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I agree with what I think you are saying: Campbell's criticisms were not an attempt to impose his own beliefs (though it may seem), rather a 'corrective' (in the Kierkegaardian tradition) aimed at certain unreflective, narrow-mined, and occasionally anti-social behaviours found within his culture.

Well, as they say, and as Campbell demonstrated, there really is "nothing new under the sun" is there! It's something I learnt too, in the course of researching and developing the dalek hypothesis (somewhat to my surprise I recall, followed by a mixture of disappointment & relief, and er ... chagrin!). And your reference to "a divine impersonal force or consciousness" illustrates this too, equating as it does to the dalek concept of Omneity.

But there appears to be a kind of suggestion in your closing remark "... of what we might become", that humans as a species might one day journey beyond their home planet ...? This is a notion that could be readily dismissed by contemplation of the matter - even with but a rudimentary knowledge of General Science - and that OBD firmly refutes, summarised in Escape from The Planet of The Apes. As organic entities, it would seem pretty much self-evident that humans will be staying put !...

All The Best!

beholdtheman: Campbell attracts tremendous criticism from people with traditional Christian beliefs, and I think it's clear that Campbell couldn't stop himself from sniping at them... In many respects, it's a shame that Campbell couldn't find a way to accept this traditional form of belief, because it deepened the divide in the US culture and as yet no-one has attempted to find a way to bridge it.

obd: I'm not sure where you are drawing the idea that I am suggesting humans will become an interstellar species from in this piece... it is not my intended implication from the phrase "...what we might become" - I meant this more in a cultural sense.

But since you raised the issue, I must say that I see no reason that humanity could not begat an interstellar species. But I think this future is much further away than most people imagine, and I tend to agree with Lyn Margulis when she suggests we should solve our problems here on our planet before pushing out into space!

Thanks for the comments!

Campbell was brilliant and the only professional critiques usually come from Christian "scholars"...whom he annoyed. He was one of the first, if not THE first to include Xtianity in the mythic mix!
Campbell will live forever...
Dr. Tom Snyder, who?
Sonny Crockett

Sonny: I agree with what you say, but I think that many of the Christian critiques are factually correct, in that the suggestion that Campbell did not have his own theology is clearly mistaken. Campbell was hugely influenced by Hindu metaphysics he picked up while he was in India. To suggest Campbell is metaphysically neutral is indeed misleading, and a lot of Christian critiques pick up on this.

(Also, watching recordings of Campbell's lectures, his dislike of Christianity as it is commonly practised is apparent; he has no such venom for the equivalent parallels within Hindu practice, which he judges by ignoring its occasional excesses, and in this sense he betrays his bias).

That said, I do think it was important to show how Christianity fitted into the grander mythic tradition. If Christians engage honestly with this, it opens the door to a much deeper spiritual experience (for instance, Catholic Priest Raimon Pannikar's work recognising Krishna as "the unknown Christ" of the Eastern traditions).

As ever, no religion is as simple as its charicacture. ;)

Thanks for sharing your views!

great analysis of campell's criticisms and the criticisms of his criticisms. glad i read it, if a year and a half later

Thanks for the kind words, Alex! There's no "statute of limitation" on my blog - read and comment whenever you wish. :)

Great essay. For as awesome a teacher he was, he was not free of preferences in faith. If I were to place a label on his belief, I would call him a mystical impersonal-god transcendentalist.

"...mystical impersonal-god transcendentalist."

Secular Hindu would be another way of making the same claim. :)

Thanks for your kind words!

I think you make a slight and subtle error in your interpretation of Campbell's critique of Christianity. Campbell is, of course, pointing out the misinterpretation of symbols by the church and his criteria for a proper interpretation is based on the syncrity of human thought and jungian notions of the archetypes. His argument is simply that the efficacy of the symbol as a device of reconcilliation to our existence is diminished in any attempt to make that symbol an historical fact. It is a rather simple and yet profound idea that asks the reader to "believe" nothing. Campbell would argue that the genius of Christianity, that is turning reconcilliating archetypes into historical realities, is ultimately self defeating.

Proehl66: Thanks for your comment! Although I don't quite feel the thrust of your objection.

"His argument is simply that the efficacy of the symbol as a device of reconciliation to our existence is diminished in any attempt to make that symbol an historical fact. It is a rather simple and yet profound idea that asks the reader to 'believe' nothing."

In the first place, I don't quite see how any argument can be asking for people to "'believe' nothing"; the very notion of argumentation is to sway people's beliefs - if you are touting one approach over another, you are trying to affect what people believe in that context. Or are you trying to restrict the term 'belief' in some way you haven't specified?

More relevantly, my argument here is that Campbell is not willing to extend the latitude that Hindus offer to one another in their many paths to Christians. I agree with your characterization here - Campbell expressly means to decry the historical interpretations of Christian symbols as undermining the value and purpose of those symbols. But Hindus have always faced the same issue in dealing with Bhakti (devotional worship) versus the more subtle paths, and no Hindu would feel the need to make these kinds of heavy-handed disclaimers in this regard. So why does Campbell, who is clearly influenced by Hindu theology and practice, not extend the same privilege to Christians?

The answer, I am assuming, is that he can see how Bhakti still gains the benefits of the symbols (while taking them literally) but he can't see how the historical interpretation of Christianity does the exact same thing - I'm guessing, because like most moderate citizens of the US he was driven mad by the pugnaciousness of hardline Christians! :)

"Campbell would argue that the genius of Christianity, that is turning reconcilliating archetypes into historical realities, is ultimately self defeating."

