Mythical Process in Ideology, Culture and Religion

Michael A Rizzotti

The underlying influence of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit can be seen in the way we interpret the human thought process. In his book Hegel introduced the idea of “the Spirit”. A life-force that is constantly regenerating itself through dialectics initiated by a thesis ─idea─, interacting with its opposite, antithesis, resulting in a symbiotic thought defined as synthesis. Hegel’s work will remain an enduring contribution to philosophy and social sciences. Some of his influence can be recognized in our analysis of ideology, culture and religion. This is outlined in the mythical process described in the thematic sequence in which the hero is inevitably confronted by a foe whose actions find some kind of resolution in the outcome of the story.

the setting
the hero
the quest
the obstacle
the mentor
the outcome

We have quoted the following excerpt by Claude Lévi-Strauss elsewhere in this web page. We will quote it again because it’s an important statement about the evolutionary nature of myth in our contemporary societies:

But what gives the myth an operational value is that the specific pattern described is timeless; it explains the present and the past as well as the future. This can be made clear through a comparison between myth and what appears to have largely replaced it in modern societies, namely, politics.

In the inauguration of the Washington National Monument, the idyllic side of the hero was emphasized and the timeless aspect of his being was promoted, creating in the process an icon of mythical proportions. In retrospect, the mythologizing campaign of the nineteenth century became the cornerstone of a true “Americanism”. As a result, the Founding Father was consecrated as a prototype of the American mythos as well as its ethos. Both are enshrined in the giant obelisk that points to the heavens. This myth-making consecration shows how important and significant role the mythical process plays in the creation of a collective identity and ideology.

Other mythical processes have been efficient in ideology. Marxism is another case in point. It is well known that Marxism is based on the antagonism between the classes, promoting the quest for an idyllic classless society as its ends.

classless society

the bourgeois class  vs  the working class

Marxist-Leninists have used a compelling propaganda tool to replace the bourgeoisie by the dictatorship of the proletariat. The end result is that one an oppressive hierarchy is simply replaced by another. In the end, the everlasting hierarchy survives with a different set of agents.

Ideology merely uses myth’s seductive powers to propagate its own political ends. Nazism, fascism, nationalism and to a certain extent, patriotism, typify the seductive powers decreed in national myths. The propagation of these myths take hold of the “masses”. They end up subverting the rights of the individual and drag the “people” into patriotic frenzies.

Think of the impact that the myth of the superiority of the Aryan race had on Germans in the nineteen-thirties. The people of Germany overwhelmingly subscribed to the idea they were superior to other people. They blindly believed in the illusion promoted by their leader, with disastrous consequences. This resulted in the slaughter of millions of innocent people, and the invasion and destruction of vulnerable countries.

Such tribal exaltations are detrimental to our world. The nuclear arms race that resulted from the blind opposition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. can still destroy our world many times over.  This dynamic, is now seen at work in the war between Christian and Muslim Fundamentalists, which is detrimental to the majority of the population whose tax money is diverted to an expansive war industry rather than economic development.

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As we look around our world, the mythologization seems to have overwhelmed the cultural and political process. Especially since a greater number of people have become fragmented, and in some cases denigrated, by the prevailing power of the mass-media. TV has now become the new opium of the people.

Like mythical super-heroes, the stars of cinema and TV are beings that are separated from ordinary life by the medium. The projected gods and goddesses on the silver screen are but creations of ethereal beings from an “other” world. Communication with these beings is impossible. These heroes live in a “world” inaccessible to the spectator. They exist according to a different set of rules, where everything is possible. Mass-media as a result has become the new vehicle for the supernatural. A prerogative formerly held by religion.

In the early nineteen-nineties, when we first introduced the idea that Superman and other superheroes were part of an American mythology, people were astonished by the idea. Yet they understood what we meant by the analogy. Today the mythologizing function of mass-media should not come as a surprise to most. But it might still come as a surprise to some if we say that science is heavily involved in the mythologizing process of our “western” culture.

