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The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation

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The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation

Gustave Dore - Banishment of Adam and Eve

(A summary appears following the article.)

We address here what can be termed the monomyth of fall and salvation. By monomyth we mean a core myth that is expressed in different forms by different cultures. By fall and salvation here we do not mean so much the ultimate eternal destiny of a soul, but a cycle which recurs frequently within ones life — perhaps even on a daily basis.

We borrow the term monomyth from the writings of the noted mythographer, Joseph Campbell. Campbell (1949) explored in detail a different, but related and somewhat overlapping monomyth, which we might call the heroic quest. The heroic myth somewhat neglects the question of why the hero needs to go on a quest to begin with; it’s as though the quest is the result of someone else’s difficulties or negligence. The fall and salvation monomyth, on the other hand, pays much more attention to moral failing of the protagonist as causing the need for redemption.

In any case, it is vital to understand that our approach here is psychological more than religious in the traditional sense. That is, the goal here is to examine this myth in a way that would be of interest to religious and nonreligious readers alike. We take it as axiomatic, that is, that if there is such a thing as spiritual salvation in the sense of obtaining a propitious afterlife or immortality of soul, that this is congruent and consistent with the nearer task of obtaining psychological and moral well-being in this life. In short, then, it is the loss and re-attainment of an authentic psychological well-being that is our present concern.

We wish to be exceptionally brief here — and therefore extremely efficient — for the following reasons. First the present is not so much a self-contained work as much as one intended to serve as a reference or appendix for future articles that will discuss moral fall and salvation from a psychological viewpoint. Second, because it is likely this concept has appeared multiple times in the previous literature; unfortunately, partly due to its interdisciplinary nature, it is not immediately evident what the major touchstones of this literature are (besides those which are cited herein.) As new relevant references are encountered, they will be added to the References below.

Our initial premise is that myths express and communicate certain psychological and existential themes. These themes are of vital importance to individual welfare and to the integrity of society, but they either cannot be clearly stated in explicit, rationalistic terms or there is some reason not to, and they are instead expressed in metaphorical or symbolic terms via myth. In some sense, myths constitute a cultural ‘manual of life.’

A corollary is that in the degree to which the existential concerns of all human beings are the same, then the myths of different times and cultures reflect these common concerns and are structurally similar. This is helpful because our situation is then analogous to having multiple roadmaps of some terrain. Just as no single map is fully complete, accurate, and decipherable, neither is any single myth. Additional maps enable us to fill in gaps in some other map. The same principle applies to myths.

Structure of the Monomyth

The basic features of the monomyth of fall and salvation can be characterized as follows:

monomyth-fall-salvationFigure 1.  The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation

  1. In their interior life, human beings characteristically go through a recurring cycle — which we can call an ethical cycle. By ‘ethical’ here we mean in the broad sense of that which pertains to happiness and choices in ones way of life. We do not mean the narrower sense of ethical as pertaining only to proper or normative social actions (e.g., business or professional ethics).
  2.  At least initially we can define this cycle by four characteristic parts or landmarks. To begin we can imagine a person in a state of happiness. We will adopt provisionally and without much comment the widely accepted view of Abraham Maslow (1968, 1971) that the most significant moments of happiness correspond to certain peak (relatively short and intense) and plateau (somewhat more sustained, if less intense) experiences. Happiness here is not just emotional, but also implies feelings of fulfilment, satisfaction, and meaning, and enhanced cognitive function (including moral, intellectual, and aesthetic abilities). These states are the basis on which we could even imagine something like a paradise or Garden of Eden. Maslow and others have written extensively on characteristic features of these peak and plateau experiences. Of special interest to us here, however, are two features: (1) a sense of unity, such that one feels an absence of internal conflict, with all elements of oneself at peace, harmonized, and ‘pulling together’; and (2) feelings of reverence, piety, sacredness, humility, gratitude, and dependence on a higher power or something much greater than ones own ego. In the Christian tradition this is called the state of grace.
  3. These states, however, are impermanent. If we do attain such a ‘high’, the inevitable result is that we will eventually experience a fall or descent to a less happy and exalted condition. The fall may begin imperceptibly, but it typically progresses to such a point that we are not only aware of, but saddened by our lost paradise. Again, in Christianity this is sometimes called a fall from grace.
  4.  When the awareness and sadness over our lost happiness become sufficiently acute, and when the various life problems associated with being in an unhappy and conflicted state accumulate, there comes the turning point. We could call this, following St. Paul, the metanoia, literally, the change of mind. After this point our principle concern is to regain the state of lost happiness. Whereas before we were in the phase of the fall, now we are in the movement of ascent.
  5. Within the Platonic and the Christian traditions, three very broad phases or aspects of this ascent are called the (1) purification, (2) illumination, and (3) unitive phases. We can accept these as at least provisionally plausible, provided we don’t insist that these always occur in the same order and without overlapping. It might be more accurate to call these three aspects rather than stages of ethical ascent. Principles of process symmetry suggest a possible corresponding three-fold movement in the descending phase: progressive impurity, darkening or loss of illumination, and disunity and conflict.

That something like does in fact characterize the human condition can be deduced from many modern personality theories, the evidence of traditional religion, literature and art, common language and figurative expressions, and individual experience.

Jungian Personality Theory

The monomyth of fall and salvation is very similar to a model of cyclical personality dynamics advanced the Jungian writer Edward Edinger in a series books (e.g., 1986a, 1992, 1994); many of his works explicitly address this model in the context of myths and religion.

For Edinger (who is basically following Jung here) this cycle involves the relationship of the ego to a much greater entity, the Self. The ego is our empirical self, our conscious identify. The Self in Jungian psychology includes our conscious mind, the unconscious, our body, our social life, our spiritual soul, and all facets of our being. In many respects, the Self in Jungian theory has features which are customarily ascribed to God. It is mysterious, sacred, numinous, and very powerful.

edinger-cycle-adaptedFigure 2. Cycle of ego-Self separation and union (adapted from Edinger, 1992, p. 5)

Edinger describes a characteristic cyclical process of personality dynamics in which the ego alternates between phases of being more united with, and separate from the Self. The process, which recurs throughout life, could better be described as “spiral” rather than circular per se, because it allows for cumulative overall personality development.

edinger_ego-self-axis-adapted

Figure 3. Gradual separation of the ego from the Self (adapted from Edinger, 1992, p. 5)

The unitive state (leftmost panel in Figure 3) in the Jung/Edinger framework is one in which the ego subordinates itself to, and maintains an attitude of humility towards the Self. The ego receives direction from the Self by intuitions, inspirations, and perhaps dreams, and is guided by them.

The fall occurs, according to this view, when the ego no longer looks to the Self for guidance and direction. As it relies more and more on itself, the ego may become a virtual tyrant or dictator, seeking its own narrow interests and following a distorted view of reality. (Edinger calls this state ‘ego inflation’. ) Once headed in this direction, the person inevitably experiences progressively more unhappiness, accompanied by more pronounced, ineffective attempts by the ego to salvage things. In the later stages, the personality is marked by symptoms of conflict, neurosis, anxiety and neurosis, etc.   Eventually problems become sufficiently acute that the ego sees further progress along the same trajectory as impossible. A personality crisis ensues, which can be resolved only by the ego’s regaining a sense of proper humility (Edinger, 1986b). Thus chastised it must then begin the upward ascent.

