05/18/2010 04:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Everyday Religion of Joseph Campbell

In a 1970 lecture at Manhattan's Cooper Union, the mythologist Joseph Campbell told a story about attending a presentation given by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber at Columbia University. During the talk, Campbell noticed that he had problems understanding what Buber meant by his use of the word "God," which kept changing tenses and circumstances. At one point, Buber stopped and said, "I have problems referring to God in the third person sometimes."

When Campbell questioned Buber about his meaning, the philosopher was taken aback, uncomprehending of how Campbell could not know what God means. Campbell elaborated by explaining that while Buber kept stating that God has "hidden his face," he had just returned from India, where "people there are experiencing God all the time."

Buber nearly erupted, asking Campbell, "Do you mean to compare..." The moderator jumped in to assure Buber that the mythologist was not comparing the God of Judaism with the gods of India, hoping to save face in the room full of distinguished guests at this invite-only event. Buber calmed down, casting the question aside with a gruff, "Everyone has to come out of exile in their own way," and proceeding with his lecture.

Campbell weighed this odd statement. He came to the following conclusion:

The Orient is not in exile from God. The god is imminent within you. He isn't out there, and you haven't been cut off. You're not cut off. The only point is, you don't know how to turn in and get to it. It's nobody's fault but your own, and the problem is not a problem of fall and atonement and exile and coming out of exile. It's a psychological problem totally, and it can be solved.

While listening to this recently released speech in an exceptional ongoing series highlighting Campbell's work, I'm reading Amir D. Aczel's The Jesuit and the Skull, based on the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his role in helping discover the Peking Man in 1929. Teilhard de Chardin had no trouble merging his Christian faith with science, becoming one of the world's most prominent anthropological figures for his work in China in the 1920s and '30s. Committed to discovering and translating hard facts regarding our planet, he was no less devoted to spiritual pursuits. He developed his theory of the noosphere, a realm above the biosphere that is a global domain of thoughts and ideas. The noosphere, he believed, grows in relation to the complexity and input of human thought, continuously collecting information as we move towards the Omega Point, the culmination of history under guidance of divinity.

Obviously the Jesuit order thought the man dangerous. As careful as Teilhard de Chardin was to state that evolution did not imply that men "came from" apes, and that there was plenty of room in this world for evolution and God, the higher-ups in Rome did everything in their power to silence him, from sending him to an obscure post in China -- ironically, the very assignment that would lead to his role in discovering Peking Man -- to denying him publication of his masterful book, Le Phénomène Humain, as well as forbidding him to lecture to scientific communities.

Eighty years later, we're stuck on the same issues: religious organizations attempting to discredit evolution with creation "science," egomaniacal arguments concerning the validity of this god over that one, the appropriation of certain aspects of one discipline -- Christian yoga, anyone? -- which denies the cultural foundation of the practice. Extracting fragments might work in marketing food and philosophies, but for those seeking actual knowledge and nourishment, it leaves you hungry.

Campbell continues:

In the East, the ultimate divine mystery is absolutely beyond personification, absolutely beyond naming, absolutely beyond categories. You cannot ask is God merciful, just, wrathful? Does he like these people and not those? This is anthropomorphic projection of human sentiments on an ultimate mystery. But that mystery that is absolutely transcendent is the mystery of your being as well. It is completely imminent within you.

A certain luxury of modern society is the right to choose. Many before us did not have that option. While too many Americans have had it drilled into their heads that their religion is the only one, we have grown too far intellectually and spiritually to stay constrained by the manic and attention-starved demands of others. Guidance, yes, and the knowledge of elders will certainly help us, but there is a huge difference between demands of submission and a helping hand lending itself in times of need.

Any organization that would so clearly deny the validity of honest research, which Teilhard de Chardin faced and which we continue to experience today, is blatant in its self-interest. Any person of faith content with his or her decision needs not the verification of the world. That is the mark of a company losing its grip on the public imagination. The ultimate mystery, if be there one, remains transcendent of the individual's "knowledge" of what God wants. Pinning down a divinity to push your agenda is like grasping the sun with tiny palms. You can try, but it'll slip through your fingers every time.

Or maybe the mystery is that we just haven't figured out to make room for everyone else yet. My religion takes place on the streets and in the people I encounter every day of my life, not in buying futures with expectations of great rewards. Every day I live for tomorrow, I miss what's right in front of me now.

This blog is part of an ongoing series forming a book-in-progress, The Body Electric: The Human Body in Modern Religion.