Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Metaphors and Symbols

Recently while re-arranging my library I came across the book Thou Art That by noted author and lecturer Joseph Campbell. This book is intended to awaken and transform the reader by exploring the mystical power behind Christian symbols and metaphors in an era when our culture often misinterprets them.

When I first read this book some years ago I must have skipped (as is often my unfortunate habit) the ‘foreword’ by Professor Eugene Kennedy because it contains not only a wonderful outline of what is to be presented but also supplies some precious jewels in its own. What follows is a brief excerpt from the introduction to Joseph Campbell’s book.

“Many elements of the Bible seem lifeless and unbelievable because they have been regarded as historical facts instead of metaphorical representations of spiritual realities. They have been applied in a concrete way to great figures, such as Moses and John the Baptist, as if they were real-time accounts of their actions. That this heavy emphasis on the historical rather than the spiritual should have continued into the twenty-first century illustrates the lag-time that the leaders of institutional religions have allowed to open up between their static ideas and the rapidly developing understandings of solid new scholarship. A failure to follow Pope John XXIIl's injunction to "read the signs of the times" leaves them behind even their own times.

There is little evident progress in formal religious teaching—it fails to incorporate or even to acknowledge the advances in research that allow us to read with renewed understanding the great documents and traditions of the dominant Western religions. The spiritual needs of people are neglected by religious leaders who insist on reasserting the historical-factual character of religious metaphors, thereby distorting and debasing their meaning.

Thus institutional religious leaders unnecessarily embrace a frail caricature of religion which is easily demolished by popular lecturers, totally out of their depths in theology, such as the late astronomer Carl Sagan.
Failure to appreciate the metaphorical nature of religious literature and discourse has led to numerous embarrassing crusades or expeditions to defend the biblical accounts of creation. Bitter fights over "creationist" versus "evolutionary" theories in textbooks are but one example of why the Scopes trial has become mythologized. Men mount expensive expeditions to locate the remains of Noah's ark on Mt. Ararat but, of course, they never find it. They believe, however, that they have just missed it for the ark must liter¬ally have existed and its timbers must rest somewhere, still hidden from their eyes. The ark, however, can be found easily and without travel by those who understand that it is a mythological vessel in an extraordinary story whose point is not historical documentation but spiritual enlightenment. To appreciate Genesis as myth is not to destroy that book but to discover again its spiritual vitality and relevance.

Joseph Campbell provides a new but not novel basis for our understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition. He is preoccupied with solving the enormous problems that flow from institutional religion's ongoing misinterpretation of spiritual metaphors as historical facts. Metaphor comes from the Greek meta, a passing over, or a going from one place to another, and phorein, to move or to carry. Metaphors carry us from one place to another, they enable us to cross boundaries that would otherwise be closed to us. Spiritual truths that transcend time and space can only be borne in metaphorical vessels whose meaning is found in their connotations.
Thus, the Virgin Birth, as the reader will learn, does not refer to the biological condition of Mary, the mother of Jesus, but to a rebirth of the spirit that everyone can experience. The Promised Land refers not to a geographical location but to the territory of the human heart which anyone can enter. Yet sheaves of condemnations have been issued and never-ending wars have been fought over basic misapplications of these very metaphors, which should enable us to cross the boundaries of time and space, rather than to remain frustrated and forever in place on the dusty stage set of their concrete historical period.

The inertia of organized religion is a constant challenge to spiritual growth: inevitably we must make our own path rather than follow someone else's.
Joseph Campbell's own religious heritage was Roman Catholic. He formally abandoned the Church when, as a student of mythology, he felt that the Church was teaching a literal and concrete faith that could not sustain an adult.
Joseph Campbell's central message is that these ethnic divisions are the bitter harvest of the distortions of religious teachings planted long ago. When spiritual rights are demanded on die basis of religious metaphors as facts and geography instead of as symbols of the heart and spirit, a bitterly divided world arises with the inevitability of great tragedy.

Even the word compassion has been devalued in our day Compassion, however, demands much more of our character, requiring that we each make a hero's journey into the far reaches of the lives of people that seem different from us. This is fundamentally a spiritual experience and we need not leave home, not even the chair we are sitting on, to join ourselves to it.

Joseph Campbell's message for the twenty-first century is not apocalyptic. It is hopeful, because it roots us once more in the foundations of the Judeo-Christian tradition. For Joseph Campbell the End of the World is not a cataclysmic event to whose final judgmental terror we draw ever closer. The End of the World comes every day for those whose spiritual insight allows them to see the world as it is, transparent to transcendence, a sacrament of mystery, or, as the poet William Blake wrote, "infinite." The End of the World is, therefore, metaphoric of our spiritual beginning rather than our harsh and fiery ending."

Quotes from Thou Art That

"Fear and desire are what keep you out of the Garden. It is not God who keeps us in exile, but ourselves."

". . . symbols have all been consistently and persistently interpreted as referring not primarily to our inner selves but to supposed outer historical events. This emphasis may be good for the institution of the Church or the prosperity of the synagogue, but may not at all contribute to the spiritual health of the unconvinced individual."

". . . when you are given a dogma telling precisely what kind of meaning you shall experience in a symbol, explaining what kind of effect it should have upon you, then you are in trouble. 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."

". . . images must point past themselves to that ultimate truth which must be told: that life does not have any one absolute fixed meaning. These images must point past all meaning given, beyond all definitions and relationships, to that really ineffable mystery that is just the existence, the being of ourselves and of our world."

". . . the story of Christ is told in metaphorical, mythological terms, right from a very early date."

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