Archive for the ‘Christ’ Category
Today my readings took me to St. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, and an interesting passage where he warns them against what he calls the great Rebel (2 Thess. 2:3) This is in a modern (Jerusalem Bible) translation. The King James Version renders the Greek expression (anthropos hamartia) as that man of sin. Usually I am wary of modern translations, but here one suspects that the international team of scholars who translated the Jerusalem Bible had good grounds for their more evocative choice of words.
In any case this reading serves as a welcome stimulus to address a topic I have too long delayed. I wish to call attention to the reality of this great Rebel as a psychological phenomenon , and as a major obstacle to human happiness.
Now as to whether Satan, in the traditional sense, exists or not does not concern me here. What is of concern is a satanic principle as it exists within the psyche of each individual. That I am convinced does exist. And it is this inner satanic principle which is, I believe, our most immediate concern, and perhaps ultimately our greatest adversary and obstacle to well-being.
What is the evidence for this? To begin with, I call attention to the psychological theories of Carl Jung. Jung’s theories are not always right, and much of what he wrote is either inconsistent with — or has been interpreted (perhaps wrongly) in ways that make it inconsistent with — Christianity. However, points of incorrectness or disagreement should never make us hesitate to accept whatever else is true and useful. And there is indeed much true and useful in Jung’s theories.
In this case, Jung’s theories make a very strong case that the Bible, as well as the sacred writings and myths of all cultures, (1) can be interpreted psychologically, and (2) that this can be done more or less along the same lines as one interprets dreams psychologically.
One proviso or explanation must be made immediately: to say that the Bible can be interpreted psychologically in no way denies that it has other levels of meaning. Most importantly, it does not deny that the New Testament is literally true. (Whether the Old Testament is literally true is, of course, another matter.) Thus, rather than detract from the grandeur of the Bible, this view actually enhances it: it allows that God, the Supreme Author, uses all modes of meaning which literature may carry — literal and symbolic — to communicate with our souls. But having stated this, I will not further defend the premise here, having done so elsewhere. In any case, many readers will be willing to accept this key premise prima facie.
A corollary of this premise is that each figure in the Bible has some counterpart, and thus serves as a symbol for some part or process of the individual psyche. Again, many, especially those already familiar with Jungian theory, will accept this without further explanation. It is a standard element of psychological interpretation of dreams, as well as of mythology, art and literature.
However, from the preceding, fairly unimpressive propositions, logic leads us necessarily to a momentous one: this means that the figure of Satan — or the great Rebel — must also correspond to something within the individual psyche.
If true, this is a huge concern. It means that, at virtually all times, in whatever we do or think, in whatever way we seek to improve ourselves on the road of virtue, or to love others, or to contribute to a better word, something within us opposes our efforts. Moreover this energy, force, or principle of opposition is extremely strong, crafty, utterly callous and unloving, devoid of virtue, and, in every way corresponds to the figure of Satan in the Bible!
Evidence of the reality of this adversarial principle can be found in ancient philosophy. I refer, in particular, to the writings of the Jewish Middle Platonist, Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 BC–c.50 AD). Philo is most famous for his complex and amazingly astute psychological interpretations of Genesis and Exodus. However in the process of his interpreting Scripture he contributed quite a bit of philosophical and psychological theory as well. In particular, Philo sees human nature as containing two opposed energies — one salvific and salutary, which he calls soteria (so-tay-ree’-ah; the Greek work for salvation), and the other, its antithesis: a destructive force, which he calls phthorá (fthor-ah’; Liddell-Scott; Strong G5356).
Even this much is quite valuable to know. Now we have a name for this opposing principle, our great enemy: phthorá. This is a great advance over not having a name, in which case we must simply experience the effects of this force. With a term, however, we have the ability to form a definite concept, to associate that concept with other concepts, and to think rationally and productively about it.
There would appear to be at least a vague connection between this negative principle and Freud’s concept of death wish, or thanatos. However, for reasons I won’t go into here, I think that phthorá is something more — and more problematic for us — than the Freudian death wish.