We should, however, note peculiarities and potential biases of the Jungian framework, lest we too naively accept it in its entirety. Jung was much influenced by Nietzsche. To put the matter briefly, Jung (and Edinger) are Nietzschean in their reaction against the Apollonian elements of religious orthodoxy and classical philosophy, and in their overemphasizing the Dionysian elements of self-will and unrestrained personal freedom. As a result, it is hard to find much more than lip service paid by Jung or Edinger to any concept of virtue ethics. Instead they have a kind of neo-Gnostic orientation in which one is saved more by esoteric knowledge than by genuine moral reformation or renewal — or, for that matter, by any form of self-culture that requires work and discipline.

Nevertheless this example suffices to establish that there at least one plausible psychological basis for the fall/salvation monomyth, that it corresponds to something very basic and important in the human condition, and is something universal. We would therefore expect it to find expression in myths and religions across cultures.

Some examples will serve to illustrate the nature of the monomyth. We could look to virtually any culture or religion for suitable examples, but for brevity and convenience we will restrict attention to two here: the Bible, and ancient Greek myth, literature and philosophy.

The Bible

In the Bible the monomyth is presented continually and at many levels: in the lives of individuals, in the history of the Jews, and relative to all humankind. Indeed the Bible as a whole is, as it were, an epic portrayal of the monomyth that extends from the fall of Adam and Eve and their banishment from the Garden of Eden to the restoration of the Tree of Life and a soul’s attainment of the New Jerusalem in the final book, Revelation. The monomyth is the essential message of the Bible: to live in union with God or with God’s will, once in the state not to fall, and if fallen, to regain it.

The clearest portrayal of the descending arc is of course the fall of Adam and Eve. The psychological significance of this story has long been known to religious writers. It was thoroughly explained even before the Christian era by the Jewish Platonist philosopher Philo of Alexandria (Uebersax, 2012), who influenced such major Christian exegetes as St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in the West, and St. Gregory of Nyssa in the West (just to name a few figures).

We find in the story of Adam and Eve not simply a turning away from God, but a complex psychological process which also involves a deliberate turn towards self-will, and a re-ordering of interests which mistakenly places sensual concerns above pursuit of higher, spiritual, moral, and intellectual goods and pleasures. The motif of the fall is recapitulated frequently throughout Genesis — for example in the stories of Cain, the flood, and the tower of Babel.

The exodus and wandering of the Jews as they are liberated from bondage to the Egyptians (symbolizing a mind dominated by passions), their wandering in the desert, and their eventual arrival in the Promised Land represents the upward arc of the monomyth.

As the Old Testament continues, the Jews or individual figures are continually falling (e.g., worship of idols, David’s adultery), and being called back to the upward journey by prophets.

Again, the motif of fall and salvation permeates the New Testament. There the central concept of the kingdom of heaven can, at the psychological level, be understood as basically corresponding to the state of grace. Virtually all of Jesus’ parables address the monomyth and its phases or aspects. A particularly good example of the complete monomyth, including fall and restoration, is the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32).

Greek Mythology, Literature and Philosophy

Similarly, the monomyth is found throughout Greek myth and literature. Its falling arc is symbolized by the ‘Ages of Man’ in Hesiod’s Works and Days (106–201), which describes a progression of historical epochs from a past Golden Age, through increasingly less noble Silver, Bronze, and ‘heroic’ ages, to the present, fallen, Iron Age. Here we see the characteristic Greek motif in which humility, union with God, and direction by God’s will is associated with happiness and harmony, but man’s pride (hubris) leads to a fall, conflict, and suffering. It seems universally agreed that Hesiod borrowed or adapted this myth from earlier Middle Eastern, Indian, or perhaps Egyptian sources (see e.g., Woodard, 2009). Just before this section Hesiod supplies another fall myth — that of Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Pandora (42–105).

The Iliad and the Odyssey taken together comprise a complete monomyth. The events of the Iliad begin with the famous Judgment of Paris, which thematically parallels fall of Adam and Eve. At the instigation of Strife (who assumes the devil’s role), and under circumstances involving a garden and apples, Paris, prince of Troy, is asked to judge who is fairest: the voluptuous Aphrodite, the domestic Hera, or the brave and wise Athena. Being bribed Aphrodite by the promise of a romance with the beautiful Helen, Paris chooses Aphrodite as fairest. He thus wins Helen. But since Helen is already married to Menelaus, king of Sparta, this leads to war between the Greeks and Trojans. In short, the story’s theme is that when Paris (symbolizing us), choose pleasure over virtue, the result is a war — and in fact a long, terrible one.

The upward arc of the Homeric cycle is symbolized by the Odyssey. There the protagonist, Odysseus, after the Trojan War ends, must undergo many difficult trials before finally returning to his homeland, where he is reunited with his wife, father, and countrymen, and lives in peace.

Amongst the tragic poets — Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides — the peril of hubris is, of course, is a staple motif.

Virtually all of Plato’s dialogues might be construed as, in one way or another, concerned with the monomyth — especially the upward movement (anagogy) of the soul brought about through philosophy (love of Wisdom), and moral and mental renewal. This is particularly clear in the many myths Plato employs, especially in the Cave Allegory of the Republic and the Chariot Myth of Phaedrus.

Similarly the hierarchical metaphysical system of the Neoplatonist, Plotinus, with its emphasis on the reciprocal movements of emanation and return, could be understood as a metaphor for the ethical/psychological monomyth (Fleet, 2112; Hadot, 1998, 2002).

Summary and Conclusions

The purpose of this article could be understood as to survey the vast and complex array of data which constitute the great myths of humanity, and to bring into focus one part: the portrayal of a core psychological dynamic which we may at least provisionally call the cyclical process of fall and salvation. We have proposed, based on the frequency with which this monomyth is encountered, that it must logically express some core existential concern of human nature. It is universal in that people in every culture and condition must grapple with it. Because it symbolizes something that is psychologically real, we should be able to understand it by studying it in terms of scientific cognitive and personality psychology.

To accept that the monomyth expresses core psychological concerns does not, per se, commit us to any particular theological or doctrinal position. It is fully compatible with a religious or a non-religious view of man. That is, what a religious person may call “following God’s will” is evidently some experiential and phenomenological reality. An atheist may accept the reality of this subjective experience and simply conclude that the person is ‘merely’ following their higher unconscious, or, say, their right brain hemisphere (McGilchrist, 2009).

But in any case, the cultural evidence of the monomyth suggests that human beings have traditionally associated such a state of pious humility as corresponding to perhaps the greatest happiness and psychic harmony obtainable. It is the height of hubris to disregard our myths and traditions simply because they originate in a religious climate that may no longer be fashionable amongst some segments of the intelligentsia.

