Joseph Campbell on the contemporary myth

I am slowly wending my way through a film which is a long series of interviews with Joseph Campbell called “The Power of Myth”. I rented it through the library. It appeals to the humanist in me deeply but to the Bahá’í in me it is even more inspirational since Bahá’u’lláh seems to outline 160 some years ago such a myth as Campbell seems to anticipate here: (link to the video clip )

Most big myths of extensive and long lived civilizations, past and present in a way I think anticipate this new mythos and cosmology – and this new identification of society as a universal social monad. In fact you get this idea in very plain language from the teachings the majority of religions and philosophies only it is clothed in a language which places this world peace and unity in the future and which is often less emphatic than Campbell and Bahá’u’lláh employ. I say less emphatic but this is not always the case. We should not forget that the end times prophecies of both Buddhism and Christianity clearly talk about universal peace and the uniting of the tribes of man in language which is unequivical actually little as it is brought up. Really they sound to me like an end time story describing very much the same thing with the same outcome. A little less well known to some of you may be Hopi and other first nations prophecies concerning the end times and the uniting of the “four canoes” in the end times.

The latter is very interesting and powerful. There are many different versions of this end time White Buffalo Calf woman prophacy but there are some common features to many of the different versions. Often, she will return as a white buffalo calf instead of a woman or that a white buffalo calf will harold her return (she would return as a person but before then, a white buffalo calf would be born). In other stories she returns as a “white man” – interesting since it is unlikely many of the ancient first nations peoples would have encountered any white men though not impossible. There was of course the voyage of Leif Erikson the Viking who did land in America in ancient times and there may have been others for all I know. But this latter version is said by many anthropologists (and this theory is widespread enough you may have heard of it) why many of the tribes encountering Europeans for the first time venerated them. The thinking is they were looking for the return of their prophet. You wont find much written on the details of these prophecies perhaps because they exist primarily as a sacred and an oral tradition. I encountered them out of the mouths of first nations friends and elders severally – sometimes during ceremonies. I would go far into these details suffice it to say the four canoes are regarded by first nations peoples as euphemisms referring to the four tribes of man – once and in future – united, the red, the white, the black and the yellow man with each his different teachings and path and destiny given by the Creator.

And Campbell I think is right in pointing out that without the tenets of a universalizing mythos in terms of for example a societal identification as “the people of the world” as a single tribe – the world will fail to progress and will languish in the face of a changing. modernizing and connected situation. In other words- we seem to have entered an age when the world has shrunk sufficiently and become sufficiently technologically advanced that we will not survive another thousand years unless we operate as a harmonious planet. That is to say – unless the tribes of man behave as members of a family and the species of man behave as a responsible citizen of nature.


That said – I don’t wish to define the many in terms of the one. By pointing out how insightful Bahá’u’lláh’s vision was I do not presume to diminish the validity of other points of view whether religious or those or indifferent to religion. Far from it – my point is rather that we are looking at the beginning of an age in which it becomes possible and even necessary not only for important and powerful and numerically significant civilizing world-views to recognize and respect one-another peaceably (miracle enough) but for perspectives to regard one another with no less than mutual appreciation recognizing certain valid, fundamental underpinnings, certainly common goals, and increasingly a common planetary fate and stake in a commonwealth of human values. I have said many times over the years that despite being deeply religious in my perspective – I admire very much the atheist spirit for example and the honesty, skepticism and often enough, the virtue which it has brought to balance a world so oft ravaged by religious hypocrisy, fanaticism and violence. How in justice can we fail to acknowledge and appreciate the sobriety and reason that comes with an empiracist perspective and responsibility?

I remember recently the Pope acknowledging evolution as a valid science. I was floored by this when I read about it and while many acquaintances have told me “well yes, but the Catholics always believed in evolution” my own experience with my Catholic friends was that they were extremely averse to the idea. For the pope – perhaps the single most influential Christian on the planet to acknowledge evolution for me felt like we live in a world where new possibilities might be in store which didn’t manifest in the past even in my own short lifetime thus far. For millennia into the past it seemed it was impossible for Christianity to live comfortably in a world where science and empiricism could develop without sensor. When Bahá’u’lláh talked about the oneness of science and religion as components of a harmonious view of reality it must have read as naive. We see this very perspective gaining traction slowly but inexorably so that today the view has passed out of obscurity and become one of the more dynamic engines of thought animating the contemporary thought.

And now we have the Pope and the Jews conversing in apparent friendship and mutual appreciation. I am naive enough to hope there is sincere admiration taking place but if the truth is more calculated I am alright with the idea that just the notion of an end to strife is one which some prominent religious leaders are willing to endorse at least in word and symbol. This is not the same world I was born into. Not the same which I went to high school in – there are new possibilities.

In any case- the words of Campbell have inspired me. Yesterday I told my sisteor Amelia that if it didn’t seem too crazy I had a mind to plant a flag in my front yard- like those American flags I see. But this flag would the a lithograph on fabric hoisted on a proper flag pole of the view of earth from space. This is my home – this is our home- we are one family it would suggest. The earth is my country. In fact Bahá’u’lláh did say something emphatically similar: “the earth is one country and mankind its citizens.” but again – is see this idea represented in many traditions of the world as something that will happen one day in the future. I can declare it now though and feel the idea come of age for me. I am an American, a white man, an English speaker but I am proud more of my humanity than of any of those distinctions.


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