I’ve been getting into Jordan Peterson lately. Because so many of you point out that Peterson is a partisan of Carl Jung, I pulled off my bookshelf a couple of books about Jung that a friend gave me when he cleaned out his library a few years ago. One of them is Jung And Christianity: The Challenge of Reconciliation by Wallace B. Clift. It’s a 1983 book that’s out of print, and therefore not easy to find. It’s a helpful introduction to Jung’s thought, written by an Episcopal priest and academic who is also a Jungian — or rather, who was; Father Clift died last year at the age of 91.
Chapter 8 in the book, “Myth As Meaning-Giver,” is rich, and I want to share its insights with you in light of the post I put up the other day about the megachurch pastor who turned his church into a basketball court for a sermon series. This chapter offers a wealth of insight into the present and future of Christianity in America. I’m going to add my own commentary, interspersed between my summary of Clift’s take on Jung.
Jung believed that mythology and fairy tales told us something vitally important about human psychology — not just the psychology of individual humans, but the psychology of humanity itself. This is why the same themes and motifs occur across cultures. The stories we tell are how we convey meaning. Certain stories are held by particular cultures as sacred — that is, embodying the deepest possible meaning about the structure of reality — and are embodied within rituals, morals, and social organizations of the culture that holds to those stories. These sacred stories give both the reason for ritual and moral actions, and describes how to carry them out.
This type of story, one that functions in this way, is called myth. In the ordinary, everyday usage of the word, of course, myth means something that is “false” or “not real.” It should be noted, however, that there are two ways in which the term myth is used: one is the popular usage, just mentioned, in which myth stands for the untrue; in the second way it is used it refers to a story that is infinitely true (in the way the anthropologists have described for us). In this latter usage, myth refers to a special kind of story that describes how life is and how life is to be responded to.
That’s how Jung used the term myth. In this anthropological sense, the stories of the Bible are myths. The foundational stories of American history are also myths, even if they are 100 percent factually true. What makes them myths is that they are stories that we collectively use to explain to ourselves who we are and what we are supposed to do.
A tribe’s basic set of stories constitutes its psychic life. A tribe disintegrates and falls to pieces when it loses its mythological heritage. As Jung said, “A tribe’s mythology is its living religion, whose loss is always and everywhere, even among the civilized, a moral catastrophe.” Without myths, there is no link with the past and no basis for orientation toward the future. One is, indeed, “lost.”
Do I really need to point out to you that the dechristianization of the West constitutes the loss of our mythological heritage? And not only the dechristianization of the West, but the failure of people today both to pass on our history and civilization, and the determination many have to do so only by a viciously unbalanced denigration of that civilization. This really is suicidal.
This is really interesting:
Myth also provided a solution to the problem of time as the destroyer. For implicit in the perspective of the primitive was the notion of “the perfection of the beginning.” Ancient Israel had its story of the Garden of Eden, and most peoples have had similar stories of a time of perfection in the beginning. People who lived then were “special,” even giants or long-lived, certainly different in significant ways. A subsidiary nothing is that time destroys that “perfection at the beginning.” …
If time is the problem, the destroyer, what is the solution? Memory. Memory is the way of healing, of overcoming time. Through myth and ritual, archaic societies recalled and reenacted the “original time,” the time of the beginnings.
Here I want to bring up the social anthropologist Paul Connerton’s great little book How Societies Remember, which I wrote about here. In the book, Connerton analyzes societies that managed to resist being dissolved into the chaos of liquid modernity, to find out how they achieved it. What he discovered is that they all lived by a sacred story that was ritually enacted with regularity. What’s more, the rituals involved the body.
I write about Connerton’s findings in The Benedict Option because he has a key to understanding why the kind of Christianity most of us are living today is dissolving in the face of liquid modernity — and, in turn, the kind of Christianity that we must live if we are going to survive it with our faith intact. A deritualized, demythologized Christianity is doomed.
