Joseph Campbell and the Ramparts of Belief

“Belief gets in the way of learning.”
– Robert A. Heinlein

When I quoted the late Joseph Campbell in Monday’s post, I did not realize that today, 2 days later, we would be celebrating the 110th anniversary of his birth.

Few philosophers – in addition to a mythologist, writer and lecturer, he was a philosopher – outside of Buddhism have influenced me as much as Joseph Campbell. When I watched his dialogue with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth as it aired on PBS in 1987, it had a profound effect and certainly changed my life. It finally resolved for me the tension between the metaphysical aspects of religion and my rational mind.

1987 was a largely pre-cable time and the Big 3 networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) still dominated the television landscape. After The Power of Myth aired, a TV executive, with CBS as I recall, said that if the program had been broadcast on one of the major networks instead of PBS, it would have changed the face of religion in America.

Campbell’s central thesis in this program was relatively simple:

“From the point of view of any orthodoxy, myth might be defined simply as “other people’s religion”, to which an equivalent definition of religion would be ‘misunderstood mythology’, the misunderstanding consisting in the interpretation of mythic metaphors as references to hard fact . . .”

In other words, religious stories are just stories, myths, and not history. If more people understood and appreciated this, we could spare the world from much trouble, and free ourselves from the bondage of dogma. Some have taken this message to heart, but there are others who dismiss it as something that undermines their faith.

Faith is a concept used by different persons to designate very diverse attitudes, but most often, we find faith reduced to belief coupled with the misunderstanding that belief makes what is believed fact. Any attempt to clear up this confusion is viewed as a threat, and this insecurity is the cause of most religious controversy and conflict.

Campbell did not articulate his view as such, but the principle underlying his philosophy was essentially the same as Nagarjuna’s Middle Way teachings on the emptiness of views, which Dr. K. Venkata Ramanan* explains in this way,

The Middle Way is to see things as they are, to recognize the possibility of determining things differently from different standpoints and to recognize that these determinations cannot be seized as absolutes. This is the way that realizes the relativity of specific views and of determinate entities. This becomes practically the central point in the philosophy of Nagarjuna.”

Faith is not belief about experiences but something inferred from them, and various things can be inferred from any one experience. Even while we may acknowledge the fact that faith/belief does not make what is believed fact, faith/belief can greatly influence attitudes and produce undesirable, unbeneficial, and even dangerous actions. A case in point would be the Louisiana teacher who taught her students that the universe was created by God 6,000 years ago and that that both the Big Bang theory and evolution are false. She gave her class a test in which the only correct answers were those based on this literal interpretation of the Bible. When one student gave different answers and then stated he was Buddhist and didn’t believe in God, the teacher reportedly told the rest of the class that Buddhism was “stupid.”

The student’s parents successfully sued the school, with the presiding judge in the U.S. District Court ruling that “School Officials shall not denigrate any particular faith, or lack thereof, or single out any student for disfavor or criticism because of his or her particular faith or religious belief, or lack thereof.”

This case is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, for we know all too well how religious intolerance can lead to violence and war.

Campbell said

We have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

Both sides are wrong. Campbell further explained that

Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images . . .”

Buddhism has its share of misunderstandings about mythology. Some tend to dismiss concepts they see as supernatural or metaphysical and fail to appreciate the real messages they convey, while others insist that certain beliefs, such as karma and rebirth, must be taken literally, missing the point that if these ideas are regarded as metaphor, it does not undermine Buddhism’s core philosophy. Then, in addition, there are those who also mistake belief for fact and contend that the sutras and the theology surrounding the sutras are historical and adopt an absolutist stand that their Buddhism alone is true.

Religious philosophy is a system of ideas. It uses words and symbols to refer to what lies beyond the full scope of our knowledge. The nature of God is a continuous debate, and yet, assuming there were a super-awakened being that created the universe, the mind of such a being would be so vast and impenetrable that no one on this earth could possibly know it, let alone claim the ability to interpret His or Her will.

Religion does has practical value when it is practiced without undue attachment to belief and the blindness of faith. In Monday’s post, Joseph Campbell pointed out that yoga means to “join” or to “yoke.” In The Power of Myth, he explained, “The word ‘religion’ means religio, linking back.”  We can say then that yoga and religion have essentially the same meaning, and the same ultimate aim, which is to enter the zone of pure consciousness awake. When we awaken from slumber each morning, we wipe the sand or sleep (rheum) from our eyes. To be awake in the religious sense means to wipe away the sand of dogma from our minds and then go into the world and make our stand not on the ramparts of belief but before the gates of wisdom.

[You] have the three great Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and because the three of them have different names for the same biblical god, they can’t get on together. They are stuck with their metaphor and don’t realize its reference. They haven’t allowed the circle that surrounds them to open. It is a closed circle. Each group says, ‘We are the chosen group, and we have God.'”

– Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth

The wayfarer that can understand this [the emptiness of views] does not seize, does not cling to anything, does not imagine that this alone is true (and not that). He does not quarrel with anyone. He can thus enjoy the flavor of the nectar of the Buddha’s doctrine. Those teachings are wrong which are not of this nature (i.e., non-contentious and accommodative). If one does not accommodate other doctrines, does not know them, does not accept them, he indeed is the ignorant. Thus, then, all those who quarrel and contend are devoid of wisdom. Why? Because every one of them refuses to accommodate the views of others. That is to say, there are those who say that what they themselves speak is the highest, the real, the pure truth, that the doctrines of others are words, false and impure.”

Nagarjuna, Treatise on the Maha Prajna-Paramita Sutra

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* K. Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1987

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7 thoughts on “Joseph Campbell and the Ramparts of Belief

  1. Thank u for this post David powerful powerful reminder and so timely with fundamentalism on the rise if only more individuals could connect with the reality that lies behind these words .sadly it seems as a species we are uncomfortable…unsettled by paradox and uncertainty which I feel is the basic nature of reality .don’t get me wrong I am too but hopefully Buddhist practice and its not the only one can train us in having an open minded…flexible approach to the nature of things.I believe it was dh or maybe it was the Lawrence who said humankind cannot bear too much reality .lol I think he might have been on to something.be well

    1. T.S. Elliot said it, or wrote it in Four Quartets: “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.” He also used the line in his play, Murder in the Cathedral.

      However, on the subject of reality (vs. unreality or a dream-like state) T.E. Lawrence wrote, “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

      Sometimes that quote is attributed to D.H. but I think it comes from T.E.’s (aka Lawrence of Arabia) Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I am pretty sure this one belongs to D.H.: “It is the property of art that it makes mimic pictures of reality which we accept as illusory.”

  2. Thank you for this–I’d never heard to Joseph Campbell before, and I already like him. 🙂

    I think a lot of people need beliefs as a stepping stone, when they first begin their journey. The problem is clinging to the beliefs, when they no longer make sense, taken literally. I know it took me years of cognitive dissonance before I could see my beliefs for what they were–a metaphorical way of trying to explain that which can not be explained.

    1. Very good. You’re right, beliefs can be helpful in the beginning, but as we progress and our thinking expands, they can be a hindrance if we cling to them.

      I think you would really appreciate Joseph Campbell’s teachings. Rent or buy or download the six-part series The Power of Myth, you’ll find it fascinating. For years, before most people had heard of Campbell, his book. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which describe the mythic hero’s journey, was more or less the “Bible” for Hollywood screenwriters in terms of how to craft a story. It had a tremendous effect on George Lucas and his Star Wars saga.

  3. Thanks for this post, David. I read The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a college freshman, and though I can’t say it altered my life, it brought a syncretic view to the study of religions and cultures, broadening my own quite limited outlook.

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