Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > In Search of New Mythology (Part Two)

Aug 19, 2012

In Search of New Mythology (Part Two)


Martin Luther King, Jr. giving the "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington, 1963.

In Part One of this series I explained why America needs new mythology and why it makes the most sense to build it upon the existing mythological tradition of “hope and change.” I set out a series of features that any new mythology must have if it is going to avoid the pitfalls of the current dominant mythologies and have a chance of widespread acceptance by the American public:

-- a strong appeal to patriotism and national pride, including an assertion of something uniquely good about America

-- continuity with the mythic past through deep roots in distinctively American traditions and a close connection with a figure from the pantheon of national heroes

-- an affirmation of individual freedom as the highest value of all

-- an assurance that there are eternal, universal truths and values, which are not merely human creations and thus provide an objective, unshakeable foundation for human life 

-- a narrative pitting those eternal values against their opposites -- a moral drama of good versus evil -- on a global scale

The new mythology would also have to eliminate the most harmful features of the current mythology of hope and change, those that breed harm to others and insecurity to ourselves:

-- dividing the world into the “virtuous” and the “evildoers”

-- pitting America against perceived enemies

-- mixing the hope inherent in the ideal of progress with a strong dose of fear of fundamental change

-- promising a perfect future that clashes with the reality of the present moment

As I concluded in Part One, "That’s certainly a tall order. It might seem impossible. But myth-making is an exercise of imagination. Can we stretch our imaginations to conjure up a mythology that fits all these requirements? Perhaps the answer lies closer than we think."

I begin my search by thinking back to the great myth-makers of the nation’s history, those who have earned a place of great respect and admiration in the minds of most Americans. That’s a rather small group, and nearly all have offered up versions of the two great dominant mythologies that are so problematic. Very quickly, though, I come to one name that stands out not only for eminence and mythic imagination, but for meeting the requirements of a successful mythology while avoiding the dangerous pitfalls: the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

To call Dr. King a myth-maker is not to say that he offered up pure fiction. It is to say that he had a rare ability to tell the truth in emotionally powerful ways that could inspire dramatic political and cultural change. Like all great American myth-makers, he took a great number of empirical facts and wove them into a deeply moving narrative centered on the ideal of freedom. Unlike so many of the others, though, he included facts that were disturbing to most Americans, facts about the tragic denial of freedom in this land. So there is less of a gap between fact and myth in the national story that he created than in most others.

King also had a rare ability to root the radically new elements of his mythology deeply in the existing mythology of hope and change. He insisted that the dream he so famously had was nothing really new, that it demanded no novel ideals or values. He dreamed only that the nation would finally live up to the most basic values on which it was founded, the ones it declared as its reason for being on July 4, 1776: the inherent right of every person to equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Founding Fathers expected a nation living by these ideals to transform the world. Dr. King agreed.

It is already evident that his mythology meets the first three tests: patriotic appeal, continuity with the mythic past, and freedom as the highest ideal. King clearly met the fourth test -- an unshakeable foundation for our lives -- when he preached freedom and equality as eternal, objective truths that were granted not by any human entity but by God. 

However King was quite aware that religious language, which was his native tongue, would not be meaningful to many Americans. So he carefully cast his mythology simultaneously in both religious and secular languages. Like the Founding Fathers, he presented the fundamental values as trans-human truths both by claiming a divine source for them and by arguing that they are self-evident to human reason. Here again he showed his continuity with the mythic past and stood with the pantheon of our earliest national heroes.

I shall offer a sketch of a mythology based on King’s words as I read them (with occasional quotations). I rely only on King’s secular words, since any mythology has the greatest chance of success when it can appeal to the widest range of people. Many Americans will want to translate this story into the religious language that King so commonly used. He made that translation surprisingly easy, which is one more good reason to use his words as a springboard for a new myth. (A summary of King’s views my book American Nonviolence shows how effectively he intertwined religious and secular language.)

I do not suggest that King’s mythology is the one-and-only cure-all for the nation’s ills. I present it merely as a springboard for imagination, an example of what a search for new mythology could look like. Like any mythology, it can be developed in endless ways.

The basic story line begins with the Founding Fathers creating something brand new and extraordinary: A nation-state based on the eternal truths that are self-evident to any reasonable person. It is obvious that every human being feels a need to be free. Everyone, if allowed basic freedom, feels that they are intrinsically worthy and valuable. Everyone wants equality -- to be treated with justice -- because of their inherent desire for freedom and sense of their intrinsic value. 

The Founding Fathers emphasized certain kinds of freedom -- to speak openly, vote in elections, and own property -- because they saw humanity as essentially a collection of separate individuals, all free to compete with each other for life’s rewards. In fact, though, freedom means much more. It means “the opportunity to fulfill my total capacity untrammeled by any artificial barrier.” It means the ability of each person to choose their own way to actualize their own unique potentials to the fullest.

But no one can reach their full potential on their own. Sooner or later (and usually sooner rather than later) we all need some kind of help from others. That’s why “my personality can be fulfilled only in the context of community…the mutually cooperative and voluntary venture of man to assume a semblance of responsibility for his brother." To be fully free, we must recognize that we are all members of a single human family. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. This is the interrelated structure of all reality. You can never be what you ought to be until I become what I ought to be” -- and vice versa. What happens to one happens to all.

