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Joseph Campbell On the Moon

Earthrise. Image Credit: NASA, Apollo 8 Crew, Bill Anders. CC2.0.

The inscription on the curved aluminum surface reads simply: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” Signed,— alongside signatures from the three astronauts—Richard Nixon. 

It’s quite a memorial for a President some would consider unworthy of such recognition. Seriously, even if you’re a Republican, this out-Rushmores Rushmore.

You know whose name does not appear on the moon? God’s name was excluded from the plaque by the order of NASA’s assistant administrator for public affairs. He absolutely denied Richard Nixon’s explicit order that the plaque should include a reference to the Almighty; a Nixon aide had scribbled the reference to a deity so that the plaque would have read “We came in peace, under God, for all mankind.”

“God?” asked the assistant administrator.  “What God?” After all, he reasoned, “this is a universal thing. What about the people on earth who do not worship our God?” And Buddhists. What about Buddhists?They don’t believe in any God at all, or so the assistant had been told.

Joseph Campbell was among the billions with eyes glued on his television set that July evening over fifty years ago and his sentiments were in perfect accord with the NASA functionary resisting Nixon’s order. Campbell believed that, quoting Buckminster Fuller, “all humanity is about to be born in an entirely new relationship to the universe.” (Myths to Live By, 253) Myths would die, new ones arise. Prayers would be re-written.

There is an attitude, shared by Campbell I believe, that living myth can never be in contradiction to scientific fact. Indeed, the idea is canonized in his second function of myth, the cosmological function which states that scientific perception and mythic response are mutually supportive. Some four thousand years ago, Sumerian skywatchers determined that the sun, moon and five visible planets moved at mathematically predictable rates, and Sumerian priests devised rituals and vestments to reflect this sublime cosmic order. They felt the need to reconcile scientific reality with religious identity, much like Nixon insisting that “God’s name” be included on the lunar plaque. Episcopalians, likewise, were quick in the effort to bring the ancient prayers into line with the realities seen on television in July 1969. They changed their Eucharistic prayer, and some say it was a direct result of the famous “earthrise” photograph sent back from the moon mission. The author of the prayer (and writers everywhere might wonder how you get a gig writing prayers) was named Howard E. Galley, Jr. and I cannot imagine his state of mind.

The revised Book of Common Prayer for 1979 included Galley’s oddly moving invocation to God in which the faithful attest that

At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home. By your will they were created and have their being. From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another. Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.

Some call it the “Star Wars Prayer,” an attempt by a member of the Anglican communion to find a myth to live by in the context of an epic shift in human consciousness, from an earth-borne stargazer to a Magellanic voyager looking back at a planet once called home only to realize that the prayers will have to be revised and stories discarded.  

The moon was in ancient times regarded, and in part of the world still is regarded, as the Mansion of the Fathers, the residence of the souls of those who have passed away and are there waiting to return for rebirth. (Myths to Live By, 235) 

But cosmologies come and go. “All the old bindings are broken,” Campbell wrote, describing his reaction to a new world order. With the first boot planted in the dust of Tranquility Base, the moon myths seemed to expire as if they were as dependent upon oxygen as the men leapfrogging across its pitted surface. Just as the Church had to re-evaluate its simple cosmology (heaven up, hell down) in the aftermath of Copernicus’ heliocentric theories, so all the great traditions faced a new reckoning that July. When Apollo 11 sent back that single image of the earth rising above a lifeless lunar landscape we saw the writing on the wall. All binary wisdom was turned on its head by the singularity of earth in space, an earth without borders or spheres of religious influence.  

From this new point of view, in which all people are necessarily joined in common cause to preserve life on a single planet, the idea of mutual survival makes claims of tribal exceptionalism look exceptionally short sighted, even absurd. There were no chosen peoples from this vantage point. There were no sacred centers. “Cosmological centers now are any- and everywhere. The earth is a heavenly body, most beautiful of all, and all poetry now is archaic that fails to match the wonder of this view.” (Myths to Live By, 237) 

Myth, unencumbered with unreasonable expectations of historicity, no longer confused with scientific truth itself, realized its true role in human affairs telling us “…in picture language of powers of the psyche to be recognized and integrated in our lives, powers that have been common to the human spirit forever, and which represent that wisdom of the species by which man has weathered the millenniums” (Myths to Live By, 14). The stories themselves, arising in the troubled sleep of prehistoric cave dwellers or in the fervid minds of nomads wandering unincorporated deserts, stories which somehow still abide with us in our cities and suburbs, will be repurposed appropriately.  

There are myths and legends of the Virgin Birth, of Incarnations, Deaths and Resurrections, Second Comings, Judgments, and the rest, in all the great traditions. And since such images stem from the psyche, they refer to the psyche. They tell us of its structure, its order and its forces in symbolic terms. (Myths to Live By, 253)

And religious orthodoxy, like a solid rocket booster of which we have no further need, plummets into the sea of discarded belief. 



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