A recent review of Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero’s Journey, offered an insight into who we are as a people and maybe why we are here at this point in time. Joseph’s lifelong work was to study the myths of heroes, gods and goddesses around the globe. Joseph’s interest started with Native Americans, in contrast to the Roman Catholicism he grew up with. Later, he connected with the storied heroes from around the world and found astounding similarities about the meaning of transcendence, that is, what is beyond our physical knowing. He said that the stories, myths and art attempt to tell what is beyond words and experience.
As I pondered Professor Campbell’s material, I saw that heroes, gods and goddesses are the mortar that holds societies together. But even more so, these icons are the inner architects of who we strive to be (individually and as a society) and design how we need to present ourselves to be valid.
Consider the Greek gods, goddesses, heroes and heroines. We don’t have to know much about their particular myths to see that they were often depicted as semi-nude, that is, vulnerable, driven by emotions and as flawed as humans are. We also know that Greece was the foundation of later Western civilization. So for all the flaws the Greeks’ immortals had, Grecians had clear thoughts, clear intentions, strategies, math and logic, music and art. What their gods afforded them was identification with their human condition. Their gods’ behavior made complete connection with the often-irrational behavior of things beyond our control. The Fates dished out good and bad and were beyond human or divine control.
Contrast this with today’s modern world, built on ideals of the Greeks, such as art, math, music, and philosophy (especially philosophy of a democratic government). Other than technology, there is a stark contrast. Our godhead is singular, perfect, above reproach, a mixture of love and angry judgment, sexless and bodiless (with the exception of Christ and church-appointed saints). Order is of paramount importance to the Judeo-Christian godhead and humankind is the spoiler of order.
While the Greeks were eventually undone by the pressures of inner and outer strife (characteristic of their gods and heroes), modern Western society is being brought to its knees by our fixation on God’s perfection. This demand of our “gods” that we “be perfect as God is perfect” (or face eternal judgment), creates a tremendous amount of fear. This fear breeds reactionary misunderstandings in families, between lovers, between authorities and subjects, between generations, misreadings of change and the actions of other cultures.
Inner and outer wars follow, but are not the causative problem. The worst of it is that we judge ourselves so harshly that most of us rarely experience joy, feel our own bodies, trust ourselves, understand our own contributions, or follow our own best wisdom. We need authorities to lead us, to interpret life for us, to tell us how to take care of our bodies and how to entertain ourselves. We are pathetic and we know it. (Advertising exploits this to the max.) Unlike the Greeks whose human flaws were mirrored in their immortals, our human flaws have no legitimate place except as consumers and replaceable human resources. The reflection of our godhead is in the power we give to our authorities.
It hasn’t always been like this. While monarchies took advantage of their divine rights as kings and queens, American democracy was formed around a standard closer to the Greek model of equality. (Yes, the Greeks had classes, including slaves. Early America had slaves and the unequal status of genders as well.) The removal of absolute governing power was a significant step away from the top-down order of the Judeo-Christian creation story. But the old emphasis on divine order wasn’t completely removed from society. Our myths about a perfect, irreproachable immortal ruler persisted. There remained a Holy Father in Rome and other evidences of our dependence on a perfect, orderly rule developed (whether of Nature, Science, the Economy or the Godhead).
Corporations that were not answerable to their communities or their employees (and families) developed. Cults and Evangelical Christians with their simplistic view of its received scriptures grew by appealing to our lack of faith in ourselves, a wish for order and hope that our sufferings would someday be rewarded. In the last century these “non-denominational” claimants as the only true Christians developed their own schools, including colleges and universities and gained political and monetary leverage. Science also raced for supremacy, gaining political and monetary advantages. Science threw out the traditional myths and established a new order based on reproducible evidence. And as our “Space Ship Earth” now groans under centuries of pollution and exploitation, another “Universal” order is demanding adherents lest we face “her” final judgment. Politicians and the media, as well as an unenlightened and uncoordinated resistance movement, continue to fight over territory, including intellectual real estate, in our elevating “winner-take-all” mentality.
It will continue this way, no matter the human consequences, because our beliefs about a perfect ruling order that demands total submission persists, running in the background of our minds, unchallenged, unknown and unaltered.
This all sounds irreversible until we recall the unique genius found in Richard Buckminster Fuller. Besides Joseph Campbell, “Bucky” questioned the myths that hold together the established order. He understood the nature of change when he wrote, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”