is associated with attachment, the Desert is about autonomy: learning how to take control, step into freedom, and strengthen your self-determination. Even before you formally left the Garden for the Desert, your parent(s) and other taller powers were encouraging you to “do it yourself.” Using the potty, tying your shoes, reading books on your own, and riding a bike: everyone had an interest in helping you become a less dependent member of the household.

Encouragement is a demonstration of love and is distinguished from compassion by its kind refusal on the part of the parent (or teacher, trainer, coach, or therapist) to take over and finish the task.

In addition to encouraging your effort, your parent(s) also had to empower you with the necessary knowledge, skills, and resources for what needed to be done. Again, empowerment is very different from the over-used tactic of intervention, where someone more capable steps in and helps the process along. Empowerment, on the other hand, typically takes more time and patience (which is why schools today prefer to intervene), but its far superior benefit is the individual’s self-confidence and inner strength.

Your autonomy therefore was a consequence of being both encouraged (“You can do it!”) and empowered (“Here’s how: Watch me, then you try”) in your progress toward taking control in your life. It’s associated with the Desert and its dangers because progress doesn’t always come easily, but is fraught with setbacks and numerous failed attempts. If your parent(s) and other taller powers – we should throw siblings and peers into the mix as well – were less helpful, patient, and forgiving, you may have learned that taking control was not safe. In failing to satisfy their expectations, you were risking the loss of their love and acceptance as well. Or it might be that their demands were impossible to ignore with impunity, so you became a “control freak” and perfectionist just to stay on their good side.

If the archetype of Mother (however close your actual mother came to incarnating it) represents a secure base where you could always go to to feel safe and loved, the archetype of Father (and to some degree your actual father or father figure) stands for what I call the proving circle. I’ve placed it in my diagram next to ‘achievement’ since it was (and still is) where your ability was tested and your accomplishments validated.

A critical part of becoming a responsible and productive adult involves submitting yourself to the judgment and feedback of others. Depending on how this feedback was delivered and how personally you took it, you came to regard yourself as an individual of worth with a valuable contribution to make. Or not so much.

The Desert, then, is where you learned how to accept the loss of having someone always looking after you, where you needed to be on your own in order to discover both your capacity and your limitations. It’s also where you learned the importance of determined effort (work) in getting where you want to go in life. And if all went well enough, you learned that risk – making yourself vulnerable to failure and rejection in your pursuit of what really matters – is a paradoxical amplifier of life’s meaning, for it is out of those experiences that we grow the most.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2017 in The Creative Life

 

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God Beyond Belief

In his popular lectures on the topic, Joseph Campbell would frequently start out with a definition of mythology as “other people’s religion.” Curiously the assumption of insiders is that the depiction of their god in the sacred stories of scripture came by supernatural revelation, while stories of other deities outside their tradition are quickly dismissed as just mythology.

A purely objective consideration of myth across the religions will not be able to distinguish which stories were “revealed” (by god) and which were “produced” (by humans). The god of our Bible is not less violent or more merciful than gods we can find in stories elsewhere. But even in the polytheistic age of the Bible when other gods were acknowledged if not honored and worshiped, we find this tendency to regard other people’s religion as generated out of ignorance rather than by illumination.

So let’s stay with the Bible for now, and ask why so many believe in the existence of Yahweh*, the patron deity of Jews and Christians. The popular assumption, once again, is that they believe in Yahweh’s existence because the Bible (the principal resource of Judeo-Christian mythology) contains historical accounts and eye-witness reports (encounters, sightings, and auditions) of the deity. Yahweh created the cosmos, liberated the Hebrews from Egypt, revealed himself to the prophets, and sent his son for our salvation. These things are taken and accepted as facts – historical, objective, and supernaturally validated.

Creation

What I’m calling the supernatural validation of biblical stories can be analyzed into three closely related but independent claims. First, the Bible is an inerrant resource for our knowledge of Yahweh. Every word – or in a softer variant of the inerrancy doctrine, the intention behind every word – is the revelation of Yahweh to those he elects to save. To prove Yahweh’s existence by appealing to the Bible as his infallible revelation to us is an argument of obvious circularity, so we hasten on to the next claim, which is that the Bible records literal accounts of Yahweh’s self-revelation to people much like us.

This is how to escape the fatal circularity of the inerrant Bible argument: Because the stories of the Bible are factual reports of events in history, however miraculous and supernatural, the real anchor for our knowledge of Yahweh’s existence and character is human experience. Prophets and visionaries, but also average folks like you and me, were granted the privilege of divine visitations and apocalyptic visions. They were actual witnesses; their accounts were taken down with perfect accuracy and provide us with what we know about Yahweh. If the biblical stories were not grounded in actual events outside the Bible, they would be nothing more than … well, myths.

