Treasure Beneath the Hearth is a call for re-evaluation of myth as an inner language and for an approach to the gospels illuminated on the level of the intellect by modern, critical scholarship, and on the level of the imagination by the insights of depth psychology.
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About the Author
After graduating from Cambridge with a degree in Classics and Theology, Edward Walker spent 18 years as an Anglican priest, five of them in South Africa. Eight years after returning to the UK he resigned his ministry to complete a PGCE at Birmingham University. He became Head of Religious Education at an Oxfordshire comprehensive school and after retiring worked as a volunteer at a night shelter for homeless young people, and as part of a team working on the Ridgeway and Thames Path National Trails. He lives in Oxford.
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Treasure Beneath the Hearth
Myth, Gospel, and Spirituality Today
By Edward Walker
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Edward Walker
All rights reserved.
In answer to those who would seek wisdom anywhere but in their own religious tradition, the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber records a tale about a poverty-stricken rabbi, Eizik of Cracow, who dreamed he would find treasure under a bridge in Prague. The rabbi set off, and when he arrived in Prague told the guard at the bridge about his dream. The guard laughed and said that he had once had a similar dream, that he should go to Cracow, to the house of one Eizik, son of Yekel, and dig for treasure under his stove. How could one follow such dreams! At once the old rabbi returned to his own home, dug beneath the stove, and found the treasure he had gone so far to seek. "Our treasure (Buber comments) is hidden beneath the hearth of our own home." His tale, one of a collection of such tales coming from the Jewish mystical tradition known as Hasidism, provides a theme (and the title) for this book. By digging beneath the hearth of our own home we are not denying or diminishing the value of the treasure lying beneath the hearths of others, any more than we should be demeaning the history and language of other peoples by giving time to the study of our own. Whether we like it or not, it is through Christianity that what Jung called the "primordial images" (i.e. our culture's religious language) have been transmitted. Our culture, that is to say, is Judaeo-Christian, not Buddhist or Islamic.
It was in the death camp of Auschwitz that another great Jewish doctor and thinker, Viktor Frankl, found himself reflecting profoundly on the condition of twentieth-century humankind. How could the heirs of the Enlightenment, the fellow-citizens of Luther, Bach and Beethoven, have come to such a pass that they should seek to exterminate millions of their own people? And how could the victims of that inhumanity somehow preserve their own humanity without surrendering to hatred or despair? There were, he felt, two potentialities within everyone. "Man is that being who has invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who has entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips." He realised, moreover, that "if common values and meanings are to be found, another step must be taken, thousands of years after mankind developed monotheism, the belief in the one God. Monotheism is not enough; it will not do. What we need is not only belief in the one God but also awareness of the one mankind, the awareness of the unity of humanity. I would call it 'mon-anthropism'."
Both Reason and Religion can be perverted, with disastrous results; both can foster or prevent the realisation of monanthropism. The Rationalism that spread so rapidly from the second half of the nineteenth century was an inevitable response to the obscurantism of the religious, and this may help to explain why Sir James Frazer, famous author of The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, dismissed myth (the language of religion) as "the mistaken explanations of phenomena, whether of human life or of external nature. Such explanations originate in that instinctive curiosity concerning the causes of things which at a more advanced stage of knowledge seeks satisfaction in philosophy and science, but being founded on ignorance and misapprehension they are always false." Freud, born a couple of years after Frazer, was equally insistent that it was an illusion "to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere."
Side by side with this hard "realist" approach, however, is another whose roots go back to the Romantic Movement. The Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev, writing twelve years after the completion of Frazer's Golden Bough, deplored the habit of "identifying myth with invention, with the illusions of primitive mentality, and with anything, in fact, which is essentially opposed to reality." On the contrary, he maintained, "the creation of myths among people denotes a real spiritual life, more real, indeed, than that of abstract concepts and of rational thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better than abstract thought can do ... It brings together two worlds symbolically." Here we have the beginnings of the idea of the complementarity of the two worlds of intellect and imagination, and ultimately of religion and science. Nearer to the present, Theodore Roszak, one-time Professor of History at California State University, has protested at the meaninglessness of technological achievements without what he referred to as "transcendent correspondence". "They leave ungratified that dimension of the self which reaches out into the world for enduring purpose, undying value. That need is not some unfortunate psychic liability left over from the infancy of the human race which we ought now to outgrow. It is, rather, the emotional reflection in mankind of that intentional thrust we can find in the most basic organic stuff, in the purposeful protein matter that toils away in every cell of our being." More recently, Karen Armstrong has expressed a similar view. "It is a mistake," she writes, "to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought, which can be cast aside when human beings have attained the age of reason. Mythology is not an early attempt at history, and does not claim that its tales are objective fact." Furthermore, she maintains, "mythology ... is not about opting out of the world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it." This is an idea to which we shall be returning.
