Unfortunate Effects of Joseph Campbell

Unfortunate Effects of Joseph Campbell March 2, 2014

On my journey from fundamentalist Christianity to Nature and Deity centered Paganism, perhaps no single figure was more helpful than Joseph Campbell.  I found him at just the right time, when I was starting to get serious and realized I needed to develop a strong religious foundation based on what I did believe instead of what I didn’t.

Shortly after my religious turning point, I watched The Power of Myth over and over on PBS.  I also found and read the accompanying book.  It was exactly what I needed to hear at that exact point in time.  Here’s an excerpt from my private journal from 2001:

From a nuts and bolts perspective, I like what Campbell says about “follow your bliss” – do what you really want to do and you’ll be happy [though I now agree with those who say “follow your bliss” devalues unpleasant but necessary work].  If you chase money or power or whatever, you’ll end up missing out.

Campbell talked about God as a force, like Star Wars – PBS said George Lucas was heavily influenced by Campbell.  He chose his words very carefully, talking about common myths between religions, archetypes, and such… I think you could use Campbell’s work as justification for polytheism.

I hesitate to publish something so raw, but for someone whose only concept of God was the jealous, vengeful god of Christian fundamentalism, that was a huge step forward.  Campbell wasn’t the end for me, but he was a necessary and helpful way station on my journey.  I’ve heard dozens if not hundreds of other people (some Pagans, some not) say the same thing.  I owe a lot to Joseph Campbell.

At the same time, I think Campbell’s ideas are contributing to some of the current discord within Paganism.

The universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world – all things and beings – are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve. – from The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

In his search for universal themes, Campbell combined and conflated widely differing myths into a “monomyth” – a soft polytheism of mythology that claims all myths are aspects of One Myth.  One critic called this “a (Joseph) Campbell soup of myths that loses all local flavor.”

Many of us in the Pagan community are heavily influenced by Campbell, even if we’ve never read or seen his work.  If you aren’t a devotional polytheist or if you haven’t had experiences of individual deities, his ideas of monomyth and of “God as Force” are intuitively attractive.  The reverence in which Campbell is held within liberal religious circles only adds to his authority.  That makes it very easy for intelligent and well-meaning Pagans to interpret polytheistic experiences (of others or even their own) through monotheistic and non-theistic lenses.

Is that wrong?  I’m not going to tell anyone how to interpret their religious experiences.  If Joseph Campbell’s ideas are meaningful and helpful to you, so be it – you could do far worse.  But if you tell me my experience of Danu can only be seen as an aspect of a universal Goddess or as an archetype or that it must be an expression of a universal myth, we’re going to have issues.

All religions are true but none are literal. – from The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The literal reading of religious texts is the source of much trouble in our world, but let’s not throw the baby of religion out with the dirty bathwater of literalism.  When Joseph Campbell says all religions are true he’s affirming that all religions have value even though their texts and traditions aren’t historically and scientifically accurate.

But to the average reader – and that includes many Pagans – “true” implies The One Ultimate Truth.  And the self-evident fact is that all religions aren’t different paths up the same mountain – they’re different paths up different mountains.

The religious impulse is a response to universal human experiences:  of birth and death, of joy and suffering, of community and solitude, of wonder and awe.  But our many responses have widely varying triggers and have taken widely varying forms.

Nature centered Paganism is a response to the modern disconnection from and desecration of the Natural world.  It seeks to help us live in harmony with other species and with the Earth herself.  Deity centered Paganism is a response to the experience of the Gods and their stories.  It seeks to help us honor them, learn from them, and work with them toward the greater good.  Even though many of us are both Nature and Deity centered and there is some overlap between the two (Poseidon is a God of the Sea), these two centers of Paganism are not merely different expressions of the same goals – they have different goals.

Now think about the sources and goals of fundamentalist Christianity, of mainline Protestantism, of Catholicism, of the branches of Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, and of all the many religions in the world.  Yes, there are some commonalities, but the essence of each religion is a unique approach to a unique set of questions.

