I’ve been thinking about what it means to take religion literally as opposed to metaphorically. I’ll illustrate:
CAMPBELL: The reference of the metaphor in religious traditions is to something transcendent that is not literally any thing. If you think that the metaphor is itself the reference, it would be like going to a restaurant, asking for the menu, seeing beefsteak written there, and starting to eat the menu.
For example, Jesus ascended to heaven. The denotation would seem to be that somebody ascended to the sky. That’s literally what is being said. But if that were really the meaning of the message, then we have to throw it away, because there would have been no such place for Jesus literally to go. We know that Jesus could not have ascended to heaven because there is no physical heaven anywhere in the universe. Even ascending at the speed of light, Jesus would still be in the galaxy, Astronomy and physics have simply eliminated that as a literal, physical possibility, But if you read “Jesus ascended to heaven” in terms of its metaphoric connotation, you see that he has gone inward – not into outer space but into inward space, to the place from which all being comes, into the consciousness that is the source of all things, the kingdom of heaven within. The images are outward, but their reflection is inward. The point is that we should ascend with him by going inward. It is a metaphor of returning to the source, alpha and omega, of leaving the fixation on the body behind and going to the body’s dynamic source.
MOYERS: Aren’t you undermining one of the great traditional doctrines of the classic Christian faith – that the burial and the resurrection of Jesus prefigures our own?
CAMPBELL: That would be a mistake in the reading of the symbol. That is reading the words in terms of prose instead of in terms of poetry, reading the metaphor in terms of the denotation instead of the connotation.
MOYERS: And poetry gets to the unseen reality.
CAMPBELL: That which is beyond even the concept of reality, that which transcends all thought. The myth puts you there all the time, gives you a line to connect with that mystery which you are.
Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. And that’s what it is. The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you. When your mind is simply trapped by the image out there so that you never make the reference to yourself, you have misread the image.
The inner world is the world of your requirements and your energies and your structure and your possibilities that meets the outer world. And the outer world is the field of your incarnation. That’s where you are. You’ve got to keep both going. As Novalis said, “The seat of the soul is there where the inner and outer worlds meet.”
Months ago reading this, I would have been frightened and even a little offended to take Christianity on a “metaphorical” level. I had always known, like a good English student, that the Creation “myth” in Genesis was allegorical due to x, y, z devices, and most of the evangelical Christian teachings I’ve encountered also treated the book more-or-less the same way, pointing of course to the objective truth of God and God’s power. But one does not mess with the Ten Commandments, Hell, or the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and take that “metaphorically.” But increasingly I have come to wonder.
I don’t doubt the existence of God all. I think the Christian salvation story is profound: on a spiritual level it just oozes heartwrenching goodness and potentiality, as I don’t think humans can comprehend anything vaster and more “good” than sacrificial love. On a literal level, it’s full of paradoxes and narrative ambiguities and so forth that just begs rich analysis. I’ve read Jungian perspectives on the Christian mythos, also very good. So it’s not as though Jesus’ resurrection is irrelevant or “untrue” to me; I won’t argue with the scientific and historical evidence that either approves of or negates his works. It’s just that, whether Jesus exists or not, he makes much more sense to me on an allegorical level than a literal, a scientific, or historical conception.
I grew up in a Christian church. It had its merits; I learned how to respect others and develop empathy on a religious basis (religion is pretty good, I think, for justifying morality and why we “shouldn’t” kill one another), I learned about community ties, and being involved in fellowship and worship helped me gain inner introspection. When you pray, you pray to something outside of yourself (God) but also reach into your inner essence, a self-examination, confession, and catharis. You acknowledge the shit in your life, and you acknowledge the need to deal with it. At the same time, I won’t lie when I say that the Christian church also caused one of the greatest moments of pain, betrayal, and ostracization in my life. I was betrayed, very recently, by so-called Christians – the ones I depended on for community and self-validation. The bible was wielded against me to tell me that I was dirt and unworthy. At the same time, I never felt the need to hate on Christianity for the rest of my life. God can exist, or he can “not” exist. He can be Yaweh, or he can be [insert some other deity]. But I wonder if that will change the fact that, in the end of the day, people are people and they can’t help it if they’re full of shit. Hell, I’m full of shit myself. So religion will always be unfortunately corrupted by its followers. From a personal experience, the people who wounded me most were the people who took Christianity on a somewhat narrow and literal level.
These were the people who said, Maybelle, this is exactly how you should live and what you should do. Deny yourself, deny the fact that you have real psychological problems, and get high off of this magic anecdote called “God” who will swoop in and save all your problems. But when I reflect on this trend in Christian culture, it strikes me as being a highly disembodied form of living. It’s like performing a role without acknowledging the inner happenings of me, acknowledging the fact that there is no clean-cut, religious formula to self-healing. We can’t just be better people by doing “better things,” although doing “better things” is highly beneficial towards nuturing inner morality. I believe, to a certain extent, God helps those who helps themselves. This means actually being physically active. Enjoying sex. Having goals. Nurturing relationships with other people, religious or non-religious. Being physiologically healthy, tackling your own problems head-on, instead of performing religious “roles” to compensate for real psychological deficiencies. Finding the seat where outer and inner worlds meet.
What I’m trying to say is, I’m less inclined to believe in the “literalness” of religion now – the rules and regulations, the monotheism. Or I am holding it to a more skeptical light. Or the fact that I can’t just validate my life with anything monolothic anymore.
P.S. This rant isn’t to hate on Christian culture or the church. The church was also one of the greatest sources of friendship and genuine community for me. So I can’t bash on it completely. There are real people there too; just are there are real people everywhere.