Joseph Campbell: Metaphor and Religious Mystery…

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Excerpts From Thou Art That (2001)
Joseph Campbell

Metaphors only seem to describe the outer world of time and place. Their real universe is the spiritual realm of the inner life. The Kingdom of God is within you.

The problem, as we have noted many times, is that these metaphors, which concern that which cannot in any other way be told, are misread prosaically as referring to tangible facts and historical occurrences. The denotation—that is, the reference in time and space: a particular Virgin Birth, the End of the World—is taken as the message, and the connotation, the rich aura of the metaphor in which its spiritual significance may be detected, is ignored altogether. The result is that we are left with the particular “ethnic” inflection of the metaphor, the historical vesture, rather than the living spiritual core.

Inevitably, therefore, the popular understanding is focused on the rituals and legends of the local system, and the sense of the symbols is reduced to the concrete goals of a particular political system of socialization. When the language of metaphor is misunderstood and its surface structures become brittle, it evokes merely the current time-and-place-bound order of things and its spiritual signal, if transmitted at all, becomes ever fainter.

It has puzzled me greatly that the emphasis in the professional exegesis of the entire Judeo-Christian-Islamic mythology has been on the denotative rather than on the connotative meaning of the metaphoric imagery that is its active language. The Virgin Birth, as I have mentioned, has been presented as an historical fact, fashioned into a concrete article of faith over which theologians have argued for hundreds of years, often with grave and disruptive consequences. Practically every mythology in the world has used this “elementary” or co-natural idea of a virgin birth to refer to a spiritual rather than an historical reality. The same, as I have suggested, is true of the metaphor of the Promised Land, which in its denotation plots nothing but a piece of earthly geography to be taken by force. Its connotation—that is, its real meaning—however, is of a spiritual place in the heart that can only be entered by contemplation.

There can be no real progress in understanding how myths function until we understand and allow metaphoric symbols to address, in their own unmodified way, the inner levels of our consciousness. The continuing confusion about the nature and function of metaphor is one of the major obstacles—often placed in our path by organized religion that focus shortsightedly on concrete times and places—to our capacity to experience mystery.

Mythology may, in a real sense, be defined as other people’s religion. And religion may, in a sense, be understood as a popular misunderstanding of mythology. Mythology is a system of images that endows the mind and the sentiments with a sense of participation in a field of meaning… If, as has happened in the contemporary world, all of the the backgrounds of the images of our religious heritage have been transformed, as occurs when we find ourselves in a world of machines rather than in a world of pastoral life, these changed images really cannot and do not communicate the feelings, the sentiments, and the meanings that they did to the people in the world in which these images were developed. A system of mythological symbols only works if it operates in the field of a community of people who have essentially analogous experiences…

The Experience of Religious Mystery
In the Western Tradition, the divine is not within you. When you turn within, you find a human soul and that human soul may or may not be in proper relationship to its creator… How in this tradition do you get related to God? The relationship is accomplished through an institution. This we may term the first mythic dissociation in that it dissociates the person from the divine principle. The individual can only become associated with the divine through the social institution. Thus in the Jewish tradition, God and His people have a covenant regarding their special relationship.

In the Christian tradition, Christ is the center because He is true God and true Man. This is regarded as a mystery because of the unity of these two natures. It is no mystery at all in the Orient, where each of us is conceived to be precisely a piece of God.

Our Western religious culture is committed to these social groups and their various biblical and ecclesiastical claims, which, in the light of modern historical and scientific research, are brought into question. By this arrangement, however, we have been emptied of our sense of our own divinity. We have been committed to a social organization or hierarchical institution, which sets up a claim for itself. And now that claim itself is in question. This breeds what we term alienation—that is, an individual sense of estrangement from the religious institution through which we relate to God.

The God of the institution is not supported by your own experience of spiritual reality. This opens a gap challenging the validity of the human being. The first aim of the mystical is to validate the person’s individual human experience…

The question sometimes arises as to whether the experience of mystery and transcendence is more available to those who have undergone some kind of religious and spiritual training, for whom, as I have said, it has all been named completely. It may be less available to them precisely because they have got it all named in the book. One way to deprive yourself of an experience is indeed to expect it. Another is to have a name for it before you have the experience. Carl Jung said that one of the functions of religion is to protect us against the religious experience. That is because in formal religion, it is all concretized and formulated. But, by its nature, such an experience is one that only you can have. As soon as you classify it with anybody else’s, it loses its character. A preconceived set of concepts catches the experience, cutting it short so that it does not come directly to us. Ornate and detailed religions protect us against an exploding mystical experience that would be too much for us.

