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Spirituality: Books

A wise church uses metaphor to help people find God within


By Joseph Campbell
New World Library, 192 pages, $31


“I was born and grew up a Catholic, and I was a very devoted Catholic,” writes Joseph Campbell in Thou Art That, the first book in a new series of his collected works. “My beliefs, however, fell apart because the church read and then presented its symbols in concrete terms. For a long time I had a terrible resentment ... and I couldn’t even think of going into a Catholic church.”

Through his study of mythology and related subjects, however, Campbell began to understand what had really happened. Organized religion must present itself in one way to children, and in another to adults. What Campbell had rejected was the literal, concrete, historical forms that were appropriate when he was taught as a child.

Once he had realized that, he better grasped what the message was. It is inevitable that children should be taught in purely concrete terms. But then the young person grows up and realizes who Santa Claus is. He is really Daddy. So, too, we must mature in the same way in learning about God. The institutional churches must grow more effective in presenting the message of religious symbols to adults.

Campbell, who died in 1987, believed that religious organizations have stressed too strongly the strictly historical aspect of the Bible so that we are, essentially, in worship of the historical event, instead of being able to read through that event to the spiritual message standing behind it. People frequently turn to Eastern religions because there they find the real message, which in Western religion has been closed by excessive literalism and historicism. When we read the Bible and transform our religious rituals into metaphor rather than factuality it is once more possible to mine the deeply spiritual riches available to us in our Christian tradition.

The overriding theme of this book is that Western religious traditions have suffered because they have taken their stories and symbols literally rather than metaphorically. Here in a series of talks, question periods and an interview are perhaps for the first time in one place Campbell’s understandings of the origins, symbols and meanings of Judeo-Christian spirituality.

To describe significant parts of the two biblical Testaments as myth, says Campbell, is not to debunk them. Mythology is a vessel of the truth. Campbell’s purpose in exploring the biblical myths is not to dismiss them as unbelievable but to lay open once again their living and nourishing core.

If you have always wanted to read something clear and substantive from Joseph Campbell, this book is a good place to find it. If you enjoyed his phenomenally successful television interviews The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, this book provides an opportunity to see that many of the significant insights from that series apply specifically to the Christian faith.

“Thou art that” or “You yourself are it” implies the bringing about in the individual, in one way or another, his or her own identification with the mystery that is for us God. Traditionally, Western religion’s focus is not “identification with the transcendent” but a “relationship between human beings and God.” In the West, the divine is not understood as existing within us. How do we get related to God? The relationship is accomplished through an institution. This, says Campbell is the first mythic dissociation in that it dissociates the person from the divine principle. The individual is only allowed to associate with the divine through the social institution. Our Western religious culture is committed to these social groups and various biblical and ecclesiastical claims.

Campbell reintroduces us to the power of Christian symbols and their intuitive meanings. Traditionally, our symbols pointed to outer objects, not our inner selves. But it is within us that the true meaning of the symbol lies. A person’s experience of a symbol is more important than trying to define it. The problem for and the function of religion in this age, according to Campbell, is to awaken the heart. When clergy do not or cannot awaken the heart, that tells us that they are unable to interpret the symbols through which they are supposed to enlighten and spiritually nourish their people.

Frequently, the God of the institution is not supported by one’s 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. In other words, according to Campbell, the task of the church is to provide people with an opportunity to identify with the God that is, indeed, within each one of us. Too much effort has been made to try to create that relationship with God.

Campbell believed that at least some of the reforms of Vatican II resulted in the destruction of mystery. A significant effort was made to make ancient symbols and rituals more rational. By translating the Latin liturgy into local languages, the reforms diluted or removed essential mystery. That meant a disowning of religious symbols that spoke directly to people without need of mediation. The old ritual of the Mass spoke powerfully to people, said Campbell. When Catholics go to Mass in Latin, the priest is addressing the infinite in a language that has no domestic associations; the people attending are thereby elevated into transcendence. The priest in a modern Mass risks losing his role as an intermediary of the mystery, and the very idea of transcendent experience is destroyed.

Campbell experienced profoundly the depths of the Christian symbol during the last weeks of his life. He was thrilled to see that, because for him this was the mystical meaning of Christ that reflected at-one-ment with the Father. On his deathbed, according to his wife Jean Erdman, “He experienced emotionally what he had before understood intellectually. Seeing this image in a Catholic hospital room helped release him from the conflict that he had had with his childhood religion.”

Whether or not you agree with all Campbell says, this book will engage and inspire you. Campbell writes in the mind- and spirit-expanding way of Thomas Merton who believed that symbols contain structures that awaken our consciousness to a new awareness of the inner meaning of life and of reality itself. Through symbols we enter emotionally into our deepest selves, each other and God.

Wayne A. Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001