Guide-Post: Reflections on a Peach-Seed Monkey
Updated: Apr 9, 2019
Adapted from “Reflections on a Peach-Seed Monkey, or Storytelling and the Death of God” in Sam Keen's To a Dancing God (HarperCollins, 1990).
THE LOSS OF STORY AND THE "DEATH OF GOD"
The crisis in the metaphysical identity of humanity reflected in the metaphor “the death of God” remains the unsolved philosophical and spiritual dilemma of modern times. How we are to come to terms with the tragic character of human existence in an age in which there is widespread loss of confidence in all absolute or transcendent points of reference will remain the agonizing philosophical problem for generations after the popular press has tired of “death-of-God” theologians.
Belief or disbelief in God involves a whole hierarchy of ideas, attitudes, and feelings about nature, history, and the manner in which one aspires and acts within human community. Both theism and atheism are long-range, radical commitments. As Sartre has pointed out, it is not possible, without bad faith, merely to cross out the word “God” and go on existing within a theistic world of feeling and action. Thus, “the death of God” refers to a total change in the way many modern people perceive the context of their existence. The metaphysical matrix, or the spiritual ecology, of modern life is changing. The basic analogies, images, and metaphors which served to establish the metaphysical identity of traditional Westerners are losing their credibility and their power to inform life.
The purpose of this post is to explore one of the most fundamental Western metaphysical or, better, metamundane metaphors—the metaphor of the story.
We must say that, symbolically, the identity of traditional people was based upon their ability to find their way in the forest, to light the fire, to say the prayer, and to tell a story that placed life within an ultimate context. Each people had its own cycle of stories which located the individual within the tribe, the tribe within the cosmos, and the cosmos within the overworld. Modern humanity has lost its way in the forest, we cannot light the fire or say the prayer, and we are dangerously close to losing our ability to see our lives as part of any story. In the bungaloid world that we are able to know with intelligence untouched by tenderness and can verify with senses which have been disciplined to exclude ecstasy, there is no transcendence. Even where the modest self-transcendence of love has remained a source of identity, there is deep suspicion that those who claim, by fire or prayer or sacred authority, to transcend the time-bound capsule in which we are all exiled are fools trafficking in dreams, fantasies, and illusions. It now appears that the ahistorical attitude created by the triumph of technological mentality and American ideology may be destroying the function of the story as a source of metamundane identity.
In exploring the significance of the metaphor of the story, I will suggest that telling stories is functionally equivalent to belief in God, and, therefore,
“the death of God” is best understood as modern mankind’s inability to believe that human life is rendered ultimately meaningful by being incorporated into a story.
I shall try to rehabilitate the story as a basic tool for the formation of identity. This is where the peach-seed monkey comes in. I will try to find out from him whether theology may find a new method for telling stories and for locating the presence of the holy in a time when the orthodox stories about the “mighty acts of God” no longer inform Western identity.
THE ANCIENT STORYTELLERS
Preliterate peoples lived in a world which received their intellectual, religious, and social structure through the story. Each tribe had its own set of tales, myths, and legends which defined the metaphysical context within which it lived, gave a history of the sacred foundation of its social rituals, and provided concrete models of authentic life. Membership in the tribe involved retelling and acting out the shared stories which had been passed on from generation to generation since the beginning of time.
As the studies of Eliade show, archaic peoples sought to avoid the profane and to live in the realm of the sacred. Sacred acts were those which could be traced back to some archetype which had been originated by a god or hero. Thus, the telling of stories was a way of justifying and sanctioning those values which were essential to the preservation of the community. Wealth and status were often measured in archaic societies more by the stories a person knew, the rituals he was authorized to conduct, and the dances he could perform than by the cattle and possessions he had accumulated. The story served the diverse functions of philosophy, theology, history, ethics, and entertainment. It served to locate the individual within the concentric circles of the cosmos, nature, the community, and the family, and it provided a concrete amount of what was expected of a person and what they might expect in that darkness which lies beyond death.