As would be expected for something of such vital and fundamental psychological importance, this principle is represented in the world’s mythologies. In Greek mythology, for example, it corresponds to the god Typhon, a many-headed serpent of inconceivable strength and virulence, who is also the god of storms (hence our word, typhoon.)
Each of us is concerned, both each day and moment to moment, with constructing a stable, integrated personality. This corresponds to the state of unity or harmony discussed in my previous article on the monomyth of fall and restoration. Phthorá is that force within us which actively seeks our fall, and, once we’ve fallen, prevents us from rising again to wholeness.
At a phenomenological level, this is experienced as disturbing thoughts which agitate our mind, and distract us from positive, creative, loving and productive cognition. In a very real sense, at least phenomenologically speaking, life is virtually the same as clear and whole awareness of our outer and inner experience. If we look at a meadow and our mind is tranquil, we see the beauty, the details —we are alive to it. The more our mind is agitated, the more our experience comes to approximate semi- and even un-consciousness — and, in that degree, we are only partly alive. In a state of complete mental agitation we could be said to be dead, in the sense that, if we are conscious at all of our surroundings or inner life, the mental impressions are devoid of vitality and vividness (i.e., of life)
I wish to do no more here than to expose this deadly foe by naming him (or her or it). Knowing phthorá exists alone will not stop it. But better to know your foe than to let it wreak havoc unobserved.
I would only add a few additional points:
- As already noted, this force is opposed by soterias, the principle of self-actualization, which is stronger. In Christianity, Jesus Christ corresponds to (among having other meanings and levels of reality), or perhaps is, soterias. This means that remedy for phthorá is to be found in the complex system of mythos, religion, psychology and philosophy that surrounds the figure of Jesus Christ.
- There is possibly some legitimate reason, biologically and/or psychologically, for the existence of phthorá. Perhaps goodness needs an adversary to stay in trim and so that we can grow in virtue. Nevertheless, in this case a little goes a long way: if we need the devil, keep it chained, well guarded, and hopefully with Jesus Christ standing on its head.
- Again, it is very important to recognize how this force operates within us. Otherwise (as Jung pointed out), there is a strong tendency for us to project our own satanic tendencies onto others. Our great enemy, adversary and antagonist is within. Whatever harm anyone else can do us is negligible in comparison with the ferocity and malice of this opponent.
- In keeping with everything said here, it follows that there is a serious danger our identifying with this principle, of becoming it. This, in fact, happens routinely. It occurs, for example, when we become so harshly condemning of others that we literally take the attitude of an avenging angel towards them. To take an example from today’s news, political conservatives may condemn progressives, angrily denouncing them and insisting they are great sinners, etc. But in doing this, in relinquishing the reign of love and goodness in their psyche, they become literally possessed by phthorá. And, of course, the exact same can be said of progressives who condemn, rather than try to engage or reason with conservatives. But this is only an example; a hundred others could serve equally well as illustrations.
Here is a thought experiment, one with the potential to be a contemplative or devotional exercise.
We know that in Platonism, God can be thought of as the Form of the Good – that is, as the ultimate Form, Ideal, Essence, or Archetype of which all good things partake, and also the Form which is hierarchically higher than the other high-level Forms of Beauty, Truth, Virtue and Excellence. (This does not suppose that God is *only* the Form of the Good. God may be more, something beyond all categories, even beyond Being itself –an unknowable ‘One’, as in Neoplatonism, but this is a different issue.)
Recall also that for Plato (as in Diotima’s speech of Symposium 210a–212c), one may, by an ascending contemplation of Forms, arrive at a vision of the highest Form, the Form of the Good (beatific vision).
This suggests: (1) our concept of ‘Jesus Christ’ is also associated with a Form of an extremely high order; and (2) we may achieve a vision of this Form by a similar kind of ascending contemplation, from lower and higher Forms. (We place ‘Jesus Christ’ in quotes because, among other things, Jesus Christ may *be* this Form, and it would be redundant to speak of a Form of Itself.)
