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Joseph Campbell’s generous spirit and scholarly focus allowed him to touch the taboo with exacting finesse like no one has before or since.
He clarifies some of the likely reasons for religious polarity in our modern world with insights on some of the ambiguity we live inside today. His 2001 book, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, has just been released in paperback by New World Library, and was a revelation for me.
Have you considered the impact modern science has had on religions of the world, culture and the social order?
Seeing Earth from space has reoriented our vision. We no longer simply conceive of space as above, Earth below and the heavens separated in a distinct order. We are free falling into a future that is mysterious and, for some people and institutions, this is very threatening.
The new perspective casts a shadow on the denotational interpretation of symbols and myths as facts and things. This is in contrast to the connotative energy-inspiring experience of the great mystery, which engenders a shared sense of wonder and awe at the mystery of being innately available to all of humankind.
Campbell notes that “symbols speak directly to the psyche. One spontaneously knows what they are saying, even if the person presenting and interpreting them may be speaking in a different language.”
I remember the actual physical feelings invoked by singing the Latin mass as a child, unknowingly participating in something far greater than the sum of its parts or the specific history that bore them.
I will forever remain infused with vivid, somatic memories of transcendence starting in young childhood, one of 800 students singing the Latin mass on special feast days of the Catholic church—all races, one voice.
Campbell, who devoted his life to the study of the essential properties of myth and symbol of world religions, detected recurrent themes and motifs across the breadth of all mythologies. He determined that a “single underground spring of religious experience nourishes them all…what appear to be diverse religious traditions are actually different expressions of a unitary experience that is shared across all cultures.”
He explains that essential spiritual truths transcend time and space and are borne of the same eternal cry of the human spirit, revealed through and inspired by metaphorical vessels of archetypal myth. Campbell describes elements of our experience of the mystery of God through outlining the fundamental functions of myth within a traditional civilization.
>> The first is mystical; he describes this as when “myth makes a connection between our waking consciousness and the whole mystery of the universe, its cosmological function…allows us to see ourselves in relationship to nature.”
>> The second is interpretive; to present a consistent image of the order of the cosmos. He notes that the mathematics of time and space has been regarded as the “veil through which the great mystery, the tremendum, shows itself.”
>> The third is sociological; as Campbell explains, it “supports and validates a certain social and moral order for us.”
>> The fourth is psychological; he describes this as offering “us a way of passing through, and dealing with, the various stages from birth to death.”
Campbell believes a remythologization is in order for our time, creating current mythologies based on archetypal symbols that reveal a common spirituality of mankind. Symbols, when they are not pressed literally, can speak clearly across different traditions, even languages.
He notes that understanding “religious symbols in their full spiritual sense enables us to see and to possess our religious traditions freshly.” Campbell points out that there is currently a great challenge occurring across the planet, with nearly half the world believing the metaphors of their religious traditions are facts, while another big portion of the population contends that they are not facts. Thus, we have a polarization of those who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts and others who feel they must be atheists because they believe religious metaphors are lies. This creates struggle and isolation.
“The metaphorical language of both mythology and metaphysics are not denotative of actual worlds or gods, but rather connote levels and entities within the person touched by them. Metaphors only seem to describe the outer world of time and place, yet their real universe is the spiritual realm of the inner life. The Kingdom of God is within you.”
The mythological archetypes, the eternal symbols known to all mythologies, speak directly to the psyche and one spontaneously knows what they are saying. That which is no “that” transcends all categories; anything you name is not it.
The ultimate mystery transcends the laws of dualistic logic, causality, and time-space. He continues to explain that “through symbols we enter emotionally into contact with our deepest selves, with each other, and with God—a word that is to be understood as a symbol.”
Campbell illustrates how the Judeo-Christian-Islamic mythology has been focused on the denotative rather than the connotative meaning of the metaphoric imagery that is its active language. In Western religious traditions the relationship to God is through blood line or through the worshiping of the Christ avatar and the historical perspectives that perpetuate these beliefs. Whereas in the Orient, everyone is to realize the mystery of truth of God within himself.
