People

Myth and Metaphor

Exerpt from the conversation between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell – The Power of Myth.

Moyers: Are some myths more or less true than others?

Campbell: They are true in different senses. Every mythology has to do with the wisdom of life as related to specific culture at a specific time. It integrates the individual into his society and the society into the field of nature. It unites the field of nature with my nature. It’s a hamonizing force. Our own theology, for example, is based on the idea of duality: good and evil, heaven and hell. And so our religions tend to be ethical in their accent. Sin and atonement. Right and wrong.

Moyers: The tension of opposites: love-hate, death-life.

Campbell: Ramakrishna once said that if all you think of are your sins, then you are a sinner. And when I read that, I thought of my boyhood, going to confession on Saturdays, meditating on all the little sins that I had committed during the week. Now I think one should go and say, “Bless me, Father, for I have been great, these are the good things I have done this week.” Identify your notion of yourself with the positive, rather than with the negative.

You see, religion is really a kind of second womb. It’s designed to bring this extremely complicated thing, which is a human being, to maturity, which means to be self-motivating, self-acting. But the idea of sin puts you in a servile condition throughout your life.

Moyers: But that’s not the Christian idea of creation and the Fall.

Campbell: I once heard a lecture by a wonderful old Zen philosopher Dr. D. T. Suzuki. He stood up with his hands slowly rubbing this side and said, “God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God againste nature–very funny religion!”

Moyers: Well, I have often wondered, what would a member of a hunting tribe on the North American plains think, gazing up on Michelangelo’s creation?

Campbell: This is certainly not the god of other traditions. In the other mythologies, one puts oneself in accord with the world, with the mixture of good and evil. But in the religious system of the Near East, you identify with the good and fight against the evil. The biblical traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all speak with derogation of the so-called nature religions.

The shift from a nature religion to a sociological religion makes it difficult for us to link back to nature. But actually all of those cultural symbols are perfectly susceptible to interpretation in terms of the psychological and cosmological systems, if you choose to look at them that way.

Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.

Moyers: What is the metaphor?

Campbell: A metaphor is an image that suggests something else. For instance, if I say to a person, “You are a nut,” I’m not suggesting that I think the person is literally a nut. “Nut” is a metaphor. The reference of the metaphor in religious traditions is to something transcendent that is not literally any thing. If you think that the metaphor is itself the reference, it would be like going to a restaurant, asking for the menu, seeing beefsteak written there, and starting to eat the menu.

For example, Jesus ascended to heaven. The denotation would seem to be that somebody ascended to the sky. That’s literally what is being said. But if that were really the meaning of the message, then we have to throw it away, because there would have been no such place for Jesus literally to go. We know that Jesus could not have ascended to heaven because there is no physical heaven anywhere in the universe. Even ascending at the speed of light, Jesus would still be in the galaxy. Astronomy and physics have simply eliminated that as a literal, physical possibility. But if you read “Jesus ascend to heaven” in terms of its metaphoric connotation, you see that he has gone inward–not into outer space but into inward space, to the place from which all being comes, into the consciousness that is the source of all things, the kingdom of heaven within. The images are outward, but their reflection is inward. The point is that we should ascend with him by going inward. It is a metaphor of returning to the source, alpha and omega, of leaving the fixation on the body behind and going to the body’s dynamic source.

Moyers: Aren’t you undermining of the great traditional doctrines of the classic Christian faith–that the burial and the resurrection of Jesus prefigures our own?

Campbell: That would be a mistake in the reading of the symbol. That is reading the words in terms of prose instead of in terms of poetry, reading the metaphor in terms of the denotation instead of the connotation.

Moyers: And poetry gets to the unseen reality.

Campbell: The which is beyond even the concept of reality, that which transcends all thought. The myth puts you there all the time, gives you a line to connect with that mystery which you are.

Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. And that’s what it is. The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you. When your mind is the world of your requirements and your energies and your structure and your possibilities that meets the outer world. And the outer world is the field of your incarnation. That where you are. You’ve got to keep both going. An Novalis said, “The seat of the soul is there where the inner and outer worlds meet.”

Moyers: So the story of Jesus ascending to heaven is a message in a bottle from a shore someone has visited before.

Campbell: That’s right–Jesus did. Now, according to the normal way of thinking about the Christian religion, we cannot identify with Jesus, we have to imitate Jesus. To say, “I and the Father are one,” as Jesus said, is blasphemy for us. However, in the Thomas gospel that was dug up in Egypt some forty years ago, Jesus says, “He who drinks from my mouth will become as I am, and I shall be he.” Now, that is exactly Buddhism. We are all manifestations of Buddha consciousness, or Christ consciousness, only we don’t know it. The word “Buddha” means”the one who waked up.” We are all to do that–to wake up to the Christ or Buddha consciousness within us. This is blasphemy in the normal way of Christian thinking, but it is the very essence of Christian Gnosticism and of the Thomas gospel.

Watch clips of this interview – http://www.symbolicliving.com/the-power-of-myth-joseph-campbell/

From The Power of Myth.

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