Moral philosophers and cognitive scientists alike should scientifically study religious mythos — and in particular that concerning fall and salvation. By this the former will gain deeper understanding of man and the nature of religious salvation. The latter will gain insight into phenomenological realities that cannot be ignored if we are to have any effective science or technology of human happiness.

1st draft

References

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, 1949.

Edinger, Edward F. The Bible and the Psyche: Individuation Symbolism in the Old Testament. Toronto, 1986a.

Edinger, Edward F. Encounter With the Self: A Jungian Commentary on William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job. Toronto, 1986b.

Edinger, Edward F. Ego and Archetype. Boston, 1992.

Edinger, Edward F. The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology. Boston, 1994.

Fleet, Barrie. Plotinus: Ennead IV.8: On the Descent of the Soul into Bodies. Las Vegas, 2012.

Hadot, Pierre. Plotinus:The Simplicity of Vision. Trans. Michael Chase. Chicago, 1998.

Hadot, Pierre. What is Ancient Philosophy? Trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA, 2002.

Jung, Carl G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. R.C.F. Hull, Trans. Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol. 9, part 1. Princeton, 1959 (repr. 1969, 1981).

Jung, Carl G. (author); Segal, Robert Alan (editor). Jung on Mythology. London, 1998.

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. New York: Van Nostrand, 1968.

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971.

McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven, 2009.

Uebersax, John S. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA, 2012.

Woodard, Roger D. Hesiod and Greek Myth. In: Roger D. Woodard (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 83–165.

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Jung and Christianity

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The relationship of Jungian psychology to Christianity is rather curious.  On the one hand much of Jung’s work could be understood as implying the validity of Christian tradition and practices as singularly helpful means of promoting psychological integration and self-actualization.  Yet, on the other, Jung himself, while remaining to some extent rather ambiguous on the subject, seemed nonetheless to lean in the direction of dismissing Christianity.  (Reading his works, one gets the impression that he considered himself superior to it.)  But in any case, certainly a large number of later writers who identify themselves as ‘Jungians’ denigrate Christianity.  Some (Edward Edinger, for example), make rather plain their belief that Jungianism constitutes a new form of spirituality which is destined to replace Christianity and other ‘antiquated’ traditional religions.

I wish to make clear that I do not have an axe to grind against Jung.  It bothers me when Christian writers take a figure like Jung and, rather than engage with the issues in a fair-minded and intelligent way, engage in character assassination and specious arguments.  That, to my mind, illustrates the very lack of intellectual charity that Christian writers so frequently accuse others of.  So I can say that I have found much of interest in Jung’s work.  Jung himself is also somewhat of an attractive, or at least interesting figure, precisely because he is a free-thinker.  The problem isn’t so much with Jung himself perhaps, but with Jungians who have, as noted, tried to turn his theories into a religion and elevate him to the status of prophet.  (Jung himself once said words to the effect of , “fortunately I am only Jung and not a Jungian.”)

This much said, what I would like to do here is two things:  (1) to point out how Jung’s theories, taken to their logical conclusions, imply the validity of Christian practice; and (2) to show how Jung himself had to take extreme theoretical measures to avoid coming to this conclusion himself.

To keep this post brief, we can make roughly outline first point as follows:

  1. Jung believed that there is something called a Christian mythos.  This mythos includes all the traditions and writings of the events of Jesus Christ; all Christian art; all liturgies, prayers, practices; all Christian traditions of any kind.
  2. This mythos is an expression of a collective unconscious, which is vitally concerned, among other things, with promoting the psychological health and self-actualization of individuals.
  3. This mythos is also a group effort; that is, the collective unconscious manifests itself in the collective, accumulated effort of individual human beings over many centuries or millennia; for that reason it is extremely rich and effective.
  4. The result is that, at the level of mythos (as opposed to literal historicity of the biblical narrative and to legalistic doctrines) Christianity is extraordinarily effective as a way of promoting psychological health, individuation, and self-actualization.
  5. Thus, just as human culture, broadly, has evolved as a positive force to promote the welfare and development of human beings in various indispensable way, so too does religious culture; and in the West, by ‘religious culture’ we effectively mean (at least judged in a statistically normative sense) Christianity.

It would be logical from all this for Jung to infer that one of the best things a modern person could do to promote psychological well being and self-actualization is to deeply involve oneself in this Christian tradition; in that way one would benefit from all the ways in which collective intuition of the race – something deeper and wiser than personal rational abstraction and modern science – promotes well-being.  He might qualify this by suggesting that this does not mean that all rationalistic doctrines of Christianity should be accepted (as these were developed by different processes and do not necessarily reflect of the collective wisdom of the species); but, rather, that Christianity would be something one accepts at a intuitive, perhaps something like an aesthetic, level.

This would be the logical conclusion based on Jung’s theories.  Indeed, once in a while one finds a Jungian writer who does draw this conclusion.  Nevertheless, Jung did not do so, nor do most Jungians.

This brings us to the second point.  How did Jung avoid reaching this conclusion himself?  The answer is found in one of his major works on religion, Aion (subtitled Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, Collected Works, Vol. 9, Part 2).  There he raises two extremely dubious arguments to show that, even though the figure of Jesus Christ is an extremely deep and powerful symbol (or, more accurately, a reflection of a Archetype) corresponding to self-actualization, this symbol is no longer appropriate to humanity’s current stage of development.

One of these arguments relates to Jung’s ongoing diatribe against what he takes as the Christian doctrinal belief that evil is not ‘real.’ This issue is too complex to pursue here; perhaps I’ll discuss it another time.  It will suffice at present to say that Jung’s argument is pretty weak when scrutinized carefully; it shows his characteristic lack of disciplined analysis (after all is said and done, Jung is a German Romantic, much influenced by Nietzsche) and his basic unfamiliarity with classical philosophy (despite the fact that he loves to impress readers with a superficial display of classical sources, often presenting extended quotes in Greek – but taken completely out of context and without any genuine grasp of the author’s meaning or purpose).

Jung’s second argument, however, is much stranger.  He attempts to show, based on astrology, that the mythic figure of Jesus Christ is no longer, to paraphrase his words, “a suitable vehicle for representing the Archetype of self-actualization.”

What is the evidence?  It’s that, by the astronomical principle known as precession of the equinoxes, we are, in modern times, moving from the previous 2000-year old Age (Aion) of Pisces, to the new Age of Aquarius.  The Age of Pisces, Jung ‘reasons’ (and expects his readers to believe), obviously corresponded with Christianity, since the early Christians symbolized their religion with a fish, and because fishes swim through the ocean (which is obviously a symbol of consciousness swimming in a sea of unconsciousness).  But now we’re in the Age of Aquarius, so clearly we’ll need some new religion that conforms better to this astrological symbol.

It’s simply hard to take this argument seriously. It certainly cannot be considered a scientific argument (despite the fact that  Jung so often takes pains to present himself as a scientist).

