Friday, April 19, 2024 #43

 The question of bridging the extremes, has a plethora of applications, from the most mundane and trite, (jam or peanut butter), to the more challenging intellectual questions, including those of the divide between science (scientific thought, methodology, rationalism, empiricism) and even history. In the historic ‘search for’ and multiple attempts to ‘find’ and explain, relate to and live in relationship with God, in reading a history of ideas and the theologies that they birthed and struggled to sustain, we find the contenders of ‘science/math’ on the one hand and history on another. As one who has been reading some of James Hillman’s work in archetypal psychology, the name of Giambattista Vico, (1668-1774), professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples, is referenced multiple times by Hillman.

Karen Armstrong, in her incisively brilliant work, The Case for God, we read this about Vico:

(Vico) argued that the historical method was a reliable as the scientific but rested on a different intellectual foundation. The study of rhetoric showed that it was just as important to know who as philosopher was addressing and to understand the context of his discourse as to master its content. Mathematics was crucial to the new science; it claimed to yield clear and distinct results that could be applied to all fields of study. But mathematics, Vico argued, was essentially a game that had been devised and controlled by human beings. If you applied the mathematical method to material that was separate from the human intellect-to cosmology, for instance- there was not the same ‘fit’. Because nature operated independently of us, we could not understand it as intimately as something that we had created ourselves. But we could know history in this way, because our civilisations were human artifacts. So why did modern philosophers expend all their energies on the ‘study of the world of nature, which, since God made it, he alone knows? …The study of history depended on what Pascal had called the ‘heart.’ Instead of logical, deductive thought, Vico pointed out, the historian had to use his imagination (fantasia) and enter empathically into the world of the past. When a historian studies the past, he had to turn within, to recollect the phases of his own development, and this sympathetically reconstruct the stages of the evolution of a particular culture. By imagining its metaphors and imagery, he discovered the preconceptions that drew society together, ‘a judgement without reflection, universally felt by an entire group, an entire people, a whole nation.’ By this process of introspection, the historian was able to grasp an internal, integrating principle that enabled him to appreciate the uniqueness of each civilization. Truths were not absolute; what was true in one culture was not so for another; symbols that worked for one people would not speak to others. We understand the rich variety of human nature only when we learn to enter imaginatively and compassionately into the context in which a proposition or doctrine is developed…Vico seemed to sense that a gap had opened between science and the humanities that had not existed before. The scientific method taught the observer to be detached from what he was investigating, because it was essential to science that the result of an experiment be the same, whoever performed it. Objective truth aspires to be independent of historical context and is assumed to be the same in any period or culture. Such an approach tends to canonize the present, so that we project what we believe and find credible back onto the past or onto a civilization whose symbols and presuppositions might be different from our own. Vico referred to this uncritical assessment of alien societies and remote historical periods as the ‘conceit’ of scholars or rulers: ‘It is another property of the human mind that wherever men can form no idea of distant or unknown things they judge them by what is familiar and at hand.’ (Vico, Scienza nuova, p. 122)

(Armstrong continues):

Vico had put his finger on an important point. The scientific method has dealt brilliantly with objects but is less cogent when applied to people or the arts. It is not competent to assess religion, which is inseparable from the complex human beings who practice it and, like the arts, cultivates a perception based on imagination and empathy. A scientist will first form a theory and then seek to prove it experimentally; religion works the other way around, and its insights come from practical experience. Where science is concerned with facts, religious truth is symbolic and its symbols will vary according to context; they will change as society changes, and the reason for these changes must be understood. Like the arts, religion is transformative. Where the scientist is supposed to remain detached from the object of his investigation, a religious person must be changed by the encounter with the symbols of his or her faith—in rather the same way as one’s outlook can be permanently transformed by the contemplation of a great painting. (Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, pps: 216-217-218)

Of course, Vico thought and wrote long before we knew anything about quantum physics, neuroscience, behaviourism, classical conditioning, and the seeding and development of something called psychology, including Freud, Jung, and the post-Jungians. Not only has the human race been bombarded with, and even nearly drowned by, a constant, relentless wave of mathematically-scientifically-based technology. From the perspective of Vico’s eighteenth century, all of this scientific eruption would have been overwhelming. Indeed, even today, for many, the totality of the math-science-digital revolution, is overwhelming. And while it may seem that the arts and religion, separately and differently and for different reasons, are fixated on the ‘rear-view mirror’ as it were, in focusing on the past, at the expense of either the present or the future, nothing could be further from the truth. Imitation, mixed discerningly and creatively with new materials, techniques, tools and the very different perspectives of both the arts and theology in this twenty-first century, comprises a kind of template of both integration and re-inventing. We not only seek to know from our ‘ancestors’ (genetically, ethnically, culturally, religiously, politically and philosophically) we also bring to any search into our ancestors, our unique perspective. One notable example of this process, in the study of theology comes from the Jesus Seminar. A group of contemporary scholars, from different disciplines and faith traditions (spanning the Christian broadband) pored over the text of the gospels, with a view to attempting to discern the ‘authentic’ and the ‘historic’ Jesus. One of their more well know contributions is a text displaying different shades of black, pink and red, depending on their consensus that Jesus actually uttered various words that were originally attributed to him in the original text. Only the pure ‘red’ qualified, from their shared perspective, as likely.

