Archive for the ‘religion’ Category
A Meditation on Psalms 1:1–2
 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
 But his delight is in the law of the LORD;
and in his law doth he meditate day and night. (Psalms 1:1–2)
HE Bible is a key to salvation. Psalms is a key to the Bible. Psalm 1, a proem, is a key to Psalms; and its key verses 1 and 2. Careful study and meditation on these verses therefore profits us greatly.
 Blessed is the man
In the Septuagint, the Greek word translated as Blessed is makarios, which means either blessed or happy; both are understood to apply here.
Also, consider that when one feels especially blessed, with this is much joy. We may therefore read here, “this man is blessed, happy, joyful, and lacks nothing.” Such, then, is our goal.
After the goal is stated, we are warned of three principal obstacles. These are three categories of mental error — which, as we will see, correspond to Plato’s three divisions of the human soul. (Republic 4.434d–4.445e, 9.588b–9.591e; Phaedrus 246a-e; 253c–256c)
that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Counsel of the ungodly aptly describes the principal sin to which the rational or logical division of our mind (Plato’s logistikon) is vulnerable. This, our faculty of discursive reasoning, is prone to entertain innumerable schemes, plans, anxieties, and similar vain thoughts. Some such thoughts involve positive projects we imagine; some concern needless fears and anxieties; some, of guilt and remorse. All such ruminations are almost always baseless and imaginary. Attention to ones thoughts will reveal the seriousness of this problem: one can seldom go a minute, or even a few seconds, without ungodly counsel.
The word walketh is appropriate here, because once one accepts the initial impulse to follow such thoughts, they lead the mind — for minutes or even hours — on a journey; yet they lead nowhere, or certainly nowhere good.
nor standeth in the way of sinners,
The way of sinners refers to mental errors of the concupiscent nature, or what Plato called epithymia (or the epithymetikon). These are temptations to inordinate or untimely sensory pleasures, such as over- or improper indulgence in food, drink, sex, etc.
It is called standing, because such temptations characteristically assault us when we are, so to speak, mentally stationary — that is, not actively applying our minds in ways connected with our spiritual development, helping others, or attending to productive tasks. “An idle mind,” it is said, “is the devil’s workshop.”
nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
No less problematic (and, for religious people, often more so) are mental errors of our irascible and honor-seeking nature — what Plato called thumos (or our thymoeides). A principal form of such temptations is ones tendency to judge, condemn, or criticize others. Hence this is like a seat upon which one sits and presumes to pass judgment.
Again, by observing the thoughts one may easily see this strong, chronic tendency to find fault with people and things, and, in short, to think negatively.
 But his delight is in the law of the LORD;
We are next told that the blessed man is one who delights in the law of the LORD.
Here the law of the Lord must not be mistakenly understood as meaning written rules, commandments, prohibitions, and so on. To orient ones life to codified rules is legalism. Legalism does not bring happiness.
Law (in Hebrew, Torah) here is properly understood as the promptings of the Holy Spirit which gently guide us to do God’s will.
A parallel may be drawn here with the Chinese concept of Dao, which may be understood as the Universal Law that governs all things benignly and providentially. To follow this Law is to live in accord with Nature — a principle that has only positive connotations, and is never considered onerous or ‘against ones grain.’
We are to gently follow God’s will instead of willfully pursuing our own schemes and plans. For this to become a habit is the journey of a lifetime and a main task of salvation.
Ones reconciliation to God’s will is the message of the entire Bible. In the Old Testament, it is expressed by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In the New Testament, the entire life of Jesus, including his crucifixion and resurrection, epitomize the principle.
This condition is also called the Reign (or Reigning)  and Kingdom of God in ones heart and soul. Indeed, this reconciliation of wills is the main ethical concern of all religion.
The Greek word translated as delight is hedone, which may also mean pleasure (hence our English word, hedonism). In this state, God’s Law may be experienced as a delightful pleasure.
To achieve this state of reconciliation to God’s will is not only to feel blessedness and delight, but it also joins two basic elements of ones nature: the pleasure-seeking and the duty-seeking. The two become one in purpose.
A practice to recommend is to repeat these verses silently, as wit a mantra. And, so, these guides always near, one may ask in succession of each thought that occurs: Is this ungodly counsel? The way of sinners? The scoffer’s seat?
The bad thoughts being rejected, those remaining are more likely to accord with God’s will.
We end here, for it is better to discover for oneself the deeper meanings of Scripture. A basic interpretative approach has been outlined here; that, with what has been said elsewhere (Uebersax, 2012, 2014) is enough.
We may only mention one further promise of Psalm 1: the blessed man will be like a tree planted by the rivers of water (Psalm 1:3a). This can be understood as a restoration of the Tree of Life in Genesis 2:9.
The Tree of Life also appears Revelation 22:1–2, in the very last chapter of the Bible. The whole saga of Scripture, then, concerns a journey from self-will and the fall into sin — whence the Tree of Life is lost — to its restoration, which is a restoration of our soul as a godly Garden of virtue and delight.
