MAY: MYTH AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RELIGION
by Rollo May during a 1968 "Wine Cellar" conversation
on the question: "Does Modern Man Need Myth?")
The psychoanalyst, Rollo May, approached
the whole meaning of myth in a different way from the other ARC
founders we have heard about today. Rollo was an active and
interactive Fellow who attended every meeting he could. In a
letter written in 1986, he said: "It was indeed a pleasure
to be at an ARC meeting. We’ve developed a kind of friendship
in our meetings and in our discussions about our financial struggles,
and that’s one of the reasons I love the group and the members
of it.” I remember him telling me once, "Betty,
I hope ARC never has a lot of money, that it will always remain
But this has been an ongoing issue:
should we remain small and elite, or aspire to be larger and
democratic? Richard Underwood and I once flew to Washington to
present a proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts for
an ARC program to be called, “America Was Promises.” We wanted
it to be part of the bicentennial celebration. But we were told
that ARC is too elitist and too isolated from the general public. Our
proposal was rejected. Other people, however, maintain that exactly
because we have concentrated on creative individuals, we have
been able to envision the culture a decade ahead, and they think
that, in fact, we have affected that culture.
I live next door to a retired Boston
University professor who has been bemoaning the fact that the
humanities he gave his life to, in teaching, are in decline in
college curricula today. A decade ago, Rollo wrote, "In
a class of English Literature in a western university, there are
five students, while across the hall in the graduate courses in
computer science, there are three hundred. We seem to have forgotten
Max Frisch’s statement that ‘technology is the knack
of arranging the world so we do not experience it.’ It is the
what of human existence rather than the how for
which we are famished."
Rollo May was born in Ada, Ohio in
1909 and grew up in Marine City, Michigan. He attended Oberlin
College, Union Theological Seminary in New York City and received
his PhD from Columbia University summa cum laude, writing
his thesis on “The Meaning of Anxiety.” After his Oberlin graduation,
he roamed the backwoods of Poland, studying and painting non-academic
country people. He said, "My childhood in Michigan had
given me a sufficient dose of anti-intellectualism. It made sense
on the frontier. I grew up to be afraid of thinking too much."
(I was interested later to hear Robert Motherwell say about ARC
one time, and he was a Fellow, “Well -- it is a little too academic.”
So you see, we always have differing opinions about ARC.)
After graduation, May taught briefly
at the American College in Salonika, Greece, and attended a course
with Alfred Adler, who was to greatly affect his professional
career. After he came home from abroad, he entered Union Seminary
where he met Paul Tillich, who was also to affect him.
I first met Paul Tillich in January
of 1934. The encounter was anonymous for both of us. As I had
come out of my room at Hastings Hall, I saw at the far end of
the corridor a solitary man, hesitant and bewildered, making his
way in my direction. Since it was the interim between semesters,
all other students were gone. The hall was empty and silent
except for him and me, and I can still recall his countenance
today -- a large leonine head with a shock of bushy hair over
a high forehead of high color, and a face constructed not in curves,
but in planes -- like a portrait by Cezanne. Well, I helped
him find the room he was looking for, and a week after our encounter
in the hall, I saw on the bulletin board a notice of a series
of lectures to be given by a German scholar. His name meant nothing
to me then , but oh, the titles: “The Spiritual Implications
of Psychoanalysis” and “The Religious Meaning of Modern Art”--they
In 1938, Rollo married Florence
de Frees, and together they had two daughters and a son. He served
a parish in Montclair, New Jersey briefly, but in 1946 he opened
a private psycho-analytic practice of his own. Unfortunately,
he contracted tuberculosis and lay for two years in a bed in
a sanitarium on Lake Saranac. He writes of his morbid self-pity
and how he overcame it.
Later he taught at New York University
and was a visiting professor at Harvard and Princeton and received
the Gold Medal of the American Psychological Association and the
Ralph Emerson Award by Phi Beta Kappa. Clement Reeds, in his
book, The Psychology of Rollo May, says: “Rollo was the
major representative of the American movement in existential psychology.
