Restoring Zeus to Olympia

I have in previous blog essays explored the tension between rationality and spirituality, faith and reason, reasoning and intuition.

Most seem to believe that with the waning of the influence of the Church in Western society that we are becoming more secular and that spirituality is on the wane. Superficially that seems the case. And yet the more I work with individuals in a coaching context the more I see the need for spiritual development – a need for people to be able to see meaning and purpose in their lives.

In 1929 Carl Jung pronounced, “The gods have become diseases.” He was arguing that the suppression of spiritual needs was resulting in physical and mental problems.

He continued, “We are still as much possessed by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsessions and so forth: in a word neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases.”

Zeus may no longer rule in Olympia but his influence is still felt. We still have to deal with our spiritual needs but without credible belief systems and spiritual institutions to fall back on, a vacuum arises in our souls that defaults to contrived mental constructs to enable us to cope.

One of the causes of this malaise we have discussed previously – the literal interpretations of our religions. As science and reason took hold of Western societies it became harder to argue the historical truth of what was written in the sacred books. The beauty of the metaphors and parables which taught us many essential truths was marred by the fundamentalists who insisted they were literally true.

David Stacey has written, “When religions treat their gods too literally or with too much familiarity or presumption, the best minds in society see through the lie and announce the death of the gods. The gods are then exposed as the work of human hands having no relation to reality.”

Spiritually our life’s journey seems inextricably to comprise a “going out”, a separation or individuation and then a “coming back”, a reintegration. This is the theme of Joseph Campbell’s depiction of the hero’s journey in his seminal work “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” It is the theme of the parable of The Prodigal Son. It underpins the work of Carl Jung and the struggle between the ego and the Self. It is the basis of Vedanta and the separation of Atman from Brahman.

Or if we are looking to find solace in a philosophical tradition we could turn to Plotinus, the founder of Neo-Platonism. He said that life begins and ends in a mysterious unity which surpasses normal understanding.

“What then is it? The power which generates all existence, without which the sum of things would not exist, nor would intellect be the first and universal life. What transcends life is the cause of life; for what activity of life which is the sum of things not primal, but itself.”

Inevitably then, many of the mental symptoms that we display as a result of being thwarted in this process are pointing us to spiritual deficits. The good Dr Phil alerted me to this many years ago. He said something to the effect of, “When I see aberrant behaviour I don’t ask what has caused it, but what is its purpose.”

Indeed that thought is what inspired me to write “Yu, the Dragon Tamer.”

Carl Jung expressed a similar point of view. He said, “We should not try ‘to get rid of a neurosis, but rather to experience what it means, what is its purpose.”

“The discovery of the metaphor in an illness is a moment of liberation and release. Instead of allowing the illness to take hold of the body, steps are taken to mitigate this by understanding what the metaphor wants,” says David Stacey. (Didn’t Nietzsche say “There’s always some reason in madness”?)

Jung called this the “intuitive method”. He was able to negotiate the difficult period he experienced after his break with Freud by utilizing it on himself.

To have a purpose or, to use the analogies above, to have an understanding of the way “back home” is tremendously useful.

Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

This was a theme taken up by Viktor Frankl in “Man’s Search for Meaning”. He concluded that those who survived the terrible privations of the concentration camps in World War II were largely those who had a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.

Similarly, positive psychologist, Martin Seligman proposes that one of the underpinnings of a long-term sense of well-being is to have a purpose greater than ourselves.

It therefore seems to me that no amount of reason can displace our spirituality. We can not “reason” our spiritual needs away. Any belief system that is entirely reasonable will not meet our spiritual needs. I know intuitively that “All is One”. I know that the battle between ego and Self is real, even though I can’t give you physical proof. I know that Atman can never be fulfilled until it is resolved with Brahman.

These are the great metaphors that we know intuitively. They may not be historical but they are meaningful. The most powerful electron microscope, the biggest particle collider or the largest radio-telescope will never be able to provide evidence in support of this thesis – but I know it to be true.

So perhaps it is time to restore Zeus to Olympia. But let us not be misled to assume that we should be able to take his picture or write his history. We have a compelling need to resolve our spiritual yearnings. We need to let the truth that is in our stories find its way into our hearts. We need to trust our intuition, but not to displace our reason. But above all we need to recognise that our spirituality is just as important to us as our rationality and that we need to develop ways of accommodating both.

And if we restore Zeus to Olympia let us remember it is a metaphor we are promoting. Let us remember also there may be other gods in this pantheon and there may be other ways to access them. It is also no sin not to believe literally in His august presence but to take what you can from this metaphor and how it might help you find your way to a spiritual reconciliation.

17 Replies to “Restoring Zeus to Olympia”

  1. Ted, I have just finished reading “Yu, The Dragon Tamer” and I absolutely loved it. Thanks for feeding the mind:)

  2. I think you are right Ted, we all need a degree of spirituality in our lives. Alcoholics Anonymous I understand has a spiritual requirement as an essential part of their program. This I suggest has evolved from many years of real life trials and tragedies and not from any blind belief or religious affiliation. I have also read the long term survival prospects of cancer suffers are very much linked to the strength of their spiritual beliefs. There are some however who still dispute the need for spirituality (only those with weak minds need it) and others who believe spiritual existence is far more important than physical existence. This suggests to me that the degree of spirituality necessary for a healthy psyche is variable and probably changes at different stages in our lives. When this is combined with a decline in the long established religions and a rise in the number of questionable spiritual replacements (Scientology, Sai Baba, etc) it creates a dangerous mixture. People in need of spiritual nourishment are vulnerable to all sorts of manipulation and abuse and by the very nature of spirituality being so non tangible it is almost impossible to reason with such people. I think the trick is getting the balance right and maintaining rationality and the ability to question while still accepting an existence beyond the physical plane. There are probably a number of religions that achieve this balance. Buddhism is certainly one of these. It has managed to survive and grow in this environment while other established religions are declining badly. As a note I am not a Buddhist and apart from a little bit of reading on the topic know little about it.

    1. Thanks Greg – great comment.

      And of course you are right Father Robin – Zeus never left Olympia. We just forgot about him being distracted by our rationality.

  3. To my mind one of the problems in the west today, with the tendency of its popular culture to polarise views, seems to be the perception we only have a choice between (on the one hand) believing any given religion is literally true (fundamentalist) or (on the other hand) in concluding if it is not literally true it is not true at all, and should therefore be entirely disregarded. To adopt the latter course is of course (as Alan Watts has argued more eloquently than I) to “throw the baby out with the bath water” and leave us incomplete as human beings. Unfortuantely the middle way of accepting the value and spirituality inherent in the metaphors of most religious thinking seems to be seldom presented as an option in modern popular culture (schools, media etc). Thank you for sharing your insight Ted. Perhaps one of the most appealing facets of Buddhism is its presentation as a philosophy rather than a religion.

  4. And I suppose “global warming (human induced)” had some significance in the events on the “ring of fire” recently?

    We are but gnats.

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