Thus we do not err when we say that within these few verses the Bible’s entire message of salvation is epitomized. Wisdom is near for those who seek it, and for this we should be grateful.
Uebersax, John S. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA, 2012.
Uebersax, John S. ‘Principles of Psychological Exegesis of the Bible‘.
Christian Platonism website. <catholicgnosis.wordpress.com>. September, 2014.
Uebersax, John S. ‘Noetic, Sapiential, and Spiritual Exegesis.’ Christian Platonism website. <catholicgnosis.wordpress.com>. November, 2013.
John Uebersax, 25 March 2015
 Uebersax, John S. ‘Thy Kingdom or Thy Kingship Come – What Does Basileia in the Lord’s Prayer Mean?‘ <catholicgnosis.wordpress.com>. July, 2014.
 The Tree of Life is watered by four rivers (Genesis 2:10–14).
The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation
(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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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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.
The Gnosis of St Thérèse de Lisieux
For October 1 2008
Summary: One can view St Thérèse de Lisieux as a gnostic — and, in a manner of speaking, an ‘alchemist’. A true alchemist seeks not gold, but happiness, and love is the key to true happiness.
Today the Roman Catholic Church is privileged to commemorate the life and example of St. Thérèse de Lisieux. God has providentially supplied for our benefit many saints. Each expresses and manifests certain of God’s attributes. As our soul contains the image of God, the imago Dei, we possess latently those divine virtues and potentialities manifest by the saints. Each saint reveals some dimension of our own soul. Studying their lives and writings assists us in the gradual restoration of the imago Dei, in our self-realization.
In few cases is the saint’s role of exemplar more evident than with St. Therese, the “Little Flower” and the saint of love.
Let us recall some of her more famous quotations:
“Each prayer is more beautiful than the others. I cannot recite them all and not knowing which to choose, I do like children who do not know how to read, I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and He always understands me. For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.”
“Sufferings gladly borne for others convert more people than sermons.”
“The splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of it’s scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its lovliness.”
Her saintliness is obvious, but why do we call St. Thérèse a gnostic? Would even she herself not have denied this?
That St. Therese is to be counted high among gnostic Christians is readily seen. It is true, she professed simplicity and adopted no pretense of great learning. Yet this same humble soul is reckoned, by virtue of her insightful writings and exemplary life, as a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, sharing this title with the likes of Augustine, Ambrose, and Aquinas. In in her grasp of Scripture, her ability to sense the deep meanings and subtle nuances of passages, great wisdom is evident. Most of all the illuminated nature of her thinking is demonstrated by its habitual content: Love — its reality, immanence, and greatness. If she is not readily recognized as a gnostic that is only because we ourselves so easily fall from the state of wisdom, and begin to imagine there is some greater thing than Love.
We are too accustomed to seeing simplicity and wisdom as opposites, when in fact they go together. The Lord said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes (Matt 11:25). And as St Paul wrote: the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor 1:25). We know that, as Socrates taught, true wisdom comes with recognition of ones ignorance. Thus we should not hesitate to consent to the classification of St. Therese as a gnostic.
There is here, moreover, an important general point: too often those who wish to be gnostics are overly attached to scholarship, books, and the external trappings of philosophy. It must be admitted, in short, that pride often or usually accompanies an interest in gnostic matters. Many who see themselves as gnostics look consdecendingly on “non-gnostic” practitioners of religion. This was carred to extremes in some heretical gnostic sects, which claimed that only special individuals, that is, those with arcane knowledge reserved for a select few, will be saved.
Al Ghazali on Alchemy
We may easily demonstrate the falseness of a view that equates saving gnosis with special, arcane knowledge. Suppose that great gnosis or wisdom, such as that sought by ancient gnostics, alchemists, and magi, of the sort that would give one the ability to perform miracles or accomplish anything, is indeed attainable. Suppose, further, that some master alchemist, after years of difficult labor and study, finally succeeded in creating the fabulous philosopher’s stone, which gives the possessor the ability to have or do anything wished for.
What, then, would such an alchemist do?
Would he turn lead into gold to gain great wealth? Perhaps; but if so, what after that? Of what use would gold alone be? Simply to have gold, unless it procures for one something better, is insufficient.
One might reply that he would make gold and then buy things with the gold, expecting these things to bring enjoyment and happines. But what this means is that what the alchemist actually seeks is not the gold, but happiness. At best, the gold would be only instrumental in gaining happiness.
But what brings happiness? Plainly, nothing for a human being brings so much happiness as love. It follows that the perfect alchemist would seek perfect love. Gold or wealth might possibly be helpful for this, but, so too it might be a hindrance. For all we know the perfectly attained alchemist might choose the life of a beggar!
As novel as this idea might seem, it is not new. The same principle was expressed in a dazzling spiritual treatise by the Islamic cleric and philospher Al Ghazali in the 11th century, called, fittingly, The Alchemy of Happiness.
