Table of Contents
Also on this website:
Toby Johnson's books:
GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness
GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe
THE FOURTH QUILL, a
novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil
CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: Reclaiming Our Queer Spirituality Through Story
Books on Gay Spirituality:
Toby's review of Samuel Avery's The
Dimensional Structure of
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
The Gay Spirituality Summit in May 2004 and the "Statement of Spirituality"
You're Not A Wave
What is Enlightenment?
What is reincarnation?
How many lifetimes in an ego?
Emptiness & Religious Ideas
Experiencing experiencing experiencing
Going into the Light
Meditations for a Funeral
The way to get to heaven
Buddha's father was right
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
The Two Loves
Be Done on Earth by Howard E. Cook
Pay Me What I'm Worth by Souldancer
The Way Out by Christopher L Nutter
The Gay Disciple by John Henson
Art That Dares by Kittredge Cherry
Coming Out, Coming Home by Kennth A. Burr
Extinguishing the Light by B. Alan Bourgeois
Over Coffee: A conversation For Gay Partnership & Conservative Faith by D.a. Thompson
Dark Knowledge by Kenneth Low
Janet Planet by Eleanor Lerman
The Kairos by Paul E. Hartman
Wrestling with Jesus by D.K.Maylor
Kali Rising by Rudolph Ballentine
The Missing Myth by Gilles Herrada
The Secret of the Second Coming by Howard E. Cook
The Scar Letters: A Novel by Richard Alther
The Future is Queer by Labonte & Schimel
Missing Mary by Charlene Spretnak
Gay Spirituality 101 by Joe Perez
Cut Hand: A Nineteeth Century Love Story on the American Frontier by Mark Wildyr
Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman
Nights at Rizzoli by Felice Picano
The Key to Unlocking the Closet Door by Chelsea Griffo
The Door of the Heart by Diana Finfrock Farrar
Occam’s Razor by David Duncan
Grace and Demion by Mel White
Gay Men and The New Way Forward by Raymond L. Rigoglioso
The Dimensional Stucture of Consciousness by Samuel Avery
The Manly Pursuit of Desire and Love by Perry Brass
There are three identifiable themes in the thought of Joseph Campbell and his fans (Joe would not have liked the word "followers" which perhaps would have been the appropriate term there!). These are loosely associable with what Campbell identified as the four functions of myth: psychological/pedagogical, social, cosmological, and mystical/metaphysical.
These themes are: training young people in the nature of mythology, reclaiming myth as a high cultural art form, and (I think, most importantly) identifying the so-called "new myth." There is also in the work of the Joseph Campbell Institute an effort to link like minds in various sorts of real and virtual roundtable discussions. These then correlate respectively with the pedagogical, mystical, cosmological, and social functions.
The Pedagogical Theme:
While the content of Campbell's books and talks was always the vast range of mythological stories and artistic expressions that he loved to rhapsodize about, the single, central message in all his work was simply that all religion is myth.
His joke was that "myth is other people's religion." But the implication of that, of course, was that one's own religion is also myth to somebody else. None of it is true in any literal sense. All religion is metaphor for certain biological and psychological dynamics that determine and direct human experience. The metaphors of religion are supposed to assist with the "right" ways to experience one's human life and so to make the "right" choices about how to live a decent, happy, contributing life.
This is a radically different way of understanding religion from the mainstream Judeo-Christian religion that dominates the U.S. (and, in particular, the culture of New York City in the middle of the 20th Century when Campbell was coming of age and then flourishing). Judeo-Christian religion claims to be historically true, and so not mythological at all.
For Campbell's readers and fan, then, one of the central problems of modern life is how to raise children to understand religion, that is, how to gain from the moral lessons in the stories and to be properly edified, but not to fall into unscientific and unreasonable belief in the religious doctrines in the way the religious institutions would want. A solution for how to teach children about religion was then developed which mimicks the experience of the adults in discovering and being edified by Joseph Campbell's ideas--and those of the whole field of comparative religions and new-paradigm science. Teach the children all the myths.
This results in a sort of valorizing of myth for its own sake: exposure to the mythological stories of all the various human cultures of the world will be beneficial. Indeed, this is a theme in Jungian psychoanalysis (which arena of thought was the basis for the new-paradigm of religion). For Jung, cultural myths were like the dreams of the collective unconscious; and in the same way as Freud discovered that talking about one's psychodynamic processes, including analysis of dreams, was therapeutic for mental disorders, so Jung thought bringing mythological themes and associations into consciousness would be beneficial and healing for the human personality.
