Myth, Faith and History
To what degree is the mystical a universal phenomenon, and to what degree is man homo mysticus? Is there a natural level to mysticism which theology has obscured, or is mysticism fundamentally a religious concern which only theology can properly understand and explain?
In his ground-breaking book The History of Consciousness (1973), the analytical psychologist Erich Neumann asks these questions and answers them decisively. Neumann’s approach is to observe that the psychologist’s experience not only encompasses the human, but that it opens out into an area so vast that we cannot actually detect its limits.
This suggests that the theological approach to mysticism, although useful in the sense of supplying a series of symbolic markers, may in the end be forced to give way to an approach unhindered by theologically-driven concerns – that is, to a mystical anthropology rather than a mystical theology. Something of the sort may also apply to philosophy.
Surrounded by a plethora of religious configurations (heavens, hells, prophets, angels, saviours, redeemers and devils), religious individuals struggle to make sense of their experience of self and world. While capable of viewing another’s religious beliefs objectively, they experience their own religious beliefs as beyond objective assessment. Neumann concurs. “. . . it is much easier for us to fathom as projections those contents with which we are not unconsciously and affectively involved.”
The New Testament scholar Burton Mack aligns himself with Neumann: “Christians never feel comfortable with the notion of myth or willing to see their own myths as the product of human imagination and intellectual labour.”
“So it can be said that human beings are naturally mystical …”
But Mack does notice a fundamental difference between the Christian myth and religious myths in general. The Christian myth, he tells us, is fused with history and demands a statement of faith allied to a canon of beliefs. At first only for the purpose of clarification, this statement of faith hardens into a fixed credo demanding unquestioning acceptance. This highlights the exact nature of the problem that arose: the problem of the Christian Church forcing its adherents to affirm a particular version of the Christian myth as true. In that moment belief in the idea that “belief” was the central focus of Christianity disrupted the myth’s experiential core, so allowing group politics of the most basic kind to dominate the myth’s future shape and expression. But only externally. Internally the creative unconscious continued to push out a flood of insights. Challenging the restrictive myth now in place, early Christian radicals attempted to breach the wall of fixed belief and liberate themselves from the growing menace of a Church turned maniacally certain. They failed. Overpowered by a self validating system, they were driven underground and all but exterminated. The experience of God as a sacred adventure was under threat, the ability of the Christian ego to attend to and be moved by its creative centre all but outlawed. Inwardness, in the sense of a contemplative approach to spiritual reality, would be replaced by intellectual endeavour. And so the dividing line between conscious ego and creative unconscious was drawn, those who stepped over that line declared heretical and deemed unfit to associate with.
In his study of mysticism, W R Inge talks of human weakness and insecurity in relation to a God who remains silent. Faced with an unintelligible universe, we warm to the idea of an ultimate religious authority. Relieved of the responsibility to think for ourselves, we may even submit voluntarily to that authority’s dictates. As with Neumann, however, Inge is aware of an alternative to this external authority, namely, the creative unconscious. And so he contrasts ‘religions of authority’ with ‘religions of the Spirit’, and speaks of a creative centre. But he does so with qualification. He notes that this internal authority can be made external and given a spurious infallibility, and by way of example quotes an old Quaker lady who said “Jerusalem? It has not yet been revealed to me that there is such a place.”
In contrast to Neumann’s suggestion that mystical theology may have to be replaced by a mystical anthropology, Inge roundly condemned the psychology of his day for its quasi-scientific rationalisms and demanded recognition of mysticism as a possible intuition of objective reality. Arguing for a comprehensive philosophy of mysticism on the basis that our present world view had all but removed traditional religious supports, he asked that the data supplied by genuine mystics no longer be neglected or ignored. Having developed the concept of mystical man to a quite extraordinary degree by 1949, Neumann clearly described the creative process we are each involved in at the unconscious level, and but for the two year gap between the publication of their separate works, Inge would have had at his disposal the comprehensive philosophy of mysticism he so much desired.
“A mystical anthropology”.
Erich Neumann’s plea for a mystical anthropology to replace mystical theology was not an attempt to claim an area of experience belonging to religion and change it into an appendage of psychology; it was an attempt to wrest what he believed to be an expression of the psyche’s higher systems of functioning away from religion’s constrictive grasp. Theology, he was saying, hamstrings mysticism; it is a process utterly at odds with the often challenging nature of mystical experience. Bound to dogma and doctrine at the conscious level, theology does not have the existential plasticity to accommodate the taboo-breaking nature of mystical experience. And so, Christianity has had a problem when confronted by the statements of its own mystics, and its mystics have had a problem staying within the fold of the Church. Neumann’s summation is exact: “all mystical trends strive to dissolve the traditional forms of religion and worship, although they often disguise this endeavour as a ‘renewal’ of the old religious form.”
