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The Fundamentalist Mind
How Polarized Thinking Imperils Us All
By Stephen Larsen
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 2007 Stephen Larsen
All rights reserved.
THE PHANTOM RULERS OF HUMANITY
The fire threw up figures
And symbols meanwhile, racial myths formed and dissolved in it, the phantom rulers of humanity
That without being are yet more real than what they are born of, and without shape, shape that which makes them:
The nerves and the flesh go by shadowlike, the limbs and the lives shadowlike, these shadows remain, these shadows
To whom temples, to whom churches, to whom labors and wars, visions and dreams are dedicate....
—Robinson Jeffers, "Roan Stallion"
The world is currently facing an array of crises unlike any before in human history pertaining to the use of natural resources, distribution of wealth, health concerns, and just how the members of the human family might get along together on planet Earth. It's a time when clear thinking is urgently called for, yet some people are starting holy wars, fighting to the death over ownership of the places they call sacred, calling each other "the Great Satan," and asserting a divine mandate for whatever they do—from acts of violence to accumulating great wealth. Others, with seeming joy, anticipate the end of the world, believing that in the near future the heavens will open, divine figures will appear and enter the stream of history and, in the Mother of all Battles on the fabled plains of Armageddon, good will once and for all win a decisive victory over evil.
Why does humankind relentlessly involve supernatural forces and players in history? It has been so ever since the Iliad, since the Old Testament, since the Bhagavad Gita. The answer has to do with the story-making capacity of the human mind. Especially when human emotions are stirred, when people feel vulnerable or frightened, rationality no longer suffices. People look for reassurance to events and realities beyond the ordinary human scale. Their frame of reference, in other words, becomes mythic.
Modern interpretations of myth seem to equate it with fairy tales or superstitions, if not patent falsehood, but myth is grander than that; if it lies or exaggerates on the outside, there is a deep perennial truth on the inside. Myths are universal stories that convey deep experiences of whole peoples and cultures. You can tell that myths are older than religions because they are there right at the beginning of things, when God walked in the Garden in the cool of the evening and serpents whispered to the mother of us all. Myths also give rise to rituals, as when an immortal event of ancient times, such as Passover or the Christian Eucharist, is celebrated symbolically. The myth says: Do this in remembrance of me, and the celebrant, through the ritual, is united with the God and the sacralized beginnings of things. Whenever we're concerned with the highest truths of life or life's most transforming experiences, we are in the realm of myth.
Mythic thinking, however, is not reserved only for solemn rituals and myths of origin; it is also found psychologically in the worlds of childhood and in dream and emotion. It inflates things so they are larger, more absolute; their dramatic potential is enhanced. The dark basement of the house we grew up in rustles with ghosts; that patch of woods becomes the forest primeval, with unknown creatures in it. Our parents can shift from godlike sources of all good things to fearful tyrants, witches, and monsters. We all remember our child's world, dimly or clearly, and though we gladly put many aspects of it behind us, we still return to that world regularly in night dreams and daydreams. We also find mythic thinking in our novels and on the big screen with Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter. And it is there whenever we become highly charged with emotions and try to grasp at big pictures and ultimate meanings. "The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stands this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue waiting for the traffic light to change," wrote Joseph Campbell in his classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949. Everyman, though he seldom seems aware of it, is immersed in mythic thinking.
Myth draws its psychological (and sociocultural) power from what are known as archetypal elementary ideas, a concept first introduced in the writings of nineteenth-century German scholar Adolf Bastian. Elementary ideas can wield power over the mind of any person anytime, anywhere. They include such archetypal forms as the Myth of Paradise, the Hero's Journey, the Earth Mother, Gaia, the Wise Old Man, the Wise Old Woman, the form and attributes of God (conceived of as a person rather than a presence), the Messiah, the anti-Messiah, the Evil One, the End of the World. Each mythology skillfully interweaves the elementary ideas with folk ideas. The former give an ineluctable dignity to the culture; the latter provide spice, flavor, and uniqueness to the eternal images and cosmologies. The folk ideas are drawn from local customs, idioms, geography, and support the community. They provide social orientation and a sense of belonging to something. The archetypal elementary ideas open the psyche and the spirit to wonder and awe, and give helpful hints and guidance through life—an example being the hero's journey, with its themes of separation, initiation, and return. Both orientation and guidance are necessary to human living, but while our orientation shifts as we evolve over time and encounter changing times and cultures, inner guidance and the maturation of the human soul through a lifetime are perennial issues.
