The Archetype of Initiation
I learned of Joseph Campbell through his 1988 PBS special, The Power of Myth, which details in expansive description how myths support, transform and renew the world and human experience. Campbell defines myth as an organization of symbolic images, which metaphorically communicate the possibilities of the human experience and fulfillment within a given culture.  Myths do not simply tell a good story, but a full story – they do not simply reflect the human ideal, but its opposite as well. Campbell writes, “[Myth], then, is ubiquitous. And since it is the source of all existence, it yields the world’s plentitude of both good and evil. Ugliness and beauty, sin and virtue, pleasure and pain are equally its production […] Virtue is but the pedagogical prelude to the culminating insight, which goes beyond all pairs of opposites.  He writes further, “It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.”  Symbolism in mythology reflects or illuminates that which is ultimately transcendent and common to all humanity – symbols, which are culturally generated, metaphorically communicate the transcendent reality behind them. Carl Jung coined the term archetypes of the collective unconscious (commonly called archetypes) to refer to the energies that animate the symbols and metaphors found in myth.
In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell expounds on one of these archetype, specifically the archetype of the hero. Because the hero is archetypal and transcendent, its image and energy is found across time and culture. This archetype is vital for both the individual and the collective evolutional development. Humans likely activate the hero archetype when choosing to marry someone, move into a career, relocate to a distant land or start a doctoral program. Collectively the hero is imaged through cinematic colossals such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars (George Lucas was profoundly influenced by Joseph Campbell). The hero archetype is accessible to children as well, which Pixar has done well to employee through its countless blockbusters from Moana to Frozen, from Finding Nemo to Coco.
Campbell provides three movements of the hero’s journey, departure, initiation and return. Robert Moore writes extensively about this threefold process in his book, The Archetype of Initiation.  Departure comes as the “call to adventure” grows. If the hero says yes to this call, he will leave all he knows and be thrust into a process of psychological death (pysche meaning soul, not simply mind or cognition), otherwise known as initiation. If the hero is successful he will emerge from his initiation more integrated and connected to self and the world around him. This emergence is the hero’s return.
Theologically, I see the archetype of initiation to be true definition of salvation. Jesus tells his disciples, “If anyone wants to come after Me, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Me.”. He implores Nicodemus, “[…] no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”  Baptism symbolizes the initiatory process as we depart from our former lives, are buried, and are born again to new life. Of course, baptism is ultimately a reflection of God’s initiation into humanity through Christ. To follow Christ is to follow the archetype of initiation from life, to death, to rebirth. This seems to be the meta-myth of Scripture – an initiatory process book-ended by departure from and return to the garden.
Unfortunately, the dominate religious attitude in the West is often one which refuses the call to initiation. This can be seen when a religious institution defines itself by a set of credal beliefs. Jung writes in Psychology of Religion, “A creed is always the result and fruit of many minds and many centuries, purified from all oddities, shortcomings and flaws of individual experience. So, whereas myths provide the array of possible human experience, creeds tend to distill said experience into an ideal. Campbell writes:
“…half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”
Campbell’s work is vital for my research surrounding theological reflection. If truths are lies, and lies are truths, as we see displayed across culture, then we must look for a window into the mythic world which unifies and transcends such opposites. This work requires us to answer the call to adventure into theological reflection. The growing cultural disillusionment with Christianity must be seen as the call to the heroic journey – not to stay in the land we know, but to travel to a land we do not yet know. 
- Essay: The Womb of the Tomb, by Michael Simmons
- Blog: Good Friday: A Hero’s Funeral, by Michael Simmons
- Podcast: Humanizing the Hero, This Jungian Life
- Podcast: Being Born When We Are Already Old, The Profaned Ordained
- A few “Paradigm” Books
- Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, ed. Eugene Kennedy (New World Library, 2013), 1.
- Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 2nd edition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), 44.
- Ibid, 11.
- Robert L. Moore, The Archetype of Initiation: Sacred Space, Ritual Process, and Personal Transformation (City: Xlibris Corporation, 2001).
- Matthew 16:24
- John 3:3
- Gen. 12:1
11 responses to “The Archetype of Initiation”
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So what are the initiations that make sense for the Christian faith? We have some historical practices, discounted and not practiced by most Protestants, including confirmation.
If you were to innovate, what would be acts of initiation today?