As this exactly describes the ministry of Jesus, it allows us to conjecture that his so distinctive platform of spiritual renewal was the result of contemplative experience. The Catholic scholar Harold O. J. Brown is of much the same opinion, but he approaches the problem from the Church’s point of view.
Mysticism tends to do away with the need for intermediaries between the believer and God. The church cannot exist at all without a measure of mysticism, but as soon as mysticism begins to gain ground, it begins to do away with the need for the church’s ministers and their services. In the extreme case, the mystic may dispense with the Scriptures and even with the incarnate Christ himself, and seek to relate directly with the uncreated, absolute godhead. Mysticism appears to make the church and institutional religion unnecessary, and thus is a threat to the established church when it operates within a totally orthodox theology.
“… it is individual existence which reveals the divine to us, not theology.”
The Territory of the Anthropos The mystic’s fundamental experience of his/her creative centre is, by almost all accounts, anticonventional, anticollective and antidogmatic. So it is pretty certain that a mysticism exhibiting dogmatic characteristics is either theology disguised as mysticism, mysticism of a low-order, authentic mysticism usurped and re-shaped to sustain the religious status quo, or mysticism intentionally disguised by the experiencer for fear of reprisal. Neumann is particularly clear on these differentiations. He nominates as low level, for instance, the mysticism of an individual affectively overpowered by some theologically defined element of the fixed canon. Authentic to the extent that it is undoubtedly an ‘experience’, it is also inauthentic in that the experience is brought about through conscious fixation with some theologically constructed idea or image. The individual’s creative centre is not at work, merely the conscious mind revolving around an idea or image to the point of delirium and/or dissociation.
Of particular interest, however, is that form of mysticism defined by Neumann as ‘disguised’, for it opens up to us a world of restriction and fear where profound religious experiences are made subservient to canons of fixed belief. Unwilling to confront the religious system to which they belong, some mystics will unconsciously re-dogmatise their authentic mystical experiences to fit in with their belief system, whereas others will consciously disguise what they have experienced in the hope of remaining undetected by the hierarchy. Marghanita Laski adds a further dimension to this when she suggests that the religious vocabulary used to describe mystical experience is often a
terminology intrusion, that is, the language used does not necessarily belong to the experiencer, but to the religious system backing the experiencer.
So we are faced with a conundrum, for the very area of human activity most likely to produce mystical experience is the area where censorship of such experiences is at its greatest. And there is the further complication of naive acceptance of the fixed canon triggering, at the contemplative level, a breakthrough into the very levels where the surface belief system’s contents are symbolically questioned. This is a catch-22 situation. It reveals both the affective efficiency of theologically-driven forms of worship, while simultaneously suggesting that such forms can inadvertently lead to breakthroughs capable of rearranging or even annulling such forms.
Along with W. R. Inge and Erich Neumann, William James was of the opinion that mystical states overthrow “the pretensions of non-mystical states to be the sole dictators of what we believe.” That is a strong statement, and Inge acknowledges it. But he is not satisfied with such a declaration; he feels impelled to remind us that psychology is an abstract study of human consciousness held within self-imposed limits. It is the ‘states’ that psychology studies, not the relation of those states to objective reality. Neumann seems to agree, he speaks of ‘special limitations’ in the sense of psychology’s interpretation of such states being firmly anchored in the human.
So it can be said that human beings are naturally mystical.
But in contrast to Inge he does not see this as limiting psychology, for although centred on an anthropology and not a theology, the territory of the anthropos is intuited to be so vast that it becomes hard for Neumann to imagine any part of it being beyond psychology’s grasp. But not just any old psychology; only those psychologies which have developed a suitable language descriptive of the mystic’s relationship to objective reality. If the language of transcendence is missing from a particular psychology’s vocabulary, then that psychology will be incapable of going beyond state-specific studies of consciousness.
Neumann points to this fact when he says: “Any attempt to understand mystical man . . . must be grounded in a psychology which takes into account the different phases of the ego and consciousness in their development from the unconscious.” A system of coordinates is required for the psychologist to understand what is going on, and these coordinates have to translate out into a map of consciousness showing the stages of human growth in relation to mystical experience.
There are, this psychologist argues, phases in the development of consciousness, and through an analysis of these phases the ego’s containment in, and eventual escape from the unconscious can be successfully described. These phases are birth, puberty, middle age, old age and death. Our eventual escape from the unconscious will only be partial, for the ego-personality which evolves is a divided system, a system of conscious and unconscious attributes, the tension between which constitutes its creative and transformative dynamic.
