James Hillman notes that the difference between religion and psychology is that religion treats Gods as literal, while psychology treats them as imagined, “formulated ambiguously as metaphors for modes of experience and as numinous borderline persons.”(Hillman RVP: 169*) For those of us raised as “Christians,” we have assimilated a narrative of a perfect being, an incarnated Son of God, who, according to the Easter story, was crucified, died and was buried, and then rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven, as redemption for our sins. Our role, so the story went, is to emulate, imitate and strive to replicate that story in our own lives, as the pre-condition for an eternal life, after our own death.
Resurrection and redemption and forgiveness are the sine qua non’s of the life of the Christian disciple. Evil is the “enemy” to be fought against daily, hourly, minute by minute, as part of the “perfecting” of our existence.
Forgiving the self, in that context, becomes one of the heroic principles, along with forgiving the other. Becoming “better,” “more perfect” and “more acceptable to God” are the guiding beacons in the darkness of what we all know and experience as life on this planet, heaven being the opposite and the ultimate goal.
On the other hand, Jews are much more oriented to the truth of the ugliness, the pain, and the endless darkness that besets human existence. Not steeped in an “epic” journey and mandate toward perfection, it would seem that they are free(er) to deal with the existing realities of their own lives without the spectre of a “judgement” at the end of time, for their pre-existing condition of “sin” with which all Christians are struggling.
For Hillman, the human psyche “predates Christianity, so the return to the soul is a return to a source that predates Christianity: “the merging of psychology and religion is less the confluence of two different streams than the result of their single source- the soul.” (Hillman, RVP 167)
Borrowing from the Greeks, the Christian is steeped in, and expected to live by what has become known as the Apollonian way, and to avoid, defer from, reject the Dionysian way. Apollo, god of sun, light and knowledge, music, prophecy, healing was also known as the god of divine distance making men aware of their guilt, the averter of evil. The god associated with law, constitutions and with the protection of crops and herds, Apollo, clearly embodies many of the attributes to be espoused and incarnated by those calling themselves Christians.
Dionysius, on the other hand, the god of wine, fertility, ritual madness, irrationality and chaos, emotions and instincts, for the Christian mind, is a pattern and a lifestyle to be avoided.
If for Hillman gods are to be considered metaphors, then western culture (primarily Christian) can be initiated into what was heretofore forbidden, the Dionysian voice, perspective, ethos and culture. Dionysius is thereby released from his previous encasement in the human shadow, that unconscious that lies buried out of sight, out of mind and out of respect, as considered by the Christian.
The life of the psyche and soul, from this “enlightened perspective” can be relieved of the repression, suppression of having to exist in a “place” where darkness is relegated to the unconscious, the feared, the repressed, the denied and the avoided. Freed from the shackles of Apollo, and from the denial/avoidance/repression of Dionysius, the human is potentially open to the adventure of living in the “in-between” where repressions and perfections do not rule in an either-or conflict in the human psyche.
Both-and, as the replacement for “either-or” is both freeing and frightening. Hillman’s “soul”, that non-scientific, a-rational living in the realm of imagination and the symbolic. And for Hillman, the patron saint of soul work is the medieval Knight Errant wandering to and fro between and among both the Apollo and the Dionysius realms.
The Knight Errant follows fantasy, riding the vehicle of his emotions, he loiters and pursues the anima with his eros, regarding desire as also holy; and he listens to the deviant discourse of the imagination…For the Knight Errant of psychology is partly picaresque rogue of the underworld, a shadow hero of unknown paternity, who sees through the hierarchies from below. He is a mediator betwixt and between, homeless, of no fixed abode. Or his home, like that of Eros, is in the realm of the daemons, of the metaxy (the middle region), in between, back and forth (Hillman, RVP 161)
It is from this perspective of the Knight Errant that this scribe is seeing the current explosion of the latest volcano of racism, bigotry, hatred, contempt, alienation and venomous conflict. A U.S. congresswoman utters anti-Semitic rhetoric under a cloud of Islamophobia spewing from the White House, adjacent to a spike in White Supremacist rhetoric in places like Charlottesville VA, and dangerous voting patterns in Europe. Experimental psychologists use MRI images to record brain/biological responses to images selected for their ability to invoke “disgust” (thereby enabling experimenters to predict “conservative” (strong brain responses) and “liberal” ideological preferences with considerable accuracy.
So, living between the biological and the symbolic/metaphorical, one sees that we are in part hard wired, and in part, reactive to our deepest fears and anxieties. We live, in our imaginations circling between our apollonian impulses for order, peace, music, aware of our own guilt and open to being purified, and our Dionysian madness, irrationality, chaos, emotions and instincts.
And from both impulses, we derive energy, our stimulation to create something different, without being forged into a cast-iron leg-iron of needing perfection, or even of expecting perfection.
Unleashing, metaphorically, such restrictive, oppressive and condemnatory images as “bad boy”, “thug,” “slut,” “whore,” “sick,” “tyrant,” “superior,” “inferior,” “predator” first from our need to ‘fit’ into a narrative of religion, ideology, or even race, gender or ethnicity, and also from our imaginative constructs of how we belong in the universe, we might be more able to and also more likely to begin to open our psychic vision (soul) to see the other (whatever and whomever that “other” might be in our world view) as less toxic, less dangerous, and less threatening.
In order to move in that direction, we could, and might be able to, remove the bear-trap on our perceptions of ourselves, spewed forth from the projections of those who saw us as unacceptable, unworthy, useless, less than, evil, dangerous and contemptible….based on their own unconscious projections of their deepest fears, anxieties and phobias.
A prominent cliché is that we are not defined by our worst moments, decisions, mistakes or defaults. That may be true; however, neither are they immovable, eradicable, from our memories or from our psyches. How they occurred, how we made decisions of self-sabotage, how we, only much later, uncovered our underlying worries and anticipated rejections based on patterns deeply embedded into our neophyte and malleable young impressions is a path open to each of us. And embarking on that path, from Hillman’s perspective, is not to overturn our past, nor to smash everything we were offered in our formative development, including our Christian or Jewish or Muslim faiths, or even our atheism or agnosticism.
Transcending the prisons, the repressions, the constrictions, the forbidden’s and the unforgiven’s of our early lives, may not depend on freeing our minds/psyches/souls from Apollo/Dionysius. It may have a different ethnic or religious metaphysic and a different set of holy writ from that of Christians. Nevertheless, remaining trapped in a locked cage of repressed stereotypes, including our own identities, seems like an ideal prescription for continued and even mounting hatreds.
Tribes, while providing security and safety, along with tradition, menus, rituals and metaphors (gods), also have a way of injecting serum of contempt, bigotry, hubris and savagery. Whether this serum is to ward of prospective enemies or not, we live on an increasingly threatened planet, regardless of our ethnicity, our geography, religion or specific fears. And in order to begin the urgent process of addressing our shared, collective and imminent dangers, we have to open to “other” ways of moving toward a picture that includes health, fairness, justice and a measure of equality for each of our children and grandchildren.
That picture cannot be encased in leg-irons of any race, ethnicity, religion, or ideology….and moving out of our unique and “special” identity encasements (entombments) might just forecast a kind of planetary “resurrection” that transcends every epoch of history.
*RVP: Re-visioning Psychology