Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Metaphors and Mysteries

In the first chapter of Joseph Campbell's Thou Art That, "Metaphor and Religious Mystery," the late mythology scholar asserts that metaphoric symbols convey not just some idea of the infinite "but a realization of the infinite." Since the symbols can mean different things to various cultures and to those living in different eras, Campbell says it often is the job of the artist to "cast the new images of mythology." I think this resonates with the truth that many people experience a sense of euphoric rapture and epiphany more powerfully through going to a play, a concert, an opera, a film, reading a great book, etc., as compared with sitting in the pews.

Furthermore, as the metaphors become misread and made too historical or specific, an "ethnic" inflection of the symbols dilutes their "living spiritual core." Western Christianity is so guilty of this. Campbell writes, "Invevitably, 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 concrete system of socialization."

This continuing confusion about the function and nature of metaphor, Campbell continues, "is one of the major obstacles--often placed in our path by organized religions that focus shortsightedly on concrete times and places--to our capacity to experience mystery." He concludes the chapter with the riveting statement, "Here we sense the function of metaphor that allows us to make a journey we could otherwise make, past all categories of definition."

I'm excited about the prospect of reading the Bible afresh with enhanced metaphorical eyesight, once I've more fully absorbed what Campbell is trying to say in his book. I've been inundanted so long with systematic theology and well-intended efforts to break down the scriptures into rational, bite-sized nourishments of "this is how it is, period," that reading them had grown stale. Been there, done that. Take the mystery and awe and wonder out of our spirituality, and we can grow stale as well.

This past Sunday we visited a new church (since we are new to the Nashville area, all the churches are new to us!), and had a great experience. Wonderful hospitality, quality music, great children's resources. We'll be going back. But I found myself exegeting the sermon and the relevant scriptures in a new way, engaging it through that amplified metaphorical filter. I listened to the preacher, caught in the role I have occupied on numerous occasions myself, and wondered what he would say if I shared Thou Art That with him.

Who knows, before it is all over I probably will. When I get fresh insights toward something as significant as spirituality, I tend to share them!


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