It’s a bad day when people speak of their superiors
with a contempt they haven’t earned,
and it’s a sorry thing when certain other people
don’t defend the great dead ones
who have opened up the world before them.
— Tony Hoagland, “Lawrence”
My young friend Pete, a farmer and a serious student of plant medicine, tells me that – according to Matthew Wood, Master Herbalist, whom he’s been learning from – the English language underwent a historical change that rendered it good for “commercial” uses but no good for conveying spiritual experience or reality. This interesting information, oversimplified in the form I received it, reminded me it’s not our fault that by and large the “invisibles” of soul and spirit,were dropped from everyday discourse and from what we think of as constituents of the “real world.” It has come to seem right that those obscure matters once formulated into religious dogma have ended up in the dustbin of history’s ideas.
Having had our reality reduced to the material, physical and empirically verifiable, we have been left to grope our way around in a world completely unlike the world of our ancestors, which always had been animated and sustained by a larger, invisible world existing behind this one.
This fact makes a continual frustration to me. Since I depend, for my fragile hold on sanity, on my connection to spiritual reality, I am forced to inhabit an outsider identity I never asked for or wanted. Over and over I run up against the solid impenetrable wall of peoples’ materialism, their adamant rationalism, their mainstream CNN-NPR-fed limited range of ideas and thoughts. When I attempt to flush out what I see as religiophobia through my writing, what I am going after is this complacent occupation of the one, flat, dispirited reality that excludes imagination, creative vision and thought from its reckoning. From long experience, I know that the problem goes much deeper than suspicion of established religion; it is fear of larger being, of everything beyond the control of the ego.
In short, religiophobia is fear of growing in consciousness, which Dr. C.G. Jung, most prominently, saw as the only way humanity might avoid “universal genocide.” I don’t know about you, but to me the possibility of that catastrophic end seems to be getting closer daily in these unhinged times we live in.
We cannot bring back collective myths that have been outgrown; when they no longer suit the new reality, they have to go, or be further adapted to accommodate the changed reality. We cannot blame people for the damaging blind spots in our understanding that render us less and less capable of real thought, or politics, or of democratic discourse. When, increasingly,human beings are required to make our lives in an environment less made for human beings, more suited to machines or robots. We are being required to participate in the destruction of humanity, to cooperate in our own demise. This process is occurring without much resistance to it, due to the loss of a means of connecting with the only aspect of a human being that cannot be turned into a robot; this is the soul or psyche or imagination or creative spirit or the Unconscious.
Correction: the means to connect is not lost, but it is so well hidden, so much less available to the average person than information about where to buy a great mass produced junk food hamburger or which soft drink or software to prefer, or Donald Trump’s most recent outrageous act or tweet, that for most people it is off the radar of their consciousness; it may as well not exist. Not to mention the fact that the connection to the real invisibles is not convenient, not pain-free, will not make you slimmer or richer and in fact might bring with it the risk of (at least relative) material impoverishment.
In order to suggest a means whereby a significant number of people might regain access to this most reliable and potent opposition to the robotization of all human life, I will not suggest people head for the closest psychoanalyst, though everything I am speaking about is there in Dr. Jung’s work. He indeed knew the way to regain that lost, revivifying connection to the “invisibles,” to the mythic layer in the human psyche, to the lost art – articulated in religions – that made life intelligible or meaningful to humans. For example, I have been reading Jung’s ideas about the Trinity, that most centrally defining Christian dogma, and one most insulting to the modern skeptical intelligence. As metaphor, the Trinity concept opens up; it can be understood as meaningful, dynamic and energizing.
To regain access to the soul, I am thinking of a way open to all, such as Joseph Campbell’s famous advice to “Follow your bliss.” If we began to pay unambivalent attention to our deeper longings and yearnings, rather than instantly debunking them or never even entertaining them at all, we might stand a chance in this race against the extinction headed towards us on multiple fronts, the one most concerning me being the demise of our humanity.
The particular longing – and I willspeak metaphorically, because this is how my thinking works – that comes to me is the longing for the Father. This longing tends to get overshadowed by the greater attention given on the popular level, since the 70’s, to the Great Mother, Mother Earth, etc. Rightly so, since the Mother is so connected to Nature and to the threatened planet. The fact that, since patriarchy was discredited, longing for the Father has been so declasse, so inadmissible, does not make it disappear; the longing is existent as archetype, inherent in the souls of human beings.
