Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

Karen Armstrong: The Case for God

May 25, 2022

     I do find Karen Armstrong’s writings on religion fascinating and thought-provoking, as you can see; there’s a lifetime of research and exploration there, by someone seeking to understand and explain, as far as this can be done, and I can identify with this in a number of ways.

This book is much more approachable than the previous one. Her starting-point is our changing understanding of what God is, and the problems this presents in our modern and would-be rational age, leading to responses such as fundamentalism and atheism. She outlines how in the ancient world there was no belief in a single supreme being, along with an acceptance of God as something inexpressible and incomprehensible, which we now want to rationalise and tie down and explain…

The ancient Greeks launched the Western pursuit of Reason: there was a rational explanation for everything if it could be found or worked out… and the philosophers’ quest for understanding of the world and the cosmos seems to have been focused on the right way to live. Humans were rational creatures, carrying within them a spark of the divine.

The section on language, and the changing meaning of the word ‘belief’ was fascinating; the Greek and Latin words translated now as ‘belief’ were in earlier times more about a sense of trust and commitment in God, than about unquestioning acceptance and assimilation of a set of dogmas defined by other humans. From about the 4th century onwards, Christianity began its shift towards insistence on doctrinal correctness. And once the idea of creation ex nihilo gained acceptance, then God and the universe were separated… Belief in literal truth of scripture rather than scripture as allegory to help us see, led to the ongoing separation between spirituality and theology. Armstrong explains that we participate in a mystery, whereas we solve a problem: nowadays we try to turn the mystery into a problem which we can then solve.

I decided that, in the end, this book and others by Armstrong are of course yet another 21st century rationalist approach to the exploration of spirituality and religion. Inevitably: this is what we do in our present world and time; there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just our version of the aeons-long human quest. We are necessarily creatures of our own age. So much of the book is about clever people wrestling with the (still!) ungraspable in the attempt to explain and understand, when this seems by definition impossible. Armstrong earns my respect for being engaged for so long, and bringing forth so much enlightenment. For her, religion is a practical discipline, is not easy, and is about living intensely in the her and now. Amen to that.

Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

November 7, 2021

     This was a fascinating and unusual approach to autobiography. Jung does not present his life in a linear fashion, but through the recalling of significant moments and epiphanies, especially of his childhood. He gives a very powerful and detailed picture of the centrality of religion to his early years, and I quickly recognised a polymath striving to find his way through so much curiosity and so many paths of knowledge. He shows how he arrived at his earliest glimpses of the workings and power of the unconscious, and the shadow, in his life. When he moves on to his development as an analyst, we can see clearly the evolution of his therapeutic methodology, and how it has influenced the ways many current practitioners work. There is an astonishing bravery and confidence during those days of psychoanalysis in its relative infancy, almost a ‘make it up as you go along’ approach. Jung’s split with Freud is explained quite clearly: Jung could not go along with his colleague’s attribution of sexual origins to all neuroses, and quite soon was ploughing his own furrow, Freud merely being an episode in the progress of Jung’s life and work.

I find the descriptions of various cases fascinating and often wonder if such arcane and weird-sounding issues present themselves nowadays, as presented themselves to the likes of Freud and Jung, or whether today’s mental health issues are very different.

Some chapters are very challenging, both to read and to understand; Jung’s confrontation with the unconscious felt almost like an episode of madness to me, and the revelations he enjoyed reminded me of the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. I was continually astonished by his phenomenally detailed memory for his dreams and visions.

Jung’s studies, reading, researches and thinking represent an enormous work of synthesis across many fields, psychology, history, mythology, alchemy, religion, literature, and reflect the complexity both of his past and development, and through him, our understanding of that of the human race as a whole. There seems to be a much broader scope in his approach to the human mind and consciousness than in Freud’s work, as far as I can recall it. And I was intrigued – and will reflect further on this – by a sense of his influence on Philip Pullman’s vision of the afterlife as pictured in the Northern Lights trilogy…

As his life progressed, there was increasing emphasis on the importance and significance of the spiritual element, in its broadest sense, to human life, and the consequences of our neglect or rejection of this aspect of ourselves. I was also struck by Jung’s humility, in spite of the scope of his life’s achievement, by his recognition of his own, and humans’ limitations generally, and by the way he reached acceptance and contentment in his terms, as his life drew to a close.

Not an easy read, but a very thought-provoking and satisfying one.

Carl Jung: Modern Man in Search of a Soul

September 21, 2021

     The main overall impression I gained from this book, published almost a century ago, is how much psychoanalysis has moved on in that time, in terms of its methods, procedures and outcomes, and also how far ahead of his time Jung was, even though he wrote using language which is rather impenetrable nowadays.

He warns against ‘suggestions’ from the ‘analyst’, advising that progress comes from what the client brings to a session; here we see the current way, where the ‘client/worker’ does the work through speaking and making connections, and cannot not remain passive during a therapy session, cannot, having talked for their hour, then have the ‘solution’ to their ‘problems’ presented by the expert analyst.

