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SERMON ARCHIVE

 

 

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 obedient.

 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 Society.

 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 compassion.

I 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.

 Tillich's 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

 

 

 

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