Category Archives: Myth

Order, disorder, reorder

It’s almost a simplistic metaphor, but … picture three boxes: order, disorder, reorder. … [I]f you read the great myths of the world and the great religions, that’s the normal path of transformation.

–Richard Rohr

The words above are taken from a recent On Being podcast, where the host Krista Tippett interviewed the American Franciscan friar Richard Rohr. I’m not one for listening to religious programming, given my leanings towards the non-dogmatic and agnostic Middle Way, but I’ve found that this weekly series hosts a variety of guests with a range of beliefs, from diverse backgrounds and traditions. Krista Tippett, as host, guides the discussions in such a way that the conversations are always mature, nuanced, and tolerant of ambiguity – truly conversations rather than sycophantic platform-building or antagonistic arguments. Furthermore Richard Rohr described himself as being “on the edge of the inside” of traditional Catholicism, pushing at the boundary of Christianity in a very liberal, mystical way.

1024px-Richard_Rohr_02While I was listening yesterday to the episode featuring Richard Rohr (and I recommend listening to the full ‘unedited’ version of the conversation rather than the 50-minute ‘produced’ show) many interesting facets revealed themselves, but I was particularly intrigued to hear about his “three box” metaphor for the path of adult spiritual development. I understand that in his 2012 book Falling Upward he further explores the idea of the two halves of life, intending to show that those who have fallen, failed, or gone down in their spiritual progress are the only ones who understand ‘up’. However, I’ve not read that book(!) and what I’m going to discuss here is based on what I heard during a part of the interview with Krista Tippett.

As it is rather lengthy, I’ve split this discussion into three separate blog posts: in this, the first, I discuss the synthetic metaphorical three box model in the context of a well-known a modern myth. In the next (second) post I will consider how Rohr’s three box model might be usefully applied to political polarisation in society. In the third and final blog post I will frame my own ‘spiritual’ development in terms of Rohr’s model.

A modern myth – Toy Story
Now, I’m not sure to what extent the Disney/Pixar film Toy Story counts as a great myth of the world, but it’s a story that’s familiar to anyone in the Western world who has grown up – or has had children grow up – in the past 30 years. I have a soft spot for it, having it watched it first (somewhat guiltily) in the cinema as an 18-year old, and more recently on DVD with my son and his cousins. I’m going to use the plot of Toy Story as an example of this “three box” metaphor for the path of transformation – and note that I’m using the term ‘myth’ its original sense as a story richly imbued with archetypical meaning, and not meaning a widely-believed falsehood.

Toy_StoryAnyway, in Toy Story the character Woody, the old-fashioned pull-string cowboy doll, starts off in the metaphorical “order box” as Andy’s favourite toy, de facto leader of all Andy’s toys, and comfortable with his position in this microcosm. He is forced into the “disorder box” by the arrival of Buzz Lightyear, the astronaut action figure, who upsets the social order and brings out feelings and behaviour in Woody that he’s not had to deal with before. This disorder is a product of circumstances beyond Woody’s control: he wouldn’t have deliberately chosen to break with the status quo as he was so comfortable within it. His sense of self-esteem is closely linked with his role as Andy’s favourite plaything.

However, through the messy process of being taken out of his comfort zone and learning through novel experiences, Woody eventually is able to move into the metaphorical “re-order” box by integrating his conflicting desires and meaning, establishing a new equilibrium where he and Buzz can cooperate in their roles as Andy’s ‘favourite toys’. However, and more importantly, Buzz and Woody also enjoy the new meaning and richness that comes from their relationship with each other, a relationship that has value beyond their existence as playthings for a child.

By the end of the film Woody has developed a new perspective on his existence, one that encompasses the need for constructed order and the inevitability of uncomfortable disorder – he knows that suffering is part of the deal, and is better embraced than pushed away. Not only is Woody now wiser, but his new worldview better addresses the changing conditions, as Andy is growing up (as seen in the sequels, particularly Toy Story 3) and will no longer ‘need’ Woody, depriving him of his original raison d’etre when he was comfortably housed in the “order” box.

