Peter Morales, head of the Unitarian Universalist Association, warns us of the temptations of “consumerism”:
“Heaven knows, we live in a time of distractions. The holidays, especially, can become frenzied. We can so easily lose our way pursuing the lures of consumerism.”
When I read this statement, my attention was captured by the use of the word “lures”. The statement, read one way, can reflect the old Christian concept of the need to remain chaste in the face of dark satanic appeals to sinful desires.
Every year, we hear this idea preached from Unitarian Universalist pulpits, online and offline, – that purchasing material things for other people is a superficial, morally questionable activity. Although we may be giving, it’s suggested, these sort of gifts do not truly come from ourselves. We would do better, it’s said, to give the kinds of things that money can’t buy.
This perspective isn’t anything new. It’s more ancient than Christianity, older than Judaism. Though we may think that the habit of decrying the materialism of the winter “holiday season” is a modern thing, it actually is just the latest manifestation of an ancient, world-denying philosophy that began with Zarathustra.
This philosophy began with the idea that the world is divided by a battle between good and evil. The evil came to be identified with the material, and the good to be identified with the immaterial. Money, when it was invented, was associated with the fallen, wicked world. Now, speaking out of our Zoroastrian heritage, we are in the knee-jerk habit of saying that gifts bought with money must be morally tainted as well, tools of deception wrought by Ahriman and the dark forces conspiring against Ahura Mazda.
There is another way of looking at the “lures of consumerism” that’s less judgmental.
Joseph Campbell talks about the motif in mythology of the hunter who comes across a mysterious animal, white or glowing or in some other way suggestive of transcendent significance. The hunter is lured by this animal, pursing it deep into the forest, into unknown territory, becoming lost, where a profound and meaningful mystery may begin.
Could the lures of consumerism be like the lure of the golden stag, appearing to the hunter, and initiating the hunter into a participant in a higher quest?
Perhaps, if we were to take the time to truly appreciate the material things that we receive as gifts and that we give to others, instead of sniffing at them as lowly manifestations of a sinful, fallen world, we might find a deeper appreciation of the gift-giving ritual of the winter holidays.
These objects that we exchange could be revealed as symbols of deep meaning in our lives, if we had the courage to pursue their lures, rather than dismissing them as manifestations of the Satan that we name “Consumerism”.
In last Sunday’s session of mythological discussion, we saw Joseph Campbell refer to an ancient Zoroastrian tradition that strongly influenced the Christian tradition, in which the perceived wickedness of the world must be resisted. The old habit dies hard.
In our culture, and in our study of culture, we are in the habit of dividing the world into two realms: The sacred and the profane. These realms are understood to be strictly distinct from each other. Sacred items are regarded as sacred as a result of their separation from the realm of the profane. Profane items, for their part, are categorized as such because of their perceived alienation from the sacred.
Sacred items, it is supposed, are rare and difficult to obtain, special because they are not part of our everyday lives. Sacred items are treasured, while profane items are regarded as the reflection of a fundamental moral failing. This way of perceiving sacredness is ancient, having come to us along a chain of cultural transmission that stretches all the way back to Zoroaster.
There is another way of perceiving sacredness, however, one equally as ancient as the Zoroastrian tradition. The pantheist approach considers sacred qualities to be present in every object, no matter how common and apparently ordinary they are. From this perspective, the sacred and profane are only separate in terms of our perception.
Which perspective do you choose… or have you chosen another?
This Sunday morning, at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca (corner of Buffalo and Aurora streets), the 10:30 AM sermon to be delivered by David Grimm is entitled “Personifications of the Ineffable”.
It just so happens that the very same morning, at 9:00 AM in the Arch Room of the First Unitarian Society, the Adult Religious Education session, a part of an ongoing series of discussions on mythology, will start with a section of The Power of Myth in which Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers talk about the very same subject – personification of the ineffable.
