The process of seriously coming to grips with the Judaeo-Christian spiritual core proceeded for me by stages. This piece represents some advances. I think the problem for me was that I did not want to confront holy mother the church and tell her in her own kitchen that she was wrong. But by ’94 I was beginning to realize the inevitability of that task. This was simply because in the domain of public discourse, she “owns” the Bible. If I was going to use it, I would have to take it away from her. I think this is how Martin Luther felt as he approached the door of the Cathedral at Wittenberg to post his theses.
and the Recovery of the Unconscious
“…now, if you obey my voice and hold fast to
my covenant, you of all the nations shall be my
very own, for all the earth is mine.”
“See, the days are coming – it is Yahweh who
speaks – when I will make a new covenant with the
House of Israel (and the House of Judah), but not
a covenant like the one I made with their ancestors…
Deep within them I will plant my Law, writing it on
their hearts.” Jeremiah 31, 31.
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood which
will be poured out for you.” Luke 22, 20.
There is a global sorting of meaning-systems going on today. Systems and sub-system, semi-systems and anti-systems, demagogues and rogues, saints and mystics are all offering their wares in a multi-ring information circus whose outcome is anybody’s guess. I search for a pattern in this situation.
It seems reasonable to suggest that there are five major systems defining the field: Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and the Judaeo-Christian tradition. I submit that there are important differences among these systems and drawing them out is useful in moving towards a synthesis. So the question for the moment is: what is the Judaeo-Christian contribution?
I am proposing that the heart of the Bible’s unique contribution to the spirituality of the world is the radical balance between spirit and matter that is found in the kerygma-metanoia of the resurrection of Jesus. This balance is present in the situation today in many forms, including the distinction between consciousness and the unconscious in modern western psychology.
This proposal obviously requires some explanation.
Let us start with the observation that biblical spirituality is historical and developmental. That is to say, the Bible regards time as the ongoing process of completion of the relationship of the human being with its source. In this perspective time is not some sort of ontological mistake, a fall from grace that we must escape from in order to find fulfillment, but rather an ontological gift, the vehicle of our being and hence of grace itself. In the Bible the time-sequenced life of the race as well as the individual is a learning process.
In this frame, even though believers can become quite violent about it, “heresy” is not a bad thing, but a good thing. It is precisely through heresy that this system continues to grow and work out its destiny. In spite of ecclesiastical pronouncements to the contrary, this seems to be a rather obvious reading of history. If Martin Luther had not been born, we would have had to invent him.
This also means that every privileged moment in the history of the Judaeo-Christian tradition (e.g., Abraham’s departure from Ur, Moses on Mt. Sinai, the resurrection of Jesus) is actually a piece of unfinished business. They are all only the next step in the ongoing process and need to be understood in that context.
The Bible is also intrinsically a “secular” spirituality. That is to say, there are actually no “secular” pursuits in the Bible. There is only life to be lived. Everything that is good comes from god. So flowers are sacred, Van Gogh and Mozart were inspired, and science is the extension of scripture.
Now, if these elements are indeed at the core of Judaeo-Christian spirituality, then institutional religion is not its fullest expression. I submit that the Bible fully grasps that. There is always an unresolved tension between the core of the message and its popular manifestations.
In fact the motor that drives the historicity of biblical spirituality is precisely this tension between essence and manifestation. The tension in Israelite times was between the prophets and the kings. The tension in the christian era has been between the heretics and mystics on one side and the ecclesiastics on the other. I believe “hardness of heart” is a phrase that crops up in the Bible’s description of this tension. Perhaps a more useful concept that carries the same import is that of ego.
The Bible is only clear on the principle of this tension. Its narrative ends about two thousand years ago. Now we have to fill in the details by the exercise of rational mind, the enterprise we call science. We continue the narrative through disciplines such as history, archaeology, linguistics etc. For the developmental aspect we turn to the work of people such as Jean Piaget, Eric Erickson, Abraham Maslow, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, Elaine Pagels, Robert Bellah, Ken Wilber and others. This work leads us in turn to some thoughts about the resurrection of Jesus and the question of precision in balancing spirit and matter.
But before we take up this point, let us dwell for a moment on the distinctiveness of biblical spirituality. It is not the only way to view things. There are at least three others.
One is a monism according to which only spirit is real, time is merely an idea, and matter (including the body) is an illusion. This is Vedantic Hinduism, and it is very much alive today, even in the west, as in the work of Sri Mahesh Maharishi and his disciple Deepak Chopra.
