The Meaning of Religious Ritual and Metaphor - Some Personal Thoughts on Ch. 1 "Thou Art That" by Joseph Campbell

Metaphor and Religious Mystery - Ch. 1 

Chapter one of Campbell's book lays out a novel claim about the nature of religious mythology. He makes the argument that religious mythology, ritual, and symbolism is not metaphysically true as being revealed by God, but that its symbolism is rather a way of expressing intangible realities about the depth of human experience in the face of the mysterious existence of this universe. These religious archetypes function as guides in understanding oneself, one's community, and the purpose of human existence as a whole. They form a story in which we can make sense of the human experience. 

Down below I offer my thoughts on this interpretation of religion. I argue that there is a misunderstanding of religious mythology because those putting forth these theories are working from a worldview themselves, that of Scientific Materialism. Therefore, there is a key inconsistency in their argument when they argue that mythological symbolism expresses intangible realities about the human person, but not about the metaphysical world. Either both exist, or neither of them do. This is not to say that I don't recognize that there are varied genres of writing in the Bible, or course there are metaphorical expressions, but that doesn't mean all of them are. I unpack this more below. 

Taking a Look at Campbell's Idea of Religious Myth

Campbell begins his book by telling a story which confronts the common way we think about the word "myth" today. He was on a book tour promoting the release of one of his books and had to do a radio interview. The interviewer insisted that myths were simply lies. 1 Campbell, pushing back, asked the man if he even knew the definition of metaphor was, and if he could give him an example of one. The interview gave a simple metaphor to the effect of "My friend John runs like a deer." Here Campbell makes the point that this is a common misunderstanding. Metaphor would say, "My friend John is a deer," and thus he argues that society is pushed to two extremes of interpretation with regards to religious metaphor. Either some believe it as such, or others, like the interviewer, call it a lie. "It made me reflect that half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accepts metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies." 

Four Functions of Religious Myth

Campbell claims that there are four essential roles that mythology has played in human history and society. The first is that of making the consciousness aware of the mysterious factors and conditions that went before it and allowed it to exist right now. 2 It answers the question about the past, often related to the mysterious or spiritual aspect of being from which things came, which leads to the present. It may lead to the conclusion that the structure of being is wicked in itself, or that it was once good but has fallen in some way. "The first function is that of reconciling consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence - that is, of aligning waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum of this universe, as it is. ... This I would regard as the essentially religious function of mythology - that is, the mystical function, which represents the discovery and recognition of the dimension of the mystery of being." 

The second function is that of providing an interpretation of the nature of the universe as a consistent narrative in which man can participate in. 3 So not just where things came from, but what exactly are things. What is the structure of reality in its deepest sense? "... one comes to the experience of a great mysterious tremendum that manifests itself so impersonally that one cannot even pray to it, one can only be in awe of it. The gods themselves are simply agents of that greater high mystery, the secret of which is found in mathematics. This can still be observed in our sciences, in which the mathematics of time and space are regarded as the veil through which the great mystery, the tremendum, shows itself." 4 

Joseph Campbell

The third function that Campbell talks about is related to the moral order. Each mythology has a moral piece of it that helps man to embody the beliefs and practices in their actions that fit within that worldview. This can be symbolized often by ritual initiations that demarcate the difference between childhood and adulthood. Having this cohesion of moral action helps the society to prosper given their particular circumstances in history. Campbell argues that if these rites and moral practices become irrelevant for the changing environment they will be met with rejection over time. 

Lastly, mythology helps people to continue to stay on the meaningful path throughout their lives. Acting as part of a mythological story make sense out of the different phases of life and in relation to its different levels of social being ... from being okay with one's self, to one's culture, to the cosmic structure of things, to the ultimate being from which all comes. 5

Participation in the Transcendent Through Religious Symbolism

It is one thing to have beliefs, to hold a worldview, to live within a mythology, but it is another thing to actually experience the participation of the deepest parts of oneself in that mystery. "The life of a mythology springs from and depends on the metaphoric vigor of its symbols. These deliver more than just an intellectual concept, for such is their inner character that they provide a sense of actual participation in a realization of transcendence." This is the living of the metaphor through the use of ritual symbols. These symbols take their power from the fact that they are archetypes or representations of universal and intangible realities to the human experience. Campbell plays down the real nature of religious symbols and writing as a way of saying it's just a metaphorical representation of a biological reality. "What Adolph Bastian described as 'elementary ideas,' and Jung referred to as 'archetypes of the collective unconscious' are the biologically rooted motivating power and connoted references for the mythologies that, cast in the metaphors of changing historical and cultural periods, remain themselves constant." They represent what is common among people in the human experience, yet cannot be touched or seen and so must be represented in symbol and ritual. When one's personal experience becomes understood through the lens of the archetype or symbolism, then they look through the window of reality into its depths. "... that allow[s] us to realize the transcendent, infinite, and abundant nature of being as it is." 6 

In Campbell's mind, these archetypes don't reveal metaphysical or concrete truths about the universe or history, but rather are just illuminations of the different layers which exist in the being of the human person. "Their real universe is the spiritual realm of the inner life." When the archetypal meaning is lost, he continues, then there is a risk that these symbols lose their real meaning and simply take on some role of fulfilling expectations of the place and time. He offers two examples, the "Virgin Birth," and the "Promised Land." He claims that these are common metaphors to express the divine breaking into the earthly, or the place within man's inner being that can only be entered through spiritual meditation. 7 "There can be no real progress in understanding how myths function until we understand and allow metaphoric symbols to address, in their own unmodified way, the inner levels of our consciousness."

