Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Can the Christian church authentically embrace the primitive, the poet, the madman and the child in each of us?

We all know about the evacuation of Christian church pews, especially from mainline churches, liberal and both tolerant and accepting of “the other”…regardless of the identity of that ‘other’.

On the other hand, evangelical “Christian” churches continue to show growth in both their revenue and their numbers of attendees. This space has previously documented the co-dependence of evangelicals with the trump administration in the U.S. The ostracizing of “the other” especially those who do not comport with their literal and imperialistic interpretation of scripture, especially of the conditions requisite for “salvation,” is nevertheless apparently not a problem for those inside that ‘circle.’
After a childhood in an evangelical Presbyterian church dominated by an Irish immigrant cloned on the Iain Paisley model of hatred, bigotry and contempt for everything Roman Catholic, especially those whose heritage embraced that faith often for centuries, an interim period of exploration of the “Anglican” tradition and finally service in active ministry in that church, I have experienced considerable fear, repression, intolerance, and blindness both in the manner in which the hierarchy administers that church, and in the theology that  reigns inside their personal and corporate sanctuaries.

Whether the Christian church’s assigning of human sexuality to the vaults of the conception and definition of evil, beginning with Augustine seems hardly relevant today. It is the much broader, more deeply ingrained and seemingly ineradicable relegation of everything unconscious to the “sin” and “sinner” designations that lies at the heart of much of the faith’s intolerance of, and even rejection of total reality (including both the conscious/empirical and the unconscious/psychic), that binds both the ecclesial entity and its clergy and laity to a judgement of “evil” that is literally and metaphorically unsustainable. Never seeking to turn a blind eye, ear and mind to the words of Paul, “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23), we nevertheless believe and here will attempt to defend the notion that “God does not make any junk”….an aphorism that, along with the injunction from John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they many have life, and have it to the full..”

How do we conceptualize “a full life”….in a materialistic, capitalistic, narcissistic, hedonistic and transactional secular culture? And how does that concept comport with, support and sustain a life of spiritual, psychic, intellectual, moral, ethical and physical human existence within the Christian context?

Let’s start with some basics about the nature of the human being borrowed from James Hillman, in his Revisioning Psychology, himself borrowing from depth psychology:

The insights of depth psychology derive from souls in extremis, the sick, suffering, abnormal and fantastic conditions of the psyche. Our souls in private to ourselves, in close communion with another, and even in public exhibit psychopathologies. Each soul at some time or another demonstrates illusions and depressions, overvalued ideas, manic flights and rages, anxieties, compulsions, and perversions. Perhaps our pathology has an intimate connection with our individuality, so that our fear of being what we really are is partly because we fear the psychopathological aspect of individuality. For we are each peculiar; we have symptoms; we fail, and cannot see why we go wrong or even where, despite high hopes and good intentions. We are unable to set matters right, to understand what is taking place or be understood by those who would try. Our minds, feelings, wills and behaviors deviate from normal ways. Our insights are impotent, or none come at all. Our feelings disappear in apathy; we worry and also don’t care. Destruction seeps out of us autonomously and we cannot redeem the broken trusts, hopes, loves.
 The study of lives and the care of souls means above all a prolonged encounter with what destroys and is destroyed, with what is broken and hurts—that is with psychopathology. Between the lines of each biography and in the lines of each face we may read a struggle with alcohol, with suicidal despair, with dreadful anxiety, with lascivious sexual obsessions, cruelties at close quarters, secret hallucinations, or paranoid spiritualisms. Ageing brings loneliness of soul, moments or acute psychic pain, and haunting remembrances as memory disintegrates. The night world in which we dream shows the soul split into antagonisms; night after night we are fearful, aggressive, guilty and failed.
These are the actualities—the concrete mess of psychological existence as it is phenomenologically, subjectively and individually….(p. 55-56)…

And a little later from Hillman:

We suffer, it has been customary to say, because we are either sick or sinful, and the cure of our suffering calls for either science or faith. But in both cases pathologizing* has had negative implications. For both sickness and sin imply that pathologizing is wrong. (p. 57)