Note that, alongside Woody’s development, Buzz follows a parallel path of transformation. His original existence – where he truly believed himself to be a space ranger crash-landed on a hostile alien planet – may have been delusional, but it was well and truly ordered. He had a sense of who he was, what his mission was, and was confident in his superiority and rightness. Only when his delusion was eroded by continued contact with the ‘real’ world did he have to face up to disorder. Buzz’s fall from order was harsh, but he made progress through the disorder and – by uniting with Woody against common enemies – he was able to reorder his worldview into something more mature mature, integrating his love of himself with his newfound love for others (as opposed to his earlier ‘duty’ to others).

At the close of this first installment in the series I invite you to participate using the comments section below. If you can see how this model can be further extended to Toy Story, or other myths, please go ahead and share your thoughts. If you can see limitation of this model in this context of analysing mythic narratives then please also jump in. In the second installment I will move on to consider how the order-reorder-disorder model might shed some light on the problem of political polarisation in society, and in the third and final installment I’ll be viewing my own spiritual biography through the lens of this model. I hope that you will join me there…

Featured image of US mailboxes in the snow courtesy of
Photograph of Richard Rohr by Svobodat [License: CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Toy Story image is a low resolution version of the Disney-copyright poster, used for illustration only under ‘fair use’

Rethinking saintly miracles

Though I’m now trying to give up the common practice of using ‘myth’ to mean falsity, I must also confess to having long used the term ‘hagiography’ (which means the written life of a saint) pejoratively, to mean a one-sided adulatory biography. Both these usages, though, tend to reduce meaningful symbolic material to claims about facts, when their chief significance doesn’t consist in anything of that kind.

Recently I’ve been rethinking my assumptions about hagiography when reading the Life of St. Cuthbert by the Venerable Bede. Cuthbert was an Anglo-Saxon saint from Northumbria in north east England, closely associated with the holy island of Lindisfarne, and Bede is the scholarly monastic writer of the early eighth century, better known for his ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’, though he wrote in Insular Latin (the weird form of Latin we used to use on these benighted islands). In his youth, though, Bede knew and served Cuthbert. Though he claims to have composed it only on the basis of reliable testimony, Bede’s life of Cuthbert is just one damned miracle after another. He cures the sick all over the place. An eagle brings him food in the wilderness. His incorruptible corpse cures the sick too. And when ravens steal straw from the roof of his island hermitage, he banishes them until they come back and apologise, with “feathers outspread and wings bowed low”. What are we to make of all this?Cuthbert praying

For me this is another opportunity to apply the thinking I’ve been developing in my book The Christian Middle Way (which I’ve drafted and am now hawking around publishers), where I thought about the interpretation of Jesus’ miracles in the New Testament. As regards factual claims about miracles, I’ve long accepted Hume’s argument that accounts of miracles are more likely to be mistaken than otherwise, given that our other experience shows them to be extremely unlikely. Though the probabilities are against the correctness of miracles literally interpreted, we really don’t know. We can speculate about what ‘really happened’ and construct alternative explanations, but this is all likely to be a distraction from appreciation of the meaning of the stories about what happened. That meaning does not depend in any way on what ‘really happened’, but is rather a product of the ways in which the stories reflect the archetypal functions of individuals in the context of a particular culture’s interpretation of those archetypes.

St. Cuthbert’s miracles can be more deeply appreciated if one lets go of the factual questions and focuses only on these archetypes. To illustrate this, let’s start with the healing miracles. Here’s a fairly typical example:

One day, as he was going round the diocese giving saving counsel in all the houses and hamlets of the countryside, and laying his hand on the newly baptised so that the grace of the Holy Spirit might come down upon them, he came to the house of a member of the royal bodyguard whose wife lay ill and seemed to be dying. The man ran to meet him, knelt down and thanked God that he had come, brought him into the house, and made him most welcome…. Then the man told him that his wife was desperately ill and begged him to bless some holy water to sprinkle on her. 

‘I am sure,’ he said, ‘God will grant her a speedy recovery, or if she must die, put an end to her long agony and take her without delay.’