In keeping with the provisional nature of this exercise, I will here only suggest some of the Forms that may be relevant to consider. That is, our concept of ‘Jesus Christ’ is associated, for example, with all of the following Forms; that is, the epitome of all these:
- Savior, Deliverer
- Mediator, Advocate
- Christ, Anointed, Messiah
- Prince of Peace
- Son of God
- Son of Man
- Bread of Life
- High Priest
- Agriculturist, Vine-tender
- Pantacrator (Almighty Ruler)
- Gate, Way, Truth
- Author of Light
- Light of Day
- Our Hope
- Morning Star
- Source of Living Waters
- Word of God
- Power of God
- Wisdom of God
- Elder Brother
- Emmanuel (‘God is with us’)
- Conqueror, Victor
- King of Righteousness
- King of Glory
- Most High
Contemplating the meaning of each of these individually, one may potentially discover related groupings and higher-order Forms. And higher than all these individual and higher-order Forms, would be a highest Form. So potentially, by following Plato’s method one could glimpse this highest order Form of ‘Jesus Christ’.
Jesus Christ as the Principle of Self-Actualization
One initial observation might be that several of the attributes or titles above (Physician, Agriculturist, Savior, etc.) constellate around a higher-order Form or principle that involves guiding, developing, nurturing, and bringing to fruition the human soul and all of Creation. In this sense, Jesus Christ would be, among other things, the Archetype of self-actualization — the essential principle by which all things progress and achieve their intended end or telos. Thus, just as an acorn is brought by Nature to its telos of being an oak tree, so too the human soul achieves its telos through the wisdom, guidance, and power of Jesus Christ. Human self-actualization in this sense does not mean something a person does personally; the self does not actualize itself, as in the theories of certain humanistic psychologists, but, rather, the self is actualized through by agency of Jesus Christ.
Forms here may also help us to understand the relationship of Jesus Christ to the individual soul, that is, how Christ can be both something within the soul, part of it and part of ourselves, and yet different and distinct from ourselves. Jesus would be the universal Form/Archetype of self-actualization, and our souls would individually instantiate the Archetype (according to whatever the mechanism is by which Forms instantiate — say as an emanation, image, reflection, etc.) By such a view, salvation would in part consist of our ego conforming itself to the self-actualizing or Christ principle, which is perhaps already within the soul (i.e., part of the Image of God which each soul contains). In its salvation, the ego, instead of devoting itself to seeking transient pleasures or following its own schemes, would itself become an anti-type (i.e., an ‘image’, loosely speaking) of Jesus Christ in his role as the self-actualizing principle.
Note that this is positing three levels: (1) Jesus Christ as the Archetype of self-actualization; (2) a self-actualization principle within the soul, which is an image of the Archetype; and (3) the ego being gradually re-organized around the self-actualizing principle, itself then also becoming an image of the Archetype. The ego, that is, both is the recipient of self-actualization, and, eventually, also becomes itself an agent of it.
We might also observe that, of the traditional Platonic triad of Truth (Intellectual Goodness), Beauty (Aesthetic Goodness) and Justice (Moral Goodness), Truth and Justice are well represented amongst those roles traditionally associated with Jesus Christ. Beauty is less well represented. We have become accustomed to seeing Jesus Christ as Judge and Logos; yet are less prone to think of Him as Artist, Conductor, or Gardener. Perhaps this suggests an important direction of growth for modern Christianity.
The important 1967 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Populorum progressio (On the development of peoples) called for, among other things, a new transcendental humanism (§16, §20). In May 2011, Pope Benedict XVI, addressing the faculty of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, renewed the call for “a new, integral and transcendent humanism.”
Precisely such a transcendental humanism can be found articulated with great depth, insight, and beauty in the literature of the 19th century American Transcendentalists and Unitarians, many of whom were Christian. I believe that modern Roman Catholics would do well to examine this literature. It is a treasure-trove of ideas and inspiration, and the ‘old religion’ expressed in a form uniquely suited to the American mind.
As an example, below are excerpts from an 1859 discourse by Octavius B. Frothingham, ‘The Christian Consciousness, Its Elements and Expression’. (O. B. Frothingham, Christian Consciousness. Philadelphia, 1859; pp. 3—33).