We can all recognize the power of the medical and religious models for dealing with “disease” and with “evil” respectively for centuries. Treatment, and/or intervention to “cure” or to “heal” brings evidence, increasingly surfacing especially in the medial culture, that many of the interventions are not “cures” but rather suppression of symptoms. It can be legitimately argued that “spiritual” or religious interventions (take the confession/penitential/penance, the conversion/salvation moment, and even the liturgical re-enactment of the eucharist) while clearly not based on a malign intent, nevertheless often have minimal impact on one’s psychic health, growth and healing.

The specific biographic details of individual anguish, anxiety, and psychic pain while relevant within families, can almost invariably be linked to and demonstrated in acts of excessive power. John Sanford, in his profound and illuminating work, Evil, the Shadow Side of Reality tell us “what is as the core of the archetype of evil: the power drive. Lucifer’s sin was in trying to replace God n the heavenly throne. It was the desire for power that brought about his downfall and led to mankind’s plight. On the psychological level, this destructive power drive can be seen as an archetypal quality of the human ego that wants to set itself up in place of the Self. It is the dark tendency built into our ego structure that tries to establishing the ego’s domination over the whole psyche, rather than allowing the God-given Centre of the psyche to rule. (p. 115)

Superimposing the “rule” and the “power” of the church, the hierarchy, the dogma, the tradition and the accompanying ethics and morality on a laity, regardless of the purity of the motive, nevertheless establishes an authority linked to a deity and a history over the laity. This puts both the “hierarchy” and the laity/clergy in the position of either imposing/judging on the basis of the “power” or of being and becoming the “judge” to enforce that hierarchy. The parallel process of the institutional model and the individual model illustrating and incarnating a similar imprisonment to a “code,” no matter how judiciously, honourably, honestly and integrously administered, relegates the hierarchy to the ‘critical parent/super ego, and the “laity/clergy” as implicitly the errant “id”.

For centuries, the church denied the feminine, as part of the denial of women to positions of responsibility, leadership and authority within the ecclesial structure. More broadly, the very denial, repression and avoidance of the totality of the human condition of “psychic pain” except as diagnosed by the medical/psychiatric fraternity, or punished by the legal codes lies at the core of the institutional (and by extension, the leadership model offered to parishioners) from the theological integration and metaphysic of the institution and by extension to the kitchen tables of the parishioners impoverishes the God and the theology that purports to worship that God.

Jung called the repressed unconscious the Shadow, the dark side of human reality, to which Hillman refers. Whether stored in memory, trauma, rejection, alienation, separation, abandonment or grief, the unrecognized, undiscussed, and “too much” for the capacity of the institution, the church is highly implicit in the social and cultural “critical parenting” of the people in the West. Overtly eager to diagnose, or to accept the diagnosis of either the medical or the legal fraternity of the psychic pain of all people, the church, both directly and inadvertently, complies with the “evil” or “sickness” of individuals. Complicitly enmeshed in the extrinsic/empirical conceptual framework in which the culture operates on a daily/hourly basis, the church turns a deaf ear and a blind eye, and more importantly a patronizing prayer to those “for whom they prey”. And implicit in each of those public and private prayers is the next line, “There but for the grace of God go I!”

However, God is not a shield or a sword against the human proclivity to psychic disorder, pain, trauma or even disablement. And positing the morality of the Christian ethic as an antidote to that psychic trauma is a disservice and a dismemberment of the love of God. If God can and does listen to the most desperate cry of anguish, why can the church not also embrace the totality of that anguish openly, honestly and without recrimination. Suffice it to say, the “corporate image” of upholding the moral and ethical code, in order to “justify” the continuing flow of cash, memberships, growth dependent as it is on “good image” in the base public relations definition of that concept stands in the way.