Cuthbert had water brought, blessed it, and gave it to a priest to sprinkle over the sick woman. The priest entered her bedroom and found her lying there looking like a corpse. He sprinkled the bed, sprinkled her, opened her mouth, and poured a little of the life-giving draught down her throat. The patient was quite unaware of what was being done, but as soon as the water touched her an astonishing thing happened: she was immediately restored to full health both of body and mind. She came to, blessed and thanked the Lord for deigning to send such guests to cure her, and then, rising from her bed, ministered to those who had just ministered to her, the patient tending the physicians. (ch.29)

Let’s first note the context in which the healing took place. Cuthbert is laying hands on people to give them the grace of the Holy Spirit. The ‘Holy Spirit’ has become such a stock phrase in Christianity that it might seem almost meaningless, a dead concept, but the live meaning of it in experience is probably more about people recognising new possibilities and extending their awareness in ways that also lift up and broaden their emotions, symbolically related to the confidence expressed in the baptism ceremony. Cuthbert is making people aware of the possibility of new integration.

Note then also that when Cuthbert comes to the dying woman, he does not claim to have power over her illness. It is God who kills or cures, not him. ‘God’ here is also a way of talking about the conditions and reconciling people to them. If the woman had died we would presumably not have heard about this miracle, so the story of her recovery may just reflect confirmation bias, coincidence, selective interpretation and the placebo effect: but in the context, Cuthbert focuses our attention on acceptance of the outcome, helping people to adapt to the conditions, whatever they turn out to be.

In that context, like any other healer, he also demonstrates compassion. This compassion is inevitably selective, because he is human and cannot heal everyone. The story thus does not tell us about God’s justice, but rather helps to reconcile us to his selectiveness. Some will live and others die, and the causes of them doing so are very complex and beyond full human understanding. Yet at the same time an intervention that offers renewed confidence for the suffering person may produce a breakthrough, which can then be recorded and inspire others to similar confidence and openness to integration.

Finally, there is also the actions of the woman after her miraculous recovery. Again, this should probably not be taken literally, as in that case it might seem both medically questionable (she would need time to recuperate) and patriarchal (her service to men couldn’t even be interrupted by near-death!). What I find striking about it is the way it deliberately challenges our expectations. Who is sick and who is well? We attach these labels to people, but the conditions are often more complex. Those who have been ill often remark on this problem: that others don’t know quite how to treat them and are unsure about what they can or cannot be reasonably asked to do. They are shoved either into the indulgent category of convalescent or the negative one of malingerer, because we have trouble with coming to terms with the incrementality of health and have to turn it into black and white terms. Miraculous healing makes all things possible, and its function is to make us aware and appreciative of what is possible, and the ways we might be otherwise constrained by our expectations.

Just as in the life of Jesus, so in Cuthbert there are both ‘healing miracles’ and ‘nature miracles’ in which the saint is depicted as being able to participate in God’s control over nature. The following story can illustrate this other type of miracle, and again it is important to quote some of the context.

Not only the inhabitants of the air and ocean but the sea itself… showed respect for the venerable old man. No wonder: it is hardly strange that the rest of creation should obey the wishes and commands of a man who has dedicated himself with complete sincerity to the Lord’s service. We, on the other hand, often lose that dominion over creation which is ours by right through neglecting to serve its Creator. The very sea, I say, was quick to lend him aid when he needed it.

He set about constructing within the walls of his dwelling a small shed which should be big enough for his day to day requirements. It was to be built towards the sea with the floor over a long deep cleft hollowed out by the constant action of the waves. It was to be twelve feet long, for that was the length of the cleft, so he asked the monks to bring him some planks of that length for floorboards the next time they came. They willingly agreed, received his blessing, went off home and forgot all about it. Back they came on the appointed day but without the wood. He gave them a very warm welcome, commending them to god with the usual prayer, then asked ‘Where is the wood?’ Then they remembered. They confessed they had forgotten and asked him to pardon their negligence. The kindly old man soothed their anxiety with a gentle word and bade them stay till next morning: ‘For I do not believe God will forget my wish’. They complied with his request. The following morning when they went out there was a piece of wood of the correct length thrown up by the tide right under the site of the shed. They marvelled at the sanctity of a man whom the very elements obeyed, and blushed with shame at their own slackness in needing to be reminded by inanimate nature what obedience is due to saints. (ch. 21)

‘Coincidence’, I think, as you probably do too. But we don’t know whether or not it should be rightly described in such a way. What the story records, however, is the meaning of these events for the participants. The monks interpreted the driftwood as a divine rebuke because they were ashamed of their negligence, so for them it served the purpose of symbolising their limited awareness and its consequences, regardless of whether or not the driftwood was the result of supernatural intervention. Cuthbert, however, did not offer such a rebuke but responded kindly, presumably in awareness that the monks’ integration (and thus their remembrance of others’ needs in future) would be better supported by such kindness.

