Symbolism and religious experience

With respect to the mystical tradition, one can divide the world into two great groups: one to the west of Iran, which includes the Near East and Europe; and the other, to the east of Iran, which includes India and the Far East.

Let us focus on the West. Our religions come one and all from the Levant, from the Near East rather than Europe. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are called the great religions of the world. In all of these, God made the world and God and the world are not the same. There is an ontological and essential distinction in our tradition between creator and creature.

This leads to a totally different psychology and religious structure from those religions in which this distinction is not made. The goal of Western religions is not to bring about a sense of identity with the transcendent. Their goal is to bring about a relationship between human beings and God, who are not the same. The typical attitude of the Levant, of the Near East from which our religions come, is the submission of human judgment to that power conceived to be God.

In the Western tradition, the divine is not within you. When you turn within, you find a human soul and that human soul may or may not be in proper relationship to its creator. The great world of the biblical tradition tells us that nature is corrupt and that a fall took place, whether you designate it as Original Sin or not. The whole concept of sin is involved here, because you have a responsibility to God to obey some kind of law that you conceive Him to have rendered.

How in this tradition do you get related to God? The relationship is accomplished through an institution. This we may term the first mythic dissociation in that it dissociates the person from the divine principle. The individual can only become associated with the divine through the social institution. Thus, in the Jewish tradition, God and His people have a covenant regarding their special relationship.

In the Christian tradition, Christ is the centre because He is true God and true Man. This is regarded as a mystery because of the unity of these two natures. It is no mystery at all in the Orient, where each of us is conceived to be precisely a piece of God.

Our Western religious culture is committed to these social groups and their various biblical and ecclesiastical claims, which, in the light of modern historical and scientific research, are brought into question. By this arrangement, however, we have been emptied of our sense of our own divinity. We have been committed to a social organization or hierarchical institution, which sets up a claim for itself. And now that claim itself is in question. This breeds what we term alienation—that is, an individual sense of estrangement from the religious institution through which we relate to God.

The God of the institution is not supported by your own experience of spiritual reality. This opens a gap challenging the validity of the human being. The first aim of the mystical is to validate the person’s individual human experience.

Man on mountain - Experiencing religious mystery

Experiencing mystery

As we have previously mentioned, the primary purpose of a dynamic mythology, which we may underscore as its properly religious function, is to awaken and maintain in the person an experience of awe, humility, and respect in recognition of that ultimate mystery that transcends every name and form, “from which,” as we read in the Upanishads, “words turn back.” In recent decades, theology has been often concentrated on a literary exercise in the explanation of archaic texts that are made up of historically conditioned, ambiguous names, incidents, sayings, and actions, all of which are attributed to “the ineffable.” Faith, we might say, in old-fashioned scripture or faith in the latest science belong equally at this time to those alone who as yet have no idea of how mysterious, really, is the mystery of themselves.

Into how many of us has the weight described by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger been born that “this life of yours that you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is, in a certain sense the whole; only the whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one simple glance. This . . . is what the Brahmims express in that sacred, mystic formula that is yet really so simple and so clear: Tat tvam asi, that is you.”

This is the basic insight of all metaphysical discourse, which is immediately known—as knowable to each alone—only when the names and forms, what I call the masks of God, have fallen away. Yet, as many have observed, including William of Occam, Immanuel Kant, and Henry Adams, the category, or name, of unity itself is of the mind and may not be attributed to any supposed substance, person, or “Ground of Being.” Who, then, may speak to you, or to any of us, of the being or nonbeing of God, unless by implication to point beyond his words and himself and all he knows, or can tell, toward the transcendent, the experience of mystery.

The question sometimes arises as to whether the experience of mystery and transcendence is more available to those who have undergone some kind of religious and spiritual training, for whom, as I have said, it has all been named completely. It may be less available to them precisely because they have got it all named in the book. One way to deprive yourself of an experience is indeed to expect it. Another is to have a name for it before you have the experience. Carl Jung said that one of the functions of religion is to protect us against the religious experience. That is because in formal religion, it is all concretized and formulated. But, by its nature, such an experience is one that only you can have. As soon as you classify it with anybody else’s, it loses its character. A preconceived set of concepts catches the experience, cutting it short so that it does not come directly to us. Ornate and detailed religions protect us against an exploding mystical experience that would be too much for us.

There are two orders of meditation: discursive meditation and ordered meditation. In discursive meditation, such as that advocated by Ignatius Loyola, you consider some religious scene—the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin or the story of the Crucifixion—arranging it as one would a stage set in the imagination. This is a protective prelude to one order of  meditation. Another order of meditation is explosive because it carries you beyond all names, forms, and concepts. And then you cannot get back. If, however, you have engaged for several years in discursive meditation first, it serves as an intermediary state by which you can get back. In places in which meditation has been practiced for a long time—in contemplative orders, for example—this is well understood.

Let us find the way to mystery through a meditation on the birth, life, and death of Jesus. In this regard, the first century question, whether Christianity was a mystery religion or the mystery religion of which all the others were re-figurements is relevant. The many symbols, such as the animals of the Egyptian mystery religions breathing their spirit on the infant Jesus—the bull of the god Osiris and the ass of his brother Set, there in the manger—suggest their early understanding that this was indeed so. So, too, in the same nativity scene, the Magi wear the hat of Mithra as they pay homage.

