All Religions Are True, But None Are Literal
Joseph Campbell (1904 – 1987) was a teacher of comparative mythology and comparative religion – a true scholar. Bill Moyers did a PBS series of interviews with him entitled The Power of Myth – it brought a lot of Campbell’s ideas to the general public for the first time. “Follow Your Bliss” and the “Hero’s Journey” were coined by Campbell. Mythos is a three-part documentary that consists of a series of lectures given by Campbell over the last six years of his life, as a summation of what he had learned about the human mythic impulse – what he called “the one great story of mankind.” He wrote many books, the most famous of which is probably a four volume set entitled The Masks of God.
I’ve learned a lot by reading his books and watching The Power of Myth, Mythos and other interviews. He saw all religion as myth, not as fact. He concluded that all religions at their core have the same essential truth. And, they are all mythological – not literal. You can imagine the controversy surrounding his ideas.
Joseph Campbell taught that all the gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters, angels and demons, Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Yahweh, Yoda, etc. – all represent various aspects of the human psyche – the human heart – the human condition.
This means there is no bearded father God. There is no Heaven as a physical place. The virgin birth did not actually happen – it’s the metaphor for the birth of compassion and spirit felt in the heart. The resurrection of Christ is a symbol for humans opening to their spiritual self. We die to the old and are resurrected to the new.
Demons, the devil, do not exist out there in the world – rather, in here – aspects of our own being. Born total and complete, lacking nothing. What do you choose?
The holy texts are not to be read literally. It’s all story, myth, metaphor – a way for all humans to learn about our journey here. Reading the myths is like reading an instruction manual for life’s journey written in code. Joe Campbell breaks the code for us.
Joe Campbell discovered the same mythological themes cross all cultures and all times. The reason is we are all humans, having a similar human experience. When read from the perspective of myth and symbol, the stories are always fresh, always contemporary, always meaningful to our lives today.
His books and interviews are filled with very detailed analyses of the myths. It is amazing how similar the details of the myths are and how well Joe Campbell brings them alive for us and convinces us we are reading the same story over and over again – the one great story.
Here are some quotes from Joe Campbell which resulted in “aha” moments for me. Hopefully, they will help you on your way.
“. . . the whole sense of myth is finding the courage to follow the process. In order to have something new, something old has to be broken; and if you’re too heavily fixed on the old, you’re going to get stuck. That’s what hell is: the place of people who could not yield their ego system to allow the grace of a transpersonal power to move them.
“. . . if you understand the spiritual aspect of your religious tradition, it will encourage you to do that [get in touch with the deeper part of life.] But if you interpret it in terms of hard fact, it’s going to hinder you.
“My favorite definition of religion is “a misinterpretation of mythology.” And the misinterpretation consists precisely in attributing historical references to symbols which properly are spiritual in their reference. What a mythic image talks about is not something that happened somewhere or will happen somewhere at some time or other; it refers to what is now, and was yesterday, and will be tomorrow, and is forever.
“I taught a course at Sarah Lawrence College on comparative mythology for thirty-eight years. I taught young people of every available creed. More than fifty percent of my students from the New York area were Jewish; many were Christians – Protestant, Catholic; there were Mormons and Zoroastrians and Buddhists. There wasn’t much of a problem with the Buddhists, but all the others were somewhat stuck in their provincial traditions.
“It was the simplest thing; all I did was to point out the parallels and identities all over the place. You see, when there is a motif – such as that of the virgin birth – which occurs in American Indian mythologies, in Greek mythology, and so on, it becomes obvious that the virgin birth could not have referred to a historical event. It’s a spiritual event that’s referred to – even in the Christian tradition. One after another, these motifs became spiritualized instead of historicized. And the interesting thing is that instead of the person losing her religion, she gained it. It became a religion instead of a misleading theory.
“There are very few cultures that don’t have a Flood motif. That’s a basic idea: the dissolution of the world which takes place every night when we go into the flood of our own unconscious. It’s the analogue of the mythological Flood: at the end of the cycle, there’s a flood. The American Indians have lots of Flood stories.
“There’s no cosmic flood; the Flood motif is a mythological idea. The whole notion that all originates from water, and all is going back to water, gives you a cycle: out of water, back to water, out of water, back to water; and each new cosmic eon, each new world-age, is, as it were, a creation out of water and a dissolution into water. So it’s a mythological motif. . . . a psychological flood, and when local floods occur they become identified with it.
“The thing about Jesus is not that he died and was resurrected, but that his death and resurrection must tell us something about our own spirit.
“I think it’s [our literal interpretation] the result of a strong institutional emphasis in our religions in the West, and a fear of the mystical experience. In fact, the experience of the divine within you is regarded as blasphemy.
“That divinity which you seek outside, and which you first become aware of because you recognize it outside, is actually your inmost being. Now, it’s not a nice thing to say, but it’s not good for institutions if people find that it’s all within themselves. So there may be some point there about our particular situation in the West where religious institutions have been able to dominate a society. [Emphasis added.]
“No matter what name we give it, the God we have is the one we’re capable of having. That’s something people don’t realize. Simply because they’re all saying the same name for God, that doesn’t mean they have the same relationship to That, or the same concept of what It is. And the concept of God is only a foreground of the experience
“. . . the most difficult, is the getting rid of your god to go to God. Wow! That’s the big adventure, isn’t it? That’s the ultimate adventure. That’s what you have to strive for every minute of your life: to get rid of the life that you have planned in order to have the life that’s waiting to be yours. Move. Move. Move into the Transcendent. That’s the whole sense of the adventure, I think. [Emphasis added.]
“. . . you really can’t follow a guru. You can’t ask somebody to give The Reason, but you can find one for yourself; you decide what the meaning of your life is to be. People talk about the meaning of life; there is no meaning of life – there are lots of meanings of different lives, and you must decide what you want your own to be.”