To the Edge of Within
Old Testament reading: Similitudes of Enoch
New Testament reading: Eugnostos the Blessed (p. 228)
Rudolf Bultmann once wrote: "Every theological statement is at the same
time an anthropological statement." This insight, which I want to explore
and apply this morning, is the basis for Bultmann's program of
demythologizing. When Bultmann urged us to demythologize scripture he did
not mean, as some thought, that we ought to abandon the language of
mythology. No, he said, this was the error of classical liberal
Protestantism. They lopped off the hydra heads of myth which so offended
them, but all they had left was a dead torso, a so-called religion of
morality. Morality makes for good morality but for bad religion. Go to any
Unitarian church and you'll see what I mean. They miss the poetry. Like
Plato, they have exiled the poets from the ideal Republic of Religion
Within the Limits of Reason Alone, because they knew the poets sing in the
tongues of angels, prophesy in the language of mythology. And the poor
rationalistic liberals fear that mythology will bring supernaturalism,
orthodoxy, in its train. It need not, as we will see.
Bultmann knew that all myths enshrine particular views of human
existence. Some, of course, are silly folktales, told for amusement. But
there stories like the Garden of Eden or the experiment of Daedelus and
Icarus or the labors of Sisyphus, which are important statements of human
being-in-the-world. The story your culture or your religion tells, it
lives by. It shapes it's world by the narrative it lives. And so do you as
an individual. Your life has no meaning abstractly defined, but it does
have a plot. It is a story, or it is trying to be one. That story may be
Father Knows Best, or a Bergman movie, or a soap opera. You decide. Your
life gains its meaning from its mythic character.
So what we have to do when we look at the ancient myths of scripture
which we can no longer literally believe, is to interpret them. To see
what they say about life. The point of the Eden story is aptly summed up
in the pithy bumper sticker "Life's a bitch and then you die." The point
of the Icarus story is "What a piece of work is man--how like a god!" And
Camus said all that anyone needs to say about the Sisyphus myth.
Where did Bultmann get this insight? I have read that he was influenced
by his student Hans Jonas in his book on Gnosticism. Gnosticism, as you
know by now, was a radically world-negating view of the world and human
existence. Gnostics believed they had the secret of existence, that it is
a big mess in which their sensitive souls did not belong. They contained
the divine spark, and if they could cultivate that spark, the knowledge of
that spark, that thing that made them special, they could eventually free
themselves from this world of degradation. The world was arrayed against
them. The odds were against them. The gods were against them. The world
was ruled by hostile powers who wanted to keep everyone asleep and
Hans Jonas saw at once that this view of life and the world was based on
a profound alienation from the world. Gnostic mythology simply spun out in
objectified form the interior struggles of those who feel like strangers
in a strange land.
Let's not miss the profound truth of Gnosticism. The Gnostic view was not
quite the same thing as, say, modern Satanism, in which, psycho-social
studies have shown, losers are on power trips. Unable to make it in the
real world, they find a small pond in which they may fancy themselves big
fish. You may not have the guts or the luxury of telling off your boss,
but by God you can make a voodoo doll of him and have the satisfaction of
sticking pins in it!
Nor do I think the Gnostics were simply alienated intellectuals, like a
Mensa chapter, what I like to call "the Lonely Brains Club." A Poindexter
The Gnostics were sensitive souls who grieved, mourned, ached at the
pandemic of venality, cruelty, stupidity, tastelessness, manipulation that
they saw around them. They had the burden of the insight that like the
inmates of the asylum in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the suffering of
the human race was largely self-inflicted. They may have succumbed to the
temptation of blaming the victim, who knows, but there is evidence they
regarded the run of mankind as sheep without a shepherd and had
have said before that we as intellectuals are in an analogous position to
that of Gnostics even though we probably share none of their mythic
beliefs. We know, as they did, that this age of tawdry stupidity and cruel
manipulation is indeed a vast con game run by a gang of Principalities and
Powers, IBM, McDonald's Disney, the Military-Industrial Complex, Big
Business, Advertising, Public Opinion. We know the social psychology of
it, the class basis of the thing.
We transcend it and yet we feel ourselves trapped within it. In fact,
like Sisyphus, it is because we transcend it that we can feel trapped in
it. As for the rest, they are like Mara the Tempter's subjects. They do
not seek a better way because frostbite has eaten into their souls and
they don't suspect anything is amiss.
We know the religious beliefs of the masses for childhood fables, and we
know what it is like to incur their wrath by pointing this out. So like
the ancient Gnostics we have to be very careful what we say and when and
to whom. We are best advised not to throw our pearls before swine nor our
holy things before dogs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn on us
to rend us in pieces.
Paul Tillich shared Bultmann's views when it came to demythologizing, or
as he preferred, deliteralizing mythology. He knew that theology had to
pursue a method of correlation. It had to begin with a method of
existential analysis. It had to look first at the itch to know where to
scratch. If God is what is missing, as Augustine said, from the human
heart, if there is a "God-shaped vacuum" in every heart, then we must
first discern the shape of that gap in order to find the God to fill it.
And of course, God is already there, Tillich said (And so did Augustine).
