Thou Art That
I’m not quite halfway through Joseph Campbell’s posthumous book Thou Art That, and already have a strong sense that this is the text I’ve been waiting for…the one to provide for me a helpful synthesis between my journey with Christianity and emerging draw toward mythology. It’s a book that challenges the institutional religions to their core, yet offers a gift of enriching one’s faith without tossing the baby out with the bathwater. It promises to reveal how powerful the theme of compassion is in the Judea-Christian heritage, and that can only be a good thing for those of us trying to live it in a relevant manner each day.
The introduction itself poignantly captures Campbell’s perspectives on mythology and religion:
“For Campbell, mythology was, in a sense, the powerful cathedral organ through which the total resonations of a hundred separate pipes were fused into the same extraordinary music. What was common in these multiplied themes was their human origin, as if each were a vessel of the same eternal cry of the spirit, inflected in extraordinary and dazzling variations, in the field of time.”
The “same eternal cry.” That speaks to me. That touches a part of me that has always existed. I’ve always felt the undivided yearning in humanity, the common hunger. The book’s editor continues, “If we listen and look carefully…we discover ourselves in the literature, rites and symbols of others, even though at first they seem distorted and alien to us.”
The introduction continues with assertions that will be amplified throughout the coming chapters, in particular the claim that key elements of the Old and New Testament are assumed to be literal, historical facts when they are intended to be “metaphorical representations of spiritual realities.” This, the book challenges, causes much of our synagogue and church experience to feel “lifeless and unbelievable.” Wow.
Basically, the book is asserting that the indoctrination of spiritual teachings that were meant to be metaphorical has led to much divisiveness, confusion and doubt. Scriptures have been translated and interpreted with a bias toward concretizing what was meant to be symbolic. Organized religion is actually a hindrance to spiritual growth rather than the context for its release.
Now, many reading this would claim the opposite—that the Judea-Christian experience as handed down through its organized forms across the centuries has given meaning, purpose and vitality to their lives. No one can and should doubt another’s faith experience without living in that own person’s heart, especially when there is the fruit of a life well-lived.
At the same time, it is hard not to give serious thought to this book introduction’s propositions when looking at the weaknesses of the organized Judea-Christian dynamic in general. A lot of people simply have been wounded by the behaviors of religious leaders and followers. Religion has caused serious division and strife and, yes, wars.
And beyond the blatant misuses many Christians will acknowledge a nagging sense that something is missing…that there is an inability to be fully content with the dogma, made evident by an inconsistent desire and practice when it comes to that scary word "evangelism." That the union of the heart and the intellect is a constant challenge, that we need to read books by Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel just to feel constantly equipped to defend our faith…or many to keep ourselves from doubting?
The institutions thrive and stay in business by counting on adherents to support and live out the tenets of their belief systems. "We are the only way, we are the ultimate brand," is the message. Buy-in leads to buying. But are we in the end holding back the spiritual growth of these same adherents?
These are dangerous thoughts to ponder in light of the status quo. When you begin to question the foundations of what millions and millions of people grow up or grow into believing makes sense of all of life, the push-back can be enormous. You can lose friends and economic opportunities. Take a look at any impactful person who has swum against the tide, and see the scars of the prices they have paid.
But the editor claims near the end of the introduction, “No true believers of any tradition will find their faith diminished by reading Joseph Campbell. They will rather feel that they need not surrender their traditions in order to see more deeply into their most sacred traditions and rituals.”
So I’m taking a deep breath and keeping an open mind as I move on to Chapter One, where I hope to see more deeply and share some thoughts in my next blog entry.