Where Bede sees creation as serving the servant of God, we can see a person who is integrated enough to have fully adapted to his environment, recognising both what he can and cannot do in it. He can make use of one piece of driftwood, but since he asked for ‘planks’ he presumably still needs more than this for his building project. He accepts those conditions that he has no power over, but makes the most of those that he can affect. He is emotionally as well as cognitively adapted, not just resourceful but also flexible in his expectations. Read helpfully, then, this story is not about power over nature at all, but about the balanced acceptance of our lack of power. Our ‘dominion over nature’ is only ours by right when we serve its creator: meaning that we only get what we want by recognising the full extent of the contrary conditions. Today, the belief in ‘dominion over nature’ has been blamed by thinkers like Peter Singer for the attitudes that created anthropogenic climate change, but if that belief had been better tempered by awareness and respect for conditions we would have been much readier to accept our role and its effects at an earlier stage when we could do more to prevent it.

So, miracle stories, read carefully with an eye for their meaning in context, can offer us inspiration rather than falsehood. I am not suggesting that this is what they ‘really mean’: rather that we can usefully choose to interpret them in this way – the Middle Way that avoids the reductions of presumed truth or falsehood. Hagiography of a more traditional kind thus takes on a new meaning. However little I learnt about the faults and shadows of the historical Cuthbert from Bede’s biography, I at least found some inspiring reminders of the meaningful wisdom of the past. I don’t take that as a justification for writing such hagiographies today, because it is more important for us to develop balanced beliefs about more recent lives. But Cuthbert for me, and probably for you, is much more of an archetype than a historical figure. The Anglo-Saxon world offers a distance that makes such symbolic power possible.

Picture: St Cuthbert Praying from Bede’s manuscript: British Library Yates Thompson MS 26. Reproduced for comment under fair use terms.

Quotations from Bede’s Life of Cuthbert come from ‘The Age of Bede’ trans J.F. Webb, pub. Penguin Classics. Reproduced for comment under fair use terms.

Links to some related posts:

Podcast discussion of faith

Franciscan Saintliness

Video: separating absolute belief from archetypal meaning

Audio talks on archetypes (scroll down)

Finding Jesus (perhaps that hole isn’t God shaped after all)


My relationship with Jesus of Nazareth has recently changed for the better.  I’ve never felt particularity negatively towards him, as I have towards God (I just can’t respond well to a character who encourages filicide, slavery, bigotry and genocide, to satisfy their own jealous insecurities) and have always found his depiction to be strangely captivating.  Yet I have not consciously regarded him as a figure of inspiration; I always felt that he was the property of practising Christians, and anyway, wasn’t he the Son and earthly manifestation of the God that I find so problematic?  This, I am pleased to report, is no longer representative of how I feel (about Jesus, at least) and I’d like to spend some time explaining how this change of heart has come to pass.

As the assumed Son (and earthly manifestation) of a perfect God, it has always been posited to me that Jesus must also be perfect; this was either something you believed in or you didn’t, take this view of Jesus or don’t take him at all.  I assumed that as there are compelling arguments to suggest that the Abrahamic God is far from perfect, then it must also follow that Jesus could not be perfect.  Further confirming this view, a recent reading of the New Testament revealed a sometimes flawed and aggressive Christ rather than the serene, unshakably tolerant, haloed figure of Christian tradition.  This Biblical character seemed leagues apart from the perfect Jesus that I’d been taught about, through art and carefully selected Bible readings.  I also had the suspicion that even if I did find inspiration in Jesus, I could not do so openly and easily without belief in God – as an atheist (hard agnostic) I have often been asked (sometimes forcefully) why I celebrate Christmas, and the fact that my wife and I were married, as atheists, in our local parish Church has also caused confusion and even offence.  When I considered all of this alongside the glaring inconsistencies in the New Testament my response was one of rejection.

