C.S. Lewis, Joseph Campbell, and Myth

C.S. Lewis, Joseph Campbell, and Myth
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Joseph Campbell and C.S. Lewis approach myth and Christianity from opposite ends.

Campbell believed that religion, in this case Christianity, starts in myth. As humans struggle to find meaning in life, they turn to the imagination and from the imagination comes myth and a spiritual existence. As a result of this process, myths ultimately end up at a final destination be it a person (god), or a place (paradise), or a constant recycling (reincarnation). But myth must lead somewhere and in the Christian faith it arrives at the triune God revealed in the life, death, and physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As Campbell points out, the idea of a savior is not unique to Christianity. As he says, "The interesting thing is that when you read the life of the saviors -- Jain saviors, Buddhist saviors, Hindu saviors, the Christ -- the same motifs are there, time and time and time again." What Christianity did is take the universal mythical motif of savior and apply it to its own savior, Jesus Christ. So Christianity grows out of elements of myth because myth has always been in the mind of humanity.

But Lewis argues the opposite. He contends that the human imagination is able to devise myth because God has implanted within the human psyche a realization of His existence and involvement in creation. It was Lewis's love and respect of myth that actually triggered his belief in the incarnation, once he made this myth-Christian connection. Lewis writes:

To me, who first approached Christianity from a delighted interest in, and reverence for, the best pagan imagination, who loved Balder before Christ and Plato before St. Augustine, the anthropological argument against Christianity has never been formidable. On the contrary, I could not believe Christianity if I were forced to say that there were a thousand religions in the world of which 999 were pure nonsense in the thousandth (fortunately) true. My conversion, very largely, dependent on recognizing Christianity as the completion, the actualization, the entelechy, of something that had never been wholly absent from the mind of man. And I still think that the agnostic argument from similarities between Christianity and paganism works only if you know the answer. If you start by knowing on other grounds that Christianity is false, then the pagan stories may be another nail in its coffin: just as if you started by knowing that there were no such things as crocodiles then the various stories about dragons might help to confirm your disbelief. But if the truth or falsehood of Christianity is the very question you are discussing, and the argument from anthropology is surely a petitio.

Lewis argues along lines similar to the apostle Paul in Romans 1:19-20 that "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." Lewis concludes that in any given culture humanity creates myth that reveal something of the divine nature.

Both men understood myth as a social force that reinforces cultural values. But Lewis would not put long-term value on myth. As he said in The Four Loves, "All that is not eternal is eternally out of date." Because he was supernaturalist and believed the triune God would bring time and creation to a conclusion, that "When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all," Lewis saw something greater than myth and realized that myth did not have eternal significance. Myth was not an end in itself; instead myth was a shadow, a reflection of something greater, and the purpose of myth was to prepare and point people to that something greater, the gospel of Jesus Christ. But as Robert Segal notes:

For Campbell, myth is not only necessary for the deepest human fulfillment but also sufficient. One needs nothing else, including therapy. In fact, therapy is only for those without myth...Myth for Campbell contains all the wisdom humans need. They need only learn to interpret it. They need never venture beyond it. Moreover, myth is easy to interpret. It has a single meaning, even if "sages" are required to decipher that meaning.

Campbell understood myth the way Lewis understood the person of Jesus Christ. While Campbell saw myth as an end in itself and all religions and metaphysical beliefs, even those concerning Christ, through the lens of myth, Lewis's approach was, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." Lewis looked at myth as a vehicle of communication imparted by God to his creation.

Joseph Campbell and C.S. Lewis devoted much of their lives, teaching, and writing to understanding the role of myth in religion and in a technological society. On the importance of myth the men agreed that myth has a place and plays a significant role in culture irrespective of how technologically primitive or advanced the culture might be.

But concerning the specifics of myth and the relationship myth has to the Christian faith, the men came to very different conclusions.

James Menzies is the author of True Myth: C.S. Lewis and Joseph Campbell on the Veracity of Christianity from which this piece has been adapted.

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