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.