Another monism is that of the gnostics and the Hermetic tradition in which only a certain imagination-driven emotional experience is real, and not the body in its wholeness. This remarkable psychosomatic option is sometimes called “the way of ascent” and it can produce dramatic physical and emotional results. The Cathari did not feel pain when they were burned at the stake. (This only increased the terror of the Christians who burned them.) And Giordano Bruno laughed scornfully at the pious sentiments of the clerics who led him to his death. This option seeks to escape from the body as source of pain and sense of limitation.
A third monism is our old friend hedonism-materialism-positivism, in which only the body is its gross anatomical functions is real, and there is nothing real that cannot be touched or counted.
Thus, among the fundamental options for spiritual paradigm there are only a variety of monisms on the one hand and systems that take a “middle way” on the other: spirit is fully real, matter is fully real and the human experience is to negotiate between the two.
Furthermore, among the systems of the middle way there is an issue of what I would call precision in the relationship between spirit and matter. If “truth stands in the middle” then it must be said in regard to spirit and matter that this middle is a very fine line that seekers often lose in their explorations of the inner self.
When one starts to have success in introspection and gain access to the content of the unconscious, there is an inclination to go into a trance that abandons matter. This is because the body is a storehouse of memories that cause pain and early introspection seeks to avoid them. It takes a mature ego to maintain the balance that Jelaluddin Rumi described in the observation, “The cure for the pain is in the pain.”
Let us now turn from principles to events.
Something happened in the middle east during the reign of Caesar that has left an indelible mark on world civilization. It was announced (kerygma) as a person who lived in the environs of Jerusalem, made certain statements, ran afoul of the civil powers, was executed and returned bodily to life. This was never represented as myth, but as a series of historical events. For many people it was an unacceptable and ridiculous account, but for enough people it was an account that produced a transformation in their definition of themselves that it continued to spread, eventually converted the emperor, and in 300 years became the established religion.
Now, in the twentieth century there are shelves full of excellently-selling theories as to just what is wrong with that story. And in contemporary christianity there is an agonizing and urbane agnosticism that claims it cannot find “the historical Jesus.” My own opinion is that if you actually live in your body, then the historical Jesus is easy enough to find, and if things happened pretty much as simply and directly as the gospels tell them, then those events actually fit very nicely into an over-arching theory of the relation between spirit and matter that does not in any of its main features sharply conflict with Lao Tzu, Shakyamuni, or Shankar Acharya. In addition, these events contribute an element of precision to the matter-spirit relationship which can help us all sort out what is whole and what is not. They make body-involvement in spiritual pursuit inescapable.
Let us leave aside the ontology for a moment. Psychodynamically, I think the resurrection works this way: (1) A network of intimate personal relationships forms in which full, normal body contact is completely verified. (2) A very public death occurs (“and there came forth blood and water”). (3) A bodily experience occurs after the death that is perceptually identical with the bodily experiences of companionship before the death. (4) A resulting shift of inner-outer perceptual standards occurs that the New Testament called metanoia and which we can now call either a “shift of personality structure” or after Wilber “a stage-specific transformation” as in the following:
The key element to watch in all this is the “shift in inner-outer perceptual standards.” Another way to describe this development is to call it a change in the boundary between consciousness and the unconscious in the human psyche. The unconscious becomes more accessible. Inner awareness becomes suddenly safer. Introspective competence takes a great leap forward.
Classical Buddhism has much to say about introspective competence. For example, Chogyam Trungpa comments: “The ignorance or stupidity of the animal realm … is ignorance and stupidity in the sense that you do not see the environment around you, but you only see your goal and only the means to achieve that goal, and you invent all kinds of excuses to prove that you are doing the right thing.” This attitude is also “extremely stubborn, but this stubbornness can be sophisticated as well as quite skillful and ingenious, but without a sense of humor.” [The Myth of Freedom, 34.]
This brings us to step (5) in the scenario of christianity: the announcement of the resurrection produces a sudden increase in introspective competence. It opens people up to parts of themselves that were previously inaccessible. This simply means that it perforated the boundary between the (conscious) ego and the unconscious.
Consider Robert Bellah’s comment:
And so, socially, things got out of control. And so, politically, a new concern for mechanisms of control started to arise. Augustine brought this concern to full flower. Around the year 400 the institutional formula for control reached maturity. It included ritual, a bureaucracy and a theory of spiritual reality that divided the world into two distinct parts: “nature” on the one hand and “grace” on the other.