LIVING OUR MYTH CONSCIOUSLY
When the power of mythic imagery gets tangled up with literalism, we have something called fundamentalism. Fundamentalism takes the luminous and mythic, whose realm is meant to be metaphor and symbol, and imprisons it in matter and in history. Given the natural preeminence of the divine in the human psyche, all else pales before the realization, on the world's stage and out in history, of God's supernatural intention. Mythic imagination reified in this way can turn ordinary people into "God's chosen people," unfruitful deserts into "the Promised Land," and municipalities with heterogeneous histories, such as Jerusalem, into "our" holy city. Well now, you may ask at this point, are you talking about religion or mythology?
Good question, I respond. In my experience, humans easily confuse the relationship between these two, especially when the fundamentalist mindset is attempting to ground mythic forms in historical facts. After the great cultural Enlightenment of three to four hundred years ago, the clear light of rational thought was supposed to illumine our vision, and mythic thinking was expected to gradually fade into the dream world of humanity's abusive and tormented childhood. But we are finding, as Campbell and the depth psychologists of the twentieth century warned, that these old thought forms do not simply disappear. They stay around and when threatened, engage in maneuvers of self-preservation, as it were, like any living creature threatened with extinction. They try to bend the minds of their holders to keep them alive forever. Consider for a moment the reaction of Galileo's inquisitors to the idea of a heliocentric, rather than earth-centered, universe. Consider the reaction of fundamentalist Christianity to Darwin's theory of evolution. Consider the reaction of conservative Islam to the secularism of the modern world.
MIT theorist and psycholinguist Noam Chomsky has demonstrated that there is a faculty in the human mind capable of receiving the "generative grammar" of whatever language a person is exposed to as a little child, so that within a few years he or she becomes a fluent native speaker. This language is likely to remain the person's primary language for the rest of his or her life. In most right-handed people, the left hemisphere of the brain receives these linguistic imprints. The same phenomenon is true of mythic images, or mythogems. Like morphemes, or units of verbal meaning, the mythogem is a unit of mythological meaning. The idea of a garden at the beginning of time, like the Garden of Eden, is an example of such a mythogem, as are elements of the narratives around the lives of saints or saviors—including their "virgin birth," a theme not at all limited to Christianity, and even the very idea of God as "a being in the sky." The neurological organ for the imagery and emotional meaning of mythogems is probably, for most people, the right hemisphere of the brain—while the names and verbal lore are stored in the left (more about this in chapter 2). The myths and rituals of all cultural forms, including religion, are all-too-easily imprinted on young psyches, a fact which has prompted questions regarding the ethics of doing so—is religion too powerful and too peril-filled a thing to be foisted on children?
The idea of the sacred seems to come to us instinctively. Religious historian Mircea Eliade says human beings generically understand the difference between the sacred and the secular; we build a frame of reverence around symbolic elements presented to us in ritual contexts. These mythogems take on a different order of experience than secular reality. The elaboration of those sacred stories, images, and ideas into a systematic, time-honored form creates a religion. In the process, an enormous amount of motivation and emotion are interwoven with the lore and imagery of the religion's core myth. These crystallized forms accompany most of the world's population through the stages and trials and tribulations of life in their own emotion-impregnated vernacular. These forms in some cases become so meaningful that people are even willing to enter into holy conflict and risk death for the images, names, and ideas that comprise them. We see this, obviously, in some strict forms of religious fundamentalism today.
We are wired, if you will, for mythic thinking. It has a neurological basis in our brains and is ingrained in our cultural and deep psychological patterns. Myths fit into our psyches the way a neurotransmitter fits into a receptor site on a neuron, or the way digital code is recognized by a computer's processor. As the eminent American psychologist Jerome Bruner has said, not until we tell a story about our experience can we make sense of it. For Aristotle, a myth was just a good story or a drama, but one that held power because of its effect on the mind.
Furthermore, such is the nature of the human brain and psychology that even when we eliminate all mention of a God or gods—anything supernatural whatsoever—from social discourse, still the human mind will make a religion of communism or free-market capitalism, or make a deity of Chairman Mao or a priesthood of politicians. It is even willing to make a fetish of scientific objectivity itself in the form of scientism, a hybrid view of reality cobbled together from Newtonian physics and tenth-grade science. All fundamentalisms are not religious or mythic. Many are secular and materialistic. It is not the content, in these cases, so much as the absolutist style of conviction and expression that betrays their fundamentalist nature.
