He used to be my hero. I used to go exploring in my little Datsun, listening to Joseph Campbell tapes over and over until I had them memorized. I had a large collection of his writings. But years later I realized that whatever else he understood, Joseph Campbell did not understand Catholicism. Raised in a Catholic family, he left the Church as a young man. For all his obvious erudition, and his engaging wit and style notwithstanding, Campbell wrote and spoke of the Church as the outsider he had become. In my own experience I have found it difficult, if not impossible, to truly understand a religion from without. One runs the risk of seeing only the externals and missing deeper significances. Leaving the Church is not the best way to understand it; studying other religions does not necessarily help one understand one’s own. Giving in to that sort of intellectual curiosity is tempting but it rarely results in increased wisdom.
Now I don’t know whether or not Campbell was ever reconciled to the Church before he died, but the animosity he felt toward her is apparent in his talks. I listened to The Transformations of Myth Through Time many times in the early 90’s and was bothered even then (years before I became interested in Catholicism) at the digs he made at her. I’ll never forget hearing him call Christ’s Second Coming “the great non-event” and hearing the snickers and giggles of the audience. He reduced the Church’s teaching on the economy of salvation to simple accounting and bookkeeping, attributing such a shallow and mistaken view to the Church herself instead of to his own childish and inadequate religious education. He taught that the Church’s insistence upon the historicity of Christ was a misunderstanding of His true metaphorical nature. And so in failing to appreciate the historical nature of her Divine Founder, he missed the significance of both the Church’s history and her symbols.
The Catholic Church only makes sense if she was founded by Christ, a living, flesh-and-blood, real, actual and historical Christ. The Church exists because He existed and exists. The teachings of the Church can have any claim to authority only if those teachings flow from the real authority of their Divine Author. Her symbols and sacraments are not mere metaphors or signs but efficacious signs: they produce or effect the very things they symbolize. Baptism confers not a symbol of new life but real re-birth, real new life, a participation in Divine and Eternal Life. Here. Now. In this life. If this were merely symbolic, I wouldn’t waste my time. If the Eucharist did not communicate Christ’s own Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity to me, I wouldn’t bother to show up for Mass. Mere metaphor did not enable me to give up my former way of living. New life in Christ did.
At the end of The Transformations of Myth Through Time Campbell said that all the ancient religions were outdated, archaic, no longer capable of speaking to us and dangerous, every one. We need a new myth for our time, he said; we need to create one. Now I have yet to find a religion created by man that I can honestly recommend to anyone. They lack coherence and they lack the ability to transform. I’m not including Buddhism among the religions created by man. I don’t think the Buddha created Buddhism; it’s rather as if he stumbled upon it through meditation. And I do think a person can attain a high degree of detachment and spiritual development through the practice of Buddhism. But this same Buddhism is one of the ancient and archaic religions that Campbell dismisses as irrelevant and dangerous now.
As a former Buddhist and as a practicing Catholic of many years, I know that he is wrong about this. Buddhism still has relevance for people of our day and age and it probably always will. I also know that Catholicism is capable of transforming the world because her Founder is Christ Himself and He is the Word Incarnate, the Word made flesh Who dwelt and still dwells among us. Perhaps if he had remained in the Church or had come back to her, and had studied and lived his religion as an adult, he would not have made such a tragic mistake.
Perhaps then Joseph Campbell would still be one of my heroes.
Notes and Links
The Transformation of Myths Through Time, by Joseph Campbell. (Affiliate link. See Full Disclosure below.)
Update: July 27, 2020: There was a time when I knew this book (Transformations) very well and the tape set even better. I could practically recite it by heart. I used to drive all over New England with it playing on a portable cassette tape player with portable speakers. I still think the man is a marvelous speaker and storyteller. I just don’t think he’s right about a lot of the things he says. By the way, I noticed that Campbell’s wife, Jean Erdman, died a little while back, May 4, 2020. She was 104 years old, the same age as Olivia de Havilland who died yesterday, July 26, 2020. Amazing. This weekend John Saxon and Regis Philbin also died. May they all, including Joseph Campbell, the man of a thousand myths himself, rest in peace.
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