Now I am not personally in a position to say uncategorically that astrology is untrue.  I take the attitude of a pure skeptic on the matter:  I see no evidence either way to prove or disprove its validity.  But in his argument here Jung accepts astrology unquestioningly.  The odd thing is that many modern Jungians – here I mean not only writers, but those psychologists and readers who orient their thinking along Jungian lines – take as a given that Jung somehow demonstrated beyond any doubt that Christianity is obsolete, and that we need a new spirituality based on Jungian theory.  This view is taken as a received opinion only; those who hold it have not actually examined Jung’s argument.  Were they to do so, they might be more circumspect in accepting his conclusions.

 

Written by John Uebersax

December 9, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Noetic, Sapiential, and Spiritual Exegesis

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I’ve recently written about an approach to biblical interpretation that is, on the one hand, scientific and psychological, and, on the other, non-reductionistic and faithful to Christian teaching (e.g., here, here, and here). It takes as its basic principles: (1) that a central concern in every Christian life is the injunction of St. Paul, Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2); (2) that this transformation must include a psychological metamorphosis that encompasses both the modern meaning of psyche as mind and its classical meaning as soul and, and includes the moral, intellectual, volitional, and desiring aspects of human nature; (3) that the Bible supplies a detailed plan for effecting this psychological transformation; and (4) much of this plan is ‘encoded’ in figurative language and requires careful attention and a contemplative frame of mind to recognize and understand.  The approach I’ve suggested could be described as a more modern version of the allegorical methods used by Philo of Alexandria (Philo Judeaus) and by many Church Fathers, including Origen, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory of Nyssa.  The question considered here is what to call this method.

Below are some alternative terms and various pros and cons of each.  The terms are grouped into three categories.  In the first are several terms that seem basically correct, but perhaps too general.  The second includes those terms which I consider the best of those currently in use.  The third lists several modern terms that are questionable, but which are included for completeness.

I also thought it might be helpful generally to list all the various terms in use today to denote this sort of allegorical exegesis in one place.  The short bibliography at the end contains some references that appear especially pertinent, but is by no means comprehensive.  I hope to add information to this post as I run across new terms or references of interest.  The present, then, could be considered just a down payment or first installment.

General Terms

allegorical exegesis.  This is perhaps the most widely used term today, but it has two drawbacks:  (1) it is nonspecific, as there are a variety of different ways to allegorically interpret Scripture (psychologically, morally, prophetically etc.); and (2) over the centuries, ‘allegory’ has come to mean a figurative story that is not actually true (as in a fable).  Thus, ‘allegorical exegesis’ might imply to some people that what is being interpreted (the Old Testament or the New Testament) is not historically true. This connotation of non-historicity is not implied by the etymology of the word itself, which comes from alla (different) and agora (assembly) – thus allegory literally suggests  ‘that which one would not say in the crowd’ or basically a hidden meaning as opposed to a more obvious one.  Nevertheless, even in ancient times the word allegory tended to imply that something had only figurative meaning.

parabolic interpretation. From the Greek word parabole.  Because of its connection to the word parable, this term may again tend to suggest that the material being interpreted is not literally true.

figurative interpretation.  The principal disadvantage with this term that it is very nonspecific.  It gives no clue at all as to the kind of truths that are being figuratively represented, or the principles by which they are decoded.

nonliteral interpretation.  Even less specific than figurative; too generic to be of much use.

mystical exegesis.  This could, following ancient Greek usage, imply a secret meaning.  That is problematic in itself, because nonliteral meanings, while they may be subtle or hard to see, are not necessarily secret in the sense of being reserved for a few initiates.  Further the term might be understood as denoting a connection with religious mysticism (e.g., withdrawal from the world, pursuit of ‘mystical experiences’ etc.), which is not necessarily or even usually the case with the form of exegesis being considered here.

hyponoia.  Another word used by the ancients, meaning basically ‘knowledge beneath the surface.’  Like the other terms above, this doesn’t indicate the nature of deeper knowledge being sought, or how it is obtained.

Preferred Terms

noetic exegesis.  This term was apparently first used (at least, in connection with Biblical interpretation) by Eric Osborn (1995, 2005), and later by Blossom Stefaniw (2010). ‘Noetic’ here has two relevant aspects.  First it implies a search to uncover meanings in Scripture that help to improve or transform the nous (i.e., the ancient Greek word for what we might call the Intellect or higher Reason, and which in Greek patristic literature is sometimes considered to be the immortal human soul itself).  Second, the method itself can be properly called noetic insofar as it seeks to go beyond literal meanings of words (understood by discursive thought, or dianoia) to the deeper intelligible truths discernible only to the apprehending, nondiscursive part of the mind (nous).

One possible limitation of this term is that the form of exegesis we are considering involves more than just the apprehending, noetic intellect.  Discursive thinking is also involved in relating intuited principles to one another other or to facts and memories, to envision applications in ones life, and so on. For example, reading the story of Cain and Abel, it might strike one as a noetic inspiration that the two figures symbolize competing negative and positive elements of ones mind or psyche.  But then one might go on to compare these two figures with other, similar pairs – Jacob and Esau, Moses and Pharaoh, etc.  To elaborate the noetic insight would involve use of other mental powers.

The term gnostic exegesis, more or less a cognate, has some ancient precedent, but would likely invite unwanted associations to Gnosticism if used today.

sapiential exegesis.  This could serve about equally well as noetic exegesis as a terminological convention.  It implies both that the object of exegesis is to gain wisdom, and that wisdom is needed to apply the method.

anagogical exegesis.  This is a very interesting term, used by some Church Fathers and also in the Middle Ages.  Originally it meant ‘going or being led higher’, which could be understood in this context to mean any or all of the following: seeking a higher meaning in Scripture; using exegesis to attain a higher level of mental/spiritual development; elevating one’s mind by interpreting Scripture; or contributing generally to an uplifting movement or current of thought (Laird, 2007).  In the Middle Ages, “anagogical” exegesis often became focused on finding allusions to the afterlife of the soul in Scripture, a different usage which might conflict with the more sapiential meaning of the term.  Also, even in the older and original sense (i.e., of the Church Fathers), anagogical exegesis spans two somewhat distinct levels of meaning of Scripture:  those corresponding to what Origen called the psychic (soul) versus pneumatic (spiritual) levels. Relative to Origen’s distinction, our principle interest here is psychic level – i.e., the level of psyche: mind, intellect, rationality, will, desire, and emotion.  The other, higher Origenistic sense of anagogy, which suggests a connection to higher mystical states, including an apophatic union with God free from all concepts or thoughts, is not our immediate concern here.

spiritual or pneumatic exegesis.  As suggested above, it could be argued that these terms should be reserved for a level of exegesis that relates to the highest levels of spiritual development and union with God, e.g., apophatic experience.

theoria or theoreia.  This term, often used by St. Gregory of Nyssa in connection with exegesis, has two relevant meanings for us.  First it can mean contemplation in a sense that is basically the same as noesis:  an understanding of the intelligible meaning of Scripture, as opposed to its historical and literal meanings. Second, it can imply what we today might call a theoretical or scientific understanding, i.e., of the rules and principles of our moral purification and spiritual advancement as  figuratively presented in Scripture.