He is in the gap. The gap is like the Tsimtsum in the Kabbalah. The
creation myth of the Kabbalah has God first withdraw into himself in order
to clear an ontological space for anything else to exist. And yet being
omnipresent and infinite, God cannot ever become less. So even the space,
the hole, the gap, he left is filled with God! It is his Other, his
Shadow, and from it we emerge.
And so Tillich said his famous saying, that we must abandon the
pre-scientific notion of a God out there or up there and recognize instead
that God is to be found in the depths of human experience, at the Depth of
our being. For God is the Ground of Being itself.
If this sounds like a prelude to depth psychology, that is no accident.
Tillich treated philosophy and psychology as equal sources for theology.
This is possible since God is at the depth of the human being. As in 1
Corinthians, the Gnostic spoke of the secret bathmoi, or depths of God.
Paul says, "Who knows the deep things of a man except for the spirit of
the man that is in him? Likewise who knows the deep things of God except
the spirit of God. And we have the mind of Christ." Tillich said this is
no mere analogy: when we know the depth of human nature we know in the
same moment the depths of God, for they are one and the same. Deep
speaketh unto deep here. We see in a mirror, face to face.
friend Carl Jung had mapped out those depths better than anyone else,
Tillich thought. So if you are reading Tillich and you find yourself
scratching your head over this philosophical talk about the Ground of
Being, and you want some specifics, flip the channel over to Jung. Jung
spoke of the archetypes, the basic images built into the mind of every
human being. They are numbers, geometric figures, story characters like
the hero, the wise man, the mother, etc. They emerge again and again in
all myths and in dreams and fairy tales.
The reason they do is that these images are like computer screen icons.
You have to have them appear on the screen of your conscious mind or you
will never learn to access the programs that are preprogrammed into your
subconscious mind. These images, these icons, are the Archetypes. They are
the sign language of the mind, and when we expose them to consciousness
they enable us to mature.
Jung, in case you didn't know it, was deeply interested in Gnosticism. He
went farther than Hans Jonas. He didn't just think Gnostic mythology was a
prime specimen of an existential profile projected onto the world outside
us. Jung realized that the Gnostics had actually arrived at a method of
psychotherapy and spiritual growth. When the Gnostic learned that the
conventional mores of society and religion were the false creation of a
bungling angel, and that there was a greater God far above him, a God
whose name and nature was Man, the Gnostic was well on the way to what
Jung called individuation, the transcendence of the adolescent ego to the
mature Self. Jung said their claim for elite Gnosis was entirely
justified: the Gnostics knew human nature better than anyone else ever
had. That's why they could call the Ultimate Godhead Man.
This is why Jung thought his mentor Freud was wrong: religion need not be
a neurosis. Instead it is, can be, should be, an aid to psychological
maturity and health. Myths present us with the symbols; rituals provide a
symbolic opportunity to access those symbols. They kick in. That's what
rites of passage are all about.
Now Tillich said that he thought Jung was too modest in claiming only to
have mapped out the structures of the mind (as if that were a modest
feat!). Tillich thought Jung should go the whole way and acknowledge that
he had mapped out the ontological structures of Being themselves. You see,
Tillich meant it: you can look through the window of the human depths,
like looking through the porthole in a diving bell, I guess, and discern
the depths of God.
But I think it is significant that Jung did not in fact go as far as
Tillich wanted him to. Jung resisted the temptation to project an
understanding of human existence onto the cosmos at large. Or did he? I
think that in his speculations on synchronicity, Jung was beginning to
mythologize, to project the order of the mind onto the cosmos.
Did you know that disciples have a funny way of disagreeing with their
teachers? Just as Jung rejected Freud's anti-religious stance, one of
Jung's disciples, Joseph Campbell, modified Jung. Campbell did refuse to
go beyond the skull. He admitted that the truth and power of myth are
contained within the mind. That is not to say that they stay buried there,
moribund and irrelevant. No, they escape and affect external reality, but
only as we live them out. Only as we adopt them as our own stories,
stories or trial and triumph, loss and recovery, determination and
victory, and finally resignation and satisfaction. But in the long run,
the myths are about human nature and the human life-cycle and nothing
else, for after all there is nothing else for us!
What does this largely theoretical discussion mean for your life? One
thing it might mean is that you should take a long look at your life to
discern what story, what myth you are actually living out, as opposed,
perhaps, to the one you think you are living out, or would like to be
living out. It is not unlikely that others have assigned you a script.
It also suggests that questions about whether there is a God external to
you are irrelevant. What you need to do is to cultivate the depth of your
being. Whatever else you may feel you need to call it, it finally amounts
to that: the depth of your being. There is something greater and deeper
than the resources you have consciously inventoried. You need to listen to
your subconscious, to your depths. Your dreams are a key to this, as
ancient shamans knew and modern therapists know.
And you need to learn to open the channel to the subconscious self. The
veil grows thin on the verge of sleep. For then the jealous sentinels of
the conscious self relax their vigilance. There is wisdom down there, and
power, and talent that consciously you suppress. Let yourself wander in
music or in paintings or in silence. Think on paradoxes and conundrums.
Dwell for a time upon what you do not know, so that you may wonder.
I close with sobering words from the Gospel of Thomas: "If you will know
yourselves, you will know yourselves to be sons of the Living Father. If
you will not know yourselves, you are in poverty, and you are poverty."
Robert M. Price
August 2, 1997
Copyrightę2005 by Robert
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