Friday, December 12, 2008

More Than Any Creed

I've been reading "bridge" books lately, ones that offer a connection between Christianity and some secular domain. I have just now finished The Living God and Our Living Psyche, a book in which psychoanalyst Ann Belford Ulanov tells her fellow Christians neither to fear the work of Carl Jung nor to dismiss it as out of date. I walked away with a stunning idea: images matter more than any creed.

Images, of course, are the stuff of psychoanalytic practice. But Ulanov is not your typical analyst. A Jungian, she has spent forty years focusing on the spiritual import in what she hears. Images, she says, are how "we differently apprehend God: some of us visually, others of us through bodily sensations, textures, smells, sounds." You could lay out her treatment of those "apprehendings" as a path.

It would begin with the personal, the idiosyncratic. A somber woman dreams of Fred Astaire dancing with joy and shouting out, "Where is God?" A man whose conscious God is found in the gospel of John finds a strange alternative in a dream: there he bows before a giant pig. Another man's God has a cleft hand from which electric energy hisses. Such images are not restricted to dreams. One of Ulanov's clients found deep release when he saw a mosaic of Christ with his toes curled over the world. The curled toes were the key.

In Ulanov's hands, these messages from the unconscious, bizarre though some may be, are also messages from God. They are no less than Scripture, and just as much in need of interpretation. In the case of one: put joy in your life. In the case of another: explore your feelings about a mother goddess, about the awesome power of reproduction. Interpretations like these (it's hard to imagine making them without a therapist) take you down Ulanov's path of imagery.

And there you encounter a second source of symbols, a collective source. "We receive pictures fashioned by centuries of other human psyches, canonized in Scripture and in worshipping traditions." God as rock, refuge, feeder, calmer of the seas. The story of the Fall, the Virgin Birth, the God-Man. These are "official" images, "objective" ones. Without them Christianity would be gasping for water. Its adherents would say its prayers and recite its doctrines but have no life. Even worse, "our faith [could] become a weapon of attack against self and others, particularly our children."

On Ulanov's path you drink from both sources. You engage the personal and the collective. You find a "space" between the two. "The rough edges of idiosyncratic, even neurotic God-images can be rubbed right in exchange with images fashioned by the historic church community." At some point the space opens further, so you ask what it "wants." The answer will feel like grace, like the voice of God calling you onward.

Onward, that is, until images themselves are no longer useful, until their very success "wears them out." It's surprising to hear this from Ulanov, but symbols are finite, after all, and mystery is infinite. Inevitably one reaches the unknowing of the mystics. Here, at the end of the path, no words come, nor any images. There is only "unmediated Presence," "animating Spirit," the "living God." Ulanov ends up taking Christians to God as "a psychic fact of immediate experience." The words are Carl Jung's.

Engage images, explore them, surrender to them, let them go. All the while let them be images, nothing more. Ann Ulanov's counsel could apply to many faith traditions, not just Christianity. In the author's words, images "open us up and bring with them a dimension of reality that transcends us. . . . They impart to us the gift of divine presence." Can any creed do that, any set of doctrines?

Note: A full review of The Living God and Our Living Psyche appears in the current issue of The Global Spiral. Take a look.




Sharon Lippincott said...

This seems to tie in with the Dalai Lama's statement that mankind needs such a complex diversity of religions because each serves a need for a certain group of people. He supports Ulanov's view that comprehension of God is uniquely personal.

Anonymous said...

How many (especially young males) have been subtly driven away by images of the wimpy Goy Jesus?

Anonymous said...

I read the article on the value of
our HUMAN images of the DIVINE presence. Yes, we form sensual images of the non-sensual presence that cannot be imagined. Yet how often we presume that our mind can grasp the One whom we image.

Anonymous said...

I have long been fascinated with images and symbols, beginning with the teddy bear I wore out as a child. Years later, when I learned in graduate school that my love for that stuffed critter was really the satisfaction of my longing for my mother’s breast, I did not become cynical, but instead took this revelation as another proof of my increasing awareness of the complexity of life and of my place and faith within it. This kind of insight wasn’t available to me when, during a fraternity initiation, I was blindfolded and asked to reach in a thoroughly cleaned and sanitized toilet bowl and take in my hands and eat a peeled banana. The smell reassured me at some level that this indeed was a banana, but at a completely different level the texture and shape of the banana conjured up scenarios that were far less benign. I did in fact take a bite of the banana and was immensely relieved to taste it. The moral, I guess, is that, while we tend to want to believe that some aspect of our sentient self presents reality to us, be it thought, sight hearing, or any of the other senses, it is probably more true that it is a gestalt of all that that accounts for our perception reality. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!