LOSING THE NARRATIVE
In a certain sense, we may date the birth of the modern world at the point when the Judeo-Christian story ceased to entertain and fascinate and new stories and ideologies were created which reflected humanity’s growing love affair with the earth.
Although the new stories no longer spoke of the gods or of God, the outline of the drama which Greek and Christian shared was still not changed. The costumes and the language changed, but the plot remained the same. In the new languages of politics, economics, philosophy, technology, and psychology, the drama of innocence/fall/recovery-of-innocence was retold. The Enlightenment tried to replace the period of original innocence with the notion of the gradual education of the human race from the darkness of mytho-poetic thought into the full light of reason, but innocence returned in Romanticism, socialism, and the ideology of American democracy, etc.
It is only within the present century that the metaphor of the story and the outline of the traditional drama which have been commonplace in Western civilization have been radically criticized and widely abandoned. For the contemporary intellectual, the metaphysical myth has ceased to provide the context for identity. The conviction is gone that history tells a story that reality may be appropriate known in dramatic terms. While we retain and share such political myths as those clustering around the labels “democracy” and “communism,” we have lost the metamundane myths and even the confidence in their possible usefulness.
In real life there are no beginnings or endings; there are no moments of intrinsic significance which form a framework of meaning around experience. There are only days “tacked on to days without rhyme or reason, an interminable, monotonous addition”. The refrain that runs throughout Sartre's Nausea is “anything can happen”; no universal reason sets limits to the possible and gives meaning to human history. In the face of the absurdity of existence, the only option for the lucid individual is to create a reason for existing by writing a book or joining a political movement, etc. Only by choosing some project, however arbitrary, can the individual fill the present moment and escape the nausea which results from awareness of the absolute contingency and absurdity of existence.
STORYTELLING AS A WAY FORWARD
BELIEF IN STORYTELLING
By looking at the function the story served in traditional cultures and by contrasting the situation of the contemporary intellectual living in a happenstance world, we can get some notion of the implicit confession of faith involved in the act of telling a story and some measure of what has been lost.
In telling stories, traditional people were affirming the unity of reality. The individual, the tribe, nature, and the cosmos fit together in concentric circles of integrated meaning. All of the parts were necessary to form a coherent and artistic whole. Past, present, and future were, likewise, bound together in a thematic unity. Thus, the individual standing on the ever-disappearing point of present time could affirm that the meaning of his existence was not destroyed by the passing of time. He took courage from his knowledge that he had roots in what had been and that his memory and deeds would be preserved in what would be. In effect, the story affirmed that the reality of the individual was not reducible to the present moment of experience but belonged to a continuity of meaning that the flow of time could not erode. With this faith the individual could act with a sense of continuity and perspective; his spontaneity was tempered by memory and hope.
Another article of faith hidden in the act of storytelling is the confidence that the scale of Being is such that a human being can grasp the meaning of the whole. Personality is not an epiphenomenon in an alien world of matter ruled by chance and number but is the key to the cosmos. Man is a microcosm; thus, in telling his stories, he may have confidence that his warm, concrete, dramatic images are not unrelated to the forces that make for the unity of the macrocosm. While his images and stories may reduce the proportions of reality to a scale that is manageable by the human spirit, their distortion serves the cause of truth. Traditional people had every confidence that their symbols, myths, and stories were the most appropriate means to grasp reality and were not merely illusions projected out of an isolated, subjective brain.
TOWARDS A NEW, PERSONAL MYTHOLOGY
We must begin our search with the realization that no form of neo-orthodoxy provides a viable starting point. The orthodox metamundane myths of religion are no longer supported by any authority strong enough to command the respect of an unprejudiced inquirer. Knowledge of comparative religions, textual criticism, and the dynamics of symbol formation and functioning has destroyed our ability to grant a priori authority to any religious tradition. For the moment, at least, we must put all orthodox stories in brackets and suspend whatever remains of our belief-ful attitude. Our starting point must be individual biography and history.
If I am to discover the holy it must be in my biography and not in the history of Israel. If there is a principle which gives unity and meaning to history it must be something I touch, feel, and experience. Our starting point must be radical.
