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”.
During last week’s mythology discussion, the idea of present day political protesters as heroic figures came up several times. There’s a lot for us to explore in terms of the mythological structures of protest.
To start this discussion, we can look at an anti-hero who has been compared both to Robocop and Darth Vader: Lieutenant John Pike, the policeman who was videotaped pepper spraying peaceful protesters sitting on a sidewalk at the UC Davis campus.
The mythologizing of this character started with the simple distribution of the video of the pepper spraying. From there, it’s gone into much wider media.
Pike’s image was spliced into fine art, pepper spraying people in famous paintings. Then, Pike was cut into scenes from popular movies, as in the Harry Potter movie seen below.
By yesterday, Pike’s distinctive pepper spraying stance could be seen on Thanksgiving turkeys:
Anthropologists have written about the way that people working in the mythic element mix and match cultural symbols in order to try to make meaning out of uncertain situations. That’s what seems to be going on with the now-iconic image of Lieutenant John Pike.
What meaning do you make of it?
It’s just five days now from the beginning of the in-person mythology discussion group (see the sidebar for information). We’ll structure our discussion around the series The Power Of Myth, which centers around the ideas of Joseph Campbell.
Joseph Campbell related the art of today to the mythology most people ascribe to ages past. He had this advice for artists: Learn the rules. “If it is a proper, up-to-date local art, the rules will have something to do with the life of people here and now, not a big smoochy general thing about life, but how it is here and now, what our problems and mysteries are, here and now. You have to know your own day.”
How is this principle operating for the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca? Do the Unitarian Universalists of Ithaca have a mythology that they’ve based on how it is here and now, or are we a congregation with only a big smoochy general thing about life?
As we move into discussions on mythology (starting on Sunday, November 20 at 9:00 AM in the Arch Room of the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca on the corner of Buffalo and Aurora streets in Ithaca New York) one of the themes that will come up over and over again will be the comparison of the way that people live today and the way that people lived in the stories of ancient mythologies.
It is often proposed that our society (call it “Western”, “modern”, “industrial” or “digital”) is unlike all other societies that have come before it in that it is bereft of myth, and nearly emptied of all ritual activity. Malidoma Some, in an essay in Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage, speaks of his perception of the “modern culture” into which he was forcibly initiated as a child: “Social decay creeps in when everyday living displaces ritual as the focus. The fading and disappearance of ritual in modern culture is, from the viewpoint of the Dagara people, expressed in several ways: the dangerous weakening of links with the spirit world, the general alienation of people from themselves and each other, the frightening violence spreading like a gangrene from the middle of cities, and the militaristic approach to its resolution. In a context like this there are no elders to help anyone remember through rites of passage his or her important role in community and in life.”
Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth, presents a similar idea, telling Bill Moyers, “If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read the New York Times. Society has provided them no rituals by which they become members of the tribe, of the community. All children need to be twice born, to learn to function rationally in the present world, leaving childhood behind.”
Ritologist Catherine Bell described this belief in a division between the mythic, ritual past and the secular present in her book Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. She wrote, “Traditionally, ritual has been distinguished from other modes of action by virtue of its supposed nonultilitarian and nonrational qualities… It has also been invoked to express an underlying difference between modern and primitive societies, as well as between profane and sacred ways of looking at the world.”
This analysis rings true for us. We feel a sense of separation from the past, from the ways of our pre-industrial ancestors. Where are the legends and ceremonies, we ask ourselves, that once held together our forebears?
If we are careful in our consideration of what we consider now to be the mythic past, however, we will see that the anxieties we believe to be special to our times are mirrored in the very myths that we mourn. Folklore about the faeries, for example, advises that the wee folk could be driven away with an object made of iron, a traditional material for us but a new technology at the time of the first faery tales. The realm of faery was already regarded as receding into the mists in the face of the new metalworking civilization.
Long ago, Hindus explained that the world had fallen into an age of decay in which dharma was in disintegration. The classical Greeks told of the lost glory that was Atlantis. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are are built upon the idea that people were alienated from an ideal past during which humanity was in regular direct contact with a higher plane of existence. Australians believed in a lost dreamtime, when myth was alive.
The feeling of alienation from an earlier Age of Myth and Ritual may be an aspect of the human condition that is as ancient as myth and ritual themselves. The belief in a mythically-alienated present may itself be part of a recurring mythic theme that we have merely adapted for our own time.
Psychologists will tell us that it is usually difficult for individuals to identify their own irrational ideas and behavior. Just so, our society may have a blind spot for its own myths and rituals, mistaking them for merely rational and utilitarian activity.
We can identify the metaphorical, non-literal meanings of other cultures because they are not our own. A significant difference between our industrial society and what some call traditional societies is that industrial society does not hear from anthropologists and folklorists who have come to visit it from the outside in order to search for its own manifestations of irrationality.
Given that we are not likely to receive visits from any such outsiders in the near future, the best we can do is to strengthen our self-reflective abilities, and to attempt to examine ourselves as true foreigners might do. Our best chance to align our work with the power of myth and ritual may lie in a deeper, symbolic understanding of our present day culture and technology rather mere repetition of the myth of the past.
Starting on November 20th, on Sunday mornings at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, we’re going to be discussing the ideas presented in the Power of Myth series, which takes a great deal of its materials from Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. That book contains a chapter reminding us that mythology isn’t just a matter of the past, entitled The Hero Today.
In that chapter, Campbell writes,
“The hero-deed to be wrought is not today what it was in the century of Galileo. Where then there was darkness, now there is light; but also, where light was, there now is darkness. The modern hero-deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul.
Obviously, this work cannot be wrought by turning back, or away, from what has been accomplished by the modern revolution; for the problem is nothing if not that of rendering the modern world spiritually significant – or rather (phrasing the same principle the other way around) nothing if not that of making it possible for men and women to come to full human maturity through the conditions of contemporary life.“
What do you make of this? What is the hero deed that you see as appropriate for our time in our society? What do you think Joseph Campbell is talking about when he’s writing about “the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul”?