* * * *
I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit. (John 15:5a)
“HAVE you ever fairly mastered this thought: That once upon a time, eighteen hundred years ago, what we call Christianity was all gathered up in the person of a single man, who lived and breathed like other men, in the far-off land of Judea, — when Christ was Christianity, and all the Christianity there was on earth? … In that remote corner of the earth, Jesus of Nazareth stands alone, uncomprehended by the few who love him, despised or feared by the few who love him not, unheeded by the many who see in him nothing by which he can be distinguished from common humanity; solitary in person, and solitary in spirit, having little in common with his generation; solitary, with his great Religion folded in the secret place of his own heart. The mighty Truths which the world hail as revelations and build up into confessions, are his private thoughts. The creative forces which have wrought such moral results, and even something like a transformation in the sentiments of the most elevated portion of mankind, are the silent affections of his heart. The regenerating principles which have effected so much towards the growth of a new order of humanity, are the deep convictions of his individual conscience; and profoundly hidden in the experiences of his soul, are the spiritual laws that have since purified the piety and re-constructed the worship of millions of men. In that one peculiar being, as in a seed, [Christendom lies latent.] … The seed fulfils the conditions of all growth. It falls into the ground and dies.
“Ere long the fruit it was to bear, begins to appear. Little clusters of people like grapes on a vine are found in cities both near and remote from the place where he lived. They cling to each other. They grow together as if united by a common life, and attract the notice of all men by the singularity of their worship and behavior…. To them existence is not what it was; the world is not what it was; new thoughts occupy their minds; fresh affections, making old things seem distasteful, are yearning after congenial intercourse; an awakened moral sense abhors the practices in which they had before innocently engaged, and makes another order of the world necessary to their peace and satisfaction; strange hopes have taken hold on their souls; strange aspirations and purposes, which have altered their whole attitude towards their generation. They are one in the sympathy of a common Faith, Hope, and Charity. And what has begotten in these people, this new and singular spirit? They have seen, heard, conversed with, the men to whom this Jesus had communicated himself through some subtle influence which they could neither explain to themselves nor to others. They had no insight into his motives or intentions. Up to the very last hour of his life, they indulged a hope, which all his life long he had been laboring to dispel. His immortal ideas they failed to grasp, while they clung to his less significant words with a tenacity that nothing could loose. Yet, through all their stupidity and prejudice, his spirit had found its way to theirs. His being had bathed them like an atmosphere; had refreshed them like another climate. His character had shed itself like an aroma from his person, and penetrated invisibly to their natures’ roots. The mild radiance of his presence, the beaming of his face, the glance of his eye, the accents of his voice interpreting to their hearts words which their understanding could not apprehend, the indescribable serenity of his mien, so holy and so gracious, all expressed and imparted the spiritual life that was in him, so that when he died, that life was in various forms reproduced in those that knew him, according to their degree of susceptibility. And these, again, borne like seeds on the breath of the Spirit, spread the divine contagion even to distant lands, and made the attributes of the inward Christ visible in multitudes of communions, some of which knew him not, even by name.
“You will understand now what I mean by saying that Christianity was LIVED into the world. It was not built up by any skill in organizing establishments. It was not planted by sheer force of authoritative teaching. Men were not drilled into it, nor indoctrinated into it; they were BORN into it. It came to them as inspiration comes, and the effect of its coming was a new CONSCIOUSNESS, a new motive force, an original stamp of mind, and style of character. In a word, there was another life in the race….
“Christianity, let me repeat, was LIVED into the world. As a life, it reproduced and extended itself. Its tendency, at least, nowhere completely fulfilled, it is true, but everywhere pushing against the obstacles in its path, was to re-animate and re-construct human relations….
“We have heard much lately about the Christian ‘CONSCIOUSNESS,’ as distinct from particular forms of belief or modes of thought; a general state of mind and affection that belongs to all genuine Christians alike, the partaking of which makes one a Christian, the lack of which makes one to be not a Christian; a prevailing and determining spirit, which, having the hidings of its power far down among the roots of human nature, distributes a secret but vital and quickening influence all through the substance of the moral and spiritual being, and diffuses abroad an aroma too delicate to be caught and imprisoned in symbolical books and sacred confessions, yet powerful enough to impress every spiritual sense and stimulate every spiritual desire. I believe there is such a spiritual Consciousness, common to all Christians, and distinguishing them from all who are not Christians more clearly than divines have ever succeeded in doing, while, at the same time, it prevents Christians, however artificially divided among themselves, from falling out finally with one another; a spiritual Consciousness which is nothing more or less than the mind of Jesus organizing itself in humanity….