He clarifies our notions of God as the “ineffable nature of the divine…God is not a fact.”
He continues to explain that “a fact is an object in the field of time and space, an image in the dream field. God is no dream, God is no fact…God is beyond duality.” Thus, our urgent and compelling need to step outside the dichotomy and open to participation in the mystery.
We are intrinsically affected by symbols, yet when we subscribe to a belief system that denies that which we know on an instinctual level we become frustrated and mistrusting of the institutions which perpetuate invalid systems. Distinctions between denotative and connotative interpretation of biblical teachings set us free from the dichotomy we internally process by being human. To be denied the validity of this real awareness is to create conflict that will have a negative effect unless one rejects the false interpretations and brings to the surface that which could remain hidden for a lifetime.
While Campbell clarifies the differences between Eastern and Western religious thought, he also gracefully points to the core essential sameness that evokes in me a jubilant hopefulness in humanity as one family:
“Jesus used the same vocabulary that Eastern gurus use. In their full-fledged teaching mode they speak as though they were themselves what they are speaking about; that is to say, they have in their minds identified themselves with a mode of consciousness that then speaks through them.”
Eventually, when participating in symbols at the deepest level one steps into the dream vision realm, what Campbell describes as “where one has transcended the sphere of a merely personal horizon and come into confrontation with the same, great, universal problems that are symbolized in all great myths.”
“Live your life, your marriage [relationships], in such a way that in it you may experience eternal life. Eternity is neither future, nor past, but now. It is not of the nature of time at all, in fact, but a dimension, so to say, of now and forever, a dimension of the consciousness of being that is to be found and experienced within, upon which, when found, one may ride through time and through the whole length of one’s days.”
Tat tvam asi, or “thou art that,” or “you yourself are it” is the meditative focus that can bring about in the individual an experience of one’s own identity with that mystery that is the mystery of all being. Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, inspire this experience, as opposed to the Judeo-Christian traditions that require going through the institutional structures to worship the divine, keeping it separate and the experience controlled and limited.
One of the most interesting things about the Bible is that every one of the major Old Testament mythological themes has been found by our modern scholars in the earlier Sumero-Babylonian complex. Yet in the Christian tradition, Campbell explains:
“The historical character, Jesus, is regarded as the one and only incarnation on earth of the Godhead, the one true-God-and-true Man. This avatar we are taught to regard as a miracle. In the Orient, on the other hand, everyone is to realize this truth in himself, and such an incarnation as Krsna, Rama, or the Buddha is to be thought of simply as a model through which to realize the mystery of the incarnation in oneself.”
Campbell states, “the real function of a church is simply to preserve and present symbols and to perform rites, letting believers experience the message for themselves in whatever way they can…having a spiritual experience by virtue of the influence of the symbol.” Yet, since the church largely falls short of this role in our time, art provides this opportunity in many senses.
Artists and mystics renew the urgency of human expression of the divine which is ushered through an open vessel, a being who is willing to be fully revealed and transported.
We are all the artists who can create ritual experiences that allow us to participate in the great mystery, through symbols which speak to that which is possible within, that bring forth vibrancy that is outside of conceptualization. Any space can become sacred referring us to the mystery through intention. Each moment holds the potential for transcendence with a simple internal shift.
Engaging artistic realms provide us also the joyous opportunity to experience new awareness of the inner meaning of life and reality itself—to enter the great mystery.
Ultimately, Campbell teaches that “we can no longer speak of ‘outsiders’…We have now to learn somehow to quench our hate and disdain through the operation of an actual love, not a mere verbalization, but an actual experience of compassionate love, and with that fructify, simultaneously, both our neighbor’s life and our own.”
Compassion, religious tradition’s most significant teaching, requires that we die to ourselves in order to rise to the vision which reveals that we share the same human nature with all other persons.
Tat tvam asi.
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Asst Ed: Amy Cushing/Ed: Kate Bartolotta