The Modern Relevance of Myths

Buddhist Statues at Jinshan Temple

Buddhist Statues at Jinshan Temple

A few weeks ago, Time reported the challenges that the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis, hailed as ‘a Pope for the poor’, are facing in this increasingly secularized world. Brushing aside theological debates, Pope Francis believes Church’s energy is best expended in economic issues. This is to mistake the shadow for the substance. The challenge that confronts Pope Francis and all religions in the world is alike: we simply no longer know how to appreciate myths.

In the words of Joseph Campbell, the late mythologist, myth is a game of ‘as if’ that

‘frees our mind and spirit on the one hand from the presumption of theology, which pretends to know the laws of God, and on the other from the bondage of reason, whose laws do not apply beyond the horizon of human experiences‘. (The Historical Development of Mythology)

Myth is such a highly symbolic story that neither wholesale rejection, nor literal interpretation are desirable. There was a Prince of Five Weapons in the Buddhist legend. After learning, with distinction, the arts of fighting with the five weapons, he wished to cross a forest. Behold, this forest was guarded by ‘Sticky – Hair’, a monster that ‘was tall as a tree, with a head as big as the roof of a house and eyes as big as dishes.’

The Prince, fearless as a young lion, employed all his five weapons, but to no avail, as each weapon was stuck on the hair of the monster. Yet the Prince remained undaunted. He resorted to his own wisdom and told Sticky Hair that he has inside him a sixth weapon, that is as strong as diamond. He threatened the monster that if he eats him, not only that he can’t digest it, but it will also cut his intestine to pieces. Already amazed by the courage of the Prince, the monster relented and retreated to let him pass.

In The Hero with a Thousand FacesCampbell offered us an exciting interpretation of this story. As a hero, the Prince of Five Weapons must cross the threshold that is beyond the means of ordinary people. However a conservative force always exists to prevent the disruption of the status quo. The monster symbolizes this force for he kills anyone who dares to cross the forest. The Prince can not overcome this force with his five weapons, as they represents the five worldly senses that common people have. He must have something more that is ‘beyond the phenomenal realm of names and forms’. The sixth weapon comes in the form of all – transcending knowledge that goes beyond the earthly logic. It is this subtle unworldly weapon that finally subdued the monster and let the Prince to continue his heroic journey.

The elements in this story – a hero trying to overcome a force that is blocking him to cross the threshold – found many striking applications in modern movies. In Man of Steel, the conservative force is less fearful than Sticky Hair but not less powerful. At the cost of his own life, Jonathan, Clark’s adoptive father, advised his adopted son not to show his superhuman power publicly, as the society rejects and ostracizes any misfit people.  His advice serves as one of the first threshold that Clark must cross before he decided to assume the role of Superman and save the world. (Wikipedia gives numerous other examples)

Myth, if read properly, is neither ‘ancient’ nor ‘modern’. It is timeless. In my previous article, Science and Religion Are Not Mutually Exclusivethe learnt blogger, montwithin, challenged my stance and argued that falsifiability is what distinguishes religion from science. Since religion makes factual claims, and the claims can not be proven as true or false, religion and science are, therefore, incompatible. I can not agree with this conclusion, because religions communicate to us through myths and myths, as I stressed repeatedly, can not be read literally as facts. Myths are an enigma wrapped in symbols that try to convey us the transcendental knowledge – variously known as God in Christianity, Allah in Muslim, the Enlightenment Law in Buddhism and the Way in Daoism. As the ancient Hindu hymn put it, ‘Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.’

To reject myths as worthless is to throw away the ancient wisdom that our ancestor left us. To accept them uncritically as literal truth is to misunderstand their purpose as poetic vehicles of communications. People in our days fall in these two extremes. Some ridicule religious stories and treat them as useless relics of the past. Others believe in every word of the religious text as divinely revealed truth. Both are disillusioned. The proper way is to read myths with a humble heart, as if engaging in a talk with our ancient wise myth – makers. 

Further reading: The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Historical Development of Mythology,  Science and Religion are not mutually exclusive

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6 thoughts on “The Modern Relevance of Myths

  1. 山中 says:

    Are you inviting me to have another debate?

