Mythblast | The Secularization of the Sacred and Mythic Identification
Last week JCF, through its new arrangement with Amazon, made available a new digital edition of Joseph Campbell’s The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension. As I have remarked recently in this very space, Flight remains, perhaps, my most favorite collection of Campbell’s essays because in this volume the vast extent of his reading, combined with his deep comprehension and dazzling intellect are fully on display, and it is genuinely thrilling to read.
The last chapter of this volume is titled, “The Secularization of the Sacred,” and is essential reading if one’s aim is to deeply understand Campbell’s understanding of mythology. By the “secularization of the sacred,” Campbell means “…the opening of the sense of religious awe to some sphere of secular experience…” (157), in other words “religious awe” isn’t bound to some deity or reality “somewhere out there,” but in fact” The ultimate goal […] is, accordingly, the realization of one’s own identity with this reality and a recognition of its presence in all things” (158). Such a transcendent realization is what Campbell calls “The Mythic Identification.” The ultimate truth or reality of all things is beyond the capacity of the human mind to apprehend (i.e. transcendent), and to then frame the contemplation of ultimate reality in terms of a god or creator and what that particular deity intends and wants, is to create an absurd anthropomorphic projection. “But now,” Campbell writes, “on the other hand (and here is the great point): that which is thus ultimately transcendent of all deﬁnition, categories, names, and forms, is the very substance, energy, being, and support, of all things, including ourselves: the reality of each and all of us. Transcendent of deﬁnition, transcendent of enclosure, it is yet immanent in each” (160). We are the very thing we are trying to, and cannot, comprehend.
But the “me” that’s implied in this teaching isn’t the me I normally think about when I think about me: an individual among other individuals, finite, mortal, and no matter how humane or inclusive I may be, still separate in a fundamentally existential way from other human beings. Well, not so fast. Campbell was embracing panpychism long before contemporary philosophy created a word for it, and deploys Erwin Schrödinger for additional support in the matter: “And as the great physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, states in his book, My View of the World: ‘To divide or multiply consciousness is something meaningless. In all the world, there is no kind of framework within which we can ﬁnd consciousness in the plural; this is simply something we construct because of the spatio-temporal plurality of individuals, but it is a false conception.’” There is only one consciousness according to Schrödinger, and we all share it; more precisely, we all are it, except that the “it” we are can’t be apprehended or grasped in its entirety all at once. We are not “in relationship” to some divine or sacred reality, we are always, and in all ways, It.
Without the mythic identification, myth remains the mythology of relationship; relationship to something outside of and necessarily different from the individual. Mythology read literally is fundamentally a socially conservative message, a tool used for social control and order, supporting socio-political institutions in “suppressing the manifestations of individualism” (130)—people identifying with and valuing their own interests, experiences, and freedoms—and instead inculcating and maintaining modes of behavior and thought consistent with the dominant beliefs and institutions of society. The mythologies of relationship then, are inherently and congenitally conservative because they allow no acts of seeing past or through the literal narrative. Campbell noted (185) that as recently as the 19th century, Pope Pius IX insisted that we reject rationalism, the separation of church and state, freedom of the press and religion, and “… not be reconciled and come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”
In truth, progress, liberalism, and modern civilization is created in the revolutionary act of Mythic Identification, a seeing through and past of manifest forms and literal narrative structures to the sacred individual who is myself and yet not myself alone, to that single consciousness that remains, after all, all of us.
Thanks for taking the time to read this MythBlast.
Bradley Olson, Ph.D.
Bradley Olson, Ph.D., is the editor of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast series. Dr. Olson is a Depth Psychologist in private practice in Flagstaff, Arizona; his work with clients is heavily influenced by his interest in Jungian Analytical Psychology, literature, and Mythological Studies.