The argument here is not between Christian and sceptic, theist and atheist, nor to do with the existence or non-existence of God, with whether the creation of the world was a matter of chance or divine purpose, or whether man has, or has not, a soul. It is to do rather with a way of reflecting, like Frankl, on what it is to be human, and in the light of this what are primary and what are secondary tasks. So for Lewis Mumford "it is not in extensive cosmonautic exploration of outer space but by more intensive cultivation of the historic inner spaces of the human mind, that we shall recover the human heritage." These writers are not speaking for any particular faith system or community of belief, but for a vision of humanity which in their view is in danger of being lost. In the nineteenth century, of course, it was not only Blake's "dark Satanic mills" that were depriving human beings of their heritage, but, as Marx so prophetically saw, the alliance of religion with the system which kept those mills going. "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of an unspiritual situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions." The convergence with Freud is obvious. His focus, of course, was on the inner rather than the outer chains that were depriving people of real happiness, including the repressive attitude to sex which has been such a destructive element in Christian belief and practice.
The religious, then, whose goal takes the form of God, needed the cleansing vision of Marx and Freud to enable them to see a distinction which has been drawn by another of the great thinkers of the twentieth century, the German-American psychologist and philosopher, Erich Fromm. "The question is not religion or not," he wrote, "but which kind of religion, whether it is one furthering man's development, the unfolding of his specifically human powers, or one paralysing them." It is the distinction, in other words, between "authoritarian" and "humanistic" religion.
What might this humanistic (or monanthropistic) religion be? Is it simply a matter of doing as you would be done by, trying to live an ethical life, or is it something more? Fromm's own definition of religion is "any system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion." As opposed to Humanism, it implies some kind of internal activity, some kind of internal dialogue with images or symbols not one's own (though not excluding one's own). It assumes that our most powerful motivations come from the heart rather than from the head; that it is in fact from imagination that action springs. And the language of the imagination, developed by and deeply imprinted in humankind in the course of its development over the millennia, is the language of myth.
The Language of Myth
In her book The Battle for God, a penetrating analysis of Fundamentalism, Karen Armstrong distinguishes between the complementary roles within human culture of what she calls "Mythos" (all that finds expression in poetry, drama, music, art, religion) and what she calls "Logos" (all that finds expression in rational argument and scientific analysis). Fundamentalism, whether in the Jewish, Christian, or Muslim cultures that she investigates, appears to be a response to a situation in which value has been accorded to "Logos" alone, and in which "Mythos" has been disparaged. It is the child, in fact, of a modern, materialistic mindset, which, in the words of the great Protestant scholar John Hick, has "so restricted us to the alternatives of straight fact or straight fiction that we find it difficult to feast on poetry, allowing emotion free rein, rejoicing in the magical powers of the imagination, and glorying in a great mythic story as our human way of relating to that which transcends all human thought." Seen as a fight to the death, it ends up with death, in the twin towers of New York or on the streets of London, Madrid or Moscow. So it is of the utmost importance that the religious free themselves from this "either- or" mentality, and acknowledge the truth of Hick's observation, that religious experience "can express not only an openness, but also a closedness, to the Divine, and a closedness that is all the more dangerous for being expressed religiously."
Reference has already been made to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. In another book, Unweaving the Rainbow, a wonderful celebration of the "poetry" of science, Dawkins uses some words of Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first Prime Minister, to underline his own conviction of the overwhelming importance of science in the modern world. "It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people. Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we have to seek its aid ... The future belongs to science and those who make friends with science." It is in no sense to deny or belittle Nehru's words to suggest that it might also be worth attending to the words of another great Indian, Mohandas Gandhi, Nehru's one-time mentor and later (when Nehru diverted a significant proportion of India's scant resources to the military defence of Kashmir against the wishes of its Muslim majority) severe critic. "Political education is nothing worth," wrote Gandhi in 1946, "if it is not backed by a sound grounding in religion; by which is not meant sectional or sectarian belief. Man without religion is man without roots. Therefore religion is the basis on which all life structure has to be erected, if life is to be real." Might it be possible not to have to choose between Nehru and Gandhi, but to plead the cause both of intellect and imagination, of the balancing of discursive reason by the wisdom of the unconscious?
