In the past few weeks I have been reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. And honestly, he is writing very interesting things about the interpretation of not only classic mythology and fairy tales, but also about traditional religious stories from the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, etc. He adds the link to the streams of psychotherapy that were popular in his time, mainly hose of Freud and Jung and links our dreams to the same source as the mythical stories in his book.
There are a few points that struck me in the book, as shown in the following quotes.
“Wherever the poetry of the myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out o it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved. Such a blight has certainly descended on the Bible and on a great part of the Christian cult.”
That is certainly what has happened. I also took part in an Internet forum that dealt with the question if Jesus ever existed as a historical person and if anything in the Bible should be taken literally or not. The opponents were those typical rational, science-only people who don’t believe anything that cannot be externally proven. The proponents had a hard time getting their opinion heard, as they were mostly of the type that were raised in traditional Christianity and just replicated what they were told.
The great message that Campbell has to offer for a useful reinterpretation of the stories in the Bible and that should make the discussion on the Internet forum unnecessary is as follows:
“To bring the images back to life, one has to seek, not interesting applications to modern affairs, but illuminating hints from the inspired past. When these are found, vast areas of half-dead iconography disclose against permanent human meaning.”
My interpretation of this quote is that we should look at the tests in the Bible and other religious books within the context in which they were written and from the psychological level of development at which they were written. We simply cannot read them with modern eyes, but need to read them with the eyes of the people who wrote them thousands of years ago – the ones that had no idea about what we nowadays call science, but lived in a much more symbolic world. For these stories talk in symbols. It is not relevant to ask whether Jesus or Krsna or Buddha ever existed in reality, it is only relevant to ask what their stories tell us about ourselves. To say it in Campbells’ own words,
“...according to this view it appears that the wonder tales – which pretend to describe the lives of legendary heroes, the power of divinities of nature, the spirits of the dead, and the totem ancestors of the group – symbolic expression is given to the unconscious desires, fears and tensions that underlie the conscious patterns of human behaviour. Mythology, in other words, is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology.”
So let’s honour the old scriptures and learn to read them in a different way. Not as a historical account of some external events, but as a psychological and spiritual account of what exists inside us. It is then that respect for religions can be found back and the wisdom of ages be re-applied to our everyday lives.