Let us examine some familiar religious imagery. One of the great themes in both Judaism and Christianity is the End of the World. What is the meaning of the End of the World?The denotation is that there is going to be a terrific cosmic calamity and the physical world is going to end. That, as we know, is the denotation. What is the connotation of the End of the World? In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13, Jesus tells about the End of the World. He describes it as a terrible, terrible time with fire and brimstone devouring the earth. He says, “Better not to be alive at that time.” He also says, “This generation will not pass away, but these things will have come to pass.” These things did not, however, come to pass. And the Church, which interprets everything concretely, taking the denotation instead of the connotation as the term of the message, said that, no, this did not come to pass but it is going to come to pass, because what Jesus meant by generation is the generation of Man.

Now in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, part of the great mid-century discovery of ancient texts, Jesus says, “The Kingdom will not come by expectation. The Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it.” Not seeing it, we live in the world as though it were not the Kingdom. Seeing the Kingdom—that is the End of the World. The connotation is transcendent of the denotation. You are not to interpret the phrase, “the End of the World” concretely. Jesus used the same kind of 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…

The idea is the sense of Zen Buddhism. You must find it in yourself. You are it: “Thou art that. Tat tvam asi.” That message from India electrifies us, but, sadly, the churches are not preaching it…

The fundamental, simple, and great mystical realization is that by which you identify yourself with consciousness, rather than with the vehicle of consciousness. Your body is a vehicle of consciousness…

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 Sumaro-Babylon complex: The serpent-god, the tree in the garden of immortal life, the fashioning of mankind from clay, the deluge, and many others. I think, however, of what has happened as a result: Myths that originally had pointed to the goddess as the ultimate source are now pointing to a god!.. This image of the divine is all very psychologically and socially important. As we now well know, this emphatically lopsided representation of the mystery of God was primarily contrived to support the claim of the superiority of the patriarchal conquerors over their matriarchal victims…

One must search out one’s own values and assume responsibility for one’s own order of action and not simply follow orders handed down from some period past. Moreover, we are intensely aware of ourselves as individuals, each responsible in his or her own way, to themselves and to the world.

We can no longer speak of “outsiders.” It once was possible for the ancients to say, “We are the chosen of God!” and to save all love and respect for themselves, projecting their malice “out there.” That today is suicide. 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.

There is a passage in the Old French Queste del Saint Graal that epitomizes the true spirit of Western Man. It tells of a day when the knights of Arthur’s court gathered in the banquet hall waiting for dinner to be served. It was a custom of that court that no meal should be served until an adventure had come to pass. Adventures came to pass in those days frequently so there was no danger of Arthur’s people going hungry. On the present occasion the Grail appeared, covered with a samite cloth, hung in the air a moment, and withdrew. Everyone was exalted, and Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur, rose and suggested a vow. “I propose,” he said, “that we all now set forth in quest to behold that Grail unveiled.” And so it was that they agreed. There then comes a line that, when I read it, burned itself into my mind. “They thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group. Each entered the forest at the point that he himself had chosen, where it was darkest, and there was no way or path.”

No way or path! Because where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path. And that is what marks the Western spirit distinctly from the Eastern. Oriental gurus accept responsibility for their disciples’ lives. They have an interesting term, “delegated free will.” The guru tells you where you are on the path, who you are, what to do now, and what to do next.

The romantic quality of the West, on the other hand, derives from an unprecedented yearning, a yearning for something that has never yet been seen in this world. What can it be that has never yet been seen? What has never yet been seen is your own unprecedented life fulfilled. Your life is what has yet to be brought into being.

In this modern world of ours, in which all things, all institutions, seem to be going rapidly to pieces, there is no meaning in the group, where all meaning was once found. The group today is but a matrix for the production of individuals. All meaning is found in the individual, and in each one this meaning is considered unique. And yet, let us think, in conclusion about this: when you have lived your individual life in your own adventurous way and then look back upon its course, you will find that you have lived a model human life, after all.
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