THE SYMBOLIC LIFE (Winter 2015)
As C. G. Jung developed his own psychology of the unconscious independent of Freud he described two kinds of thinking, directed thinking and dream or fantasy thinking. Much of his psychology is predicated on the observation that Western culture had become so good at the former, that it had lost the value of the latter. For the Western soul to stay healthy it would need to find a balance of the two. Some issues we faced could only be reconciled by the symbolic, not the rational.
Author and scholar of Western religions Karen Armstrong came to a similar conclusion in her research. She calls the two kinds of thinking logos and mythos. Her work is extremely helpful in trying to make sense of the conflicts going on in the world like the recent horrific shootings in Paris. In The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism Armstrong points out that the conflict expressed by many Muslim cultures as they encounter Western modernity dominated by logos is an assault on their sense of identity. While most will try to sustain their mythos values, some lash out in anger and defiance. Armstrong also points out that the first responses of fundamentalists to modernity came from Christian groups in this country and can be seen not only in Christianity and Islam, but in Judaism as well. Her studies of these developments in all three religions is quite comprehensive. She poignantly argues that we need to understand the threat to religious mythos identity in order to understand what those disenfranchised by modernity are reacting so strongly against.
One dynamic she sees across the religious spectrum is that to defend their mythos fundamentalists attempt to solve the problem equating mythos with logos, trying to force mythic understanding on the concrete reality that logos is so adept at helping us with. In her words, "Fundamentalists have turned the mythos of their religion into logos, either by insisting that their dogmas are scientifically true, or by transforming their complex mythology into a streamlined ideology. They have thus conflated two complementary sources and styles of knowledge which the people in the premodern world had usually decided it was wise to keep separate." "As a result they have neglected the more tolerant, inclusive, and compassionate teachings and have cultivated theologies of rage, resentment, and revenge. On occasion, this has even led a small minority to pervert religion by using it to sanction murder."
"Fundamentalist fury reminds us that our modern culture imposes extremely difficult demands on human beings. It has certainly empowered us, opened new worlds, broadened our horizons and enabled many of us to live happier, healthier lives, Yet it has often dented our self-esteem." (p. 366)
This loss of self-esteem, loss of soul, is found within our own society as well as outside. Violent eruptions also happen within our culture, particularly when young men go "ballistic"—often in educational settings, and many innocent people are killed. We are clearly not educating the whole person, and thus certain energy builds up that has no proper outlet to express itself. Armstrong observes, though, that those of us raised in Western modernity have had centuries to adapt to these changes and developments. Those from other cultures who encounter Western modernity do not have the luxury of centuries to assimilate these developments and still hold on to their core values.
For those not so inclined to travel through Armstrong's scholarly synthesis, I would recommend her very personal and moving autobiography The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness. Her personal narrative captures the essence of all of her writing, and her journey out of a concrete form of religious expression, into a more secular place, and then to one in which the inherent values within the mythos of religion could be embraced as a path to become more fully human. "In the past, my own practice of religion had diminished me, whereas true faith, I now believe, should make you more human than before." (p. 271)
Around the world the solstice season has traditionally been one that most embraces the mythic side of human consciousness. In the past we have expressed many of these themes in other newsletters. This year we can easily see the hunger for mythos with our own culture with the anticipation of the newest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. While we can't say how the story will touch us, we can say it shows how much we hunger for good mythos, as George Lucas saw many decades before. Whether it is this story, or Karen Armstrong's, may you find a story that brings you meaning and a sense of soul this year.
Editor: Steve Galipeau