In the religious community, as could be expected, many were not merely put off by this scholarship, in search of the authentic and historic Jesus. Some argued that such an approach was beneath the dignity, honour, respect and reverence of the holy writ, and especially of the ‘Saviour’ of the human race. Others argued that the process reduced a heroic and mythic Son of God to a mere object of human intellect, something deemed not merely irreverential, but heretical. Only the literal words were to be considered both original and authentic, and all of them qualified, based on the perception and belief systems of those opponents. The tension between academic/scientific/linguistic/historic/archeological/ processes, with their ‘objectivity’ and the ‘total commitment of what might be called ‘blind faith’ persists in many forms and fora, and lingers as a more complex than a reconciling influence among many ‘believers.’

A similar tension persists between religion and psychology, while at the same time, everyone can agree that the two are so overlapping as to be almost two circles with a small area of separation between. ‘To know oneself’ is a revered dictum of philosophy that is compatible with most religious and faith communities. How the process of self-awareness, consciousness, acknowledgment of our part in every encounter, the perceptions that grow from our experiences, including our formal education, whether or not that process is sponsored by a religious institution, unfolds, their mutually generative and life-giving aspects reinforce each other. To ‘give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God, what belongs to God,’ (Mark 21;22) is another religious mantra for some. ‘Pay your taxes but give yourself to Jesus’ is a simple translation for many. (The American ‘separation of church and state’ is another application of this epithet.)

And, floating in and through our cultural, academic, social, political, legal and even medical ethos are snippets of ‘wisdom’ that come from various sources, among them the Christian scripture. The question of how they are interpreted, however, has been both enlightening and divisive at the same time. A literal, empirical, and rigidly dogmatic (what did the authors mean), describes one approach, while another remains open to a more ‘metaphoric, symbolic, visionary, and abstract, even ambiguous perspective. And this tension is unlikely to be resolved soon. Indeed, the energy both engendered and celebrated in any meeting of the two perspectives has the potential of enlightening both sides, as well as turning off one or both. The Roman church has a section of its hierarchy in the Vatican dedicated to the preservation and discipline of the doctrine of the church. And that discipline is not merely taught to both laity and priests; it has considerable weight in the institutional perspective and tolerance or lack thereof, of individuals who might deviate from its teachings. A similar kind of discipline, based on different expectations, comes with the scientific, empirical, approach, and is enshrined in the academic qualifications for doctoral studies. And while both ‘religion’ and ‘theology’ have been academic studies along with science, medicine and the law for centuries, the scientific, historic and philosophic modalities have prevailed. Poetry, symbols, and the imagination, at least in the two seminaries of my experience, were low on the radar of both coffee-shop conversation and lecture hall as well as homiletics classes and homilies themselves. Adhering to the text, and presenting a pastoral, friendly, comfortable, and especially supportive identity, whether in the sanctuary or the emergency room, or in the hospice, without challenging the perceptions, beliefs, attitudes or expectations of the ‘patient/client/lay person’ offered much in the way of ‘solace,’ and potential ‘relief’ of stress, especially in and through the penitential.

It is to the poets, the visionaries, and the iconoclasts that we owe much of the energy in the examination of the tension between the ‘literal and empirical’ on the one hand the symbolic, metaphoric, mythic, ephemeral, ineffable and the imaginative on the other. Not that those operating in the scientific fields have no imagination, and do not deploy images in their scholarship and their work; they do. It is the significance, and the relevance of those images, and how they are regarded, by those living and operating in a scientific/academic/medical/legal/mathematical/technological venue, and by those living and operating from a theological, religious, spiritual modality that is different.

And psychology, as it embraces both sides of this divide, in the human psyche, has struggled with what some have called a schizophrenic perspective. On the one hand, it has deferred to statistical and diagnostic imperatives, that relegate a plethora of ‘mental’ conditions to predictive and prescriptive diagnosis and medication/treatment. On the other, it has borrowed, infrequently, from various images, as it attempts to communicate its truths and meanings and ‘help’ to the many clients who access its services. Aligning itself closely with the medical and later the psychiatric fraternities/sororities, psychology, as perceived by men and women including James Hillman, have come to view that alignment as damaging both to the profession and to the clients it attempts to serve.

The central approach, therapy, more recently adduced to what many call “CBT” (Cognitive, Behavioural Therapy). Having its roots in B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning theory, (stimulus, response, then reinforcement of response), and in Aaron Beck’s naming of what he called ‘cognitive distortions’ in the verbalized thoughts of his clients, the process has been disseminated to most corners of North America. There is an implicit set of assumptions in many of the contemporary approaches to therapy. One is that whatever is the ‘pain’ can be alleviated, moderated, medicated, or changed whether through ‘talk,’ ‘thought,’ neurolinguistic approaches, or, if necessary, prescription medications. Another is that more and more ‘pains’ have become stuffed into the diagnostic ‘compendium’ including one of the more bizarre, grief, at the death of a loved one.

