Joseph Campbell says religious literalism sets Satan in the seat of God

In this very straight-forward lecture by Joseph Campbell, he explains the Eastern (Hindu, Buddhist) spiritual perception of “mythic identification” (seeing yourself, the world, and all beings as divine) in comparison to the Western (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) spiritual perception of “mythic dissociation” (seeing the divine as separate from yourself, life, and the world). He also points out that the Western religions each have a unique “fetish” as their focal point…

tree of life

Gods and Buddhas in the Orient are not final terms — like Yahweh, the Trinity, or Allah, in the West — but point beyond themselves to that ineffable being, consciousness, and rapture that is the All in all of us. And in their worship, the ultimate aim is to effect in the devotee a psychological transfiguration through a shift of his plane of vision from the passing to the enduring, through which he may come finally to realize in experience (not simply as an article of faith) that he is identical with that before which he bows. Their mythologies and associated rites, philosophies, sciences, and arts, are addressed, in the end, not to the honor of any god “out there” but to the recognition of divinity within.

But now, in irreconcilable contrast to this ancient, practically universal mode of experience of the world’s and one’s own dimension of divinity, which I have termed “mythic identification,” there is the order of beliefs derived from the biblical tradition, where Yahweh, as we know (arriving very late on the scene), cursed the serpent of the Garden, and with it the whole earth, which he seems to have thought he had created. Here God created the World and the two are not the same: Creator and Creature, ontologically distinct, and not to be identified with each other in any way.

In contrast to the Oriental (Buddhist and Vedantic) ways of interpreting the symbolism of the guarded gate and passage to the Tree of Life — as referring, namely, to an inward, psychological, barrier and crisis of transcendence — the authorized Christian reading has been of an actual, concrete, historic event of atonement with an angry god, who for centuries had withheld his boon of paradise from mankind, until strangely reconciled by this curious self-giving of his only son to a criminal’s death on the Cross. The fact of the crucifixion was read as the central fact of all history, and along with it certain other associated “facts” were accepted, such as in other mythological traditions would be interpreted psychologically (or, as theologians say, “spiritually”) as symbols; such as (1) the Virgin Birth, (2) the Resurrection, (3) the Ascension, (4) the existence of a heaven to which a physical body might ascend, and, of course, (5) the Fall in the garden of Eden, c. 4004 B.C., from the guilt of which the Crucifixion has redeemed us.

God in this system is a kind of fact somewhere, an actual personality to whom prayers can be addressed with expectation of a result. He is apart from and different from the world: in no sense identical with it, but related, as cause to effect. I call this kind of religious thinking “mythic dissociation,” The sense of an experience of the sacred is dissociated from life, from nature, from the world, and transferred or projected somewhere else — an imagined somewhere else — while man, mere man, is accursed.

The sacred is now not secular, of this world of mere dead dust, but canonical, supernaturally revealed and authoritatively preserved; that is to say: God, from “out there,” has condescended graciously to accord special revelations: (1) to the Hebrews, historically, on Sinai, via Moses; (2) to mankind, historically, via Jesus; but then also, apparently, (3) to mankind, once again, historically, in a cave near Mecca, via Mohammad. All, it will be noted, Semites! No other revelations of this desert god are admitted to exist, and Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the church there is no salvation”).

To the formula of mythic dissociation, there must now be added that of “social identification”: identification with Israel, with the Church as the Living Body of Christ, or with the Sunna of Islam — each body over-interpreted by its membership as the one and only holy thing in this world. And the focal center and source of all this holiness is concentrated in each case in a completely unique and special fetish — not a symbol, but a fetish: (1) the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple; (2) the Torah in the Synagogue; (3) the Bible of the Reformation; (5) the Koran, as well as (6) the Ka’aba, of Islam.

In India and the Far East such revered supports of the religious life would be known, finally, to point beyond themselves and their anthropomorphic god: beyond names, forms and all scriptural personification, to that immanent transcendent mystery of being which defies though, feeling, and figuration. For, whereas the attitide of focused piety is there recognized as appropriate for those not yet able to live in the realization of their own identity with “That” (tat tvam asi, “thou art that”), for anyone ready for an actual religious experience of his own, such canonized props are impediments. “Where is Self-knowledge for him whose knowledge depends on the object?” we read in a Vedantic text. “The wise do not see a this and a that, but the Self (atman) Immutable.” “You have your own treasure house,” said the eighth-century Chinese safe Ma-tsu; “why do you search outside?”

For the lover of that jealous god in the Bible, there is no allowance for the following of one’s own light: the leadership and guidance of one’s own expanding, deepening, enriched experience of the nature of the world and oneself. All life, all thought, all meditation, is to be governed by the authority of the shepherds of the group [the Church]; and there can be no doubt, from what we know of the history of this tradition, that this authority was imposed and maintained by force.

But any religious symbol, so interpreted that it refers not to a thought-transcending mystery but to a thought-enveloping social order, misappropriates to the lower principle the values of the higher and so (to use a theological turn of phrase) sets Satan in the seat of God.

[from Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension: Select Essays, 1944-1968 by Joseph Campbell]

banished from paradise
banished from paradise

3 thoughts on “Joseph Campbell says religious literalism sets Satan in the seat of God”

  1. Thank you for this passage from a lecture of Joseph Campbell. The terms ‘mythical dissociation’ and ‘mythical association’ adequately describe, for me, the type of relationship both the cultures described entertain with the source of all life. Yet, the great mystics of both Christian and Islamic religions speak of a kind of merging or atonement? Krishnamurti speaks of a ‘benediction’ befalling him.

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