In the past year or so I have read two books that have caused me to think again: Zealot by Reza Aslan and Jesus for the Non-Religious by John Shelby Spong.  Although I discuss them here, this is by no means supposed to be a detailed analysis or synopsis.  I would, however, recommend them both for reading.  Aslan spends a lot of time exploring the historical context of Jesus’ life and of the subsequent writing of the books of the New Testament.  I think he does this well and draws many interesting conclusions.  The main one being that Jesus was a radical Jew who, as part of a wider movement, challenged the authority of Rome and perceived corruption of the priestly class, and despite being unsuccessful had a profound impact on those that followed him.  In the decades after Jesus’s death and in the wake of the Roman’s retaliatory destruction of Jerusalem (following their successful expulsion), the foundations of the Christian church were laid – by some that knew him and by many that did not.  Interesting as they are, such conclusions were not the most affecting aspect of my time with this book.  Rather, by thinking about Jesus as a human being and the New Testament as a series of documents – both worthy of historical analysis and set within a surprisingly (for me at least) well understood historical context, I found that my entrenched rejection began to subside.  The fact that Jesus might have existed (and I think it seems likely that he did, given the short time in which his cult developed following his death) and that I felt able to explore this possibility, without feeling that I should harbour some sort of Christian belief, has become fundamental to the way I am able to engage with him and the texts in which he appears.

One can argue, rather successfully as it happens, that to be inspired by Jesus’s life and message requires neither Christian belief nor interest in the historical figure.  I agree, to an extent; why should one have to suspect that Jesus existed to respond positively to his message of forgiveness?  One doesn’t.  Nonetheless, by doing so I have been able to attain much more meaning from the Jesus story than I could before.  Why then, should it matter if individuals or events can be argued to be historical in relation to the meaning they have for me?

Take the image of Father Christmas.  I’ve long believed that the red and white colour scheme of his outfit was designed and introduced by Coca-Cola as part of a marketing campaign.  Red and white are the identifying colours of the company and they do have an irritating habit of plastering Santa’s image over a massive articulated lorry that appears on their festive adverts and visits various towns and cities.  It came to my town this year and people went wild, standing round it in large crowds staring excitedly – filming it on their mobile devices, no doubt.  Anyway, this association with a) the advertising industry and b) a multi-national company, that has a rather chequered ethical reputation, tarnished the meaning of images of Father Christmas for me.  I still had fond memories of childhood, of family getting together in merriment, of nativity plays, of Christmas smells (the list goes on) – but they were mixed up with notions of cynicism, commercialism and exploitation of communities in the developing world.  Of course, the whole Christmas season involves these things, it is a time of excessive contradictions, but the idea of this treasured figure from my childhood being the cynical marketing construction of a company that I have had ethical concerns about distilled this somehow.  Thus, I was quite delighted to find out that the story is probably not true.  Yes, Santa’s image is widely used for cynical marketing purposes, but the fact that his traditional image is used, rather than having been created for, this purpose seems to matter to me.  The story of Coca-Cola creating Father Christmas’s modern image still exists, but the knowledge that it is likely a misconception, rather than historical event changes, for me, the nature of its meaning, and the meaning of depictions of Santa.

Walter White and the series Breaking Bad provide another example of how confidence in the historicity of events can impact on the meaning they may have on an individual.  I loved Breaking Bad; I didn’t want to, because of its popularity, but I did.  The series is harrowing in places and the actions of White become increasingly extreme and difficult to justify.  It skilfully explores a wide range of ethical issues, and I often found myself questioning not only the characters, but myself.  However, if I’m honest, I was always on the side of White.  No matter what he did, I was with him all the way.  Now, if I ‘d gone into the series with the belief (or found out after) that it was either a biography based on actual events, or that it was a documentary, I would have had a very different response to White and his activities.  The ethical questions would still be there, as would the wonderful grey morality in which the story revels, but my response, both intellectual and emotional would be very different; White and his story would have had different meanings for me.