“All religions are true” does not mean all religions are ultimately the same.  It means all religions have meaning and value and deserve to be treated fairly.

Not all religions deserve our respect – the Westboro Baptist Church is only the most obvious example.  As a polytheist, I don’t care which Gods or Goddesses you do or don’t worship.  I care that you conduct yourself honorably and that you treat other creatures and ecosystems with the dignity and respect deserved by all.

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. – from The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell

Another source of confusion is our evolutionary instinct to divide everything into good/bad, helpful/harmful, like me/Other.  When we get to know people of different religions and we see they’re basically good, we move them from the “Other” category to the “like me” category.  And if someone else is “like me” then I may assume that deep down they must be seeking the same things I seek.  This is not an accurate assumption.

Joseph Campbell may have been seeking an experience of being alive, but I can assure you a fundamentalist Christian is seeking to avoid going to hell when he dies.  Those aren’t remotely the same goal.

We don’t have to say “deep down you’re just like me” in order to get along with another person or a different religion.  We don’t have to assume they’re seeking the same things in different ways.  We just have to respect their inherent dignity and worth and trust they’ll do the same for us.

I support Big Tent Paganism.  I want Wiccans and Druids and Hellenists and Heathens and tree huggers and everyone else working together to support each other, to support events like Pantheacon and sites like The Wild Hunt and Patheos Pagan.  Individually none of us have a critical mass.  Together we do.  And besides, it’s just more fun together.

But please, don’t assume what motivates you is what motivates me.  Don’t assume what you seek is what I seek.  And for the sake of all the Gods (quite literally) don’t insist that my experience must be interpreted through your lens.

Ask.  And then listen.  I’ll do the same for you.  It will be a good conversation.

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  • One of the things which strikes me about your essay, John, is how much I sort of -needed- the monomyth and Campbell’s sort of Archetypal understanding to undo some of the difficulties that monotheism created in my head. I remember Campbell being a breath a fresh air for me, and then I remember, even before I had the experiences of the gods that I’ve had, finding that the universalism of the monomyth becoming increasingly inadequate for me. It seems we’ve had similar experiences in this way.

    Thanks for writing this. You said something I’m not sure I knew the words to express.

    • I didn’t want to trash Campbell – he really was very helpful to me. But oversimplification is never a good thing.

      • Oididio

        I don’t think you trashed him, quite the contrary. Joseph Campbell was an important influence on many of us. He was a candle in the darkness of my rural upbringing. Thankfully, I used his works as a signpost and continued exploring further down the trail.
        Well written and well thought article, John.

  • This was very well said, and much needed. I encounter this idea of universalism– this idea that we are all approaching the same mountain from different angles– in so much New Age, Metaphysical, and Pagan writing. Thank you for sharing another interpretation of our diverse beliefs and rituals, and for reminding us that to respect and listen.

    • Northern_Light_27

      The thing that always strikes me about the “paths to the same mountain” metaphor is that the speaker always assumes the other-path people are going up his mountain. I often wonder if they’d be so fond of the notion if the shoe were assumed to be on the other foot and theirs was the divergent path up the other guy’s mountain. It’s easy to extend tolerance when yours is the one-up position.

  • Thanks for doing such a good job of both affirming the importance and value of Joseph Campbell, while at the same time pointing out some of the problems that can arise out of failing to go beyond the limitations of of his “perennialist” approach.

    “Perennialism” developed during a time (the late middle ages and the Renaissance) when it was impossible to clearly articulate an explicit critique of monotheism. At the time, any defense the validity of non-monotheistic religious traditions had to be couched in language that blurred, ignored or outright denied any fundamental difference between monotheism and polytheism. As soon as any such difference was acknowledged then one would be required to state one’s unqualified preference for monotheism, or be labeled as an apostate which could lead to rather unpleasant consequences.

    It is a testament to the effectiveness of “perennialism” as a rhetorical strategy that it is still alive and well today. And today it can still be very helpful to those in the process of leaving Christianity, so long as one is actually looking for a real alternative. The problem is that too many people get stuck in perennialism, and, in particular, never get past perennialism’s refusal to clearly identify the inherent problems with monotheism.