I think confirmation has good bones, but lacks any liminality in its contemporary practice. By comparison many ancient and contemporary rites of passage require intense separation from the tribe and a ritual death experience. Realistically, I don’t think Protestantism can cultivate this kind of space. Answering the call to initiation is a human necessity. We either choose it or it chooses us – I believe it’s Rohr who says, Life initiates us. Protestantism places a high value on belief, and to disbelieve is to fall out of the group. Initiation requires a death to our beliefs in order for something larger than that ego-narrative. So, I think these aren’t currently possible in the Church. When people talk about deconstruction, they are referring to an initiatory process. Until the church can facilitate this, any attempts at initiation will be sustaining and not transformative.
Michael, I really like the way you connected the book to theological reflection. You note how some “religious institutions define themselves with a set of credal beliefs.” In what way would you want a church to define itself? Like Andy’s question, beyond baptism, what other initiations do you want to see?
Thanks Roy. In my Discovery interview with Ronald Rohlheiser I learned the distinction between sustaining ritual and transformative ritual. Part of me thinks the Church’s contemporary role is for sustaining/sustenance, and not necessarily for ongoing transformation. Similar to how a tree gives birth to a seed, but eventually the seed goes on to live its own life. I wonder if the church is dying because it is trying to hold onto its seed, rather than letting it be reborn. Love talking about this idea! 🙂
Hi Michael, I loved. your theological connections to salvation and baptism. I never thought about your insight on how we must “look for a window into the mythic world which unifies and transcends such opposites” between truths and lies. Can you elaborate and explain more on that idea?
Great question! Jungian theologian and monk, David Steindl-Rast writes this, “In its enthusiasm for the divine light, Christian theology has not always done justice to the divine darkness… [Christians] try to live up to the standards of a God that is purely light and [they] can’t handle the darkness within. And because [they] can’t handle it, [they] suppress it.” Gothic cathedrals were constructed to symbolize a womb (this is why so many are called Notre Dame (Our Mother). The womb is the place of both death and life. Bringing death and life together is the role of the church, but too often the light is accentuated to the exclusion of the darkness. I think this explains in part contemporary disillusionment with church.
I wish we could sit and talk for hours about this over whiskey 🙂
Michael: The church could do a better job with the initiation right of Baptism. Does your church do something unique that brings an added depth to the event? Perhaps combining some teaching or at least a deeper reflection is warranted. It’s true that the world of myth and symbol can help in this regard.
Michael: another fascinating and thoughtful post. I’m continually grateful that there are people with minds and NPO topics like yours. I’ll be interested to see how the lies and truths continue to develop in your research and any approaches you identify in bringing clarity between the two, even across cultures and people groups.
Michael, thank you for your thought-provoking post. I really appreciate how you weave together thought-threads from several sources. Campbell’s work on myth and initiation is so relevant to your NPO!
I resonate with your sense that people are hungry for mystery and that in so much of the Protestant world we have pushed mystery to the margins in pursuit of right belief. One of the things I appreciate about Campbell’s work is his emphasis on how myth has given humans the space to engage with the transcendent, with God, with mystery…that myth shows both the limitations of our humanity (made in the image of God) and the possibility.
I’m thinking about the initiation journey as well for part of my NPO. I keep being reminded of the Australian Aboriginal walkabout journey and its parallels to many of the indigenous initiation journeys. I have also been thinking about the Outward Bound programs and a segment I saw recently on 60 Minutes about a ranching college experience that captures significant aspects of the initiation journey. And…something related to transformative initiation happens when young people and older people as well step out of their cultural context and into someone else’s context (with a guide) for a significant period of time. All of it leaves me pondering what a deliberate initiation journey for young people exploring life with Jesus, or at least with life that has a transcendent aspect to it, could look like. I’d love to hear if there are some specific initiation experiences that hold elements of what you want to explore in your NPO?
Well said, Michael. I always learn from you, your writing, and the way in which you engage with the text.
I would be curious to know, in light of your current work, passion, and NPO, what do you foresee as the pathway forward in a time of great disillusionment?
Michael, I deeply appreciate your connection of Baptism as initiation. I would say that people in the West don’t respond to the call of initiation through baptism because the journey it portends isn’t “heroic” in the sense of “what’s in it for me?” . People like the idea of being a part of something bigger until they have to actually live into it. CS Lewis said in Mere Christianity, “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until he has something to forgive.”
In what ways has the way the church handled the hero’s journey in the past contributed to the disillusionment your refer to?
How does the image of us being sojourners/exiles in this place intersect with your last sentence?