Sunday, March 18, 2007

Joseph Campbell on Symbols

From Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Princeton Bollingen.

From page 236:

Symbols are only the vehicles of communication; they must not be mistaken for the final term, the tenor, of their reference. No matter how attractive or impressive they may seem, they remain but convenient means, accommodated to the understanding. Hence the personality or personalities of God--whether represented in trinitarian, dualistic, or unitarian terms, pictorially or verbally, as documented fact or apocalyptic vision--no one should attempt to read or interpret as the final thing. The problem of the theologian is to keep his symbol translucent, so that it may not block out the very light it is supposed to convey. "For then alone do we know God truly," writes Saint Thomas Aquinas, "when we believe that He is far above all that man can possibly think of God." And in the Kena Upanishad, in the same spirit: "To know is not to know; not to know is to know." Mistaking a vehicle for its tenor may lead to spilling not only of valueless ink, but of valuable blood.

And from page 248:

Wherever the poetry of 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 of 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.

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 again their permanently human meaning.

1 comment:

Arnie said...

All symbols are neutral until meaning is attached to them. Therefore it is important for the community to have a collective understanding of the meanings that are attached to the symbols.
One example of this is the swastika symbol. To some in the Hindu community and some of our North American Indian tribes it is or was a peace symbol. It may have started as a peace symbol to the German community used by the Nazi Party. However, after the horrors of WW!!, this symbol has a very different meaning today in the western world than in the eastern world. This is only one example of one symbol system of many.