He was the first to strongly encourage dialogue between philosophers
Rollo said, Therapists belong
to a strange profession. It is partly religion; we do deal with
peoples’ spiritual questions, and as father confessors, I guess
we’ve taken on the mantle of priests. But psychoanalysis is also
a science. Freud’s contribution was to make it teachable.
But this is the inseparable part: it is friendship.
No matter how many forms of valium or librium we invent, it will
not basically raise out the troubles of the human brain.
Why do people seek out a therapist? Because they feel bereft
of a faith, without any reliable structure.
Each of us, I daresay, sometimes
feels like a passenger in a rowboat loose upon the ocean without
any compass, we think, or sense of direction, and we feel a
storm coming up. Listen to what Rollo wrote over a decade ago:
"As long as the highest goal in America remains making
money, as long as we teach no ethics in home or government, as
long as we are not inspired to form a philosophy of life, and
the TV is overloaded with aggression and sex with no mentors in
learning how to love, that long will there continue to
be a frightening depression and suicide. This is especially important
as we seek to give meaning to our lives, as we stand on the threshold
of a new century. Science and humanism must join together to
respond to a cry for help, a cry for myth. Rollo worked
on his book, The Cry for Myth for thirty years, writing
other books in the meantime, but he always came back, after putting
it aside, to his book on myth.
all remember Joseph Campbell’s talks on TV and his books, but
his talk was of the myths of China and India and Asia and Asia
Minor. Rollo’s concern was at home; he was convinced that the
reason for the birth and development of psychoanalysis was that
western society had lost its myth, which he believed to
be the language of psychoanalysis, and he wanted to search out
the contemporary American myth.
What is a myth? When I was young,
I was taught, like others, that it is a fib. Today people are
begging for guidance from astrologers, from cults, they are grasping
at superstitions. I wonder what their definition of myth would
be. Rollo’s definition is: Myth is a story which makes
sense in a senseless world , like a beam that holds the house
together. Myths give us relief from neurotic guilt and excessive
anxiety. They are self-interpretations of our inner selves in
relation to the outside world. The person without a myth is a
person without a home. Remember Willy Loman in The Death
of a Salesman: “We don’t know who we are.” Or the play,
Waiting for Godot. Or Alex Haley, reminding us of our
roots. When one is exiled from a structure, from a story, from
a myth, one enters solitude.
Rollo May says that "each
of us accumulates a myth of our own from our family , our school
experiences, our dream lives, and our relationships. We develop
a story that makes sense to us and gives a structure to our lives."
And then this conscious myth is balanced in our subconscious.
If this is true, then each individual myth is bound to be different
from the myths of others, but in general, Rollo says, "They
turn out to be variations on classical myths."
Because we are lonely as individuals,
we then want to collectively represent ourselves. We end up adopting
a hero, because we hunger for models as standards of action, as
ethics in flesh and bones, just like we are. Consider Moses,
the Buddha, Mohammed and, Rollo says, "the eternal amazing
myth of Jesus, with its celebrative rituals which are the physical
expressions of myth -- baptism, communion, the giving of gifts
-- with the village church itself standing as a community myth.
We enjoy celebrating a communal myth together. But each successive
generation will reinterpet myth to fit the new aspects and needs
of the culture. And memory is our internal studio to do this."
So let’s look at what Rollo May says
about some American myths. "It is the middle west that
is the birthplace of most American myths. The east can
only sit by the rivers of Babylon and weep." (Remember
Rollo is from the middle west.) "The American frontiersman,
fresh from Europe whose myths came from the Middle Ages, began
early to transform Europe’s myths into distinctly American ones.