It's not entirely clear how true this might be. Indeed, it is this notion that is really what the modern "new-age, new-paradigm," philosopher of religion Ken Wilber calls the "pre/trans fallacy," i.e. confusing the irrationality of primitive religion with the trans-rational mystical consciousness of evolved post-modern, post-quantum theory thought. Just because American Indian languages like Hopi (as discussed by Benjamin L. Whorf) consist primarily of verbs, it does not follow that the Hopi elders understood the quantum nature of the cosmos.
The High Culture Form Theme:
Fans and followers of Joseph Campbell's--like Campbell himself--like stories. They like aphorisms like that of Eli Wiesel that "God created human beings because He loves stories." Campbell liked to tell stories. His audiences liked to listen to him. And they probably went home and repeated those stories to other people.
One theme then in Campbellian thought is that we ought to read and listen to and analyze the great treasury of mythological storties that come down to us from around the world because they're great art in themselves. Religion and creative art are aspects of one another.
In the same way you go to art museums to appreciate the high culture forms of past artisans and artists, so you might read the mythological stories from the past and even participate in the religious practices of those people who still practice religion (and believe in it as literal truth--"God's own Truth") but with your own enlightened perspective.
This results in even more valorization of myth for its own sake. And further raises the spectre of the "pre/trans fallacy." Just because you--as a modern, sophisticated, intelligent person well-read about religion--can see deep and profound meaning for you in the stories of the past, it doesn't follow that the prophets and evangelists who composed the religions knew or intended such profound wisdom.
The "New Myth" Theme:
One of the things Joseph Campbell liked to talk about was what would be the myth of the future, what will be the content of the religious doctrines in the future?
He opined that we can no more predict the myth of the future than we can predict tonight's dream. And in that context, it sounded like he was talking about the birth of a new religion with a new savior: a new Jesus (or Maitreya or whatever) who'd rise to prominence with a new religion to spread.
But that is NOT really what the new myth is going to be about. And Joe knew that perfectly well.
Way back in the 1970s, when Joe was starting to achieve prominence with the West Coast counterculture, this current writer was on the crew that regularly hosted and put on (and ushered, cooked, cleaned, stuffed envelopes, put up posters, etc.) his Northern California appearances. I met Joe originally at the Mann Ranch in 1971. I was fresh out of Catholic religious life, studying Comparative Religions--especially "hippie" neo-Buddhism--at the California Institute of Asian Studies (which later changed its name to Integral Studies). I was fascinated with Campbell's ideas because of the implication they had for my own religious belief: it meant my Catholicism was a myth like all the others and that "Truth" transcends all the various traditions.
I told him that in a conversation over dinner that first time I met him. I told him I thought his vision of religion as myth and metaphor was in fact the insight that would found a new paradigm spiritual consciousness. In my own rhapsodizing, I guess, I told him I thought his ideas were the "new myth." Joe was gratified to have fans--especially bright-eyed young men. I think because he didn't have sons of his own and he taught at a girls' college, his young male fans represented something like his legacy. BUT he didn't want to be seen as a guru of any sort. That is something he did not like among the hippies and counterculturalists who were drawn to his lectures. He was an academician and a scholar, not a spiritual teacher or guru. He didn't want to be anybody's priest or psychological guide.
And so he always deflected my enthusiastic rantings during the question and answer parts of his talks when I'd get up and proclaim the meta-myth of myth--i.e. understanding the nature of religion as myth and understanding one's own understanding as yet an example of more mythological thinking.
But this is THE important idea in Campbell. He referred to the evolution of myth in the conclusion to The Hero with A Thousand Faces:
That prodigious transfer has continued on into the twenty-first century now with brain study, DNA research, bio-feedback studies of meditators, and complex theories of consciousness (including, of course, the role of consciousness in determining the outcome of scientific experimentation). Ken Wilber's work, by the way, is another example of this shift in the human experience toward greater and greater reflexivity and self-consciousness. To paraphase the last sentence in the quote from the Hero: Not the supernatural world of the gods of old, but consciousness itself in now the powerful image of the essence of existence. Not an external personality watching over the earth, but the spark of consciousness itself is the appropriate image for God today. God isn't "out-there"; God is "in here," in the sense that our own awareness of our being aware and creating images for ourselves of what our experience is is the thing that inspires us to feel wonder and to sense a place within the cosmos.The descent of the Occidental sciences from the heavens to the earth (from seventeenth-century astronomy to nineteenth-century biology), and their concentration today, at last, on man himself (in twentieth-century anthropology and psychology), mark the path of a prodigious transfer of the focal point of human wonder. Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. (Hero, p. 391)
In the terms Wilber used to identify the fallacy of over-valorizing mythic consciousness of the past, we might say today's "enlightened" consciousness is able to look back at the history of religion with modern, scientific rationality and see simply "they can't all be true" and that the wisdom of religion lies in the meaning of the stories, not the content. So rationality sees beyond the non-rational, pre-rational thinking of mythological consciousness. AND it finds the self-reflection (made possible by our historical, anthropological, global perspective) reveals consciousness is even bigger than we can grasp. That "bigger," elusive, inarticulable quality of consciousness is what's called trans-rational.