Walking with the unwanted, the undesired, the undesireable, the “weak” and the outcast is not some hollow ideal. It lies at the heart of the gospel ethic. And yet, holding the hierarchy, and the laity to some kind of “socially and politically correct” standard paradoxically denies that ideal. The church’s co-dependent enmeshment in the corporate culture is both a sin of commission and of omission: commission because it is a conscious and deliberate decision by those in charge and omission because it denies the very terrain (the psychic unconscious, the Shadow) of its purview. As Mary Jo Leddy writes in her explosive spiritual pilgrimage: Say to the Darkness, we Beg to Differ:

Jesus Christ is the liberating grace of our belief that life is stronger that death. He is the promise that we can be free from the deadly patterns within ourselves, within our society and within our church. This was his prophetic message. His life, death and resurrection give weight to his words. (p. 254)

It is not merely incidental to ask, “what is that life that is stronger that death”?
Is it a life filled with gossip, judgement, pointed fingers, wagging tongues and punitive “corrective” attitudes and behaviour that segregate “the other” from the very heart of the community? Is it a life constricted by the performance of rigid folds in the altar linen, and the judgement of the neophyte who has never been taught or learned how to make those folds? Is it a tolerance (or worse the elevation) of a social, corporate and political hierarchy as “models” of spiritual health? Is it the rejection of the refugee, the asylum seeker, the starved, the victim of the plague, the blind eye to the people living on the street, the acceptance of the “sickness” or “evil” description of behaviour and attitudes that do not comport with our personal/organizational/social/political wired fences?

Linking the medical and the evil diagnosis of attitudes and behaviour we don’t like, especially when it is almost invariably based on a single symptom, or even a restricted cluster of symptoms, rather than imprisoning our perspective and our vision of the human being in general, could be considered illustrative of the fantasy world, the daemons, the angels, the snakes, the sirens, and the characters to which our imaginations are familiar, and indeed in debt.

Having reduced our perceptions and our “visions” to the literal, without a grain of the poetic, the connotative, the personifying, we have robbed ourselves of the imagination, clearly one of the gifts of any deity worthy of the name.

If the church is to be fully and honestly and honourably engaged in the “life” of the human soul, as it purports to be, its leadership and its laity could well be more fully engaged in what Michelangelo considered significant, “l’imagine del cuor,” the image of the heart, not merely the primacy of sense perception.

Hillman references the Spaniard Miguelo de Unamuno (b.1864) “who returned to the relationship of hear5t and personified images and explained the necessary interdependence between love and personifying:

In order to love everything, in order to pity everything, human and extra-human, living and non-living, you must feel everything within yourself, you must personalize everything. For everything that it loves, everything that it pities, love personalizes…we only love—that which is like ourselves…it is love itself…that reveal these resemblances to us…Lover personalizes all that it loves> Only by personalizing it can we fall in love with an idea….

He (de Unamuno) sums up saying, “Our feeling of the world, upon which is based on understanding of it, is necessarily anthropomorphic and mythopoeic.” Loving I s a way of knowing, and for loving to know, it must personify. Personifying is thus a way of knowing, especially knowing what is invisible, hidden in the heart.

In this perspective personifying is not a lesser, primitive mode of apprehending but a finer one. It presents in psychological theory the attempt to integrate heart into method and to return abstract thoughts and dead matter to their human shapes. Because personifying is an epistemology of the heart, a thought mode of feeling, we do wrong to judge it as inferior, archaic thinking appropriate only to those allowed emotive speech and affective logic—children, madmen, poets and primitives. (Hillman, Revisioning Psychology, p.15)

Perhaps the church might open its eyes, ears, heart, neurotic mind-set and structure to embrace the “children, madmen, poets and primitives” rather than succumbing to the rigors of the empirical, literal, accounting and legal and politically correct constrictions (persons) currently and most recently in charge. Of course, such a transformation would imitate/incarnate a “resurrection”…the central image of the faith, so some of us still believe.


*pathologizing: the practice of seeing a symptom as indication of a disease or disorder, in mental health, the term is often used to indicate over-diagnosis or the refusal to accept certain behaviour as normal

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