A second function of mythology is to provide an explanation or image of the universe and how it came to be, that is, a cosmology. The description of the world, however, has to correspond to the actual experience, knowledge, and mentality of the culture involved. This explanatory function of myth is what has given myth its “bad” name. Today we turn to science for explanations, rather than to the old folk stories of our culture. However, for most of us, science functions like myth in that we have no personal experience of the matter. We put our trust in the scientific view given us by our culture and enshrined in its myths. If asked why leaves are green, most of us would probably mutter something about “chlorophyll.” But unless we were specialists, we would simply be repeating the story of someone else’s experience.
This is true, isn’t it? In his memoir, Jung said that the ancient myths were the first form of science, in that they were attempts to investigate the nature of reality, and explain the findings to others. Obviously it wasn’t science as we know science today, but the connection between science and myth (religion) remains.
The problem is that today, people try to make science do what proper science cannot do: provide moral and metaphysical meaning. They pervert science into Scientism.
Clift says that mythology also serves a sociological function, in that it tells the group who it is and what it is to do, and it informs the individual within the group how he is to relate to the others.
It is in the stories of their cultures that individuals in primitive societies found their orientation and direction — how they were to lived. These provided them with a justification for their values.
Clift points out that myth functions sociologically in part by teaching us, through the rituals derived from them, how to behave in crises. Reading this part of the chapter, I thought back to the moment that my father died in his hospice bed. He was surrounded by family and friends when he took his last breath. It was a moment of high drama, as you can easily imagine. There was a moment of silence, and then I began to pray the Our Father aloud. Everybody joined in. This was a little thing, but it brought a proper sense of dignity to this dramatic moment, and it brought all of us in the room together, in reciting aloud the most important prayer of our religion. Truth is, there we all were, children and old folks alike, and we had just witnessed the passing from this life to the next of an old man we all loved fiercely … and we could not possibly have come up with a response in that moment that was worthy of it, or of my father. But we didn’t have to. Our mythological tradition (so to speak) told us what to do for him, and for ourselves.
Religions provide a picture of a “larger reality.” There is “something more” beyond one’s own limited personal experience. In all places and in all times, people have found values that gave significance to their lives and lifted them out of the humdrum of daily existence. And the only way this kind of transcendent value can be talked about is in stories — the language of myth and symbol.
The South African author Laurens Van der Post, in writing about the Bushmen, whom he calls “the first men of Africa,” said, “These people knew what we do not: that without a story you have not got a nation, or a culture, or a civilization.” The Bushmen’s stories were the supreme expression of their spirit, and so, their most sacred possession.
Can you see in this why Jordan Peterson is so successful today in reaching people, while so many members of the Christian clergy are not? Peterson may or may not be a Christian, but he talks about mythology, especially Christian mythology (that is, Bible stories), as if they were true in the Jungian sense. That is, as if they told us things that are true about reality, and ourselves. And he teaches his listeners what they can learn from those myths. In The Benedict Option, the prominent sociologist of religion Christian Smith weighed in in this passage about Christianity and Eros:
Dante’s Divine Comedy, the greatest literary creation of the Middle Ages, is a staggeringly powerful portrait of the manifold dimensions of love: the pilgrim Dante’s passion for Beatrice, and the glory transfiguring Creation when a man allows his desire for God to condition all his other loves. This is love as a glorious cosmic drama, transcending time and space, in which each individual joins with the eternal dance, sharing in “the love that moves the Sun and all the other stars.”
To reduce Christian teaching about sex and sexuality to bare, boring, thou-shalt-not moralism is a travesty and a failure of imagination. Conservative pastors whose sermons jackhammer away at sexual immorality as if it were the only serious sin, or were somehow disconnected from a host of other sins of passion, distort the Gospel and undermine its credibility. This lamentable reductionism constitutes a failure to draw on the inexhaustible well of resources within the Christian theological and artistic tradition. In the end, it comes down to a matter of Christians having lost our own grand story about eros, cosmos, and theosis, the Greek word for “union with God,” the ultimate end of the Christian pilgrimage.
“All of life is now being ordered by narratives and images that don’t reflect the old boundaries,” says sociologist Christian Smith. “Churches have something to say about this. They should go back again and again to the drinking well of the Gospel and offer a true alternative transcendent story. If they can’t do that, if they remain saddled with moralism, then they better hang it up now.”