    • Thanks. I had heard that term before but I didn’t know its origins.

  • Really well said.

  • Julian Betkowski

    You have no idea how long I have waited for you to write this article. Thank you, so much.

  • Asa

    Well said. I feel like I enjoy Joseph Campbell the most when I read his work as truthiness instead of truth. I find his writing really inspiring! But when he casually says that Isis and Inanna are the same goddess, I just have to nod politely and move on.

    • I once heard an otherwise very knowledgeable history professor insist that Hathor, Isis, Astarte, Inanna, and Eostre were all the same goddess. He may have thrown Aphrodite in there too.

      When you’ve never experienced the reality of individual deities, it’s easy to assume they’re all the same at one level or another.

  • Joshua Tenpenny

    “We don’t have to say “deep down you’re just like me” in order to get along with another person or a different religion.”

    Yes, this.

    On a wider scale, you can see this same theme played out across various social movements. The folks who are trying to gain inclusion based on their sameness to the majority are always going to have a hard time figuring out where they stand with regard to the folks who are blatantly different than the majority. Sometimes they extend their attempts at inclusion to the folks whose differences are excusable or plausibly involuntary, while excluding those who seem to choose to be more upsetting to the mainstream than necessary. Sometimes they try to stretch the definition of “sameness” by erasing distinctions between groups or minimizing the existence of the more radically different. Sometimes they unapologetically draw the line for inclusion just on the far side of their own position, and attempt to redirect the social disapproval onto the people further-out. And sometimes they take a broadly inclusive stance, saying, “Yes, all of us. Even the fringe weirdos we are embarrassed to be associated with. We all deserve fair treatment.”

    In Paganism, I think we are trying to address the theological questions of “Who is Pagan?” and “What do Pagans believe/practice?” without admitting the social and political dimension of that decision. If we can’t openly discuss how it is politically advantageous to exclude certain beliefs and practices, then we end up with a lot of very thin theological justifications for some essentially pragmatic political decisions.

    I don’t know if we can, as a movement, say, “Okay, we have a fair shot at gaining inclusion for the CUUPS folks and the liberal pantheists, but Ms. Elf Ears and Jonny Satanist are going to have to sit this one out. We promise we’ll hold the door open for you once we get in.” I don’t know if we have enough cohesion or trust or mutual respect to pull that off. I don’t know if it is even a politically effective tactic.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but I do think we need to be honest about how much more socially palatable some of our beliefs and practices are than others.

  • Interesting side-note regarding “Follow your bliss”: ‘During his later years, when some students took him to be encouraging
    hedonism, Campbell is reported to have grumbled, “I should have said,
    ‘Follow your blisters.'”‘

    • Which reminds me of the Isaac Bonewits quote: “it says do as you will, not do as you whim.”

    • Asa

      Oh, Sarah Lawrence…

    • SF_NotANun

      And, it’s “Follow your bliss,” not “Follow your insecurities,” “Follow your vanities,” or even “Follow your orgasm.” St. Francis grew to the point where his bliss was found tending to the needs of lepers. We should all be that “indulgent.”

  • Bianca Bradley

    Umm, I beg to differ with you on the WBC. Honor, and ethics are subjective(see the various philosophers. Kant and (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice-virtue/ http://philosophy.lander.edu/ethics/types.html). I take the 1st amendment as a sacred thing. WBC deserves as much respect as anyone else does. They live their philosophy, no matter how distasteful I find it. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of respect. Besides which, it’s a bunch of lawyers, one of which before he lost his license, was a darn good civil rights attorney at the federal level… Anyway it’s always a good idea to treat sue happy lawyers with respect.

    • I agree that the WBC is protected by the First Amendment and I support their right to exist. As individuals I would show them the respect due any human.

      But I have NO respect for their theology or their politics, and I will oppose them any chance I get.