Al Ghazali keenly discerned that the idea of turning lead into gold is merely a metaphor for the far more important process of transforming our base personality into something pure and beautiful. This form of alchemy seeks not gold or material wealth, but virtue and love. It is the gaining of virtue that is is the topic of this masterful written work of Al Ghazali.
Considering all this, we may say confidently that St. Therese was a great alchemist and a great gnostic. She found the secret, the formula for happiness — and so completely that she was able to dispense with showy displays of erudition and false knowledge.
I was pleased, or perhaps reassurred, to notice for the first time, only after writing this note, the Apostolic Letter in which Pope John Paul II in 1997 declared St Therese a Doctor of the Church, namely Divini Amoris Scientia (The Science of Divine Love). Some passages from the Letter follow:
1….During her life Thérèse discovered “new lights, hidden and mysterious meanings” (Ms A, 83v) and received from the divine Teacher that “science of love” which she then expressed with particular originality in her writings (cf. Ms B, 1r). This science is the luminous expression of her knowledge of the mystery of the kingdom and of her personal experience of grace. It can be considered a special charism of Gospel wisdom which Thérèse, like other saints and teachers of faith, attained in prayer (cf. Ms C, 36r·)….
7. From careful study of the writings of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and from the resonance they have had in the Church, salient aspects can be noted of her “eminent doctrine”, which is the fundamental element for conferring the title of Doctor of the Church.
First of all, we find a special charism of wisdom. This young Carmelite, without any particular theological training, but illumined by the light of the Gospel, feels she is being taught by the divine Teacher…
Thérèse offers a mature synthesis of Christian spirituality: she combines theology and the spiritual life; she expresses herself with strength and authority, with a great ability to persuade and communicate, as is shown by the reception and dissemination of her message among the People of God.
The last point is important: Thérèse’s pursuit of gnosis was not motivated by selfish aims, as is so often true with those who merely call themselves “gnostics”, but by a great love and intense desire to share the good news of the mystery of God’s salvation with others. Such compassionate yearning for others to know the meaning of God’s love is deep, innate, and immensely powerful. This sense of compassion is a powerful and perhaps essential motive force promoting the attainment of true gnosis.
Thérèse’s teaching expresses with coherence and harmonious unity the dogmas of the Christian faith as a doctrine of truth and an experience of life. In this regard it should not be forgotten that the understanding of the deposit of faith transmitted by the Apostles, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, makes progress in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit: “There is growth in insight into the realities and words that are passed on… through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (cf. Lk 2:19 and 51). It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience.
Again, a broader point here is to remind those of us who who pursue scholarship, research, and philosophy that these constitute neither the only nor, arguably, the most important path to wisdom or gnosis. The gnostic should never feel superior to or denigrate the accomplishments of a devout and pure “simple soul”, whose attainments in love — which is the ultimate standard of gnosis — may far exceed our own.
In seeking gnosis let us never overvalue our books, translations, history, and metaphysical speculations. Such things constitute philosophical scholarship, which is potentially important, but is not to be confused with philosophy itself, which, as its very name suggests, is an activity of love.
Reading From the Rule of St Columbanus
Perpetual light in the temple of the eternal High Priest
How happy, how lucky are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes! How blessed it is to be wakeful and watching for God, who created all things, who fills them with being and exceeds all of them in greatness!
I am a lowly creature but I am still his servant, and I hope that he will choose to wake me from slumber. I hope that he will set me on fire with the flame of his divine love, the flame that burns above the stars, so that I am filled with desire for his love and his fire burns always within me!
I hope that I may deserve this, that my little lamp should burn all night in the temple of the Lord and shine on all who enter the house of God! Lord, I beg you in the name of Jesus Christ, your Son and my God, give me a love that cannot stumble so that my lamp can be lit but can never go out: let it burn in me and give light to others.
And you, Christ, our gentle saviour, in your kindness light our lamps so that they shine for ever in your temple and lighten our darkness and dispel the shadows of the world.
I beg you, my Jesus, fill my lamp with your light. By its light let me see the holiest of holy places, your own temple where you enter as the eternal High Priest of the eternal mysteries. Let me see you, watch you, desire you. Let me love you as I see you, and before you let my lamp always shine, always burn.
Beloved Saviour, show yourself to us who beg a glimpse of you. Let us know you, let us love you, let us love only you, let us desire you alone, let us spend our days and nights meditating on you alone, let us always be thinking of you. Fill us with love of you, let us love you with all the love that is your right as our God. Let that love fill us and possess us, let it overwhelm our senses until we can love nothing but you, for you are eternal. Give us that love that all the waters of the sea, the earth, the sky cannot extinguish: as it is written, love that no flood can quench, no torrents drown. What is said in the Song of Songs can become true in us (at least in part) if you, our Lord Jesus Christ, give us that grace. To you be glory for ever and for ever. Amen.