Thou Art That:

Transforming Religious Metaphor

by Joseph Campbell

"Mythology may, in a real sense, be defined as other people's religion," Joseph Campbell observes in this first volume of his Collected Works. "And religion may, in a sense, be understood as a popular misunderstanding of mythology" (p. 8). Campbell abandoned the Roman Catholic Church at age 25 when, as a student of mythology, "he felt the Church was teaching a literal and concrete faith that could not sustain an adult" (p. xvii). At his death in 1987, he left a significant body of unpublished work: uncollected articles, letters, diaries, notes, as well as recorded lectures (p. ix). This new volume is derived from that material and may be read as "an extended lecture" on finding new meaning in the metaphors of the Judeo-Christian tradition (p. xvi). Campbell examines the biblical myths, "not to dismiss them as unbelievable but to lay open once again their living and nourishing core" (p. xv).

"If we listen and look carefully," Campbell believed, "we discover ourselves in the literature, rites and symbols of others, even though at first they seem distorted and alien to us. Thou art that, Campbell would judge, citing the underlying spiritual intuition of his life and work" (pp. xii-xiii). Campbell makes a compelling argument in this book that the language of religion is metaphorical (p. 19), and that religious symbols "point past themselves to the ultimate truth which must be told: that life does not have any one absolutely fixed meaning" (pp. 8-9). He encourages us to search out the "deeper, vital meanings of symbols whose surfaces are so familiar that they have become static and brittle" (p. 43). For instance, the Virgin Birth may be viewed as a rebirth of spirit that everyone can experience, and the Promised Land may be viewed as the geography of the heart anyone can enter (p. xvii). The Kingdom of God is spread upon the earth, Campbell says, only men do not see it (p. 19). When they realize that, the end of the world as they know it has arrived (p. 83).

This book covers some familiar territory, which will provide readers new to Joseph Campbell with a good introduction to his work. Mythology, he writes, serves four functions. Myths awaken us to the mysteries of the universe (pp. 2, 24). They present us with a consistent image of the order of the cosmos (p. 3). Myths validate and support a specific moral order (p. 5), and they carry us through the passages and crises of life (p. 5). He encourages us to find our own paths through the forest, and to reach for the transcendent by studying poetry (p. 92). One must "search out one's own values and assume responsibility for one's own order of action and not simply follow orders handed down by some period past" (p. 30). "The heart," he tells us, "is the beginning of humanity" (p. 99).

Revisiting Campbell's ideas through this book reminded me how reading his HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES (1949) and POWER OF MYTH (1988) were life changing experiences for me. My only real criticism of this book is that at just over 100 pages, it is too short. But as an inauguration to the Collected Works of Joseph Campbell, it should not be missed.

G. Merritt
 


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