ONE OF OUR greatest modern students of world mythology and religion was Joseph Campbell, the scholar Bill Moyers interviewed in a popular six-part PBS series, “The Power of Myth,” first shown in 1988.
Campbell was of the opinion that the first function of religion and its stories is to awaken and maintain in the individual a sense of the wonder of life and being.
“Think how mysterious it is,” Campbell said to Bill Moyers, “that anything should be.”
To be truly human is to be shaken by the fact that there is anything at all; it is to be seized by the rapture of being alive.
What a tragedy if mentally and spiritually, you slept your life away and never woke up to the wonder of being.
Religion’s first role, thus, is to help us wake up so we don’t sleepwalk our way through life but instead that we develop a spiritual connection to the reality about us and the mystery of our own reality.
Campbell names this first function of religion the “mystical” or “metaphysical” function.
It’s the most basic of all, he says, not necessarily in time or in terms of personal development — indeed, sometimes it is years before we wake up at all — but first in priority, for it has to do with simply beholding being and wondering at it.
Campbell writes that you can regard anything in its “metaphysical/mystical” dimension.
“In India,” he told Moyers, “I have seen a red ring put around a stone, and then the stone becomes regarded as an incarnation of the mystery.”
“Usually,” he continued, “you think of things in practical terms, but you could think of anything in terms of its mystery.”
“What is the meaning,” he asks, “of a tree, of a butterfly, of the birth of a child? What is the meaning of the song of the rushing stream, or of the universe itself? Who can answer? Such wonders simply are. They precede meaning, though ‘meanings’ can be read into them.”
I consider these words on many of these lovely summer mornings here in the Pacific Northwest, when waking early I watch the sun rise and behold the pink light in the clouds or observe a watchful coyote lope across a field.
Nothing of this had to be, yet here it is. Nor did we have to be, yet here we are, privileged to behold these wonders.
Wrote the poet Robinson Jeffers:
It flows out of mystery into mystery: there is no beginning —
How could there be? And no end — how could there be?
The stars shine in the sky like the spray of a wave
Rushing to meet no shore, and the great music
Blares on forever …
(“How Beautiful It Is,” from “The Beginning and the End”)
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is [email protected]