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Reply To: Themes in Joseph Campbell’s Thought

Toby Johnson

    The “New Myth” Theme:

    One of the things Joseph Campbell liked to talk about was what would be the myth of the future, what will be the content of the religious doctrines in the future?

    He opined that we can no more predict the myth of the future than we can predict tonight’s dream. And in that context, it sounded like he was talking about the birth of a new religion with a new savior: a new Jesus (or Maitreya or whatever) who’d rise to prominence with a new religion to spread.

    But that is NOT really what the new myth is going to be about. And Joe knew that perfectly well.

    Way back in the 1970s, when Joe was starting to achieve prominence with the West Coast counterculture, this current writer was on the crew that regularly hosted and put on (and ushered, cooked, cleaned, stuffed envelopes, put up posters, etc.) his Northern California appearances. I met Joe originally at the Mann Ranch in 1971. I was fresh out of Catholic religious life, studying Comparative Religions –especially “hippie” neo-Buddhism– at the California Institute of Asian Studies (which later changed its name to Integral Studies). I was fascinated with Campbell’s ideas because of the implication they had for my own religious belief: it meant my Catholicism was a myth like all the others and that “Truth” transcends all the various traditions.

    I told him that in a conversation over dinner that first time I met him. I told him I thought his vision of religion as myth and metaphor was in fact the insight that would found a new paradigm spiritual consciousness. In my own rhapsodizing, I guess, I told him I thought his ideas were the “new myth.” Joe was gratified to have fans–especially bright-eyed young men. I think because he didn’t have sons of his own and he taught at a girls’ college, his young male fans represented something like his legacy. BUT he didn’t want to be seen as a guru of any sort. That is something he did not like among the hippies and counterculturalists who were drawn to his lectures. He was an academician and a scholar, not a spiritual teacher or guru. He didn’t want to be anybody’s priest or psychological guide.

    And so he always deflected my enthusiastic rantings during the question and answer parts of his talks when I’d get up and proclaim the meta-myth of myth–i.e. understanding the nature of religion as myth and understanding one’s own understanding as yet an example of more mythological thinking.

    But this is THE important idea in Campbell. He referred to the evolution of myth in the conclusion to The Hero with A Thousand Faces:

    The descent of the Occidental sciences from the heavens to the earth (from seventeenth-century astronomy to nineteenth-century biology), and their concentration today, at last, on man himself (in twentieth-century anthropology and psychology), mark the path of a prodigious transfer of the focal point of human wonder. Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. (Hero, p. 391)

    That prodigious transfer has continued on into the twenty-first century now with brain study, DNA research, bio-feedback studies of meditators, and complex theories of consciousness (including, of course, the role of consciousness in determining the outcome of scientific experimentation). Ken Wilber’s work, by the way, is another example of this shift in the human experience toward greater and greater reflexivity and self-consciousness.

    To paraphrase the last sentence in the quote from The Hero: Not the supernatural world of the gods of old, but consciousness itself in now the powerful image of the essence of existence. Not an external personality watching over the earth, but the spark of consciousness itself is the appropriate image for God today. God isn’t “out-there”; God is “in here,” in the sense that our own awareness of our being aware and creating images for ourselves of what our experience is is the thing that inspires us to feel wonder and to sense a place within the cosmos.