    • kenofken

      Their ideas and actions merit zero respect, and that’s exactly what they’ll get from me, ever. The only respect which accrues to their rights of free expression are rooted in respect for our Constitution and the belief in the power of reason coupled with free expression.

      • Bianca Bradley

        Then how can we as Pagans demand respect?

        • kenofken

          The truth is we can’t demand respect for our theology or our ideas. We can demand that our government afford us the same neutrality and free expression that they owe Westboro.

          The rest of up to the marketplace of ideas. In that arena, nobody can demand anything. All we can do is put up our wares, make our case for what we believe. I think most of what modern paganism has to offer will command infinitely more respect in that market than will the vicious and backward-looking ideologies of WBC, or for that matter, our own home grown hate groups like white power Odinists etc.

        • Northern_Light_27

          I agree with Kenofken that they merit zero respect. Any respect I have for a group ends the minute it starts using its power to harm people, including their own members. How can we as Pagans demand respect? By being respectable, it’s not that hard. By having ethics and standing by them even when it isn’t convenient. Especially when it isn’t convenient. It weirds me out massively when someone says they respect and out-and-out cult and then asks how we can demand respect when we don’t respect the cult. If you can’t look at a cult and look at your religion and see massive qualitative differences, there’s something wrong with your vision or your religion. (And we can’t really demand respect, imo respect doesn’t work that way. We can demand *courtesy*, and all legal rights we’re owed as people, but not respect. We can *earn* respect by being worthy of it.)

          • Bianca Bradley

            1. My religion is no weirder than anyone else’s when looked at objectively. I talk to dead people, dragons, elves, Gods etc. They live their life by certain phrases in the Old Testament and are annoying. Are they harming people, no. They are annoying, and hurtful emotionally but not dangerous or harmful. They make public spectacles and butts of themselves, and don’t consider others. I can’t objectively say, other Pagans do not either.

            While I disagree with their philosophy and certain politics, they aren’t harmful and in fact have increased your 1st amendment rights. Most if not all the Church members are family. I can’t say cult either, because other family have left.

            And yes, I give them respect. Because I can’t otherwise expect respect from other religions, if I don’t give it. For me that is living part of my ethics.

            If they weren’t public butts about their slogan, no one would even know, nor care about them. They are only slightly more annoying in their 1st amendment protests than various environmentalists are, and less harmful than earth first. (I believe earth first has spiked trees, and unlike other environmentalists have done so in a color that blends with the tree, so loggers have been harmed, and arson ). I bet many on here, don’t have the same opposition to earth first though.

          • Genexs

            Bianca: Respectfully (heh!), I think you are rationalizing way too much here.

          • Bianca Bradley

            Shrugs, maybe. I do tend to live in my head sometimes.

          • Northern_Light_27

            “I can’t say cult either, because other family have left. ”

            It’s not a cult if people leave? I don’t even know how to seriously respond to that sentence. Those who left are labeled betrayers and cut off from the rest of their family. Disconnection isn’t hurting anyone? Those who left say they were brainwashed. Brainwashing isn’t hurting anyone? Their members are, at best, heavily coerced. Coercion, not harmful either.

            Don’t we at bare minimum have a responsibility to ensure that the people in our religions actually want to be there, of their own informed free will and consent? Don’t we at bare minimum have a responsibility to ensure that we don’t harass, malign, assault, or force our members to disconnect with people who leave, simply because they left? This is what I’m talking about when I say that I have no respect for some religious groups, because I do consider that the bare minimum of ethical leadership. It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with politics for me, and frankly I would prefer to see a more European take on free speech rights than the way the US treats the 1st amendment. It also has nothing to do with “weirdness” and, honestly, it also offends me when people assume the only argument to be made against the Church of Scientology is that it’s a “weird religion”. I see that (we shouldn’t judge other weird religions because ours is weird, so who cares if their walkaways have a ripping case of PTSD, the thing that matters is that they’re weird and we’re weird) all the time with Pagans and it’s really disturbing. Yes, we can and should judge, and all the people stuck in groups like this who mourn their disconnected family members or who want to leave (and yet despise themselves for it because that’s what they were taught) need all our “not acceptable” judgements.

