I recently started reading a book of transcribed interviews with Joseph Campbell, the famous philosopher and mythologist. I found some of his ideas so fascinating — and in some cases so in tune with how Baha’is think about religious truth — that I felt the need to write a blog post just to share them here. I hope those reading this find Campbell’s words as interesting as I do.
In his words:
“God” is an ambiguous word in our language because if appears to refer to something that is known. But the transcendent is unknowable and unknown. God is transcendent, finally, of anything like the name “God”. God is beyond names and forms.
We want to think about God. God is a thought. God is a name. God is an idea. But its reference is to something that transcends all thinking… It transcends all thingness, it goes past anything that could be thought.
So if we can’t understand God and other metaphysical subjects directly, what do we do? According to Campbell, we use “myths”.
Today we tend to think that the scientists have all the answers, but the great ones tel us, “No, we haven’t got all the answers. We’re telling you how it works — but what is it?” You strike a match, what’s fire? You can tell me about oxidation, but that doesn’t tell me a thing.
The best things can’t me told because they transcend thought. The second best are misunderstood, because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about. The third best or what we talk about. And myth is that field of reference to what is absolutely transcendent.
According to Campbell, all myths deal with the same mysteries, the same questions, the same truths. Yet, each is different according to its unique context:
Every mythology has to do with the wisdom of life as related to a specific culture at a specific time. It integrates the individual into his society and the society into the field of nature. It unites the field of nature with my nature.
All over the world and at different times of human history, these archetypes, or elementary ideas, have appeared in different costumes. The differences in the costumes are the results of environment and historical conditions.
And just like we human beings change with the times, so do our myths:
[M]yths offer life models. But the models have to be appropriate to the time in which you are living… The moral order has to catch up with the moral necessities of actual life in time, here and now. And that is what we are not doing. The old-time religion belongs to another age, another people, another set of human values, another universe. By going back you throw yourself out of sync with history. Our kids lose faith in the religions that were taught to them, and they go inside.
Finally, Campbell calls for a new mythology for a new planet, and laments the fact that none exists:
The main motifs of the myths are the same, and they have always been the same. If you want to find your own mythology, the key is with what society do you associate? Every mythology has grown up in a certain society in a bounded field. Then they come into collision and relationship, and they amalgamate, and you get a more complex mythology.
But today there are no boundaries. The only mythology that is valid today is of the planet — and we don’t have such a mythology. The closest thing I know to a planetary mythology is Buddhism, which sees all beings as Buddha beings. The only problem is to come to the recognition of that. There is nothing to do. The task is only to know what is, and then to act in relation to the brotherhood of all of those beings.
Discovering these words almost made me want to cry. The first reason is that it validates so many of the principles that Baha’is believe in and are trying so desperately to promote, namely:
that there is a God out there;
that we have always connected to this God, this mysterious Force, this veiled Being, through myths and metaphors;
that all of these paths — however ancient and seemingly primitive — were, and will always be, true paths to knowing God;
and that in this new global era, a unified human race needs a unified mythology, one that can create in people’s hearts a passionate and unwavering sense of love, brotherhood and collective purpose.
If you can understand this and believe in it, you can call yourself whatever you like. But you are already a Baha’i. This is the whole point.
The second reason I feel like crying is that, judging from Campbell’s words, during his time (he died in 1987) he either never heard about the Baha’i Faith or never recognized the uncanny parallels between its teachings and his own. I should note that I actually agree with the main thrust of what he says about Buddhism above; if it takes Buddhism to achieve love and unity among all human beings, then we should all drop what we’re doing and become Buddhists at this instant. And yet, that Campbell chooses a 2,500-year-old religion as the best available model for a unifying global mythology is telling.
In any case, all that’s beside the point. Just read Joseph Campbell, and you’ll get what I mean. There’s something there that I never knew existed outside of the Baha’i holy writings. And I just found it.