Psychological Terms 

Finally to be considered are four modern psychological terms.

psychological exegesis.  This term is appropriate, provided we understand psyche in the traditional sense that includes both mind and soul.  However, left unqualified or taken out of context, the term might be misunderstood to imply a connection with modern, reductionistic psychological theories. An alternative term, following Origen, might be psychic exegesis.

depth-psychological exegesis.  This term has been used in recent decades mainly  by certain German scholars.  However ‘depth psychology’ can have several different meanings.  Most who have used the term have meant it in a fairly restrictive sense as implying a basis in psychoanalytic or Jungian theory;  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict (2008) made some harsh criticisms of depth psychological exegesis, but he was referring to this more restrictive meaning of the term.

My own view is that the kind of exegesis we are considering here is accurately termed ‘depth psychological’ in the sense that it includes in its scope certain processes in the depths (or heights) of the human psyche, but not in the sense of corresponding to Freudian or Jungian theory.

psychodynamic exegesis.  Most of the problems with the preceding term would apply here as well.

existential exegesis.  A good term in that it implies existential relevance to the individual, but it potentially inherits all the ambiguity associated with the nebulous word ‘existentialism’.

Conclusions

Overall, of all the terms considered here, perhaps the best are sapiential exegesis, noetic exegesis, and anagogic exegesis.

In the end, we might consider that this form of exegesis may be such that it is inherently impossible to define a single term.  Why?  Because perhaps the very mental processes were are investigating here – noesis, intellection, discernment, etc. – are the very ones by which we know intelligible principles and assign or interpret names.  In other words, it may be something of an ‘error of logical typing’  to try to name the very processes by which we name things. I wouldn’t insist on this view, but it does seem like a possibility.  However to the extent it might be true, we may need to content ourselves with a more ‘poetic’ or intuitive approach to naming this style of exegesis:  to have, for example, multiple names, each one highlighting a different aspect, and to use these different names in a fluid and flexible way.

The passage below shows that even as inspired an exegete as  St. Gregory of Nyssa recognized the difficulty of finding a single term for this form of exegesis.  In the passage below, from the Prologue to his Homilies on the Song of Songs, he uses a wide range terms.

In the end, we should not forget that this form of interpretation is not a name or concept, but an experience.

By an appropriate contemplation [θεωρίας] of the text, the philosophy [φιλοσοφίαν] hidden in its words becomes manifest once the literal meaning has been purified by a correct understanding [έννοίαις]. …

I hope that my commentary will be a guide for the more fleshly-minded, since the wisdom hidden (in the Song of Songs) leads to a spiritual condition of the soul [πνευματικήν τε και αϋλον τής ψυχής κατάστασιν]. …

Because some members of the Church always think it right to follow the letter of holy scripture and do not take into account the enigmatic [αινιγμάτων] and deeper meanings [υπονοιών], we must answer those who accuse us of doing so. … If anything in the hidden, deeper [έπικρύψεως έν ύπονοίαις], enigmatic [αινίγμασιν] sense cannot be cannot be understood literally, we will, as the Word [Logos] teaches and as Proverbs says [Pro 1.6], understand [νοήσαι] the passage either as a parable [παραβολην], a ‘dark’ saying [σκοτεινόν λόγον], sage words [ρήσιν σοφων], or as a riddle [αινιγμάτων].

With regards to anagogy [άναγωγής θεωρίαν], it makes no difference what we call it – tropology [τροπολογίαν] or allegory [άλληγορίαν] – as long as we grasp the meaning [νόημα] of (Scripture’s) words. …

They instruct not only through precepts but through the historical narratives: both lead to knowledge of the mysteries [γνωσιν των μυστηρίων] and to a pure way of life [καθαράν πολιτείαν] for those who have diligent minds.

St. Paul also uses exegesis [έξηγήσει] looking to what is most useful, and he is not concerned about what to name the form of his exegesis [έξηγήσεως]. … And there is a passage where he calls the more obscure comprehension and partial knowledge [γνωσιν] a mirror and a riddle [αΐνιγμα ](1 Cor 13, 12).  And again he says the change from literal[σωματικων] meanings to noetic [νοητά] is a turning [έπιστροφην] to the Lord and a removal of the veil (2 Cor 3, 16).  But in all these different figures and names for noetic interpretation [νουν θεωρίας] he is describing one form of teaching to us,  but we must [sometimes] pass over to the immaterial  [αϋλόν] and noetic interpretation [νοητην θεωρίαν] so that more corporeal thoughts are changed into something perceived by the intellect and rational mind [νουν και διάνοιαν], the more fleshly meaning of what is said having been shaken off like dust (Mt 10, 14).

And he says, “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3, 6), because in many passages the historical account does not provide examples of a good life if indeed we stop at the bare facts.

All these and similar examples should serve to remind us of the necessity of searching the divine words, of reading [προσέχειν τη άναγνώσει] them and of tracing in every way possible how something more sublime [ύψηλότερος] might be found which leads us to that which is divine and incorporeal [θειότερά τε και άσώματα] instead of the literal sense [διάνοιαν].

Unless a person contemplates the truth through philosophy [φιλοσοφίας ένθεωρήσειε την άλήθειαν], what the text says here will be either inconsistent or a fable [μυθωδες].

~ St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, 5.10-7.5; based on (with a few word changes) McCambley (1987) and Heine (2012), pp.362–363; MPG  44 775ff.; italics mine.

Bibliography

Beier, Matthias.  ‘Embodying Hermeneutics: Eugen Drewermann’s Depth Psychological Interpretation of Religious Symbols‘. Paper presented at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, New Brunswick, NJ, March 1998.

Heine, Ronald E. ‘Gregory of Nyssa’s Apology for Allegory.’ Vigiliae Christianae, 38(4), 1984), pp. 360–370.

Laird, Martin. Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Lauro, Elizabeth Ann Dively. The Soul and Spirit of Scripture within Origen’s Exegesis. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Martens, Peter. Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life. Oxford University Press, 2012.

McCambly, Richard Casimir. ‘Notations on the Commentary on the Song of Songs by Gregory of Nyssa.’  < http://www.lectio-divina.org >  Accessed 23 Nov. 2013.

McCambly, Richard Casimir. Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Commentary on the Song of Songs. Hellenic College Press, 1987.  ISBN 0917653181

Norris, Jr., Richard A. Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Song of Songs. Society of Biblical Literature, 2012. (Introduction)

Osborn, Eric Francis. ‘Philo and Clement: Quiet Conversion and Noetic Exegesis.’ Studia Philonica Annual, 10, 1998, 108–124.

Osborn, Eric Francis. Clement of Alexandria. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. ‘Biblical Interpretation in Conflict.’ In: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (author), José Granados (editor), Carlos Granados (ed.), Luis Sánchez Navarro (ed.), Opening Up the Scriptures: Joseph Ratzinger and the Foundations of Biblical Interpretation, Eerdmans, 2008.

Stefaniw, Blossom. Mind, Text, and Commentary: Noetic Exegesis in Origen of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind, and Evagrius Ponticus. Peter Lang, 2010.