The continuous moving, moving further and further west, the excessive
violence, the rootlessness, all contributed to make the frontiersman
feel isolated and alone. The evil he saw around him was more
than he could deal with, and he thought maybe God would work with
Satan to bring good out of evil." (May himself believed
this, that redemption can come from everything that happens,
evil included. He and Tillich differed on this. Maybe because
of Tillich’s experiences with the Nazis, he believed that evil
was evil, and good will not come from it.) But the frontiersman
was comforted by tales of Robin Hood and the Lone Ranger: it
was all right to rob from the rich and give to the poor; Satan
was God’s co-worker. Any change was assumed to be good -- the
New Frontier, the New Deal, the New Mexico -- “in every day in
every way I am getting better and better.” The myth of rugged
individualism, not known in the Middle Ages, except, maybe, in
the hermits, grew rapidly. It is evident in Whitman’s Song
of Myself; and even in revivalism, many of us grew up singing,
“I come to the garden alone.” The Horatio Alger myth told people
that God sends the wealth, and therefore, the man of wealth must
be the good man that God approves of: the organization man.
And this is a lasting myth. President Reagan said: “I want to
see, above all else, that this country remains a country where
someone can always get rich.”
Let’s take The Great Gatsby
as an example of American myth It was when F. Scott Fitzgerald
wrote his novel that the myth began to shake a little. For the
first time, there were right and wrong ways to get rich, and
the promised land didn’t have a clear definition. At the end,
at Gatsby’s funeral, nobody came. The 1930 crash and depression
forced Americans to look at reality and their alienation from
the better gifts of life. The Jazz Age had thought it had a right
to everything: you just have to sell yourself; God is a man
in the gray flannel suit. But after George Wilson’s wife was
killed in a car accident, someone says, “In a time like this,
George, a man needs a church.” But Fitzgerald believed that
it is not man who has abandoned God; but God who has deserted
man in an uninhabitable, absurd, materialistic world.
Today we live in a vacuum of myth.
Are there any answers to shed light on this void? Rollo says
"there will be no answers until there is such a yearning,
a yearning that is strong enough that a myth will be formed
by the endeavor to make sense of it all. People will
begin then to organize the experience, to put this together
and that together to give a unity, a structure, or a myth."
It may be an old one reinterpreted, or it may be the emergence
of an entirely new one. Freud spoke of myths as being magnificent
in their indefiniteness, that therein lies their value. When
they are kept open and growing, then they become the garment
We are confronting a new age, but
we are also confronting a new life style. "Our religious
task," Rollo says, "will
be not only to move from the life style of the city, the nation,
and to internationalism but to our particular globe, to the cosmos.
My faith and hope is that this new religious outlook will be
interracial and intersexist. I believe that it will be an expansion
for all of us, not to imprison these people any longer, but to
recognize them as human beings the same as we." This
is to accept what Tillich demanded: a new being.
"The gods of monotheism of
Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are being superseded, whether
we like it or not, by a new polytheism. The day of my god against
yours is gone, I hope, forever. This is a healing for my spirit.
This is what salvation means."
Rollo May’s devotional practice was
interesting to me, because I struggle with this. Every time I
try to have morning devotions, I get very critical of what I am
reading. Rollo practiced his devotions before he began his work
by having some Christian elements, some Buddhist elements, some
Hindu elements, and this meant he was a part of the larger picture. "But
it would be surprising if I could cut off my own cultural body,
my Protestant Christian background, nor would I want to. Images
from my background come to me, and I am receptive to them."
So we are in a transitional period,
aren’t we? If we use this new gestalt of polytheism, can we
make it a good transition? Rollo May thinks so. It is a movement
toward a new unity, a new possibility. "When the ancients
reached the limits of rationality, when they could see only a
holy void, an inscrutable mystery, they turned to myth for meaning."
"I am aware that something
continually creative is going on now, something fascinating to
watch and experience, something I cannot predict, something that
often surprises me with its fecundity. It is a benign chaos challenging
us to take part in giving it form, structure, myth. I believe
that the techniques of psychoanalysis will keep the new myth concrete
and that my Protestant heritage will keep it aware of the social
problems in the world and in the marketplace." And I
say: may the cry for myth be heard.
Betty Meyer, formerly Associate
Professor at Crane Theological School at Tufts University, has
served in many editorial positions, including her current position
as editor of Faith and Form, the AIA Journal on Religious
Architecture. She was recently elected to Honorary Membership
in the American Institute of Architects. She is an ARC Fellow,
recently appointed as ARC historian, a member of the Board of
Directors, and a longtime friend and admirer of Rollo May.