Nothing bears more mythological analogy than theories about the big bang. The term embodies a vivid imagery of what happened in the genesis of our cosmos. The caption succeeds in igniting in our imagination a whole visionary explosion at the beginning of time. The physicists’ preoccupation with the origin of the world is nothing new to mythology. Most if not all mythologies have theories about the beginning of the world. And all the myths are believed to be true stories by the people who live by them. Mircea Eliade coined this passion for the beginning, regressus ad uterum: a longing for the origin.

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Among the innumerable names found in the Old Testament, the one that represents the soul of Jewish identity is Israel. The etymology of the name is revealing. It signifies the struggle of “man” with God or its angel. As such, it is one of the more enlightening principles of the religious experience.

One of the most pervasive dynamics in politics has been the imperative of antagonism. In order to explain this dynamic we will use as an example the image of the pyramid as the symbol of a hierarchical system ─i.e., a country, a tribe, a church, a city, a company etc. Such a system relies on an echelon of command to maintain a certain level of order and harmony. If this system is threatened by some form of challenge or disintegration, it will spontaneously react to maintain its integrity by setting the stage for a conflict with an adversary. The real or fabricated appearance of a foe inevitably solidifies the stratified order within the system. Competition with an adversary in sports or business maximizes the identity of the performer and his performance. Likewise, when the hierarchy that holds the system together is threatened, an enemy is the remedy of choice to bolster its top-down control over the system. There is nothing more efficient to reinforce the pyramidal system than war.

One could hardly observe a woman wearing a chador in the US, or the rest of the non-Muslim world, before the illegal war on Iraq. Iraqi women were not constrained to wear the veil prior to the occupation. Today the chador is more popular than ever and has become a visible sign of religious resistance and radical Islam. It turns out that the war only helped to foster religious fundamentalism on both sides of the conflict: All in the name of God. This has had the unfortunate consequence of a polarization of the radical rightwing and leftwing ideologies all over the planet.

good vs evil

God

sacred vs profane

wholly other

However, antagonism also sets the boundaries of identity and allows the possibility of openness. It is important to stress that it is not the dichotomy per se that is central but the dynamic interaction itself. Examples of duality between the sacred and the profane are used as a heuristic tool to help understand the process of spiritual identification and edification. The identity of the sacred or profane is merely relative. It is the dynamic itself that sets the identities apart. They can take any shape or form depending on the hierophany. Furthermore, the identity of the sacred is important only as a stage in the development of a true spiritual experience. It only becomes truly religious when it interacts with the profane and transcends into the “fuzzy” field of the wholly other.

Similarly, the sacred quality of being distinct, chosen, or to be set “apart”, is only one exclusive part of the “wholly other” experience, which by definition includes the “other” profane reality in the all inclusive whole. When the holy transforms itself strictly into the exclusive, as it happens in fanaticism displayed in all religions, it excludes the realm of the universal, the truly religious.

It is the dynamic opposition between the sacred and the profane that enhances the possibilities of openness toward the “whole” other. Specifically in the interaction between the exclusively other and what lies outside its seclusion. This opens the way to the “wholly other”, the all inclusive “other” spiritual reality. Keeping in mind that in English the word holy is related to whole and is synonym to godly and divine.

Yet only with the recognition of the profane reality, typified here by the “other”, could the spiritual experience be complete. Only with the “surrender” into the whole dynamic process of the “wholly other” can we live a spiritual experience. In other words, it is through this expansion of being of the sacred reaching out into an homeostasis with the profane reality, that makes a spiritual experience possible.

The truly religious is only possible through the whole dynamic interactive merging of the sacred and the profane into the wholly other, where the whole spiritual reality of the “other” is acknowledged. Only with the conscious realization of how this antagonism works can we overcome our futile addiction to an ideology of revenge. Only with this revelation we can we stand back and see the whole reality of division. To transcend the sacredness of self toward a genuine and wholesome spiritual experience of tolerance.

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