By thinking about Jesus without personal associations of Christian dogma, I’ve been able to imagine, with varying degrees of confidence an individual of greater scope and depth.  This does not require a separation of Jesus from either Jewish or Christian belief.  Nobody seems to quarrel when historians study Alfred the Great or Joan of Arc.  Both individuals were pious Christians, both have mythologies that blur the lines between history and fiction, and one does not have to share their beliefs to study or take inspiration from them.  It seems acceptable, in a way that it often isn’t with Jesus, to examine the evidence and conclude with a degree of confidence that each of these figures existed and that some life events are more likely to have occurred than others.  Joan of Arc (like most historical figures) is both a figure of mythology and of history, there is no conflict and the lines between the two need not be distinct.  If I consider the possibility of Jesus as the radical reformative Jew described above and then take a hard-agnostic view on the possibility of him being the Son of God (whether he thought he was or not is often debated, but there is at least the possibility of finding historical evidence) then Jesus ceases to be perfect, and this is a good thing.  Apart from being more interesting, his sometimes erratic and even intolerant behaviour becomes less problematic.  As a human in a specific historical context, he can be excused for being imperfect, or even morally questionable in a way that God cannot.  The New Testament can be similarly viewed.  Even more than Jesus (who is not around today), the Bible has a history, its various books can be placed, with varying degrees of accuracy, within historical times and places.  The authors need not be identified to understand the context in which they were written.  The Anglo-Saxon chronicle is a vast document that details events over a long period.  It’s often contradictory and seems to freely mix fiction with historical events and yet it’s place as an important historical document is rarely questioned.  I don’t have to have the same beliefs as those that wrote it and I don’t have to think that everything that is written in it actually happened.  Aslan, treats the New Testament in much the same way, not just studying the text itself, but also exploring the societies and historical events that frame their construction.  While Aslan’s book enabled me to look at Jesus with fresh eyes and provided an interesting perspective, it didn’t describe a Jesus who significantly inspired me.  Agreeing with all of Aslan’s conclusions felt unimportant compared to the process of exploration that he provided.

Spong’s book, on the other hand, did present me with an inspirational figure.  Like Aslan, Spong also considers historical evidence for Jesus’s life and the formation of the books of the New Testament, but his focus is very different.  In many ways, it’s an account of how he, as a Bishop and long standing Christian who can no longer adhere to mainstream Church teachings, has struggled and succeeded in maintaining his meaningful experience of Jesus and God.  The Jesus he presents is (very roughly) a first century Jew whose radical activities and high levels of humanity, love and integration were able to inspire similar attributes in those that knew him and those that came to know the versions of him that existed after his death.  Spong describes a Jesus that is able to inspire a deeper level of human experience; an integrated state that he calls the ‘God experience in Jesus’.  For me, as someone who has no attachment to the idea of God, I would not describe such an experience in those terms.  Nonetheless, a combination of my experiences with this society (especially Roberts explorations of inspirational integrated Christian figures such as St. Francis of Assisi) and the reading of these two books has allowed me to reassess and come to understand how one could experience and describe a ‘Jesus experience’ of integration, regardless of background or faith.

I haven’t had such an experience, but I’m now able to experience Jesus as a figure of inspiration alongside others, such as Julian of Norwich, Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela or Malala Yousafzai.  Another unexpected consequence is that my various Buddha figures have taken on additional meaning: instead of representing only the Buddha, the statues now seem able to represent all those who I find inspirational and who also appear to have experienced high levels of integration.  For some, the historical existence of these characters, and others like them will have little impact on their relationship with them.  For me, confident historical speculation seems to augment my experience with deeper levels of meaning.  I have got no idea if the story of Jesus washing Peters feet (depicted above) represents something that happened but I still find it inspirational.  If, however, evidence was discovered that increased my confidence in its historicity then the inspiration and meaning I experience would be further enhanced.

The Fall of Phaethon

I recently came upon this Latin phrase: Medio tutissimus ibis (You will go most safely by the Middle Way), and was intrigued. I looked it up, and found that it came from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid was one of the greatest Roman poets, and his Metamorphoses are treatments of various Classical myths around the theme of transformation. The quotation comes from the story of Phaethon, and it turns out that it has quite a lot of symbolic power as a story about the Middle Way.