There is a general and widespread consensus among most sentient and thinking men and women, that pain, in various forms, is a constant of all human existence. The multiple approaches, scientific, psychiatric, Gestalt, Psychodrama, CBT, and the various ‘talk’ therapies, all have their place, although finding which approach best serves each individual is akin to the warning on many new drugs: ‘avoid if you are allergic to this medication’….how can one know if one is allergic to a medication with actually ‘taking’ it?

It is his valiant, somewhat cheeky, somewhat pretentious, and certainly historically rooted, (if not in the literal, scientific, empirical modality) mind-set of James Hillman that his writing has given birth to what he (and his co-envisioners) dubbed archetypal psychology, to which we have come. And this ‘coming’ to the approach has been somewhat parallel, although much diluted, to Hillman’s own path: literature, the poets, Trinity College Dublin, the Sorbonne, Zurich and the Jung Institute…and his irrepressible imagination, creativity and pushing the envelope, in whatever situation he found himself in. Of Jewish background, fascinated by the underwater sea creatures under the boardwalk in Atlantic City where his parents operated a hotel during his younger years, a stint in the military, serving blinded war veterans eventually embodied both American and European ‘instincts. As ‘knight errant’  insatiable, almost incorrigible, and certainly irascible,  this deep thinker, thrice married, and the target of both antisemitic and politically vindictive attacks that saw him removed from the Director of Studies of the Jungian Institute in Zurich, has given us an archive of challenging precepts, concepts, notions, images and the energy of continual questioning of whatever we find in the symptom of the moment. And his purpose, as attested to by some of his disciplines like Thomas Moore, is to elevate the purpose and processes of psychology by linking it back to is original meaning, the care of the soul (through the imagination). Taking therapy out of the office and handing it back to ordinary men and women, all of whom are both capable of and accessible to the principles that he articulates. We are, in his view, especially at moments of crises, being ‘held’ or ‘taken over’ or ‘psychically inhabited’ by mythic voices from our shared cultural, historical narratives.

In his Re-Visioning Psychology, James Hillman picks up on Vico’s thought:

The term soul-making comes from the Romantic poets. We find the idea in William Blake’s Vala, but it was John Keats who clarified the phrase in a letter to his brother: ‘Call the world if you please, ‘The vale of Soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world…From this perspective,  the human adventure is a wandering through the vale of the world for the sake of making soul. Our life is psychological, and the purpose of life is to make psyche out of it, to find connections between life and soul….By soul, I mean, first of all a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint toward things rather than a thing itself. This perspective is reflective; it mediates events and makes differences between ourselves and everything that happens. Between us and events, between the doer and the deed, there is a reflective moment—and soul-making means differentiating this middle ground…Though I cannot identify soul with anything else, I also can never grasp it by itself apart from other things, perhaps because it is like a reflection in a flowing mirror, or like the moon which mediates only borrowed light….First, ‘soul’ refers to the deepening of events into experiences; second, the significance soul makes possible, whether in love or in religious concern, derives from its special relation with death. And third, by ‘soul’ I mean the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflexive speculation, dream, image and fantasy—that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical….Everything we know and feel and every statement we make are all fantasy-based, that is, they derive from psychic images. These are not merely the flotsam of memory, the reproduction of perceptions, rearranged leftovers from the input of our lives….Following Jung, I use the word ‘fantasy-image in the poetic sense, considering images to be the basic givens of psychic life, self-originating, inventive, spontaneous, complete and organized in archetypal patterns. Fantasy-images are both the raw materials and finished products of psyche, and they are the privileged mode of access to knowledge of soul. Nothing is more primary….Here I am suggesting both a poetic basis of mind and a psychology that starts neither in the physiology of the brain, the structure of language, the organization of society, nor the analysis of behavior, but in the process of the imagination. By calling upon Jung to begin with, I am partly acknowledging the fundamental debt that archetypal psychology owes him. He is the immediate ancestor in a long line that stretches back through Freud, Dilthey, Coleridge, Schelling, Vico, Ficino, Plotinus and Plato to Heraclitus….(Re-Visioning Psychology, pps.xv, xvi, xvii)

Hillman is neither ‘invading’ theology nor is he complicit in segregating psychology from theology. Are there some courageous, creative, imaginative and sentient theologians (aside from Thomas Moore and David Miller) who might ‘see’ the validity of Hillman’s work as an enhancement to the work of the theological enterprise? Answers to that question will only appear in the return of the bodies to the pews they have left.

Is the new frontier, not only the elimination of apartheid, and all forms of racism, and the elimination of military conflict and all forms of imperialism, perhaps the reduction of the psychic imperialism of the scientific, literal, empirical, mathematical-technological and the infusion of an imaginative, mythic, mysterious, ambiguous, and somewhat elusive, yet flowing, image of the human psyche (universally) that begins to ‘perceive’ the commonalities we all share in a new and life-giving perspective? I do ‘imagine’ that both Mandela and Gandhi would be among the pioneers struggling with such an innovative and healing perspective.


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