    Two questions: 1) what do you mean by “myths”? and 2) Are are mythology and religion different?

  2. mrtso1989 says:

    I am not scholar, so that I can’t put up any definite definition. I think, however, the definitions in the dictionary will suffice for our discussion. I look up the Oxford Dictionary that defines myth as ‘a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events’.

    That being said, I think it is also convenient to look at the definition of religion which is defined as ‘the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods’. From these two definitions, it seems that the relationship between religion and myths can not be delineated clearly. They overlap in involving ‘supernatural’ or ‘superhuman’ beings. However myth is a ‘traditional story’, while religion is a ‘belief’. Since myth is a poetic way for religions to communicate the belief, it is an aspect of religions. However, as I suggested above, myth can go beyond religions to reveal the transcendental knowledge that has assumed various names under different religions. Beside, worshiping can take many forms and mythology is only one of them.

    The relationship between religion and myth, as we see, is dynamic and can be hardly fixed. Myth benefits from religion by borrowing its material while religion also profits from myth by using its story – form to communicate.

    • 山中 says:

      Ok, so when Mormonism suggests that the aboriginal people were wicked and sinful Jews who were forced to leave their homeland and received a darker skin colour from God due to their wickedness, what would be your reaction?

      • mrtso1989 says:

        As you may have noticed, my view on religions is that the words as written in the holy texts are not meant to be followed literally. I am not learnt in Mormonism and do know how to comment on the view you mentioned. Their mythological stories should have symbolic meaning that is not known by me.

        In any case, however, it is fruitless to look at hindsight. Without doubts, human history is marred by war, slavery and rape. Religious doctrines are either used as excuses or justifications to do great harms. ‘Humanistic causes’ neither escape from this abuse. ‘Liberty, equality and fraternity’ were, for example, grand and well – intentioned slogans that were abused to do massacre in the French Revolutions.

        Furthermore, religion is constantly evolving, just like science is also progressing. We won’t discredit science by ridiculing the absurd scientific views that people in the past held. Before satellites were invented, scientists genuinely believed that huge canals were constructed by intelligent life in Mars. They arrived this conclusion by their studies in telescopes. This sounds ridiculous to us in the modern days and we do not cite this fact to say science is powerless. In the same vein, the Mormonism view that you have cited belonged to an age when racism was widely considered as appropriate. It is an age when humanity, in the form of human right and individual autonomy, were not yet developed as it is now.

        The important thing, therefore, is not to cite individual religious practices as proof against religions, but to move forward and to reinterpret religious texts.

      • 山中 says:

        You are trying to connect two completely different things. Mythology and religion do not have to go together, and we can establish that by just going with the dictionary definitions.

        The study of mythology is entirely secular. One can study the Bible without being a Christian. The belief in religion is a different beast. If you try to suspend your disbelief because of religion, then you will not able to respond to some ridiculous claim, like the Mormonism example I showed. The secular study of mythology or anthropology allows us to examine the reasons and ides behind a myth, and we can call something ridiculous when it happens to be the case. On the other hand, if you believes in a region, logically you can’t do that: you cannot call Mormonism racist because that is suppose to be “God’s word”.

        Religion is revolving in order to appeal to modern audience. And you don’t see the problem? Religions claim that they know the supernatural truths all along, so how could they evolve? They not consistent if they do so. Science, on the other hand, never claim to know any truth: it is merely best explanation of the reality.

        By the way, I’d like invite you to join our humanist group and have a discussion over there.

  3. […] David Bowman is the heroic figure who brings forth the third breakthrough. He showed himself worthy of this role as he remained undaunted when Hal refused to let him. He calmly gave up his colleague’s corpse and risked death in vacuum by attempting to enter through the emergency door. He ignored Hal’s pleads and proceeded to disconnect him finally. By conquering Hal as the enemy who tried to block his way beyond the boundary (or ‘ Jupiter and beyond the infinite), he can continue his journey to a place that is dark, mysterious and unknown. (In this regard, 2001: A Space Odyssey is not different from any other ancient myths, that are discussed at length by my another article). […]

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