Once the great scholar of myth Joseph Campbell, during a radio interview about his work in comparative mythology and religion, was told that religions lie.

Campbell told the interviewer that religions don’t lie because they speak in metaphor. The interviewer contested the point further until Campbell tested his understanding and asked him for an example of a metaphor. The interviewer, thinking he had been assigned a simple task, replied “My friend John runs so fast, some people say he’s a deer.” Campbell, in a quick response, said, “No. A metaphor would be, ‘John is a deer.’” The radio interviewer reflexively stated, ‘That’s not a metaphor, that’s a lie,” and on that note the interview ended.

In his book Thou Art That, Campbell wrote about the interview, saying it:

…made me reflect that half of the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not fact at all. As a result 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.

Metaphors function like poetry, in terms of connotations rather than denotations. Metaphors point to inner meanings beyond the designated symbols. Campbell says:

The reference in religious traditions is to something transcendent that is not really any thing. If you think that the metaphor itself is a reference, it would be like going to a restaurant, asking for a menu, seeing the beefsteak written there, and starting to eat the menu.

The suggestion that a person would sit and eat a menu when he wants food is completely absurd, in this case, because we know that the person’s mind focuses beyond the written word beefsteak, and on the actual piece of meat. However, in situations where the object of thought is not physical, metaphor plays a crucial role, by helping the mind focus on something we can’t perceive with our five senses.

Metaphors concentrate the mind on an intended meaning. When we allow our minds to interpret the statement ‘John is a deer’ as metaphor, we can see John running across boulders and jumping a stream with grace and ease. Of course, John isn’t a deer, yet if our entire conscious attention centers on that, we lose the ability to experience the deeper meaning of the statement beyond the statement.

The Baha’i teachings invite us to increase our understanding of the human spirit through metaphor. Abdu’l-Baha says:

…when you wish to explain the reality of the spirit and its conditions and degrees, you are obliged to describe them in terms of sensible things, since outwardly there exists nothing but the sensible. For example, grief and happiness are intelligible things, but when you wish to express those spiritual conditions you say “My heart became heavy,” or “My heart was uplifted,” although one’s heart is not literally made heavy or lifted up. Rather, it is a spiritual or intelligible condition, the expression of which requires the use of sensible terms. – Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 94.

We know from the Baha’i teachings that the path of consciousness leads from the sensible to the intelligible. We can attain understanding of those aspects of life, which lay beyond the range of the senses, only by referring to sensible reality, as Abdu’l-Baha puts it, in “that realm of phenomena through which the conscious pathway to the kingdom of God leads.”

In this series of essays we’ll explore the mysterious relationship between the material and spiritual aspects of reality. The following posts in this series explore: (1) materialism as a source of darkness, (2) how matter influences spirit, (3) how spirit shapes matter, (4) energy, polarity, and the human spirit, and finally (5) the bridge between the worlds of matter and spirit. We hope you’ll come along as we embark on this journey.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.


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  • Oct 03, 2015
    Tim, thank you for sharing your writings with me, this blog has elevated me to better understand
    peoples responses to religions....you are amazing.
    • Nov 02, 2015
      Thanks, my friend. Glad the ideas resonated with you.
  • Sep 30, 2015
    Thank you Tim for this nice article and the reference to Joseph Campbell. Looking forward to the next in series. Jung referred to the psychological condition of concretism (the opposite of abstraction when thinking) and getting stuck in a symbolic moment, which may well apply here. Your article also reminded me of Piaget and his observations on the emergence of abstract thought (a human and not animal quality, he observed) during child development, leading to his interest in the process of cognitive development and reasoning. It seems to relate to the "common faculty" notion you ...mentioned.
    • Sep 30, 2015
      Thanks Marinell and Ned for your insights. I am very encouraged by the connections that you see to things I don't feel I mentioned yet in the article, but will in future posts (developmental perspective). I will look up concretism. There is a quote from Abdul-Baha that comes to mind from Paris Talks, "Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets ...of things-in-themselves. To illustrate this, think of man as endowed with two kinds of sight; when the power of insight is being used the outward power of vision does not see."
  • I am now retired from being a counselor, but in my work I often had to perform mental status exams. As part of this, clients were asked to interpret simple proverbs like "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." A frequent response was, "Of course not. They'd break the glass." Even young children can start to understand the difference between "real" and abstract if it's pointed out to them. Once a person is locked into concrete interpretation, it becomes much harder. I look forward to following how this unfolds. Thanks.
    • Tim Wood Tim, when I was in practice, I was in rural areas without a lot of conversation about these issues and I haven't really given them much thought. My degree is MSW, without a lot of emphasis on psychology. There were certainly many women in our program and I have known many men who had no problem with abstract thinking, so I never thought about there being a gender difference. Although it will not be I who would undertake this study, it would be interesting to see if there is any connection between substance abuse and an abiity to ...abstract. Is it the mind that is able to do that, or the soul? As we know from the Writings, substance abuse has the potential to kill or seriously damage the soul. Does the ability to abstract decrease with the level of substance abuse? Hmmm.
    • Sep 30, 2015
      Marinell, I agree about the developmental perspective and I'm hoping to also understand the gender component. In my mind, patterns between gender and mental health conditions reveal patterns in the process of energy flow. The study I pasted below argues that men's disorders are more likely from externalizing (energy out) emotion and women's are more likely from internalizing (energy in). "Men more likely to develop substance abuse, antisocial problems; women more likely to develop anxiety, depression" http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/08/mental-illness.aspx
    • Tim Wood, I'm sure the inability to apply abstract thinking is connected with various mental disorders, aptly described by Ned Walker below; however, I also believe that it is frequently simply the absence of training in early childhood. A child raised in a rigidly literalistic family seems less likely than others to develop the ability to abstract later in life. In additon, a large part of our practice was working with substance abusers and it seems to be fairly common in that population, for whatever reason.