Do thus and be good, or know this and be God?

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Joseph Campbell’s lifelong study of the myths and stories of cultures all over the globe yielded some rich insights into what he believed was a universal quest for transcendence. He spoke of transcendence as the experience of the divine, or of ‘God’, within us and saw contemplation on the great heroic archetypes in our ancient stories as a powerful mode of access to the transcendent. In his seminal early work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell recognises two approaches we can take to the stories of our archetypal heroes and uses Jesus as an example.

“Jesus, for example, can be regarded as a man who by dint of austerities and meditation attained wisdom; or on the other hand, one may believe that a god descended and took upon himself the enactment of a human career.

“The first view would lead one to imitate the master literally, in order to break through, in the same way as he, to the transcendent, redemptive experience. But the second states that the hero is rather a symbol to be contemplated rather than an example to be literally followed.

“The divine being is a revelation of the omnipotent Self, which dwells within us all. The contemplation of the life thus should be undertaken as a meditation on one’s own immanent divinity, not as a prelude to precise imitation, the lesson being not ‘Do thus and be good,’ but ‘Know this and be God.'”

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Joseph Campbell (1904 – 1987)

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