We neglect myth at our peril. A horrific, not-to-be-forgotten example is Nazism, with its swastika symbol, sacred blood, and sacred soil—an apparent resurgence of archaic, warlike Germanic Wotanism. Hitler, himself steeped in mythology, knew he needed a scapegoat. He once confided to a friend that he didn't know what he'd do without the Jews, for anti-Semitism was the only cause that would unite his contentious Fascist buddies. Hitler also proved that myths, such as the genetic or cultural existence of an "Aryan" people, a "master race," require no basis whatsoever in fact. They only need to grab people's minds—and they are very good at grabbing minds.
Incendiary nationalistic evangelists and ayatollahs of our time may not be students of mythology or depth psychology, but they do exploit the same elemental principles: plucking mythic puppet strings that reach down into irrational human centers of belief, emotion, and behavior. Profound cultural collisions are unfolding before our wondering eyes, and religion and mythology are found everywhere in the mix, alongside modern technology. Islamic terrorists can contemplate using the secrets of the atom to shift the ancient concept of holy war to a new scale, and televangelists can rebuke and frighten millions about their souls in TV jeremiads not even old Jeremiah could dream of. Ancient actors in modern dress sometimes look terrifying.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Campbell not only lets us know that, like it or not, we all are on a mythic journey, he urges that it is far better to live the myth consciously than succumb to it in projected form. In a personal psyche, the healthy approach to dealing with "content" that is associated with fear or anxiety is to examine the content, try to understand it, and only then take action. An unhealthy approach, such as paranoia, for example, projects the fearful content onto others and, if strong emotion accompanies the process, takes immediate action. On a social or cultural level, the healthy approach would have been Hitler entering into a dialectical process of discussion with the Jewish people and coming to a compromise on their issues. The unhealthy version is the unfortunate history we know, in which massive paranoia was allowed to rule and genocide was the result.
PSYCHOLOGY AND MYTH
Sigmund Freud was one of the first to link psyche and myth. Freud based his early model of psychology entirely on the Oedipus story, sometimes called "the family romance," in which the male child wishes to possess his mother and kill his father. (Outspoken early psychoanalytic feminists forced Freud to consider the equivalent for girls, which he named "the Electra complex," marked by antipathy between the girl and her mother and a secret romance with daddy.) According to Freud, the primordial influence of the "family romance" accompanies us through life, as young men long to be reunited with their mothers and young women to be loved and cherished by their fathers. The god ruling Freud's early psychology was Eros—desire—based on sexuality. As he moved into the second half of his life, however, Freud seemed to realize he had based his psychology on only half a myth. In a conceptual move astonishing to his well-indoctrinated followers, in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) Freud suddenly introduced a new player onto the psychological stage: Eros's brother and eternal counterplayer Thanatos, the lord of death. The harder the struggle of life (short, brutish, and nasty in Thomas Hobbes's phrase), the sweeter the desire to return to the womb or to paradise and the cessation of struggle. We find the signature of Thanatos in the heaven-bound visions of Islamic martyrs, who embrace personal annihilation as a religious privilege, and fundamentalist millennialists, who seem exuberant about the end of the world.
Among Freud's students there was universal agreement of the power of myth on the psyche. In their work each one focused on a different aspect of the hero myth: Alfred Adler on the inexorable human will to power, Carl Jung on the underworld journey that leads to rebirth, Otto Rank on the myth of the hero as encapsulated in the human birth process. Anna Freud and Melanie Klein studied the displacement of primary love for the mother onto symbolic objects and the terrible resentment of the infant/hero when disappointed—myths of matricide and the genesis of sadistic aggression. Wilhelm Reich thought all myths, as well as the very "character" we play in time and space, are stored in the dynamisms of the body. Social philosopher Herbert Marcuse based his pessimistic commentary Eros and Civilization on the dichotomy between the life and death instincts. Myth permeates psyche, said Freud—and his followers echoed him—and the worst danger of all is to repress and hold back the energies of the "gods" as they move in us.
Jung, Freud's most famous psychoanalytic protégé and renegade, during one of his last filmed interviews in the late 1950s with the threat of nuclear holocaust hovering over the world, pauses and looks straight into the camera. He positions his fingers upward as if holding a string. "The world," the old wizard says ominously in thick, Swiss-accented but impeccable English, "is hanging by a thin thread. That thread is the psyche of man." This was his plea that we begin to think psychologically. In his autobiography Jung notes that at one point he realized his "task of tasks" was to find out what myth he was living; everything else was secondary. Jungian psychology invites each person to discover his or her own myth, or risk being seized by one unconsciously.
Excerpted from The Fundamentalist Mind by Stephen Larsen. Copyright © 2007 Stephen Larsen. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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