The story goes that Phaethon was the unrecognised son on Phoebus (Greek Helios), the sun  god who drove the chariot of the sun across the sky every day. On finding out from his mother that he was the son of Phoebus, Phaethon went to him asking for recognition. Phoebus agreed to grant him any favour he might ask, so Phaethon then demanded to drive the sun chariot across the sky for a day. Phoebus warned him about how difficult this involves. The horses are difficult to control, and you need to follow a middle path to make sure the earth gets the right amount of heat.  Deviating from that middle path could have disastrous consequences. But Phaethon insists. Here is the crucial passage where Phoebus advises Phaethon on his course.

Observe with care that both the earth and sky
have their appropriate heat—Drive not too low,
nor urge the chariot through the highest plane;
for if thy course attain too great a height
thou wilt consume the mansions of the sky,
and if too low the land will scorch with heat.
“Take thou the middle plane, where all is safe;
nor let the Wheel turn over to the right
and bear thee to the twisted Snake! nor let
it take thee to the Altar on the left—
so close to earth—but steer the middle course.—
to Fortune I commit thy fate, whose care
for thee so reckless of thyself I pray.

(Metamorphoses 2:137, trans. More)

It is “take thou the middle plane, where all is safe” that corresponds to the Latin phrase medio tutissimus ibis. There are a number of interesting aspects to this from the standpoint of the symbology of the Middle Way. Firstly, the middle course is three dimensional: not too high or too low as well as not too far to the left or right. Of course, the Middle Way is not any old middle course between any set of conventionally-define extremes, but the extremes given by Ovid seem to be of greater significance than that and to in may ways match up with those avoided by the Middle Way. If we consume the mansions of the sky, this could stand for appropriating the divine or the idea of the perfect and infinite. If on the other hand, we scorch the land, this can stand of absolutizing particular worldly goals and thus allowing our ambitions and ideologies to consume the world. The twisted snake may be associated with Asculapius, the god of medicine who was supposed to have been punished for taking medicine too far and reviving the dead. On the other hand, the Altar obviously has associations with religiosity. So the left and right extremes here could well be understood as standing for scientism on the one hand, which pushes science too far by drawing absolute conclusions from it, and religious absolutism on the other.fall-of-phaethon-carlo-dellorto-ccbysa4-0

Like us, pushed into the world to try to follow a Middle Way, Phaethon is horrifically unprepared. He is a reckless and naïve youth who has neither the skill nor the wisdom to follow that middle course. The results follow in the rest of the story. Phaethon is unable to control the horses, and plunges to earth, where the fire of the sun starts to burn everything up (apparently producing the Sahara desert). The earth appeals desperately to Jupiter, who sends a lightning-bolt which destroys Phaethon and somehow stops the conflagration.

The Fall of Phaethon thus seems to be a potent symbol of the potentially disastrous consequences of veering from the Middle Way. By falling to earth he veers too far off the path downwards, giving way too much to narrow worldly goals and beliefs. The idea that this might destroy the world through heat can be a potent one for us today, given the threat of global warming, one of the effects of which are a greater threat of conflagrations and desertification, both mentioned by Ovid. This threat can be directly linked to our tendency to absolutise our desires.


Wikipedia on Phaethon

Online translation of Ovid’s metamorphoses


Picture: Fall of Phaethon, mural in a Genoese villa, taken by Carlo Dell’Orto CCBYSA 4.0

Heroic Agnosticism

There seems to be a basic misapprehension, shared by traditional religion and Romantic narrative alike, that the absolutists are the heroes. Heroes stick up for what they believe in, regardless of what fate throws at them. They continue with the quest – across the oceans, deserts, and arctic wastes – they slay the monsters, and in the end they get their reward. Or, even if the hero does not get all he desires, his beliefs are at least upheld, even if he has to die for them, for the martyr too is a hero. It’s stirring stuff, constantly reinforced for us by Hollywood, by heroic literature, even by religion.

Who could question such a narrative? Nobody should underestimate the difficulties. But one of Jung’s visions in the Red Book confronts us with their full pain.