“These are thoughts, vast, deep, shadowy. They are not dogmas; they are not opinions. They are spoiled and clipped by logical definition. They are spiritual truths, addressing themselves to the higher reason, which each may define for himself who can, or may innocently leave in the indistinctness which the soul best loves. They are inferences from what the Christian regards not as a notion but as a fact, a fact of inward assurance, a great conviction, that abides as a cornerstone, immovable in the deep soil of his heart. They are his translation into thought of a feeling that is deeper than all thought and runs before it.”
* * * *
One must read this material selectively. Along with sublime thoughts are a few prejudices and errors – many American Transcendentalists and Unitarians rejected, along with the harsh doctrines of Calvinism (from whence these movements evolved), many fine and noble elements of traditional Christianity. For example, Frothingham writes,
“Put the intervening centuries by. Let your imaginations brush away, like so much dust on a window-pane, the vast Church that stands between you and him. Disappear, pope, cardinal, and priest; cathedral, chapel, shrine, altar, vestments, symbol, cross and goblet, keys and dove; vanish, creeds of every complexion, sects of every name.”
That is, in his appeal to readers that they consult directly their Reason, Conscience, and intuitions for direct evidences of God, he goes further to question the validity of certain external forms of religion. But remember that if we demand perfection of our saints, we shall have no saints. Despite certain prejudices, many of which are understandable if one considers the historical context, there is much that is saintly in these writings.
This caveat notwithstanding, there are times reading this literature that I am struck with a conviction that, in it, the prisca theologia, the ancient and venerable religion, reached its highest level of literary expression, before the radical materialism of the 20th century eclipsed the spiritual senses. It remains there, providential, evidence of the action of the Holy Spirit in history, for us to consult and build upon.
This Old World religion, brought by the Puritans to New England and developed in the rich soil of village life in colonial America, I recognize as the same spiritual tradition in essence and fundamentals that was transmitted to me by Catholic sisters and priests at the parochial schools I attended as a child.
I should certainly try to follow up this post with more detail about the 19th century American Christian Transcendentalists and Unitarians. One note of general interest to add here is that there is a direct literary and ideological connection between these writers and the Cambridge Platonists of the 17th century. Besides Frothingham, some names of particular interest are William Ellery Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Francis Henry Hedge, and Abiel A. Livermore; but there are dozens more.
Frothingham, Octavius B. Transcendentalism in New England. New York: Putnam, 1876.
Gardiner, Harold C. (Ed.). American Classics Reconsidered: A Christian Appraisal. New York: Scribner, 1958.
Howe, Daniel Walker. The Cambridge Platonists of Old and New England. Church History, 57, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 470-485. Reprinted as Ch. 7, ‘The Platonic Quest in New England’ in: Daniel Walker Howe, Making the American Self, 189-211. Oxford University Press, 2009 (orig. 1997).
Livermore, Abiel A. Discourses. Boston: Crosby, Nichols & Co., 1854.
Wells, Ronald V. Three Christian Transcendentalists: James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry, Frederic Henry Hedge. Columbia University Press, 1943.
<span style=”font-size:x-large;”><span style=”color:brown;”>
Today is the commemoration of the Annunciation, which celebrates the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Blessed Virgin Mary and announcing that she will bear a son who is to be named Jesus (‘Savior’). How might we interpret this event of the New Testament at an archetypal or allegorical level? Perhaps as follows:
To deliver us from the suffering and bondage of our own errors (selfishness, attachment to pleasure, fear, doubt, envy, etc.), God (or the God of our soul), by grace (unearned gift), communicates to the compassionate, nurturing, pure, and innocent principle of our soul (the Virgin Mary), that she will bring forth a Savior (manifest the Christ principle). Therefore despite our suffering and an awareness of our own tendency to error, and of our inability, because this tendency to error runs so deep that we by ourselves cannot correct it, we have hope in a still higher or deeper principle within, the Self-Realization or Christ principle.