So it can be said that human beings are naturally mystical, for the development and transformation of the ego-personality is stamped from beginning to end with interactions and confrontations at the unconscious level. Whether conscious of this level or not, we may sense or even glimpse something of this level’s capacity to express itself if we momentarily dip towards it. Or we may simply be overpowered by it if our style of life, or thought, causes us to ignore its promptings. Whatever the case, each phase has its transition point, and this point is generally experienced as a crisis.
And what greater crisis can there be than the suspicion that our pet ideas about God and Jesus and much else besides are at best inadequate, and on occasions gibberish? How can we handle the fact that the nearer we get to what constitutes the divine the less it seems to fit into the Church’s theological straitjacket? Which suggests that the stages of life with their built-in points of crisis are capable of delivering up a great deal more than balance and maturity in the ordinary sense of these words, but also levels of being through which we can begin to approach our creative centre. This is of course to mix psychology with religious aspiration, but it is in fact necessary to do so, for when separated the language of religion and psychology taper off towards absurdity, whereas when joined they open out into a perception of reality which resonates with fundamental being. Why should this be?
Because human beings seem to be naturally mystical, and as such their phases of development are also spiritually transformative. The Archetypal Encounter In analytical psychology a person’s life from birth to death, from unconsciousness to what Neumann terms “the integration of the final phase” is marked by phases or archetypal zones. These zones, phases or sectors punctuate the life stream at intervals, and are responsible for the ego’s growth towards an interaction with what Paul Tillich terms ‘the ground of being’. In this sense it is individual existence which reveals the divine to us, not theology. Neumann captures this interaction when he tells us that the divine void (the ground of being) ” . . . fills the psychological inwardness of the anthropos.” As creatures of form we are expressions of the formless void, and as such are capable of experiencing what lies hidden at our creative centre. Our creative centre is not the formless void; it is the location where we step beyond the boundary of form and encounter formlessness.
But it is important to note that this experience at the creative centre of being is actually an ‘encounter’, an encounter dependent on the kind of people we are. It is our encounter, and being our encounter it is an experience touched by the quality of our thinking and the texture of our daily lives. Jesus can call his encounter with the formlessness ‘father’; we may not find the experience quite so comforting. And who is to say how many encounters Jesus had with his ‘father’ before he became comfortable with formlessness. For formlessness must by its very nature be ambiguous, and ambiguity is the sworn enemy of religious certainty.
In this context the development of the personality becomes important, for it is the personality that undergoes the experience and is changed or transformed. Everything depends on the stage reached by the personality, the zones traversed, the sectors gone through, the phases completed. The Archetypal Zones 6.3. But problems can arise in relation to the mystical; not all mystical experiences are beneficial. The encounters which follow can cause immense problems for the personality. The historian and ex-Carmelite nun Karen Armstrong says “A journey to the depths of the mind involves great personal risk because we may not be able to endure what we find there.” There is a mysticism of childhood, a mysticism of maturity and a mysticism of old age and death.
This again raises the question of where the personality is in its development; it may not develop quite as it ought. It can happen that the broadening effect of mystical experience on consciousness is usurped by the desire to succumb to the formless void and close down consciousness. Mystical death in the sense of ecstatic abandonment can result, and such episodes can lead to general sickness or even severe neurosis. Civilisation demands consciousness of the child, the adolescent and the adult, but clouds the fact that archetypal encounters are taking place. These unrecognised encounters create crisis points that rearrange elements of the personality and identity.
Mystical experience, if properly integrated, is creative and world-transforming. If poorly integrated it tends towards nihilism. Neumann sums up the situation thus: “The decisive factor in this orientation is the condition of the ego after its mystical experience.” So there are two kinds of mystic: those who return and shed a positive influence on the world, and those who reject the world and cast a negative light on everything they touch. (Consider the kind of reasoning that might be built on such a result.)
Rejecting the creative principle underlying human experience, negative mystics reveal themselves to be prophets of disintegration. And so they advocate the unformed paradise of the unborn infant and reveal their infantile desire “to achieve beatific nonexistence in the divine womb of nothingness.” As representatives of the prenatal stage of human development, they project their own repressed natures onto the world and consign it to the devil. This state of affairs is termed ‘uroboros incest’ by Neumann; it is an attempt a return to prenatal bliss. In the attempt to kill off their ego in mystic dissolution, they avoid the problem of integration and the ambiguities which underpin the creative life. Left with their consciously constructed God, they sacrifice the chance to know and experience the expansive God of the heart. Governed by what they fear most – the archetypal Mother (maternal womb) of creation – they succumb to ecstatic seizure, inflation, depression and even psychosis. Attacked from within by what they fear most, the ‘feminine’, they create a frightening world of shadows and infest this world with male-dominated symbols.