What he means, I think, is that Christian pastors need to start doing what Jordan Peterson is able to do: help the flock to see that they are part of a cosmic drama. This is certainly not to say that this is opposed to morality; rather, it is opposed to moralism, which is the overemphasis on morality and moral codes. This is the Judge in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or — a man who makes obeying the moral code his summum bonum. Kierkegaard certainly did not believe that one could or should discard the moral code. His point, though, was that it had to be rooted in the lived experience of transcendent reality.
I’m learning from Clift’s book that despite Jung’s ambivalent relationship to Christianity — he was the son of a Swiss Protestant pastor, but could neither affirm Christianity nor deny it — there are things we observant Christians can learn about our faith, and about faith in general, from familiarizing ourselves with his ideas. Jung believed that the immense confusion, depression, and suffering he saw as a psychiatrist had to do with the loss of Christianity as a psychic force in the modern West. Jung believed that demythologized Christianity was poison, and that social-gospel Protestantism was a dead letter. He asserted that the only way for Christianity to survive is to place the individual’s encounter with the living God at the center of the faith — that, and to recognize the reality of God’s active presence among us. Clift ends the chapter like this:
During his lifetime Jung saw little evidence of any such vitality in the life of the Christian community. In a letter he wrote a few months before his death in 1961, he spoke of how rare it was for a Christian congregation to hear the fact that the voice of God could still be heard — if one was only humble enough. Jung’s challenge to Christianity with respect to listening to the voice of God reminds me of an old Hasidic tale. “Rabbi, why do not people hear the voice of God anymore?” To which the Rabbi replied, “Nowadays, no one will stoop so low.”
So, what does any of this have to do with Basketball Jesus?
First, we who worship in more formal, ritual forms of Christianity should be humble enough to recognize that for all their many flaws, Christian leaders who attempt these new forms of worship and evangelism are attempting to “stoop low” so that people can hear the voice of God. Believe me, I have a thousand problems with the substance and the theory of that form of Christianity, but I’ve got to give them credit. Many of the rest of us don’t really try. And as much as the strong emotions of these services turn me off, the way these events attempt to give those present a sense of the active presence of the living God is to be admired.
But in light of what we’ve been talking about in this post, I wonder what these Christians expect to accomplish. Their form of Christianity is deliberately de-ritualized. How does it pass on the community’s cultural memory, and its mythology? How does it prevent the passing of time from destroying the sacred story that binds and elevates the community? How is this not an example of radical contemporaneity, and as such, a poison pill for the Christian faith?
That Texas pastor’s basketball sermon was not a bad Christian pep talk about authority, and the need for recognizing and living by authority. But how does a worship service that turns the stage (!) into a basketball court serve the goals of forming disciples who have Christian mythology (in the Jungian sense of the term) sedimented into their bones? It looks and feels so ephemeral and shallow. If the goal is to convince people to be excited about their religious experience, okay, I can see how this works for some. If the goal is to convince people to behave in particular moral ways, again, I can see how this makes sense for some.
But step back and look at what is happening to the Church within Western civilization. We are losing, and largely have lost, our sacred story. Without a sacred story, you don’t have a nation, a culture, or a civilization. Sociologist Christian Smith’s research has documented how completely Christianity has been displaced within Christian churches and communities with a pseudo-Christian ethic that emphasizes well-being and self-satisfaction. Our people don’t know what Christianity is anymore, and don’t know what they don’t know. And you’re telling me that Basketball Jesus is going to be sufficient to withstand the onslaught of time?
Look, I don’t think any of us have this figured out. Liturgical Christians have many more tools to do this right, but far too many of us have become completely captive to the culture, and deny, either actively or passively, the power of our own sacred story and the tools that have been given to us to tell it and live it. Jung said that archaic cultures didn’t just believe their myths, their sacred stories: they lived them. We churches today have to offer a true alternative transcendent story (Smith), and not just as a proposition, but embodied in a disciplined, ordered way of life deeply rooted in the Bible and sacred tradition. This is the only antidote to the catastrophe of dechristianization.