It must be recognised at the outset that if intellect unbalanced by imagination can become sterile, imagination unbalanced by intellect can become fantasist. Imagination can be used not only for creative, life-affirming ends but also as a means for escaping from the hard realities of life. For the imagination's capacity to create illusory satisfactions Freud found plenty of evidence in his consulting room. "At the time when the development of the sense of reality took place," he wrote in 1930, "this region (i.e. imagination) was expressly exempted from the demands of reality-testing and was set apart for the purpose of fulfilling wishes which were difficult to carry out." Religious needs derived, in Freud's view, from the infant's sense of helplessness and consequent longing for the father. Religious practice was "the attempt to procure a certainty of happiness and a protection against suffering through the delusional remoulding of reality"; a process, he remarks, which "presupposes an intimidation of the intelligence," and condemns human beings to remain in a state of "infantilism".
Religious fundamentalism, with its refusal, for example, to acknowledge the clear evidence provided by fossils, plainly does involve an intimidation of the intelligence. However, Marion Milner, a British analyst in the Freudian tradition but of a later generation, has suggested that imagination, while undoubtedly it could and did serve to exercise an escapist function, could also be used as "a way of thinking about hard facts, as an instrument, not for evading the truth, but for reaching it."
The time may now have arrived when there is the possibility of rehabilitating myth and recognising it as a deeply creative product of the imagination, rich with the possibility of enhancing life and comprehending reality. So, certainly, it appeared to Rollo May, for whom the reinstatement of myth was one of the most urgent needs of our time. "Many of the problems of our society," he writes, "including cults and drug addiction, can be traced to the lack of myths which give us as individuals the inner security we need to live adequately in our day. The sharp increase in suicide among young people and the surprising increase of depression among people of all ages are due ... to the confusion and the unavailability of adequate myths in modern society." An analyst of deep wisdom and long experience, he would have nothing to do with a simplistic "return to religion," but held that human beings' "cry for myth" was as fundamental as their cry for food. In fact it is no accident that the emergence of the psychoanalytic movement coincided not only with the rapid erosion of and sense of connection with religious belief and practice, but also with the beginning of an age in which humanity's long preoccupation with food had finally (in the West) become satisfied, and a further need had become apparent. "We could define psychoanalysis," writes May, "as the search for one's own myth."
The recognition of this search, and of the healing quality of myth, is not new. "Society, without knowing it, is starving for the inner," we find the maverick Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing writing some fifty years ago. "The outer, divorced from any illumination from the inner is in a state of darkness." Passionately opposed to any form of psychotherapy, whether in the form of drugs or counselling, which ignores this inner need and views its task as assisting the "patient" back to "normality", Laing pleads for a true "soul-healing" which would enable people to find within themselves an "orientation in the geography of inner space and time." This is a hard task for a culture which has shifted, in Don Cupitt's phrase, "from myths to maths". In contemporary usage myth has come to signify fantasy and untruth, something which according to Frazer is founded on ignorance and misapprehension. At the same time it is easy to see what brought about the devaluing of myth. After the terrible religious conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reason and science appeared as saviours from the divisive prejudices and dogmas of the religious. Since then, however, it has come to be realised that it is not only religious conflict which has continued to disfigure the world, but the secular regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot; and on top of these the spread of that wasteland which is the dark side of the progress of technology.
Excerpted from Treasure Beneath the Hearth by Edward Walker. Copyright © 2014 Edward Walker. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Only connect 8
The Search 8
The Language of Myth 12
Jung and the Religious Task 17
Chapter 2 From Jesus to Christ 24
"The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" 25
From Oral Tradition to Written Gospels 27
The Gospels and the Christian Community 32
The Gospels and the Old Testament 35
How do we see Jesus? 43
How did Jesus see Himself? 44
Chapter 3 The Teaching of Jesus 50
Images of Wholeness 51
False Self and True Self 54
The Parables 62
The Miracles 70
Arrest and Crucifixion 76
Chapter 4 Appropriating the Myth 85
Right Effort, Right Contemplation 85
The Lord's Prayer - I 95
The Lord's Prayer - II 103