I was with a youth in high mountains. It was before daybreak, the Eastern sky was already light. Then Siegfried’s horn resounded over the mountains with a jubilant sound. We knew that our mortal enemy was coming. We were armed and lurked beside a narrow rocky path to murder him. Then we saw him coming high across the mountains on a chariot made of the bones of the dead. He drove boldly and magnificently over the steep rocks and arrived at the narrow path where we waited in hiding. As he came round the turn ahead of us, we fired at the same time and he fell slain. thereupon I turned to flee, and a terrible rain swept down. But after this, I went through a torment unto death and I felt certain that I must kill myself, if I could not solve the riddle of the murder of the hero. (p.161)Siegfrieds_deathJung is slaying, not a literal hero, but the archetype of the hero within himself. The belief that the hero will always succeed against the conditions, and that his desires and beliefs are intrinsically right according to some assumed cosmic law, is one that we may implicitly indulge every time we get caught up in the hero story. Not only do we absolutise the hero himself, but we may also identify ourselves with him. But if we are to recognise the limitations of this reassuring fantasy, we have to be able to recognise that the hero may be wrong in his assumptions. To recognise this may feel extremely painful, and the death of the hero symbolises this pain. The myths provide us with this death story as well as with the achievements of the hero, giving us the resources of meaning to be able to recognise it, but we may still have to go through that shock of dis-identification.

Jung identifies the death of the hero with the archetypal role of Christ, whose crucifixion plays a similar role: showing us that our absolutised idea of a human God must die so as to lead us on to an engagement with God that is no longer based solely on human projection. Jung puts it this way:

I must say that the God could not come into being before the hero had been slain. The hero as we understand him has become an enemy of the God, since the hero is perfection. The Gods envy the perfection of man, because perfection has no need of the Gods. But since no-one is perfect, we need the Gods. The Gods love perfection because it is the total way of life. But the Gods are not with him who wishes to be perfect, because he is an imitation of perfection. (p.171)

‘The Gods’ here are symbolic of our own wider recognition – of the limitations of our current egoistic view of ourselves and of our greater potential as more integrated beings. We do not attain perfection merely by imitating, because the model we imitate may have worked in the conditions it was produced but is unlikely to work in the very different conditions of our own lives. Only integrated creativity will do, and that requires us to let go of our identification with all heroic models of imitation.

Strangely enough, though, there seems to be an even greater heroism involved in this process. What could be more heroic, itself, than killing the hero? But if we reduce this to another model of imitation, an absolute set of beliefs about how the world is and how we should act in it, then we will find this new heroism just as limiting in the end, and find ourselves in a cycle of endlessly killing new heroes. The killing of the hero needs to be accompanied by the further development of integration in experience so that we come to rely positively on that rather than on absolute beliefs about the hero. Our heroism needs to become agnostic, but such heroism can be seen, not as abandoning heroism, but as finding a deeper and more adequate form of it.

I have often been puzzled by the way that agnosticism is frequently portrayed in popular discourse, as the very opposite of heroic. As Richard Dawkins describes agnostics (quoting a preacher with approval): “Namby-pamby, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitters” (The God Delusion, p.69). The assumption here seems to be that agnostics dare not attempt the heroism of belief, whereas I want to suggest that on the contrary, agnostics are even more heroic than the heroes caught up in their righteous assumptions. The dogmatic hero carries on against adversity in the certain feeling that God or the universe is on his side. The agnostic hero, on the other hand, has to manage without such delusory certainties, managing only with hope and embodied confidence. Nothing can be taken as determined about her success in the goals she takes up, and even those goals themselves have to be taken as provisional ones. The greatest hero ventures into the lands of uncertainty, and rather than just slaying the monsters, has the courage to question her own monstrous projections.

It is upsetting to find people like Richard Dawkins failing to recognise the heroism of agnosticism, when that very heroism is so central to science. The scientist always has to proceed in conditions of uncertainty, unless she constructs deluded assumptions of naturalistic ‘truth’ where none are available to us. The use of scientific method is distinguished for its heroic agnosticism. But this heroic agnosticism can also be a distinguishing feature of the very ‘religion’ that Dawkins so despises. The mystics, too, proceed on the basis of a faith that grows from their experience of what they call God, and have to slay their own heroic certainties in order to plunge into the cloud of unknowing. Religious believers and scientists alike may have to slay their own heroes on order to go on to a deeper recognition of human potential.

Picture: The death of Siegfried (public domain)