Specifically, she is promised that she will bear a son who is both God and man. When the Christ principle is born within us, we are in correct relation to the universe, namely, that of bringing form, purpose, beauty, harmony, integrity and morality to the material universe, living simultaneously as a material and a spiritual being, connecting or yoking heaven and earth. This yoking is the meaning of the word ‘yoga’ (and of the word ‘religion’, the syllable ‘lig’ meaning connection, as in ‘ligament’).
Since salvation comes as a free gift from God, what is our role in the process? It is to adopt an attitude of pious humility and trust. We should most definitely be active in the process, but act in response to the promptings of God and the Holy Spirit, and not rely overmuch on ‘our own wisdom’ or be carried away by our own schemes for reform. That is, our soul should say with the Virgin Mary, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.”
Important symbols in paintings of the Annunciation are the lily (purity), and a book (Wisdom).
As always, it is to be emphasized that interpretation of Scripture at an allegorical level does not preclude a more literal or historical interpretation. For Christians allegory enhances, not replaces, traditional teachings. For non-Christians, it supplies a way to understand Christian Scripture as personally relevant.
A second point to repeatedly emphasize is that allegorical interpretation does not deliver a fixed doctrine or certain theory. Rather, by its very nature allegorical interpretation is suited only to produce hypotheses, which one may then test and potentially confirm by personal experience, reading, or other lines of inquiry, or to suggest general principles which might lead to more accurate interpretative insights.
Many people may have read the beautiful passage below in the Roman Catholic Office of Readings and wondered about its author. It comes from the fourth-century work, Fifty Spiritual Homilies (specifically, Homily 18). The author was traditionally thought to be Macarius of Egypt, but scholarly consensus is now against this attribution. Lacking a firm identification, the author today is called simply Pseudo-Macarius.
Internal evidence in the Homilies points to a Syrian author. It also appears there was contact or mutual familiarity between the author and the Cappadocian Fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa. Hermann Dörries (Symeon von Mesopotamien; Leipzig, 1941) suggested that the author is Symeon of Mesopotamia.
The author potentially had some connection with the curious Messalian sect, though modern opinion is that there is nothing unorthodox in the Homilies.
From a homily by a spiritual writer of the fourth century
“May you be filled to the complete fullness of Christ”
Those who have been found worthy to become children of God and also to be born again through the Holy Spirit, those who carry Christ within them, shining within them and renewing them – these people are guided by the Spirit in various ways and led forward by grace working invisibly in the inner peace of their hearts.
Sometimes they are, as it were, in mourning and lamentation for the whole human race. They utter prayers for all mankind and fall back in tears and lamentation. They are on fire with spiritual love for all humanity.
Sometimes they burn, through the Spirit, with such love and exultation that they would embrace all mankind if they could, without discrimination, good and bad alike.
Sometimes they are cast down by humility, down below the least of men, as they consider themselves to be in the lowest, the most abject of conditions.
Sometimes the Spirit keeps them in a state of inextinguishable and unspeakable gladness.
Sometimes they are like some champion who puts on a full suit of royal armour and plunges into battle, combats his enemies fiercely and at length vanquishes them. For in the same way the spiritual champion, wearing the heavenly armour of the Spirit, attacks his enemies and, winning the battle, treads them underfoot.
Sometimes their soul is in the deepest silence, stillness and peace, experiencing nothing but spiritual delight and ineffable power: the best of all possible states.
Sometimes their soul is in a state of understanding and boundless wisdom and attention to the inscrutable Spirit, taught by grace things that neither tongue nor lips can describe.
And sometimes their soul is in a state just like anyone else’s.
Thus grace is poured into them in different ways, and by different paths it leads the soul, renewing it according to God’s will. It guides it by various paths until it is made whole, sinless and stainless before the heavenly Father.
Therefore let us pray to God, pray with great love and hope, that he may give us the heavenly grace of the Spirit. Let us pray that the Spirit may guide us and lead us, following God’s will in every way, and may re-make us in stillness and in quiet. Thanks to his guidance and spiritual strengthening, may we be found worthy to attain the perfection and fullness of Christ. As St Paul says: that you may be filled to the complete fullness of Christ.