Erich Neumann’s grasp of what it means for a human being to encounter, and be encountered by, the archetypal realm, is deeply challenging. And all because the sensed state of ‘perfection’ underlying the conscious matrix in its early stages has run out of control. Alpha has displaced omega. The infant’s state of perfection without will now lies at both ends of the ego’s archetypal journey. Form coming out of formlessness has been swapped for a pointless process where the ego suffers conscious differentiation for no other purpose than to regain its infantile paradise. There is no point to the lived life except the moral refinement of the creature so that it can return to the arms of its creator.
The path is circular. The end is the beginning. The snake of creation devours its own tail. But this need not be the case. A progressive strengthening of the ego seems to be the functional aim of a life, not a weakening of the ego. The child does not remain a child, the adolescent does not remain adolescent, the mature adult seeks greater maturity. This causes the ego to suffer at every stage, for inherent in suffering is the energy of growth and transformation. Here, too, however, we stumble into the territory of the negative mystic, for the positive mystic’s counterpart is an utterly rigid religious ego oblivious to the nudgings of the unconscious.
Describing an archetypal encounter as a shattering of the ego’s ordered world, Neumann speaks of the ego being ‘encompassed’, and of undergoing a change in personality. This change can be orderly in spite of its disruptive effects; but it can also be chaotic and apparently directionless, religious, delusional, artistic, or simply the experience of falling in love. In this sense everything is potentially archetypal, for everything carries a hidden charge capable of triggering a perception of the divine, cosmic or human mystery. Reality, like a work of fiction, carries us towards an uncertain end. In principle revolutionary and heretical, such experiences tend to dissolve traditional religious forms and draw the ego into the solitude of consciousness.
“Mystical experience, if properly integrated, is creative and world-transforming.”
The life-affirming mystic requires a strong ego to survive this journey into the vast solitude of the self, whereas the negative mystic’s greatest wish is to lose his/her already weakened ego in an act of spiritual abandonment. The nature of the encounter depends entirely on the shape and texture of the personality. The personality’s stage of development governs the nature of the experience, not the experience the nature of the personality. And so the measure of what is realised, understood or intuited is not fully a gift given, more a gift received; that is, a gift which the receiver must know how to unpack. If successfully unpacked, the personality will undergo positive change, for in being able to bear the creative tension between conscious and unconscious levels, the gift received will enable the personality to endure an enhanced tension. If unable to unpack the gift offered, the personality will suffer not a creative epiphany, but a further withdrawal from the process of change and transformation. Held in a world of rigid ideas, hopes and expectations, such a personality, if religious, will do the only thing it can do: attempt to escape such rigidity through mystical abandonment or affective attachment to religious beliefs. If unreligious, other avenues of escape will be sought. Neumann sums up this tendency towards spiritual and intellectual suicide when he says, “The mission of man is not to plunge himself into the white primal light and lose his identity”. This is not to advise against an encounter with our own depths, it is to suggest that our capacity for inwardness should be exercised with care.
In spite of its long and well-documented history, religious mysticism may only be one of many approaches to the creative centre of being. This suggests that Paul Tillich’s conception of God as ‘ground of being’ makes every avenue of life sacred. The artist, teacher, engineer, dustman, flower arranger or pastry cook has then as much chance of forming a deep and transformative relationship with what is ultimately real as any mystic. We are, in our essential natures, already grounded in the infinite, and need only turn inward to make this discovery for ourselves.
1) Neumann, Erich, The Origins of Consciousness , Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973 pp. 375, 386, 388, 394, 397, 399,384, 410. 2) Mack, Burton, The Lost Gospel/The Book of Q, and Christian Origins , Harper SanFrancisco, 1993 p. 207 3) Inge, W. R., Mysticism in Religion, Rider & Company, 1969 p. 17, 199. 4) Brown, Harold O J, Heresies, p 285-6. 5 Laski, Marghanita, Ecstasy in Secular and Religious Experience. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, 1961 p. 133. 6) Armstrong, Karen, A History of God, Mandarin, 1994 p. 246.
*Douglas Lockhart writes extensively on the dilemmas facing modern Christians. He is the author of Jesus the Heretic (1997) and The Dark Side of God (1999), two books dealing with the historical origins and development of Christianity. His work has been called well researched, academically accepted, and his writing easy, “like a detective story .. hard to put down”. He is an Associate Member of the Westar Institute (USA), and an Honorary Research Associate with the University of Tasmania’s School of Philosophy.