Do I really believe this crap?
So I was relieved to read in Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance that “[t]he myths and stories that have come down to us are not dogma to be taken literally, any more than we are meant to take literally the statement that ‘my love is like a red, red rose.’ They are poetry, not theology.”
To accept “poetry” as the basis of a spiritual life would have been impossible to me even a few years ago. I would have felt the way author Flannery O’Connor felt about the Eucharist. Once, when in the company of friends who were agreeing that it was, of course, just a symbol, she replied, “If it’s just a symbol, then the hell with it!”* It was the union of symbol with stark literal reality that made Catholic spirituality such an adventure for me. Catholic sacraments both mean and are; the Eucharist is a symbol and is Christ. If I no longer believe in that kind of a world, or that any “supernatural” beings or powers exist, why make something up and play pretend?
But I began to notice that while this seemed to me impossible, even silly, in the context of religion, I was accustomed to allowing my psychotherapy clients just this freedom to live in a poetic, non-literal world, when it was clearly helpful to them. People with Dissociative Identity Disorder (what we used to call Multiple Personality Disorder) not only experience themselves as a collection of persons, they sometimes have quite an elaborate picture of the “inside world”– where the “others” live in it, and how they relate to each other. I know that there are not literally rooms and little people inside their heads, and I can explain their experience with reference to the way trauma has affected their brain structure; nevertheless, I can do the most good by intervening at the level of this imagined world. Is there a frightened child in a closet in the “inside” house? Can we at least give her an (imagined) light, blanket and teddy bear? Learning the lay of the land gives me the power to reach someone who is hurting, until she are ready to let go of her literalism about this world. But that happens in her time, not mine.
The growing use of EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) for recovering from trauma gives further testimony to the value of a person’s own chosen imagery and associations in healing. There is a mass of empirical evidence that activating both the left and right hemispheres of the brain simultaneously, while encouraging the client to pursue her own associations, opens paths to resolution that had been previously hidden.
D. W. Winnicott (a psychoanalyst of the object relations school, who died in 1971) used the term “transitional space” to refer to that realm in which we both create and find our reality. It is the world of child’s pretend, which we don’t challenge, though we and the child both know that her dolls are not real in the same way her baby sister is. It is the world of art, where we suspend disbelief awhile and allow Van Gogh his heavily textured skies, or Shakespeare his ghosts, looking for an inner truth which these help us find and express. It is the world of therapy, where free association, imagery and metaphor become ways for the client to experiment with ways of seeing his world. The transitional space allows us to bring our authentic, creative selves to the outside world. It is the “cauldron” in which we mix our subjectivity with what we find around us, and gain the strength to engage the world on our own terms.
We remain children in this sense– in our need for a safe zone where we’re protected from premature criticism, so we can play with our ideas until they work to our satisfaction. A space where the plant can grow before we risk disturbing the roots by weeding.
For this reason, I part company with Christopher Hitchens (whose work I greatly enjoy) when he asserts that religion “comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs).” My problem with this is twofold. First, it simply isn’t true that all religions foster an attitude of escapism from the realities of suffering and evil. For many, it is a starting point (cf. Buddha’s first noble truth, “Life is suffering”). My second problem is with the tone– the implication that the needs of our youth are somehow contemptible. Pascal Boyer restores the value of compassion in confronting our childlike qualities: ”This charge [that religion is rooted in infantile longings] may well be correct. The problem is that those who level it are themselves often involved in a denial, a denial of the needs of childhood. In their zeal to attack believers whose frailties have led them to embrace the supernatural, atheists may neglect the frailty that is an inevitable feature of all our lives. They may label as childish particular needs which should really be honoured as more generally human, for there is in truth no maturity without an adequate negotiation with the infantile and no such thing as a grown-up who does not regularly yearn to be comforted like a child.”
So there is no need to despise our “childish” imaginations– our need to use personification, symbol, and ritual in the service of organizing our lives around our central values. But how do we avoid turning our spiritual practice into mere wishful thinking? How do we avoid group delusion?
If you’ll allow me to go the long way around in answering that question, I think I can get us there. Bear with me.
St. Anselm of Canterbury (12th century) tried to prove that his God existed, basing his proof on a definition: ”God is that than which nothing greater can be imagined.” He figured that if you start there, you have to ask yourself, is it better to exist or not exist? And since existence is better, and God is better than anything you can imagine, voila! He must exist!
Yeah … that doesn’t work.
But what a rich starting point for a poetic spirituality! Because, as any novelist knows, imagination has its own integrity. We’ll suspend our disbelief for some elements of fiction (supposing there is a ring of power, or that a Mr. Darcy owns most of Derbyshire), but we won’t swallow just anything. A good story can involve make believe, but if it doesn’t ring true at least to our sense of what people are like, or of what life teaches, we lose interest.
If we know that our symbols are human inventions, we don’t have to expect too much of them (such as the timelessness of their current form), and we can stay open to the new. On the other hand, no symbol will survive unless it rings true. In the symbols that survive to inspire many people over a long period of time, the merely idiosyncratic tends to drop away, and the forms that persist tend to do so because of their peculiar power to touch us deeply.
So while I know that Kali and Quan Yin, Cerridwen and Brigid have no literal existence outside of the human imagination, I know that they convey an accumulated wisdom that both helps me express something and also draws me beyond myself at the moment. They live in the “transitional space,” where the personal and the transpersonal, the time tested and the new, can meet.
* I have no idea where to find this quote, or even if it’s authentic. A literary friend of mine once quoted it to me.
Boyer, Pascal (2012). Religion for atheists. New York: Random House.
Hitchens, Christopher (2007). God is not great: how religion poisons everything. New York: Twelve.
Starhawk (1999). The spiral dance: a rebirth of the ancient religion of the great goddess. New York: HarperCollins.
Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and reality. London: Routledge.