Saturday, 16 November 2013

The meaning of life and/or being alive

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Joseph Campbell - from The Power of Myth:

People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That's what it's all finally about. 

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Before I became a Christian I was a kind of New Agey, neo-Pagany kind of person - and I owned some thirty or more books by and about the Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell. 

On the other side of conversion, I can see that although Campbell was anti-Christian (or rather, post-Christian: believing that Christianity was utterly discredited and exploded by modernity) he was importantly right about many things - but that, again and again, he fell down in his reasoning by creating artificial dichotomies - as with the above quotation.

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I would modify the above quote to read something like:  

People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. That is true; but it is not enough. 

What we are also seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and also with God (in other words with reality); so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive as well as knowing where our life should be aiming, and why.

That's what it's all finally about.

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I think Campbell was correct in recognizing that modern Western Christian life, perhaps especially church life, is often deficient in the experience: the resonance, the rapture, of being alive. 

But this is not a fault in Christianity as such - but in the partiality and biases of some denomination or groups of people - sometimes driven by motives of caution and fear about the possibility of demonic influences getting mixed-up with the rapture of being alive. 

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I personally find that Christianity has greatly amplified and enhanced my experiences of 'being alive' because now I know what to do with these experiences - I know that they are real (not illusions), objective (not subjective), permanent (not as evanescent as my memory), and significant (being the elements of Heaven). 

Whereas Campbell could only say that these things were a part of human psychology - at most a part of universal human psychology (the collective unconscious) - therefore just temporarily important for personal fulfillment and growth; and in terms of the universe as a whole: nothing.

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So, my opinion is that Joseph Campbell was right to highlight an important and debilitating deficiency of much modern Christianity, wrong to assume that his Jungian mythologizing solved it; and wrong to assume that Christianity was incapable of absorbing what was valid and good about his mythological insights. 

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7 comments:

mormonchess said...

I have about 25 of his books, and I do enjoy reading Campbell. But I agree with your assessment of him with respect to his "post-Christian" biases and his artificially contrived dichotomies.

A brilliant man, no doubt, but he certainly had his blinders on.

Nicholas Fulford said...

Campbell has been influential on my thinking, and his statement has resonance for me.

I cannot, however, accept the claims of the Christian mythos as factual, even though that mythos has a deeply meaningful narrative. The values espoused by the Jesus that is portrayed in the gospels are in large measure good values, but are they sufficient, and are they universal. And what precisely is it that is required of the follower? Is it accepting the beliefs that many hold as central to Christianity, or is it following the example given as to how to live the good life?

Is a pagan or post-modernist or atheist who accepts that meaning exists within the Christian mythos, and who recognizes the validity of the values taught vis-a-vis charity, forgiveness, and inclusiveness necessarily at odds with Christians simply by the fact that (s)he cannot accept the mythos as logos?

This is a core question, because in our age, many an intelligent person cannot simply ignore the evidence of evolution, nor believe in a physical resurrection, or hold that the myth of Noah was a factual event.

Mythos and logos are very different spheres. I can accept the meaning of a Christian mythos much as I can accept the meaning within the mythos of Lord of the Rings. I do not, however, accept that Lord of the Rings has an existence outside of mythos.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF - I think you need to think more deeply about this paragraph.

"This is a core question, because in our age, many an intelligent person cannot simply ignore the evidence of evolution, nor believe in a physical resurrection, or hold that the myth of Noah was a factual event."

Because you pack into it all kinds of interlocking assumptions which are blocking you. Maybe you need to take things one question at a time.

Donald said...

@NF

Campbell has been influential on my thinking, and his statement has resonance for me.

"I cannot, however, accept the claims of the Christian mythos as factual, even though that mythos has a deeply meaningful narrative."

Which parts and for what reason? If you want to approach it in an ordered way (though of course conversion is a complex thing which involves all aspects of a person: intellect, will, emotions, experience, temptation, influence) you might want to consider a cumulative case for Christianity.

One method you might find helpful is to take intellectual stock of what you hold to be true at present. For example I've come to realize that there are at least three metaphysical assumptions *science* (here defined as something close to: the quantitative investigation of matter in motion) that make coherent sense given (Christian) Theism and are non-sensical or at best brute facts given atheism. They are:

1. The existence of an objective physical world apart from my thinking about it, and the fact the universe displays regularity and conformity to mathematical and logical principles across time and space. Briefly for the reasons given by the arguments from contingency and Aquinas's 5 ways.

2. The rationality of the human mind to comprehend the external world. Briefly by the self-defeating nature of physicalist determinism and by (Plantiga's) evolutionary argument against naturalism.

3. The reality of objective morality as moral character is absolutely necessary for scientists, because they must be committed to Truth and therefore be ruthlessly honest. Briefly an atheistic universe implies, when logically traced out, nihilism to which the only 'rational' response is hedonism (and possibly suicide once one exceeds the pleasure-pain threshold).

You no doubt are familiar with these arguments but *in case* you haven't and want to do a serious study I recommend Ed Feser for an aristotelian-thomistic approach (http://edwardfeser.blogspot.ca/) or William Lane Craig for an analytic approach (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/). I really also commend CS Lewis to you if you haven't read him and want to dig in to these things deeply from the Christian worldview.

As a scientist one of the most frustrating aspects of the way people abuse science is to use its fruit (albeit unconsciously) as a sort of psychological affirmation of their atheistic worldview when in fact if they recognized the metaphysical foundations necessary for science they are incredibly theistic and detrimental to an atheistic account of reality (pace some forms of platonism and aristotelianismn - which are radically different worldviews than most modern atheists). The psychological rewards should work the other way!

"The values espoused by the Jesus that is portrayed in the gospels are in large measure good values, but are they sufficient, and are they universal?"

If He is who He claimed to be, namely G-d, then yes - they are both sufficient and universal.

Donald said...

@NF continued

" And what precisely is it that is required of the follower?"

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

"Is it accepting the beliefs that many hold as central to Christianity, or is it following the example given as to how to live the good life? "

Both And, not Either Or.

"Is a pagan or post-modernist or atheist who accepts that meaning exists within the Christian mythos, and who recognizes the validity of the values taught vis-a-vis charity, forgiveness, and inclusiveness necessarily at odds with Christians simply by the fact that (s)he cannot accept the mythos as logos? "

Not at odds with those things it is not at odds about. At odds with those things it is at odds about. Those are great and holy things, and they come from G-d, but those things aren't G-d! You can turn holy things in to idols too!

"This is a core question, because in our age, many an intelligent person cannot simply ignore the evidence of evolution, nor believe in a physical resurrection, or hold that the myth of Noah was a factual event."

If you don't think that Genesis exclusively teaches YEC than you can *believe* in evolution (I and BGC do). The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican Churches - comprising more than 66% of the worlds Christians - have stated publicly it is acceptable for a Christian to accept an evolutionary account of universal history (of course with all sorts of caveats to the philosophical baggage people try and tack on to what this means).

If you accept that G-d exists (say by an argument from natural theology, or divine revelation, or even because you can't prove he doesn't exist) than physical resurrection is certainly possible.

You could deny that the story of Noah was a factual event but still affirm the physical resurrection and the existence of G-d, thus this is an intra-house dispute (the infallibility versus inspiration with error of the Bible) and of secondary or tertiary importance than the questions does G-d exist and did Jesus rise from the dead.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Donald - good stuff, well said.

Adam G. said...

I think a lot of leftism is like this in the beginning. Offering bad solutions to real problems.