Even with that critical move, however, believers are still on shaky ground, for how can we know that these historical “revelations” were not really hallucinations of something that wasn’t there? So-called ecstatic experiences (e.g., clairvoyance, glossolalia, out-of-body experiences, “hearing voices”) are observed among patients in mental clinics and state hospitals around the world today. I suppose it could be argued that these are the true charismatics of our age, though tragically misunderstood and wrongly diagnosed. But who’s to say that those visionaries behind the Bible were not mistaken or mentally disturbed?

To answer – and effectively silence – this question, the third and final claim for the supernatural validation of our knowledge of Yahweh is that these visionaries didn’t just “see things,” but that he showed himself directly to them. Authorization for the orthodox doctrines concerning god’s nature, character, attributes and accomplishments therefore transcends both the Bible and human experience.Ascension

The argument is thus that (1) Yahweh exists (out there as a separate being) and (2) revealed himself to people much like us, who then (3) recorded their experiences and facts about Yahweh in the inerrant resource of our Bible. Even though Yahweh isn’t speaking out of burning bushes, parting water, multiplying loaves, or raising dead people back to life anymore, the faith of a contemporary true believer is measured by how willing he or she is to simply trust that the same deity is out there, watching over us, and getting ready to ring down the curtain on history.

But what if Yahweh doesn’t exist – and by “exist” I mean out there as a separate entity, “above nature” (supernatural) and metaphysically real? What if no one has ever encountered this deity in the realm of actual human experience? What if the Bible isn’t a factual record of extraordinary encounters and miraculous interventions?

What if, that is to say, Yahweh is a literary character, the principal actor and prime mover in the collection of stories that shaped the worldview of Jews and Christians – but not a literal being?

Of course there are people today who claim to have had personal experiences of the biblical deity – or any number of countless other gods and goddesses, spirit guides, angelic or demonic beings, fairies and departed souls. Perhaps because we want to hold open the possibility of higher dimensions to existence, or because we can’t conclusively disprove their reality, or maybe we don’t want to come across as judgmental, simple-minded or faithless, we let the popular discourse continue unchecked. Who knows, but perhaps these individuals are genuinely gifted. Could they be seeing and hearing things from which our ignorance or skepticism prevents us?

Someone has to say it, so I will: No.

Metaphysical realism – belief in the existence of independent realities outside the sensory-physical universe – was the inevitable consequence of mythological literalism. When the myths lost their tether to sacramental celebration, ritual reenactment, and the contemplation of mystery, they floated up and away from daily life to become “timeless” accounts, ancient records, and long-lost revelations. But before they were taken literally, while they were still serving as drama-poetic expressions of experience and the narrative structure of meaning, myths were fictional plots bearing the life-orienting metaphors on which human security, community, and the shared search for significance depend.

The stories of the Bible are indeed myths (from the Greek mythos, a narrative plot), not to be taken literally but engaged imaginatively. Much of the worldview they promote and assume is out of date with respect to our current science, politics, ethics, and spirituality. At the time of their composition, the biblical myths were very similar to those of other tribes and traditions, but with Yahweh (rather than some other deity) as the metaphor of the community’s dependency on the earth, its place among the nations, its origins and destiny, and its moral obligations.

As human culture evolved, so did Yahweh. Indeed, one of the principal functions of a deity is to model (in example and command) the preferred behavior of his or her devotees. The storyteller is sometimes at the leading edge of this evolution, as when a minority voice among the prophets began representing Yahweh as unimpressed (even offended) by the sacrificial worship of his people, demanding instead their care for widows, material help for the poor, and inclusion of the marginalized. Later, Jesus of Nazareth gave the wheel of evolution another turn when he began to tell stories of Yahweh’s unconditional forgiveness of sinners (love for the enemy).

At other times, those telling the stories and thereby controlling theology were motivated by less noble, even base and violent impulses. Yahweh’s wrath and vengeance as represented in the myths subsequently provoked and justified similar behavior in his devotees. Depending on what you are looking to justify in yourself or get others to do, chances are you’ll find Yahweh endorsing it somewhere in the Bible.

I’ve defined myths as fictional plots bearing life-orienting metaphors and shaping our view of reality, with the deity chief among these metaphors. Rather than looking outside the stories for facts that might establish their truth, I’m arguing that we need to look deeper inside the stories to the human experience of mystery and our quest for meaning that inspired them.

Theism insists on the objective existence of god, while atheism rejects it. Post-theism is our growing awareness that the argument, one way or the other, just might be distracting us from the real challenge at hand.

                                                                               

*In reading the name Yahweh, and throughout the continuing scriptural tradition, a title (Adonai, The Lord) was used in its place as an expression of reverence.

 
 

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