To conclude chapter one, Campbell makes the argument that as the historical and technological environment changes, the mythological archetypes will be less understood. "Mythology is a system of images that endows the mind and the sentiments with a sense of participation in a field of meaning." 8 Maybe they need to be cast in a new image, but he certainly doesn't think that we should concretize these things into real facts about the world, or to argue that the universe has a set meaning. For he claims that it depends on the mythology that we inhabit, and ultimately that being is mysterious and we just don't know what it is. "These images must point past all meanings given, beyond all definitions and relationships, to that really ineffable mystery that is just the existence, the being of ourselves and of our world." 9

My Response - Why Symbols and Metaphors? 

I think that Campbell is right in that there's a fundamental duality in the human experience which colors every singles person's life in almost every way. There are those realities we experience that we can physically touch, see, taste, hear, etc. But there are also those realities that we experience that we are not able to physically get our hands on, though maybe we know them in an abstract way, or experience them in our subjectivity. For example, the interior dialogue and self-conscious personality that we operate our lives through, the unconditional love that is shared between two people, or the contemplation of ideas which have no tangible correlation. 

When asked which of the two realities is most real to them, I would bet that 99% of people would say that the intangible were more meaningful and real to them than the tangible. Yet today this is misunderstood because we live within the worldview of Reductionist Materialism. It is a fundamental axiom of this view that the experience or existence of the intangible is not real. It reduces everything back to the physical, and even when logically this cannot be accounted for, "it must," we are told. The reason why they say that all things must reduce to the material is that the intangible cannot be seen, touched, or verified and therefore doesn't exist. How funny, because if it could be seen, touched, or empirically verified in a direct manner then, by definition, it would not be intangible or immaterial ... it would be another material thing. Here we have gone in a logical circle. We live in the reign of Scientific Materialism. Having produced such drastic material advances and wealth over the past 100 years, the physical sciences have won the show and claimed the spotlight. Thus all realities are ipso facto interpreted through its lens, through the lens of its worldview. 

How does it view mythology, religion, narrative, or philosophy? It rejects them as outmoded attempts to explain the physical world. But were they? Or have we been so colored by Scientific Materialism that we no longer understand half of the human experience? We no longer understand that which is most real to us? What exactly are religious beliefs, rituals, sacraments, stories, and philosophies? Are they real or not? I am going to make the argument that our fundamental intuition about them is correct, that they are most real ... but because of our disposition as composite beings, we only get to experience them through indirect means in this life. It is only when this veil is lifted at death will we get to know them directly. Therefore, when we approach understanding them through the Materialist lens, we end up concluding that the metaphysical part doesn't exist and that therefore myth isn't real. The ironic part about Campbell's work, though, is that at the same time he denies the reality of the metaphysical he also affirms it in another way. He says that the religious stories aren't metaphysically true, but they are attempts at expressing the human experience of the metaphysical, the heart of being. So if there is an intangible or immaterial metaphysical world that we experience, then it would follow that at least one of the religions is true. Otherwise, if there was no metaphysical reality, we would not grapple with trying to describe our experience with the use of metaphors. Science's empirical methods would suffice. We wouldn't even question about such mythological realities. 

This is how the sacramental system works in the Catholic Church. God is metaphysically beyond us. He is pure spirit, and we are embodied in matter. We cannot directly access God through our material senses. And so there exists a third type of thing that exists as a bridge between us and God. It is not wholly spiritual, nor wholly physical, but a composite of the two. The sacraments are spiritual realities that are made known to us through physical signs and symbols. They are not just spiritual realities, nor are they just physical symbols. Rather, they are always both together united in one in a mysterious way, just as form and matter are united together in the mysterious being that we exist in. The physical signs and symbols are not performed for utilitarian purposes. Rather, they are physical symbols which are done to connect to spiritual realities, through the power of God. 

Now maybe Campbell would respond by saying that the Catholic sacramental system is just the same as any mythological ritual ... it's a physical sign that symbolizes something intangible, but there's really nothing there. Again, when you reject the premises of Scientific Materialism, then the reality of the metaphysical returns. Campbell offers no rebuttal of the spiritual world. As with many, it is just assumed because of their Materialist worldview. Thus, I conclude by arguing that in the Catholic sacraments we symbolize Campbell's archetypal realities ... but we also live and experience them in a transcendent and metaphysical way with God himself.  


1- Campbell, Joseph. Thou Art That. New World Library (Novato, California 2001) Pg. 1

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