A tribe’s mythology is its living religion, whose loss is always and everywhere, even among the civilized, a moral catastrophe. – C. G. Jung
Before rational thinking lifted us from the antics of capricious gods, myths were the uniting stories of a people. They gave meaning and value to their lives and allowed them to be part of something larger. For better or worse, people aligned their actions with the myths they lived by, aligning with ancient gods and goddesses who represented both outer world and inner psyche. Myths gave them something to reach for, something to identify with, to expand beyond their own meager lives. Knowing little about the world in the scientific sense, our ancestors would have been lost without their guiding myths. There would have been nothing to inspire great deeds, no temples to build, no art to create. Myths explained the questions knowledge had not yet answered. They defined who we were and where we were going.
Because mythic thinking preceded rational thinking, myths were incomplete, often filled with fear and superstition. As testaments of symbolic truth, they did not reflect actual truths. Roasting babies in the fire, as the grain goddess Demeter did in the Homeric Hymns, does not make a child immortal. Jesus, no matter how advanced He may have been, did not walk on the surface of deep water. There is no literal place called the Underworld, but there is a metaphoric one.
When myth and rational thinking first began to clash in the Golden Age of Greece, and increasingly through the dawn of modernity, rational thinking supplanted the mythical. Empirical proof put a sword through our irrational superstitions. Many harmful things, such as animal sacrifices and witch-burnings, came to an end. As rationalism became the new creed, myths were regarded as artifacts of a primitive mind, something we had blessedly grown out of, like the childhood fantasies of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Culturally, we were growing up and were told to put those things away, often brutally punished for coveting idols, practicing rituals, or remembering mythic ways. The word “myth” even came to mean a “lie” as in “that’s just a myth.”
Rationalism was the answer to the questions myth could not explain. Knowledge from the scientific method was objective, logical, methodical, reproducible. We passed out of a dark age of naïve explanations. Myths became the dreams from which we awakened, rubbing our eyes as we entered the rational world. We took a giant step forward into the future, paving the way for modernism.
But we lost something vital in the process. Rational and mythic thinking are like two legs of an upright creature. Neither one alone can take us more than a single step. Myth gives us meaning, but often ignores fact. Rational thinking, while factual, fails to give us meaning. By definition, it’s impersonal. Being objective rather than subjective, it does not define values. It tells us how something works, but it doesn’t tell us what it’s for. And most of all, it fails to tell us what we are for—why we are here, where we’re going, and what purpose this exquisite universe might have for us.
It’s not that we have no myths today. We still have a distorted myth of the Hero’s Quest to go forth and conquer. We have the myth of the dollar that pertuates consumption, evaluates voter propositions by their pricetag, with the imperative to make more dollars at any cost. We have many smaller myths that act as collective beliefs: that war is inevitable, that you can’t fight city hall, that emotions are weakness, that women can’t govern, that science will solve everything, and that myth has no value at all.
Modern science has been a brilliant provider of information. Industry and technology have been brilliant providers of things. We’re now flooded with information and things—more than we know what to do with. We have streams of data, piles of books, shelves full of DVDs, hundreds of millions of websites full of information. It has even been called “exformation,”
meaning information no one will ever see. Everywhere we look we have an abundance of things: shopping malls, houses, trucks and storage units full of things, most of which we don’t need or seldom use.
What we’re missing is a guiding myth for what to do with it all. We fail to understand the meaning of what this information is describing as a whole. Even the data on global warming, with its tables and statistics, has so far failed to grab the public with its urgent sense of meaning: that we’re burning ourselves alive, or that our masculine fires are too hot and too yang without the yin waters to balance them, or that we’re facing the most significant threat to the planet our species has ever encountered.
When carpenters and plumbers show up at a building site, they find piles of raw material, such as lumber, glass, bricks, nails and pipes. The architect’s blueprint provides the vision that dictates what to do with these things. It gives purpose to their hammers and saws, describes how the boards are nailed together, and lets the workers know what to do. In the same way, a vision of where we’re going organizes humanity’s efforts, as we each take on our particular duty, destiny, or dharma, of living in these shifting times.
Our myths are the blueprints for our purpose. They give us something to live for, provide meaning and direction. They need not deny rational thinking, but should complement it. Science need not negate mystery, but instead reveals just how intricate and intelligent our mysteries are. Myth need not be counter to science, but instead allows the whole of creation to
have an evolutionary meaning, a purpose, or entelechy that pulls us towards the future.
image: Justin Schlesinger (Creative Commons BY-SA)