It’s been more than three decades, and certainly most of the influential time of my own theological/social justice career, since I was first introduced to Joseph Campbell (may he rest in “bliss”). He was still alive then, and my husband and I were like geeks following his PBS series on Myths and Metaphors, and reading all his books. We called him “JC”, an intentional play on initials and Jesus Christ. Both of us Muslims by choice, we embrace the Gospels as part of the divine legacy of revelation and accept that they come from the same Source as the Qur’an, the Torah, and other sacred texts, but we fall short of the divination of Jesus. The grey area of this is hard put for some Christians because “accepting Christ” means to accept the story of his birth, death and resurrection as formula bringing salvation.
We accept his extraordinary divine mission. Our sacred text not only recaps the virgin birth but also gives Jesus the gift of speech from the cradle where he confirms that his unmarried mother was not a loose woman, but rather the bringer of a Divine miracle, and as such, a miracle herself. Maybe at another time I will discuss how Mary configures so uniquely in my own feminist theology as read through the Qur’an, but, today I have in mind something about the transformation I went through with Joseph Campbell, starting with the virgin birth.
You should know, my father named me Mary. We all had names related to his intimacy with the divine through Christianity, just as my children have names drawn from my intimacy with the divine as a Muslim. But this particular name also gave me a peculiar attachment to the virgin birth, which I took as literal biological fact. Since the virgin birth is also in the Qur’an, I did not put this into question but rather transferred my literal take on it. Ten years later as a theology graduate student, I was introduced to the works of Joseph Campbell. Then I was put to the test: to wrestle within the belly of the whale. How come the same story crops up in tribes, nations and people who never met each other and knew nothing of the Bible? It was no easy battle.
Like many believers, I did not want to let go of too much of what I held as sacred. What would be left then, nothing? I would only much later reflect on how much impact giving up literalism would have on my own contributions to gender and faith. This week India celebrates the birthday of Lord Ganesh, the elephant head god, and the occasion of Onam, the festival of renewal. I have had two people share the story of Onam with me. One an eclectic Hindu (he thinks of himself as independent but his telling lacks a certain theological criticism) and the other a Muslim (who is ever ready to be critical of Hindu lore, myth, and practice while unaware that, like most Muslims, he imbibes our lore, myth ,and practice uncritically).
In fact, the two versions of the story of Onam made me think back and be thankful for Joseph Campbell. Every religion has its myths and sacred stories. If they are only literal, then we are all in trouble. If instead, they all do the same thing: motivate us toward higher Truth within ourselves and in our relationships with the divine and each other, then they are all equally fantastic and similarly important. It is not so much the details and whether they could even be remotely fact, but the impact that they have upon the paradigms of belief. And that is where gender comes in.
Sacred myths did not come out of thin air but rather reflect their cultural and historical locations. Now I am clear, I would take the myth but not take the patriarchy. To arrive at the place of criticism and still avoid cynicism and disbelief was a battle I waged lorded over by JC. I remember when the portal opened and my mind had to re-encounter certain “truths” until they fell by the way side, leaving only that Divine spark, which we, as humans, endeavor to actualize in our lives. But the ground upon which I stood, did shake and certain aspects of my belief had to be let go else they drown me. Still, I had to stand at the place of utter despair before I could be renewed.
So while I do not take sacred stories literally, I do partake and affirm the meaning of those stories. Some people say myths are not true. “Oh that’s just a myth.” If truth is only literal, then that may be so. . . but if truth is meaning, myths go far beyond. As Joseph Campbell says in the Power of Myth:
“Mythology is not a lie. Mythology is poetry. It is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate Truth—penultimate because the Ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images… Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.”
We are all here to celebrate what is sacred about ourselves and each other.
Happy Birthday Lord Ganesh, Happy Onam, and Happy Yom Kippur.
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.