Wilber isn't exactly attacking Campbell and the Campbellians with his "pre/trans fallacy" as adding a layer to the self-reflection that is part of mythological sophistication. He's giving us the reminder that even when we've figured out what myth is, we're still dealilng with a mythical construction of our own minds.
I'm not sure Wilber necessarily understands that. But THAT is certainly what we ought to get from Wilber's critique of Campbell's ideas.
That "transrational" (but not at all irrational) realization represents a future evolution of the mind in understanding its own workings.
Campbell and the Fallacy of Over-Valorization of Myth
Ken Wilber's ideas challenge the valorization of the myths of old--with their irrational "magical" thinking--objecting that not all the myths are of equal value or equal wisdom. Just because an idea comes out of religious enthusiasm does not make it a good or benefical idea.
I think that is something Joe Campbell would have agreed with. Though his style was to say all religions are false in being descriptions of material reality, but all are also true as being descriptions of psychological realities.
Joe clearly preferred Buddhism to Christianity, but not because the Buddha was a better teacher or did better miracles, but because Buddhism had long ago developed the outside stance on religion and had already refocused onto the nature of consciousness (instead of the personality of God).
One of the ways Joe demonstrated his preferences for Buddhistic thinking over Judeo-Christian thinking is, I fear, one of the things that besmirched his public image just after his death. Joe used to do imitations of accents. His educated-class New Yorker identity showed itself in his making fun of old Jewish ladies and Irish Catholic priests and nuns. This got characterized by critics of Joe's as bigotry and anti-Semitism. I tend to think it was more than he was good at doing those impersonations--and not so good, for instance, at doing a Japanese accent.
At any rate, myths have many levels of power. Part of the function of a myth is to alter consciousness. Myths are like spiritual practices. Believing in a specific myth changes how one sees their world, and can actually produce changes in consciousness itself, i.e., belief can produce mystical experience.
Myth conveys meaning and wisdom. But not all the effects of myths are positive or evolutionarily productive.
The story of Jesus on the cross is a beautiful myth about enlightened spiritual consciousness embracing all life, even the suffering and death that can prove to be part of it--even when that suffering is caused by other human beings.
The story of the Passion of Jesus conveys wisdom about loving life. That is its message of mystical--and cognitive--transformation.
But the story also has justified and inspired countless generations of Christians to believe God delights in human suffering. The followers of Jesus who should have seen from his death that the first commandment should be "no torture," instead went into the torture business in Jesus's name just as soon as they had achieve the power and the ownership of the torture chambers.
Christianity with its message of Jesus as the only begotten son of God ended up becoming belligerent and genocidal out of what supposed to be a sign of God's generosity. As the "only" true religion, Christianity could spread itself by violence.
In the end, the meaning that we should derive from the myths is always much less the content of the myths themselves and more the hint at the elusive nature of consciousness itself.
I.e., the reason for looking at the myths of old is to experience wonder: to see hints at wisdom for how to live a good life, to see hints at how big consciousness is. This experience founds the "new myth" of consciousness itself and the meta-myth of religion as the universe giving itself clues about the nature and shape of psychological reality.
Read about Toby Johnson's friendship with Joseph Campbell
Read about "The Techniques of the World Saviors," a sample of what Toby Johnson learned from Joseph Campbell -- and about the myth of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of eight books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, three gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality. In addition to the novels featured elsewhere in this web site, Johnson is author of IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD and THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET (Revised edition): AN APPRECIATION OF JOSEPH CAMPBELL.
Johnson's Lammy Award winning book
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness was published in 2000. His Lammy-nominated
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was published by Alyson in 2003. Both books are
available now from Lethe
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