Archetypal or Allegorical Interpretation of the Annunciation

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mikhail-nesterov-the-annunciation-1901

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.

The Theory of Human Collective Memory and the Atonement of Jesus Christ

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crucifixion-dali_christofstjohnofthecross1951

On this Good Friday, the points below try to tie together in a new way two different concepts:  the theory of the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ, and the theory of a human collective mind or collective memory.

1. Many psychologists (Jung and Freud included) have believed in the possibility of a collective mind or memory pool for the entire human race, such that, by some as-yet unspecified non-physical means, a mental experience of one person, once had, may become available for all other human beings to experience.  Some (limited) experimental evidence supports this theory.

2. The principle of a collective memory or collective mind is also found in many esoteric traditions (e.g., the Akashic Records of theosophy, the Adam Kadmon in the Kabbala, etc.)

3. Such a principle of a metaphysical collective mind would supply a possible mechanism for understanding in a new way the meaning of the theological principle of the ‘substitutive atonement of Jesus Christ’.

4. The theological doctrine of Jesus’ substitutive atonement holds that, by his life, passion, and death on the cross, Jesus Christ accomplished the actual or potential reconciliation (at-one-ment) of all human beings to God.

5. The atonement doctrine has several variants.  One especially problematic, but common, version is that Jesus literally, by his death, paid a ‘blood guilt’ or penal debt or which mankind incurred through disobedience to God. The difficulty with this is that it relies heavily on the terrible Calvinist doctrine of the innate depravity of human beings.  It also makes God out to be rather ungenerous, if not outright malicious, in requiring that a ‘blood guilt’ price be paid.

6. The collective mind theory supplies a potentially new perspective on the atonement of Christ:  by willingly accepting death, and completely subordinating his own personal will, Jesus of Nazareth achieved a level of humility, unselfishness, and union with God’s will entirely new for the human race. It set a new precedent of egolessness.

7. Jesus Christ having done this, then the thoughts, judgments, and insights by which he reached this peak of moral attainment, being those of a human being, would be deposited in the collective mind of humanity.  Thenceforth, all other human beings could potentially tap into this new mindset, and imitate it.

8. If so, this would potentially explain *why* God would want to incarnate as a human being, Jesus Christ.  In order to deposit those insights, judgments, etc. of Jesus Christ that enabled him to completely overcome his human ego into the collective mind of humanity, God would need to become a man himself.

9. Further, this model would help explain how individual Christians may follow in Christ’s steps.  Each person, by engaging in some new moral precedent or new sacrifice for the sake of humanity, would deposit new material in the collective mind, and thereby enable other human beings to do likewise.

10.  This mechanism would operate in addition to that of the historical and social example set by Jesus Christ, as transmitted by oral and written tradition, which is also a means by which the life, passion, and death of Jesus may be imitated and contributes to the atonement of humanity with God.

Christianity for Agnostics

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William-Adolphe Bouguereau - La Vierge aux Lys [The Virgin of the Lillies] - 1899

Introduction

One way of expressing the thesis presented here is this:  if one were to design an ideal spiritual-philosophical system for Americans and Europeans, I believe it would contain everything that traditional Christianity has, except for some problematic and potentially dispensable doctrinal elements (e.g., the idea that religious authority can replace personal free inquiry in religious matters). One may participate in the psychological experience of Christianity, in my personal opinion, while at the same time reserving judgment on certain specific doctrines of this kind.  Doctrine can never be perfect, because ultimate realities cannot be expressed in words; any attempt to do so must inevitably produce contradiction.  Or to simply look at the matter historically, the Christian authorities were wrong about Galileo, and it is certain that some doctrines of today will follow the route of the earth-centered universe.

But such limitations are no cause to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. The Christian tradition already exists.  It is the product of centuries of continual refinement, a consummate work, polished and refined by the wise, loving, and inspired hands of countless individuals – each potentially the image of God, but in any case a human being with angelic abilities and aspirations, unimaginable creative potential, and loving instincts  Moreover, this tradition is an organic cultural whole, which operates according to principles yet unknown to science. The suggestion that one might begin from scratch, constructing a new, personal religion, spirituality, or psychological system of equal or comparable quality, by selectively borrowing pieces here and there is unlikely at best.  Such a view is hubris of a very high order, and elevates to personal godhood that meager sliver of consciousness denoted by the word ‘ego’. One may as well try to equal Beethoven in writing a symphony, or Raphael in painting.

Although I am a Christian myself, for this article I wear my hat as psychologist.  My interest in that capacity is to assist others, as best I can, to achieve psychological integrity and self-actualization.  Nothing asserted is contrary to reason. To a significant extent I follow the theories of Carl Jung here (but disagree with Jung on several important points, and would hesitate to call myself a ‘Jungian’).  More fundamentally, I follow the basic trend of intelligently-based rejection of radical empiricism that began with the Romantic movement and is associated, for example, with writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth.  The leading principle of the Romantic argument – which has tragically been lost in the 20th and 21st centuries (yet are  more urgently important now than ever) – is that Enlightenment rationalism allows no place for the experience of the sublime, or those things which give deepest meaning to our lives.

While written from a Roman Catholic perspective,  the points below apply with similar force to other liturgical Christian denominations, such as the Anglican, Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic Churches.  Many of the same arguments might also apply to traditional Judaism.

This, then, is sufficient introduction.  What follows is a brief listing of specific points, organized around the categories of (1) Psychology, Anthropology and Ethics; (2) Cultus; and (3) Metaphysics.

* * *

1. Psychology, Anthropology and Ethics

Ethics

Christianity is an advanced ethical system that promotes the abandonment of personal egoism.

The pronounced emphasis in Christianity on acts of charity follows from and supports the abandonment of egoism.  In the West, Christian saints and charitable institutions set the standard for egolessness.

The abandonment of egoism, or humility, as it is technically known, also manifests itself in a surrender to God’s will.  Here we encounter a constellation of concepts – Providence, Grace, the Logos, etc. – associated with an orderly plan for all Creation, and man’s role therein. These all point to the potential attainment of a state of harmony between thought, action, and Nature.  While Christianity is often criticized as being dualistic (e.g., denigrating the natural world, and tolerating , or even supporting its exploitation), true Christianity aims for a condition of non-duality.

If one investigates the matter attentively and honestly, one will readily observe within oneself a definite capacity to (1) act in ways that harm oneself; (2) act in ways that harm others; and (3) have negative thoughts (i.e., thoughts which disrupt, rather than serve to integrate the mind).  The honest person will also recognize a tendency to self-deceit, and lack of objectivity in evaluating ones thoughts and actions.  Lacking a better term, we may lump all of the preceding under the provisional term of “sin.”

Sin, therefore, is a useful concept, because it denotes a range of important related phenomena, for which no other term is available.  We could as easily name it “what traditional religions call sin”, but that would be a bit awkward.  Various associations to guilt, punishment, penance, etc., or the idea that “sin” may be defined unconditionally by an ecclesiastic authority we may exclude from our operational definition.