That is, the ego and the unconscious are now pre-scientifically labeled and a war between them is identified. The language actually begins with Paul. He had an experience of metanoia that was clinically replete with classic manifestations. He aggressively acted out against Christians, was physically knocked off his horse by a vision, became behaviorally blind, and then had “scales fall from his eyes”.
And in the class passage in Romans 7 he ruminates on his compulsions. The name he gives to the ego is “grace” and the name he gives to the unconscious is “sin”: “When I act against my will, then it is not my true self doing it, but sin which lives in me.” Carl Rogers could have done wonders for Paul.
By the time we arrive at the duel between Augustine and Pelagius for the soul of christianity 400 years later, we find the proponent of unalterable bodily and unconscious impulses (the weak ego position) gaining the clear victory. In a brilliant presentation that deserves to be read and re-read, Elaine Pagels (Adam, Eve and the Serpent) asks the question, “Why would anyone choose to feel guilty?”
I think the answer is in developmental psychology. Only a modern ego could even ask Pagels’ question. Augustine and those he spoke for did not experience guilt as a “choice.” It was a given. That is how a lesser-developed ego handles the split-off elements of the self that lie in the unconscious. It is simply subject to them. It must defend. We must not be thrown off by Augustine’s intellectual brilliance. Emotionally he was not a strong person.
So, Christianity set up a regime of ritual, inquisition and guilt to handle the developmental task of further strengthening the ego. In this regime, what we now call the ego was called “grace”, and what we now call the repressed elements of the unconscious was called “sin.” The full story of the evolution of this regime is fascinating and long, but at this time we only need to note two points about it.
The first is, as Pagels puts it, “The eventual triumph of Augustine’s theology required the capitulation of all who held to the classical proclamation concerning human freedom, once so widely regarded as the heart of the Christian gospel.” [AAS, 126.] Part of this capitulation was that the kerygma-metanoia of the resurrection of Jesus was changed from a bodily event into an intellectual event. Christianity cultivated, not the experience of the resurrection, but the idea of the resurrection.
We should further note that this was not a full return to mythic projections. True-life defense mechanisms can be exquisitely accurate and subtle. It was a return “half-way” to myth, that is from bodily experience to “fact”, that is an assertion processed only by the mind. In the fifth century, Christianity retreated into its head.
The second point is that while this retreat from wholeness seems like a step back in consciousness, and as a historical phenomenon was very ugly in many respects, it was also successful. The ego did grow stronger.
This bring us — with the intervening steps of fifteen hundred years — to now: a global meaning-quest in a situation of confusion as widespread as the confusion of the Mediterraenean world in which the kerygma-metanoia of Jesus’ resurrection became, for a while, the dominant force. In the present situation we have the same monisms and various forms of the middle way as then, and we also have the “classical proclamation of freedom once so widely regarded as the heart of the Christian gospel.”
But there are two huge differences between today’s confusion and the one 1500 years ago. The good news is that our socially established command of reason has given us stronger egos. We are not as easily prey to guilt and projection. The bad news is that “the Christian gospel” has been frozen into a laminated thought-form and is very difficult to access as a full-body experience.
Therefore I am suggesting that the re-making of history today must come from the same source that produced it two thousand years ago. Now that we have more mature ego-structures to work with, more flexible institutions of social control to rely on, and a vastly more sophisticated body of knowledge than what Europe had in the time of Augustine, it might be helpful to re-examine the kerygma-metanoia of the events surrounding the life and death of Jesus.
We can of course access this material without joining any church, because churches are committed to the Augustinian paradigm of control.
This access will more likely take the form of an open-ended conversation among compassionate problem-solvers. This conversation must include an encounter between the monisms and the systems of the middle way. We have grown into the freedom to conduct it as a dialogue and not a crusade over a long period of time. The contribution of biblical spirituality is as much the structure of the encounter as any content. As far as I can tell, among the spiritual systems of the world, the one we call biblical most consistently cultivates the strength of ego that prefers to stay in time and in our bodies while we work through the pain of recovering the lost elements of self that lie in the unconscious part of our psyches.
The goal of the conversation is a compassion and integration that I think Shunryu Suzuki Roshi described this way: “Because you think you have body or mind, you have lonely feelings, but when you realize that everything is just a flashing into the vast universe, you become very strong and your existence becomes very meaningful.” [Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 103.]