Most importantly, if one person’s freedom to pursue their own fulfillment is abridged, then everyone suffers. Since that one person cannot contribute fully to the fulfillment of others, all suffer a loss of their fullest freedom. It is in everyone’s self-interest, then, that no one interfere with the freedom of anyone else. Certainly the Founding Fathers understood that.

But full freedom requires a more positive approach. It requires each of us to actively support all others in fulfilling themselves. That’s the only way we can totally fulfill our own potentials. This active support is the deepest meaning of love. We must not merely tolerate everyone else; we must love all members of the human family equally. We must care about what happens to every person, respond to the unique needs of each, and thus help all fulfill their highest potentials.

For some this may be a religiously or morally motivated altruism. For others, though, it need only be a matter of common sense. We need others to fulfill ourselves. The more optimally others are functioning, the more they can give to us. We must live in whatever kind of community we create. The happier and healthier the community, the happier and healthier our own lives. For all these reasons, when we help others we are also serving ourselves: “We are in the fortunate position of having our deepest sense of morality coalesce with our self-interest.”

If everyone acted upon this common-sense insight, we would be living in “the beloved community.” This is a particular interpretation of the utopian or millennial goal that has been such an essential part of the mythology of hope and change throughout American history. In the beloved community, everyone would recognize the truth that we all are, always have been, and always will be interdependent. And everyone would act upon that truth. The ideal is active interdependence and mutual loving service, not individual self-reliance and competition. Therefore there would be no hierarchies, no irresolvable conflicts, no oppression.

The beloved community would be one of perfect unity but not strict uniformity. Diversity would be fully valued, because the distinctive qualities and potentials of every individual would be fully valued. The unity would come from each one appreciating and enhancing the qualities that make every other one different and unique.

At first sight it seems that this millennial ideal creates the same gap between the real and the ideal that all other millennial visions have created, breeding the same frustration and anxiety, since it is hard to believe it could ever be attained in this world. This new mythology openly acknowledges the radical difference between real and ideal. Obviously, in today’s real world many people are selfish and unjust; many ignore or actively thwart the needs of others, especially the need for freedom; inequality is far too widespread; societal problems fester and are exacerbated every day.

At the deepest root of all these problems is the tragic fact of separation (or, in religious language, sin). This is readily apparent in our own nation’s life. Americans have learned from their earliest beginnings to see themselves essentially as separate individuals who have a terribly difficult time figuring out how to relate to other individuals. That difficulty is reflected in the many separations between groups: genders, nations, ethnicities, races, religions, etc. As soon as there is separation there is likely to be a contest for domination between the two opposing sides. This is ultimate source of all inequality, which brings with it oppression, injustice, and all too often violence.

In the modern world, we also find growing separation between our own competing values: some toward ethical/spiritual ideals, others toward material acquisition. And the material side seems increasingly to be dominating. The urge to materialist domination is a major cause of the environmental perils we face. But the only reason we can even think about dominating nature is our deep cultural tradition of treating humans as separate from the rest of the natural environment. In all these ways, separation is the source of humanity’s ills.

However, separation is not the final word. There is a countervailing reality, “some creative force that works for togetherness, a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.” For many people, not all of them formally religious, the existence of this force is another objective truth that can serve as a reassuring foundation for life. We can see this force at work most easily in natural environments unspoiled by human interference: an organic system of endless interactions, all contributing to an overarching harmony.

It is harder to see the same togetherness in human life. Though we are all threads interwoven in the single garment of destiny, the many separations we experience make the weave ragged and torn, sometimes leaving gaping holes.

Thus there are two forces contending for dominance in our world and our daily lives: one for togetherness and one for separation, one toward the beloved community and one away from it, one an “arc of the universe that bends toward justice” and one thwarting that arc. The conflict between these two is the kind of moral drama -- a battle between good and evil -- that seems to be necessary for any mythology to gain dominant influence in American life.

Each one of us is called to choose sides in this conflict. We can create more rips and holes in the garment of destiny, or we can help to mend the weave and bring it closer to the harmonious blend it is meant to be. If we enter into this moral drama and fight for good against evil, we become menders. We resist every form of inequality, injustice, oppression, and violence. We move our nation, and ultimately the world, toward the beloved community.

But resistance means doing battle. It might even be called a form of war, although one of the greatest ills to be fought against is war of the traditional, military kind, which brings the cruelest separations of all.

This moral dualism is perfectly consonant with the dominant American tradition of the mythology of hope and change. It is, in a sense, the familiar call to go out to the frontier and defeat the evil enemy; to promote the march of civilization; to take a stand on the cutting edge of progress, where the present meets the future, and bravely face the unknown. So it might seem to keep us trapped in the sources of insecurity this mythology has always created: fear of enemies, of the unknown, of evils beyond our control, and of a future where the real can never match the ideal.

But the fundamental innovation of this mythology -- viewing all humanity as one family, tied together in a single garment of destiny -- points a way out of this dilemma, as we shall see in the next installment.

(This is Part Two in a series. Read Part One here. Stay tuned for Part Three.)

comments powered by Disqus