            (Which is OT from an excellent post about Campbell, but this thread was so “wait, what?” I had to respond to it.)

          • Bianca Bradley

            And where does it end, our responsibility? How far are you willing to go with that thought process? There are viable religions, with larger practitioners that fit what you are talking about, that do what you say. Just because you don’t like what they do, doesn’t negate others freedom of choice and association to choose that.

            No I do not have the responsibility to make sure that other people are adhering to my ethics.(Again, ethics are subjective. Your ethics are not a Conservative Baptist ethics). It is my responsibility to adhere to my own ethics. And while I will tilt at windmills(future, present), there is a balance there. Nor is it my responsibility to make sure other peoples family, is less dysfunctional. I certainly don’t appreciate it, when others stick their nose in, and unless it’s a highly serious matter, I’m not going to stick my nose in either.

            There are set legal protections in place, to help people who do not get along in their family. The least of which is the emancipated minor. What you call coercion, others would use as tough love, and tough parenting.

            It is not my responsibility to police another religion, because what they do makes me uncomfortable. I’m certain, I wouldn’t want it if the local southern baptist sticking his nose in Pagans affairs, so why on earth is it ours, to put our nose where it doesn’t belong? Jim Jones was a harmful cult, not quite sure that WBC is like that.

            Will I speak up against stupid stuff in mine, yes. Again, there are limits. I’m not going to go into an established coven to make sure, that the members there are happy, they are grown adults, and can do their own conflict resolution. If they want an ear, and a shoulder to kvetch to, I’m here, which may mean I offer to help. But I’m not everyones mother(despite my mother hen tendencies) and I don’t need to hold other adults hands, to make sure they are making the right decisions.

            AS for taking European take on free speech rights, Heck to the no. I am not giving up my civil liberties, in some poor excuse to “protect, or save peoples feelings”. I’m definitely not giving up my parental or civil rights, because some governmental body, doesn’t like something. It wasn’t all that long ago that Europe didn’t like many of Pagans religious choices either.

  • RobinMavis_AHGET

    If we are all traveling different paths up different mountains, if there is something after our physical existence is ended, does it all look the same for everyone or is that too different?
    I once asked an Elder in my community if Wicca is monotheist (The Source, The Divine) or is it polytheist – actual separate beings (Gods, Goddesses). His answer was – who am I to say if it is God or Gods, afterall I am not one of them.
    I suppose it is inconsequential because what will be will be.

    • Except it does have consequence, because it influences how people practice. I don’t need to be a deity to interpret my experiences of the deities in a certain way.

      • RobinMavis_AHGET

        I was only talking about it being inconsequential in terms of when our physical presence ceases to exist here. I agree that it does influence people’s behavior in this life. I was thinking in terms of if there are mutliple religions that say they have The Truth, yet those Truths are different, it is inconsequential once we are dead…humans can only do the best that they can to interprete the sacred…I suppose that is why it is not important to me in the least bit to ‘convert’ anyone…I do however address their behavior and hypocrisy 🙂

  • Dana Corby

    I often say that an archetype is a God’s job title. Campbell, and before him Jung, mistook the title for the Deity. Just because there are lots of (for instance) Trickster figures does not mean Loki and Coyote are interchangeable.

    • androphiles

      I don’t think Jung ever called archetypes deities. Religion was not his field nor the aim of his theories.

  • thelettuceman

    Thank you, Mr. Beckett. Your blog is one of the few I bother to come to Patheos for, and this is an example of why.

  • Dana’s comment above really sums up my view. I’m a hard polytheist and a fan of Campbell (especially for encouraging a non-literalist view of religious texts), but obviously I have a different take on archetypes than I suspect many archetypal pagans would have.

    Whereas some would see the Gods as mere archetypes (whether in a monist fashion or not), I see the archetypes as being derived from the Gods, and the Gods participating in an archetypal cosmos. So I find a lot of meaning in looking at the Universe in an archetypal way, but believe the Gods participate in and inform the archetypes, without being limited to any one archetype. It’s the archetypes that are facets (“job titles”) of the Gods, and not the other way around.

