image enhanced from Education by Louis Comfort Tiffany
How do you keep myth from becoming dogma? Heather Wiech suggests it takes both science and religion. – B. T. Newberg
Joseph Campbell said that religion is supposed to give meaning to the science of the time. What has happened, though, is that religions of the text have placed all the emphasis on literal truth over the metaphorical value of the mythology. This has led religious people to fight against modern science to absurdity. Hence, we are currently looking back at religion as something archaic and foolish.
The poetry of myth
In tribal cultures, mythology is alive. It changes with the tribe. As knowledge/geography/needs change, the mythology changes to reflect these. In the modern era, mythology has stagnated. The mythology that was meant to meet the needs of nomadic peoples of the Fertile Crescent no longer speaks to people in the age of technology.
Myth, according to Campbell, should provide guidance through the cycles of life and help to face uncertainty and adversity within a sort of “wisdom of the ages.” It also shows us a hero (Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, Hercules, Superman, Neo, et cetera) who is a mirror of the hero in our own story: ourselves.
Myth speaks of our psychology. Gods are not external beings but rather symbols of pieces of our human psychology. What would a god need with jealousy, avarice, hubris? If it’s truly a higher being, nothing. It’s far more likely that it is a mirror of our folly in a symbolic language.
Mythology is poetry, not prose.
The meaning of ritual
Ritual is the physical acting out of a myth to attain a new level of consciousness or state of being. Today’s rituals, according to Campbell, are all watered-down compared to the mystery rituals of Demeter or the tribal manhood rituals. We’ve lost the meaning and purpose of ritual. People sitting in pews and drifting off to sleep while the priest drones on about scripture is not a ritual.
In tribal societies, manhood is something earned, not just grown into. A boy is ripped from the arms of his mother and thrown out into the wilderness to kill a beast alone. Once he has faced his trial, he is often marked with the experience on his body (tattoos, piercings, scarification, etc). Then he returns to the tribe as a man with all the rights and responsibilities associated.
What’s the equivalent today? A boy getting laid for the first time?
It’s no wonder adolescence continues far into adulthood.
Myth and ritual are vital to human nature, and it is important to know what the two are and how they function for us, so as not to get stuck. We need to be very careful in how we implement them. It needs to remain a philosophical process if it is not to become dogma.
I think black-and-white “religion vs. science” is a false dichotomy. We need not throw out the baby with the bathwater. There is wisdom on both sides, and we don’t concede we are wrong by making use of what is good and valid. Science and mythology should work together rather than oppose each other, for wisdom is the marriage of the two.
Heather Wiech is an international relations scholar, philosopher, human rights activist, blogger, tutor, culinary artist, photographer, techie nerd, mythology enthusiast, and spiritual naturalist. http://heatherwiech.com