This thing, “sin”, then, exists, and is to our detriment.  Unless one is courageous and honest enough to accept ones capacity for “sin” in some sense, it is difficult to see how one will find happiness, achieve personality integration, or improve ethically.

Soteriology

Salvation.  It is similarly apparent to the honest observer that one exists in a state of need and deprivation.  Most of us live day to day in various degrees (often severe) of unhappiness and lack of fulfillment.  (Recall Thoreau’s remark:  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”)  All too infrequently, we live in states of anxiety, depression, aimlessness, confusion, wasted energy, etc.  For this reason, each person, then, instinctively seeks what we may call psychological salvation.  Christianity is not necessarily the only theoretical means of achieving psychological salvation; but it is an established means, tested by time, designed for this purpose, and especially adapted to the personality structure of Westerners.  It would be difficult to demonstrate that any other means is more effective.

The Christ Principle

Many psychologists speak of a “self-actualizing” principle in the human psyche:  a force, drive, principle, or telos which directs one to levels of greater integration, completion and happiness.  For Christians, this self-actualizing principle can be understood as an inner Christ.  We may call it by other names, but that does not change the significance of this salvific principle.

Inasmuch as this principle is present in all people, it is reasonable to think of there being a universal Archetype – an original principle of which all individual instances are images.  This Archetype would correspond to Jesus Christ as a cosmic principle.  However, it must be admitted that this latter part is more speculative, and more a matter of personal faith and intuition.  The point to be made here is that modern psychology affirms the existence of an individual self-actualizing principle, and this principle is both acknowledged by and central to Christianity.

Forgiveness

The principle of forgiveness is central to Christian ethics.  The earnest Christian affirms, “as I forgive those who trespass against me” with each recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.  The Apostle’s Creed also affirms as a basic Christian belief “the forgiveness of sins.”  Christ died, Christians are taught, for the forgiveness of sins.  Nearly his last words on the cross were, “Father, forgive them.” St. Paul, who became one of the greatest Apostles, was previously a great sinner — as though this aspect of his life was meant to engrain in our minds the availability of forgiveness.

If one probes deeply into human nature, one may observe that issues of guilt and forgiveness are of immense concern.  Almost all of our difficulties, personal and social, relate, in some way or another,  to an inability or failure to forgive.  Yet there is never anything gained by not forgiving.  Holding onto anger and resentment is a deep-seated and pervasive flaw in human character.

In no other religion is an emphasis on forgiveness so pronounced. Christianity might well be called a religion of forgiveness.   That this is an ideal many find themselves unable to live up to completely is incidental for our purposes.  What matters is that it is an ideal.

The God-image

A central tenet of Christianity is that the human being is made in God’s image.  This has profound implications for how we view ourselves and other people.

2. Cultus

The eminent psychologist Carl Jung once wrote that, if one of his patients reported that he or she had returned to participation in the Catholic Church, he (Jung) considered that patient cured, or in any case advanced beyond the point that psychotherapy would be of further use.  By this he meant that within the human psyche are archetypal principles and forces that are largely beyond our ability to scientifically understand, but are effectively dealt with by religion.  Religion, properly practiced, in Jung’s view, is a primary means by which our culture has evolved for grappling with these archetypes, and achieving integration of the personality.

This brings us to the important subject of  cultus, which we may define here as all the non-doctrinal practices and traditions of Christianity.

Opponents of religion and Christianity typically level their accusations against specific Christian doctrines. This mistakenly equate Christianity with doctrine.

But much of Christianity’s value comes from its cultus.  This cultus is the result of a millennia-long process of cumulative development and improvement.

Just as our material culture – how to mix cement or build bridges – has improved  through the centuries inexorably, regardless of regimes or wars, the  culture of Christianity, its cultus, has been gradually improved and refined.  Any time an innovation in cultus emerges, it is compared with the present counterpart and the better chosen.  A successful innovation introduced one place can be immediately imitated elsewhere.

So Christianity has grown gradually to satisfy the aesthetic, intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs of its flock.  When a process like this continues for a long time it produces considerable refinement.  Christian cultus  continually improves to accommodate the deepest needs and propensities of the human psyche.

Three important divisions of Christian cultus are Art, Literature, and Practices.

Art

Fine art. Christianity has inspired many of the finest works of art that Western culture has produced, including paintings, sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass windows, and so on.

Music.  Similarly, Christianity has inspired great productions of music from composers such as Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Schubert, Vaughan-Williams, and innumerable others.  This superlative music evokes feelings and intuitions of the highest order, which no words adequately describe, although terms like Joy, Beauty, Wonder, and Mystery are related to it.  But who has ever composed an Atheist Oratorio or a Skeptic’s Symphony?

Architecture.  What has been said above can also be said of the magnificent churches of Christianity, the basilicas and, especially, the Gothic cathedrals of Europe.  To enter one of these buildings is to enter the realm of the sublime – or, as some would have it, heaven itself.

Literature

Scripture.  Even were it not religious, the Bible would command our utmost attention as an unsurpassed work of literature and psychology.  Every aspect, problem, difficulty and puzzle of human life is somewhere addressed therein.  It has grown organically, reflecting the judgment of erudite and lofty-minded collators and translators.  It passes to us a gem of human wisdom and insight.

I do not believe the Bible is literally true in every detail.  In fact, I find such an assertion contrary both to reason and Christian teaching itself!  But I do consider the Bible as something sacred, numinous – as exemplifying or manifesting a reality higher than this material one.  Whatever you seek from ancient lore, from mysterious writings of great import, however you honor that sacred human urge – seek it first in the Bible and you will not be disappointed.  The Bible is your book.  Approach it as if it were written for you alone.

Patristic literature.  Along with the Bible, we also possess an immense literature by the so-called Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church, both West and East.  Luminaries in this constellation of geniuses include Origen of Alexandria, St. Augustine of Hippo, the Cappadocian Fathers (St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nazianzus), St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose of Milan, and St. Maximus the Confessor, among others.

These great authors have produced profoundly beautiful and deeply insightful works.  Nobody who reads them is disappointed.  No modern writer today’s approach them degree of knowledge, rationality, and skill.

One might ask:  if these writers are so profound, why are they not better known?  The answer is largely that, in many cases, it has only been recently that their works have appeared in modern languages.  Even the works of St. Augustine have not yet been fully translated.

Doctors of the Church.  Another category of traditional Christian writers is that of the Church Doctors.  Examples include St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Francis of Sales.  Again, these writers show remarkable humanism and insight into psychology.  It is most unfortunate that their works, sources of deep insight and inspiration, are neglected solely because they are Christian or Roman Catholic.

Christian mysticism. The Christian contemplative and mystical tradition is a living one.  Today there are still many monastic centers, carrying on a tradition of mystical practices that originated in ancient times – perhaps even before Christianity.  The works of, say, St. John Ruysbroeck, command our attention if for no other reason than their sheer beauty.