It is clear that, in Orpheus and Christ, we have exactly the same archetype, with the motif of leaving the physical world, still symbolized with a cross in astronomy, for the spiritual. They leave the Earth, symbol of Mother, to go to the realm of the Father.

In the translation of a Neolithic fertility rite into a spiritual fertility rite, we see the death and resurrection of the grain refigured in the symbol of the death of the old Adam and birth of the new. As I have observed before, although I do not know how to prove it, the great insight of St. Paul on the road to Damascus was that the calamity of the death of this young rabbi, Jesus, was a counterpart of the death and resurrection of the saviour found in the classical mysteries. Paul also grasped that the Christian myth of the Fall at the Tree of the Garden and the Redemption at Calvary on the Tree of Redemption are the two aspects of the two Trees in the Garden of Eden. The first, the Tree of the Fall, represents passage from the eternal into the realm of time. The second is the Tree of the return from the realm of time to the spiritual. So that Tree is the threshold tree, the laurel tree, which may be seen in its two aspects, going from the sacred to the profane and from the profane back into the sacred.

When Man ate of the fruit of the Tree, he discovered himself in the field of duality instead of the field of unity. As a result, he finds himself out, in exile. The two cherubim placed at the gate are there representative of the world of the pairs of opposites in which, having been cast out of the world of unity, he is now located. You are kept in exile by your commitment to that world.

Christ goes past that—“I and the Father are one”—back into the realm of unity from which we have been expelled. These are mysteries. Here is an echo and a translation into another set of images of what we ourselves are experiencing. What comes forth now with the grain, as particles of that one life that informs all things, is the revelation of the spiritual unity in all its aspects. Here also is the revelation that one life can be personified as a Deity, as in the Christian tradition, and everything comes from the Deity. But the personification is not what is important. What we have is a trans-theological, transpersonified revelation.

When one is ready to see the eternal flashing, as it were, through the latticework of time, one can experience mystery. This is especially so in artwork that carries mythological symbols that speak to us still.

All this may be observed in the surface of an ancient two-sided vase. On one side, we see Triptolemus as an old man with Hermes before him with grains of wheat. Hermes is holding the caduceus. Turning the vase, we see that beyond this, Dionysos is led by a satyr with the chalice of wine. Triptolemus is associated with the bread, the grain, and Dionysos with the wine. These are the elements of the Roman Catholic sacraments of the Mass.

On a fifth century b.c. red-figured ceramic piece, one may see the goddess with the two powers, the serpent power and the solar power. The serpent power is the bite of death to ego that opens the eye and the ear to the eternal.

There are two orders of religious perspective. One is ethical, pitting good against evil. In the biblically grounded Christian West, the accent is on ethics, on good against evil. We are thus bound by our religion itself to the field of duality. The mystical perspective, however, views good and evil as aspects of one process. One finds this in the Chinese yin-yang sign, the dai-chi.

We have, then, these two totally different religious perspectives. The idea of good and evil absolutes in the world after the fall is biblical and as a result you do not rest on corrupted nature. Instead, you correct nature and align yourself with the good against evil. Eastern cults, on the other hand, put you in touch with nature, where what Westerners call good and evil interlock. But by what right, this Eastern tradition asks, do we call these things evil when they are of the process of nature?

I was greatly impressed when I was first in Japan to find myself in a world that knew nothing of the Fall in the Garden of Eden and consequently did not consider nature corrupt. In the Shinto scriptures one reads that the processes of nature cannot be evil. In our tradition, every natural impulse is sinful unless it has been purified in some manner.

In some artistic representations, one sees the Deity and at His right stand the three Graces. The muses are clothed because art clothes mystery. The final revelation is the naked mystery itself. The first of the three Graces is Euphrosyne, or rapture, sending forth the energy of Apollo into the world. The second is Aglaia, splendour, bringing the energy back. Then, embracing the two, we find Thalia, abundance. One recognizes that these are the functions of the Trinity in the Christian biblically based tradition in which these same powers are given a masculine form.

Finally, it does not matter whether you are going to name them male and female. Transcendence is beyond all such naming. This symbol refers to what might simply be called total meditation. Father is Thalia, the abundance who unites the other two. The Son is Euphrosyne, the rapture of love that pours itself into the world. The Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, is Aglaia, who carries us back. The energy itself stems from Apollo, who in the Christian tradition is the one Divine substance of which the three of the Trinity are personalities.

Remember my earlier statement that the experience of mystery comes not from expecting it but through yielding all your programs, because your programs are based on fear and desire. Drop them and the radiance comes.

Joseph Campbell was an American author and teacher best known for his work in the field of comparative mythology. Through his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces and his TV interviews with Bill Moyers he introduced his views on mythology to millions around the world.This excerpt was republished from Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Mystery. © 2001 New World Library. If you enjoyed this excerpt, buy the book!

image 1: Suradej Chuephanich (Creative Commons BY-ND); image 2: Ehsan Rahimi (Creative Commons BY-ND)