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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.
…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.