Even in an individual who had a very disappointing relationship with the personal father, or an abusive one, the longing to venerate, to be devoted to, to greatly admire some person greater or more virtuous than oneself is retained. On the negative, unconscious end of the spectrum, this longing leads to excessive patriotism, nationalism, militarism and such dangers. On the positive end, it leads to conscious love for those through whose exemplary humanity, shines an archetypal, “divine” quality that is inspirational for others.
In light of this longing to feel devotion for a human “father,” it is interesting to look at our national leadership. Since the longing is associated with patriarchy, therefore unacceptable, the leaders we elect – all of them pretenders in one way or another – increasingly are either smart boys playing off our (the educated public’s) need to have someone “smarter than myself” in the White House, or actors who summon the patriarchal image – now completely fake – none of whom are admirable, venerable or truly virtuous human beings. We see the perfection of this in our new President, the epitome of the clown carrying all of our shadow hatred for the Father for whom we dare not admit our longing.
Austrian writer Stefan Zweig In his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, in many ways a consummate work of veneration for art and artists in a bygone time, wrote of the pre-WWI literary world of Europe, of poets Valery, Verhaeren, Rilke and others: “How elevating for us young people was the presence of these men, true to themselves, exemplary servitors and custodians of the language, whose sole devotion was to the ringing word, not the word of the moment and of the newspaper but proper to the lasting and the everlasting.”
I recall my second and final venture, when I was well into my forties, into post-graduate education. I was considering going for a degree in English literature at SUNY Albany where, as an adjunct in the SUNY system, I could attend for free one class per semester. At the time, though I’d long felt I’d had enough “higher education,” it seemed an offer I could not refuse. The course in 19th century American literature was taught by a woman I liked, and I was having a great time reading classics I’d missed in my undergraduate education, including the Slave Narrative of Frederick Douglass, Melville’s Benito Cereno, Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Emerson and Thoreau. The feminist slant did not really bother me until we were reading Walden; I found Thoreau inspirational, but in each class, instead of discussing Thoreau’s observations and ideas, his language and his Transcendentalist place in American lit, we ‘deconstructed.’ Instead of entering the great encouraging spirit of the work, we were told his mother did his laundry, and that his life was one of privilege compared to the Irish workers in Concord. Admiration, though not forbidden, was perhaps supposed to be assumed (i.e., otherwise why would Thoreau be included in the curriculum) and its expression to be on our private time, not during class time. Not that I would have wanted to hear everyone effuse about their private experience, but I could not help wonder about the effect of this iconoclastic approach on the younger students, more impressionable and degree-oriented than myself.
The refusal to venerate “those who were truly great”and to cherish the ideal of virtue is closely connected with the religiophobia, or fear of inwardness, that is so disabling on the secular left. Psychologically, the debasement of the father is traceable back to deep disappointments with personal fathers; in a society in which Daddy goes unheroically and inexplicably (to the small child) off to work “at the office,” more absent than present in the day-to-day lives of his children during their earliest years when the parental “gods” get internalized, the best defense against the hurt of abandonment is contempt. The same effect, in relation to working Moms, may account for Hillary’s low popularity even among groups that should favor her.
The serious danger comes from the fact that the longing remains; repressed in the unconscious, the longing for the father, for religious meaning, for an ontological hierarchy, for the heady, passionate feeling of a devoted heart becomes twisted and demonic. It leads to Donald Trump, but equally to his predecessors from whom we have asked so little in our diminished capacity for admiration and for reverence. Partly this is due to the mass media Pied Pipering us off down a path of fake transcendence. But partly we cooperate, our wills servile, in refusing our own longing for devotion and for persons who are, in a real sense, “above us.” Our “superiors” speak to the invisibles (“the lasting and the everlasting”) of our nature because of their exemplary humanity, their generosity and kindness, the perfection of their art (in the case of artists) – and not because of their billions of dollars and their “fame.”
Previously I have pointed out that the inhibiting religiophobia of the secular left makes impossible a relation to our depths – to turning inward for a relationship with the soul, which bears a mythic association with the Feminine. Here I am saying that excessive fear of religion means that spiritual heights are equally off the table; effectively, unchallenged phobia prevents access to the entire “vertical” axis of spiritual being, leaving us, as ‘outside’ reflects ‘inside,’ to collectively inhabit the flattened horizontal, “equalized” world of “sibling rivalry,” gridlock, partisan truths and fake news, outrageous statements merely for the sake of outrage – in short, the chaos we have. This is why I call it imperative that we “Turn Back O Man, forswear thy foolish ways,” not necessarily to the fold of traditional religion – in any case not an option for many of us – but to the actual experience upon which religion is based, alive in the psyche’s imagination, awaiting our return.