I have no idea what David Grimm will be saying about the personification of the ineffable, but let’s take a look at part of what Joseph Campbell has to say on the subject. In the comparable section of the book version of The Power of Myth, there’s a passage which isn’t included in the video version. This passage reads:
“Time and space form the sensibilities that bound our experiences. Our senses are enclosed in the field of time and space, and our minds are enclosed in a frame of the categories of thought. But the ultimate thing (which is no thing) that we are trying to get in touch with is not so enclosed. We enclose it as we try to think of it.
The transcendent transcends all of these categories of thinking. Being and nonbeing – those are categories. The word ‘God’ properly refers to what transcends all thinking but the word ‘God’ itself is something thought about.
Now you can personify God in many, many ways. Is there one god? Are there many gods? Those are merely categories of thought. What you are talking and trying to think about transcends all that.
One problem with Yahweh, as they used to say in the old Christian Gnostic texts, is that he forgot he was a metaphor. He thought he was a fact. And when he said, ‘I am God,’ a voice was heard to say, ‘You are mistaken, Samael.’ ‘Samael’ means ‘blind god’: blind to the infinite Light of which he is a local historical manifestation. this is known as the blasphemy of Jehovah – that he thought he was God.”
That’s one opinion, one interpretation.
What do you think about it?
At this week’s in-person mythology discussion (9:00 Sunday November 27 in the Arch Room at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca on the corner of Buffalo and Aurora streets), we’ll be looking at the 2nd half of The Hero’s Journey, the first part of The Power of Myth. Last week, people discussed the kinds of heroes we can find in our own time, but some of our participants were skeptical of the prominence given to heroes in the understanding of mythology.
Is mythology nothing more than stories about heroes? What other manifestations of mythology exist… and what is mythology anyway?
Here’s some of the definitions of mythology we heard from our group last week:
– stories that we tell ourselves about the world around us
– something that’s believed with a non-scientific basis
– dreamscapes set up to give people hope, with ulterior motives, in some cases.
– We don’t them of them as myths. We think of them as true. What do you think is true? That’s your myth.
How would the Baghavad Gita have been different if Arjuna and Krishna, instead of blowing on their conch shells, took a long drink of Coca-Cola? That’s the scenario that this mythological mashup imagines.
Is it appropriate, or not? Why do you think so?
UPDATE: A clarification and explanation of the use of this image is now available… along with a similar image of Jesus.
One of the fundamental questions that is suggested by The Power of Myth series with Joseph Campbell is this: How can we ethically interact with systems of mythology that come from other times and places?
A while ago, this question came up in a conversation I was having with a fellow Unitarian Universalist about a book series with the title Goddess Girls. The series, with titles like Athena the Brain, Persephone the Phony, and Aphrodite the Beauty, introduces the characters of classic Greek divinities, but in the form of adolescent gods who speak in a rather modern, casual way.
I got some copies of a couple of the Goddess Girls books because I wanted to provide my daughter with a more female-oriented entry into Greek mythology than is provided in the Percy Jackson series that my older son has enjoyed. I had trouble getting through even one of the Goddess Girls books, though, simply because the quality of writing isn’t that good.
I’m sympathetic to the idea of the Goddess Girls books, however, which is to update the ideas of the classic Greek divinities, and play around with them to make them relevant to the eternal themes of human life as experienced in our culture today.
The Unitarian Universalist I talked to about these books was more concerned about their impact. He was bothered that they took a subject that was sacred to some people, and treated it in a profane manner. He saw the books as disrespectful, reducing great gods and goddesses to little more than cartoons with the personality depth of Disney Channel sitcom characters.
I see his point. But, I also wonder if there isn’t some value in the ability to play with mythological themes from other cultures.
Should we restrain ourselves from reinterpreting mythological characters from other cultures? Is there something wrong with characterizing what’s sacred for some people as something more profane and superficial? What do we lose, if we place mythology in a special category as something that’s untouchable, unmockable, and unchangeable?
Postscript: For a similar modern culture Goddess chic source of material to consider, take a look at Go Goddess, a web site that encourages girls to ask themselves the question, “Which Goddess Are You?”