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 Faces, Campbell 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 Exclusive, the 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.