    The monism/universalist thing drives me crazy sometimes… Sure it would be a nice, neat way to make everyone get along, but it just doesn’t fit the reality of any of my spiritual experiences. IMHO everything is *interconnected*, but everything most certainly is not *one*!

    • “everything is *interconnected*, but everything most certainly is not *one*!”

      Yes! When I say I’m a pantheist as well as a polytheist, that’s what I mean.

    • RobinMavis_AHGET

      ahhh but for others it does fit the reality of their spiritual experiences…for me that is why one’s faith is so personal

      • *Nods* But can you see where one who experiences the deities as separate and distinct individuals might feel a bit put off or even offended by those who go around saying “all are one”? To us, it’s putting artificial limits on deities we see as limitless.

        And it’s also saying that we’re all the same and ultimately having the same experience, when we just aren’t. Diversity is a good thing. 🙂

        • clairem

          My post-Campbell background affirms that there is limitlessness in the concept of all being parts of the one. Just a slight difference in conceptualization, where deities can be representative of archetypes, for example, rather than being separate “beings.” I think semantics sometimes makes communication more turbid that we’d like!

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Thank you for this, John.
    I can state with certainty that without Campbell, I wouldn’t be doing what I am now, either in terms of my day-job (having sought a Ph.D. in Celtic Studies and becoming a professor), or in terms of my spiritual path. It’s one of the reasons why Joseph Campbell is a Sanctus of the Ekklesia Antinoou–and, he did actually show one of the more famous statues of Antinous in one of his Transformations of Myth Through Time lectures, though I didn’t know it at the time. And, the importance and indeed *power* of myth which he emphasized and re-popularized is something I still hold to this day…almost anyone who is a storyteller or narrative-creator would certainly agree on those broad matters.
    And, since late 1994, I’ve been a very big critic of Campbell from both an academic and theological viewpoint. Too many of his fans see him as a guru (which he utterly refused as a title!) or as a philosopher, when all he ever said of himself was “I’m a scholar” and that his spiritual practice was “underlining passages in books.” The easy notion of “it’s all the same because we’re all human” that too many people take away from his lectures and television programs and writing is not always the theme he’s actually stating, and of course it does violence to the specificity of the actual cultures and myths he discusses.
    All of that having been said, though: Joseph Campbell, as I’ve encountered him in his death/afterlife, has been really even more inspiring and influential to me, as much as a challenger as he’s been an ally and someone with whom I agree. And for this, I shall always honor him, while still being realistic and honest about where we disagree and the matters in which I think his work doesn’t go far enough (into details–which is why I had to become a Celticist, because his footnotes weren’t good enough for me!) and goes too far (into “we’re all the same” territory).

    • Thanks, Lupus – that means a lot coming from you. It’s important to honor our ancestors – and Joseph Campbell is definitely one of my ancestors of spirit – but it’s also important to be honest about their shortcomings.

  • Patrick Wolff

    Campbell (along with other influential writers on religion like Huston Smith and Mircea Eliade, a friend of Campbell’s) was influenced by the Traditionalist school of Frithjof Schuon and Rene Guenon, which held that the esoteric core of all religions was the same, and external differences were only superficial. This is not to say Campbell as a full-blown Traditionalist (there are some very troubling aspects of Traditionalism that we shouldn’t impute to Campbell), but I think understanding Traditionalism helps make sense of his thought. http://www.traditionalists.org/home.html is a helpful resource, run by a scholar who studies, but does not adhere to, Traditionalism.

  • AnantaAndroscoggin

    Reading through these first 39 comments, I suspect a trend which seems to be that many people found Campbell’s writings to be a very useful “transitioning” thought provoker to those going from a monotheism towards a fully-involved Paganism of one kind or another.

  • Rumi Poet

    “People say that what we are seeking is a meaning of life. I don’t think this is what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.”

    Joseph Campbell, from Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers

  • Rumi Poet