We see Jung’s clear awareness that people like Freud, Adler and himself were at the very earliest stages in the development of what we now call psychotherapy. Freud and Jung had initially focused on dreams, whereas today the emphasis has shifted to feelings, with dreams perhaps a significant part of what a client brings along. And Jung’s big discovery is the unconscious, and its contribution to us as individuals, and the collective unconscious and its effect on us as a species. There is a humility on Jung’s part in the way he describes so much as a work in progress, and is often quite tentative in what he is suggesting. He does place a lot of emphasis on dreams, which he saw as a useful ‘way in’ to what was going on. There is also a very interesting chapter on art and artists and the potential of art as therapy, which is now something used quite widely and commonly in various schools of psychotherapy.

He also seems to have been ahead of his time in considering the need to be working with healthy as well as unhealthy minds, in terms of developing a greater understanding of how we human beings ‘work’. And I was aware, all the time I was reading, of the huge shadow cast over Europe and its peoples by the horrors of the First World War, which had only ended relatively recently…

The other area where I feel Jung makes a significant contribution is in his recognition of the importance of a spiritual element in the human psyche, no matter what actual language or terminology we use to explore and describe it. For Jung, acknowledging this is necessary to a balanced life. He wrestles with a number of complexities here, but his ideas fit in with his key notion of the collective unconscious.

There is a great deal of thoughtful and measured wisdom and goodness in what he writes, and in the way he writes, even if it is now rather dated and unfamiliar language; it’s certainly worth the effort. Jung is much more spiritual or religious than I remember him from previous reading many years ago, and yet also far more modern in terms of his vision of how the counsellor-therapist and her/his client must work together to succeed.

On literature and religion

May 27, 2018

I’ve written before about the connections I’ve found when thinking about literature and religion, and also about science fiction and religion (here and here, if not elsewhere!). Recently I found myself back with the theme…

It’s possible to see religion as something human beings have evolved or developed as a way of coming to terms with our own eventual mortality, a knowledge we have because of our powers of perception, reasoning and understanding, and a knowledge which might otherwise blight our existence. We are here, briefly, conscious of what goes on around us, we live, experience, remember things and cannot really understand it all coming to a stop, even though before we existed, everything was going on fine without us…

If there were no god, no heaven, no afterlife, then, nevertheless there are still impulses in us (some of us?) that take us away from the purely material plane onto one which has been called spiritual, acknowledging an aspect of how our minds work. I say some of us, because I know there are people who do not seem to be bothered by thoughts of this kind, or else deal with them in a different way from me, and appear to get on quite happily with their lives… the world is surely large enough for all of us. But some of us do experience a need or a drive to make sense of it all.

So for me, and others like me, religion is a way of addressing those spiritual impulses or leanings; for us there are very real issues that we engage with, that take us onto different levels of awareness or consciousness, that address our existential angst, I suppose.

Then I turned my thoughts to a novel I’ve always rated highly, for lots of different reasons: A for Andromeda, by Ivan Yefremov. It’s a Soviet utopia, set a thousand or so years in the future after the inevitable triumph of socialism has transformed the whole planet, and humans are turned towards the cosmos and other worlds. No religion of any kind is mentioned; clearly it has died out under conditions of actually existing socialism, though it is referred to as an aspect of humankind’s primitive past. Yefremov nevertheless allows his characters to be awed by the beauty and wonder of the cosmos and the natural beauty of the world, too, in ways which today we might call spiritual. But he is the only SF writer I know to have imagined the end of religion.

Olaf Stapledon‘s epic Last and First Men is different altogether. If humans cannot cope with the prospect of disappearance and individual annihilation, we are offered another picture, of our race evolving, mutating and moving to other planets in the solar system over geological time periods, during which we (?) become totally different species. And with a pang we realise that pretty early on in his imagined cycle, our particular humanity and its civilisations and achievements vanish, obliterated by the vastness of time and geological change, with absolutely no trace left behind…not just individual, but collective death.

Many less ambitious writers have written post-apocalyptic novels, and it’s a marvel that one of the few objects that usually survives the cataclysm that starts the novel is a copy of the Bible, so that humanity can safely ‘rediscover’ God, often in an even more warped version than many believers seem to find attractive today. John Wyndham‘s The Chrysalids is a good example: post-disaster mutants are an abomination in His sight and must be hunted down and destroyed. No change there then. But for me the saddest of all is Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, where, after a nuclear holocaust, monks are again the repositories of knowledge and learning, carefully salvaging the knowledge of our past; eventually, thanks to their efforts, ‘civilisation’ re-emerges after hundreds of years, only to travel down exactly the same pathway to another nuclear war…

I’m not really sure where this has led me, sceptical about much religion and the miseries it has caused (though I don’t only blame religion for human misery) and yet, from my own upbringing inevitably drawn to the spiritual that I find in myself and others, and all around me. None of this balances the knowledge that I only have a tiny amount of time to enjoy what our world offers.

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