Asceticism.  Many Westerners today, and even many psychologists, recognize the benefits of practices like mindfulness meditation and the watching and analyzing of thoughts.  There is no doubt that these practices have evolved to a very high degree in Eastern traditions such as Buddhism.  Yet no less impressive is the ascetical psychological tradition of the West, found in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity.  The  Philokalia  is an outstanding example of this tradition.   The Western ascetical tradition is in no way inferior to the Eastern tradition, yet is better suited to the culture, moirés, and temperament of Americans and Europeans.

Practices

The Mass.  Even were it viewed only as a form of ritual art, the Mass’s value  would be more than sufficiently demonstrated.  Cross-cultural evidence reveals a universal human interest in ritual.  Ritual appears to satisfy needs that cannot be met any other way.  Ritual is a language of the unconscious, and, as such, needs no rational defense.  Many rituals, the Mass included, are connected with personal transformation.  Because Carl Jung’s essay, ‘Transformation Symbolism in the Mass’ (Collected Works, Vol. 11, Psychology and Religion: West and East, 1975, pp 201-98) has treated of this subject admirably well, we need say no more here in this regard.

Other rituals.  The ancient rituals, rites and ceremonies associated with special occasions – baptisms, marriages, the Easter and Christmas seasons, and so on – must also be mentioned.   It is difficult to convey the aesthetic and deeply satisfying quality of these to any who have not seen them first-hand.  They are a living connection with our ancient past.

In the tradition of Greek pagan religion, one sometimes encounters the idea of theurgy – or ritual practices aimed to promote spiritual growth, in connection with various gods or goddesses.  Some people today find such ancient pagan religions attractive for this very reason.  Yet within Christianity there is the same sort of thing – namely the liturgies, rituals, and sacramental practices – developed to a much higher degree.  But in the case of Christianity, this is a living tradition, not one that modern people have tried to reconstruct based on scanty past evidence and conjecture.

Prayer.  What good person has never felt the deep and spontaneous urge to pray for another, whether it be a relative, friend or the victim of unfortunate circumstance?  The urge to pray is so universal that we can little imagine it not having decidedly positive effect – even if only in the mind of the one who prays.  If we are to pray, if we are pray-ers by disposition, may we not conceive of a technology of prayer?  Should prayer be the only aspect of human life in which tradition and the cumulative experience of others is be of no benefit?  Christianity teaches us how to pray.  Moreover, it contains a rich store of formulas and prayers suitable for every circumstance in life.

Christian prayer is supported by traditional practices. Consider, for example, the folding of hands by a Christian in devout prayer.  In the terminology of yoga, this is called a mudra – a ritual position of the hands, thought to have psychological or spiritual value.  It is good to study yoga, with its various mudras and asanas; yet one should not, in the process, neglect the store of comparable postures and actions in the Christian tradition – the kneeling, the crossing of oneself, the bowing of the head, the raising of hands in characteristic ways.  The ritual positions and actions of a priest saying Mass are exceptionally interesting in this regard, yet are typically taken for granted.

Liturgical calendar.  Over the centuries, the Christian Church has evolved an elaborate and rich calendar, associating festivals and commemorations with various days and seasons.  These no doubt reflect very ancient traditions.  They connect us with the changing seasons, and promote a harmonization of our lives and souls with the natural world

Veneration of saints.  What is remarkable is not so much that there are saints, but that there are so many.  Each saint is the expression of some virtue or human excellence of which the human being is capable.  Each saint, it may be said, corresponds to some archetype of the individual soul.  Each constitutes an ideal whose example we are naturally inclined to imitate.  By studying the lives of the saints, we learn about our own deepest aspirations and potentialities.

3. Metaphysics

The Holy Trinity. To some, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity may seem a strange and arbitrary one.  But, in fact, the doctrine partly derives from the speculation and theories of pre-Christian, Platonic philosophers.  The Trinity solves certain meaningful theological and metaphysical problems.

Divine Mother.  Christianity also makes ample room for and pays due homage to a Divine Feminine principle.  Admittedly, the written doctrine on this point is somewhat unclear and perhaps even a little contradictory.  But, to return briefly to the idea of cultus, clearly at that level considerable attention is paid to the Divine Feminine, and this promotes psychological integration.

Angels.  This subject is a broad one, but one aspect of particular interest is the idea of a guardian angel.  This Christian concept corresponds to very ancient notions of a companion spirit associated with the individual person.  I hope to write more on this at another time; for now let it suffice simply to suggest a possible connection between this concept and a Higher Self.

Communion of Saints.  One of the most extraordinary innovations of Christianity is the concept of a communion of saints – a spiritual community of Christians, both living and dead, into a kind of super-personal organism or institution.  This makes a lot of sense.  If our souls are eternal, and if we may, as many suppose, communicate and help each other at a spiritual level, then would it not be in our interests to form some kind of spiritual organization for mutual benefit and to effect God’s work together?

Look at the challenges of the world today, the great social needs, the injustice, the terrible deprivation of so many.  If you are reading this, it presupposes that you are the kind of person who is moved to concern and action by such things.  Can you solve them by yourself?  Perhaps you have tried, and, if so, likely have not gotten very far.  Would it not make sense to at least explore the possibility of working within a spiritual communion of similarly inclined souls?  If God wants these problems solved, would it not make sense that He would employ such a means as this?

* * *

In the interests of the reader, this list has been kept short and minimal.  Many more items could be included and elaborated on at length.  Let these suffice, however, to supply an honest view of how one Christian views his faith.  Hopefully even the most inveterate skeptic will discern that there is a much firmer foundation here than mere superstition, or failure to exercise disciplined reasoning – the two objections raised most commonly today against Christianity.

Pseudo-Hippolytus on Cosmic Significance of the Cross

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An Easter Sermon of Pseudo-Hippolytus on Cosmic Significance of the Cross

Pseudo-Hippolytus is an anonymous author of the 4th century.

“This tree is for me a plant of eternal salvation. By it I am nourished, by it I am fed. By its roots, I am firmly planted. By its branches, I am spread out, its perfume is a delight to me, and its spirit refreshes me like a delightful wind. I have pitched my tent in its shadow, and during the heat I find it to be a haven full of fragrance, […] This tree of heavenly proportions rises up from the earth to heaven. It is fixed, as an eternal growth, at the midpoint of heaven and earth. It sustains all things as the support of the universe, the base of the whole inhabited world, and the axis of the earth. Established by the invisible pegs of the Spirit, it holds together the various aspects of human nature in such a way that, divinely guided, its nature may never again become separated from God. By its peak which touches the height of the heavens, by its base which supports the earth, and by its immense arms subduing the many spirits of the air on every side, it exists in its totality in every thing and in every place.”

Source:  De Pascha Homilia 6, Migne PG 59 (Chrysostom, Spuria) 743f.

English translation: Alister E. McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, Blackwell Publishing, 2006, p. 291. Cf. Hugo Rahner, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, Biblo & Tannen Publishers, 1971, pp. 66-67; Edwin Oliver James, The Tree of Life: An Archaeological Study, Brill, 1967, p. 162.

Written by John Uebersax

January 9, 2009 at 9:54 pm