Why is this the genius of Christianity, exactly? If I had to point to aspects of Christianity that expressed genius, it certainly wouldn't be the occasional tendency to lapse into historical interpretation. The elevating of tribal ethics to human ethics would be a better alternative, and if you thought that contemporary Western society had anything good about it you might even be tempted to cite the genius in merging Roman jurisprudence with early Christian ideals (although I myself am somewhat more sceptical of this and believe this has been much more problematic than the historical interpretation problem in many respects).

Could you expand your comment slightly so that I can understand where your critique is supposed to posit its objection?

Thanks again for sharing your views!

"the suggestion that Campbell did not have his own theology is clearly mistaken"

Do you understand enough about Campbell to remember what he said about freedom to believe?

He and Stephan Hoeller would say something like "but only the fool believes he is free to think and believe"

Lets face it Campbell was a heretic, or 'The Mad Hatter'. And whatever ones belief, if you have one, he must be crucified by the 99% who wish to remain enslaved in the belief they are free to believe.

Hi Robin,
Thanks for your comment! Your reading here is rather odd... Campbell was a justly celebrated scholar who did not suffer significant discrimination to my knowledge.

I don't see Campbell as a heretic, since he broke with Christianity and it would only be by Christian standards that a claim of heresy could be applied. As an outsider Hindu, for want of a better term, Campbell was far from heretical! :)

Best wishes,


Nice article, though I feel like your first objection is merely technical and the second objection focuses too much on Campbell's personal bias (as opposed to challenging his actual teaching). Which is fine if that was the aim.

Your first objection when you quote "the vocabulary of yoga", Campbell doesn't seem to be claiming there are two viable paths (which conflicts with his career-long preference for the undifferentiated path). It seems he's just conveying a teaching about the modes of realization in yogic practice, not representing it as his own. So I don't see this is an example of him not heeding his own wisdom and, even if it is from "him", it's cherry-picking a passage that is inconsistent with his otherwise very consistent philosophy of getting at the divine mystery via understanding myth/symbol as such. At worst, it amounts to an outlier passage that conflicts with what he says everywhere else.

Of course, whether you agree with his thesis is another matter. I think he made compelling points that by holding onto myth as fact and thereby creating firm conceptualizations/idols of god, it would be difficult to achieve union with god through transcendent experience. For him, preferable would be an undifferentiated approach to allow for access to the "Real Truth" via experience, which I'm sure he'd say is really the whole point of all of this... and is therefore superior to analytical understanding of god via history and fact (which I'd argue gives you an easier, off-the-shelf moral system but a much weaker spiritual life).

It's kind of like Alan Watts in Behold the Spirit, where he talks about the worship of the Son and the Father (and the need to possess them via historical fact-worship) is largely mutually exclusive with understanding the living Holy Spirit, which exists in the here and now (which one might argue is similar in concept to Brahman, to tie it back to Campbell's inclinations).

Anyway, I don't see Campbell as being guilty of anything like demanding people stop following orthodoxy, though I'm sure that was his preference. He probably was too quick to claim the Jesus as (at least partly) fiction, not realizing that even a historical jesus would allow for us to interpret the "meaning" of the resurrection to insinuate a transcendent, present god we can commune with on earth (through JC's example). A lot of his loose words on Christianity was, I'd assume, an emotional reaction to an otherwise sound conclusion that the Christian's obsession with "the facts", and thereby trying to grasp or possess an image of god, was preventing a truly spiritual life predicated on faith and surrender... to allow mystical union with whatever's behind the veil (god, whatever). To quote Watts again, Campbell's concern about confusing myth for fact is akin to climbing the light-post rather than letting it light the way... which, again, you're free to disagree with... but you didn't really get into the whether the issue itself was sound/unsound as much as make a case for Campbell's inconsistency and hypocrisy.

But nothing but love for you. I enjoyed the article and I hope you're doing well.

Hey duckerman,
Many thanks for this thoughtful, well argued comment! I don't disagree with any of your observations.

I'm a huge fan of Campbell's work, but when I was reading one of his books in 2009 I was struck by a slight misrepresentation of his theological positions in work referring to him, and a few inconsistencies within his own observations - often rooted in the general frustration that people in the US who are not rooted in any particular theology experience facing the great many citizens who are.

So I wrote this piece, which is about as negative a criticism of Campbell as I can manage. But I still teach Campbell's work, and the criticisms in this piece are, at best, niggles.

Many thanks for taking an interest!


I taught the ideas of Joseph Campbell as an adjunct faculty member at a small college in PA. I must be odd, because as an orthodox Christian I find Campbell's "religion as human phenomenon" approach refreshing. I think it explains a lot.

Would you consider Campbell as part of the panentheist camp? I always have.

Hi TLars,
Thanks for your comment! You say 'orthodox Christian', but that just makes me wonder which orthodoxy you are alluding to. :) I think his specific theology is difficult for some protestant Christians to accept, not too tricky for Catholics - no idea how it would sit with Greek Orthodox Christians to be honest!

I wrote this piece as a push-back, as much against myself as anything, since Campbell's borderline hostility to Christianity is something that I hadn't seen dealt with, and the suggestion that he 'had no theology', which was sometimes banded about, was clearly a mistake.

Panentheist is not a bad label for his position; certainly, his influences come more from Vedic Hinduism, which has clear panentheistic threads, rather than from any of the Abrahamic religions.

I still love his work... I use it in my teaching on numerous topics. And I'm always glad to hear from Christians - or indeed, anyone! - who connect with his approach.

All the best,


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