We may use a series of questions to suggest a method which may lead us back to storytelling and theology:
Is there anything on the native ground of my own experience—my biography, my history—which testifies to the reality of the holy?
Since the word “holy” in this question is, itself, problematic, we may further translate it into functional terms. Thus, to restate our first question in operational terms:
Is there anything in my experience which gives it unity, depth, destiny, dignity, meaning, and value—which makes graceful freedom possible?
If we can discover such a principle at the foundation of personal identity, we have every right to use the ancient language of the holy, and therefore, to mark out a domain for the theological exploration.
THE STORY OF THE PEACH-SEED MONKEY
Since I have shifted the ground of theology to the individual and the quotidian, I can proceed only by telling my story and then by inviting my story to tell theirs.
Once upon a time when there were still Indians, Gypsies, bears, and bad men in the woods of Tennessee where I played and, more important still, there was no death, a promise was made to me.
One endless summer afternoon my father sat in the eternal shade of a peach tree, carving on a seed he had picked up. With increasing excitement and covetousness I watched while, using a skill common to all omnipotent creators, he fashioned a small monkey out of the seed. All of my vagrant wishes and desires disciplined themselves and came to focus on that peach-seed monkey. If only I could have it, I would possess a treasure which could not be matched in the whole cosmopolitan town of Maryville! What status, what identity, I would achieve by owning such a curio! Finally I marshaled my nerve and asked if I might have the monkey when it was finished (on the sixth day of creation). My father replied, “This one is for your mother, but I will carve you one someday.”
Days passed, and then weeks, and finally, years, and the someday on which I was to receive the monkey did not arrive. In truth, I forgot all about the peach-seed monkey. Life in the ambience of my father was exciting, secure, and colorful. He did all of those things for his children a father can do, not the least of which was merely delighting in their existence. One of the lasting tokens I retained of the measure of his dignity and courage was the manner in which, with emphysema sapping his energy and eroding his future, he continued to wonder, to struggle, and to grow.
In the pure air and dry heat of an Arizona afternoon on the summer before the death of God, my father and I sat under a juniper tree. I listened as he wrestled with the task of taking the measure of his success and failure in life. There came a moment of silence that cried out for testimony. Suddenly I remembered the peach-seed monkey, and I heard the right words coming from myself to fill the silence: “In all that is important you have never failed me. With one exception, you kept the promises you made to me—you never carved me that peach-seed monkey.”
Not long after this conversation I received a small package in the mail. In it was a peach-seed monkey and a note which said: “Here is the monkey I promised you. You will notice that I broke one leg and had to repair it with glue. I am sorry I didn’t have time to carve a perfect one.”
Two weeks later my father died. He died only at the end of his life.
HAVING A STORY
For me, a peach-seed monkey has become a symbol of all the promises which were made to me and the energy and care which nourished and created me as a human being. And even more fundamentally, it is a symbol of that which is the foundation of all human personality and dignity.
When I uncover the promises made and kept which are the hidden root of my sense of the basic trustworthiness of the world and my consequent freedom to commit myself to action, I discover my links with the past; I find the “once upon a time” which is the beginning of the story I must tell to be myself.
In the same act of recovering the principle of my identity, I discover a task for my future; being the recipient of promises, I become the maker of promises. I seek to manifest that same faithfulness to others which was graciously shown to me. In identifying myself as one who lives by promises and promising, I find the principle which gives unity to my life and binds together the past, the future, and the present. Without losing the spontaneity of significant action in the present, I transcend every dying moment toward my roots in the past and my end in the future. I have a story.
THE PERSONAL AND THE MYTHIC
A series of questions arises at this point. Is the peach-seed monkey not of mere individual significance? While it may be of symbolic significance in the biography of Sam Keen, does it not lack the universal element which allowed the metamundane myths of former generations to be the shared property of a community? Does the intimate character of such a story merely point to the dilemma of the twentieth-century person, whose biography is not inserted into any shared mythological structure? And, finally, how can such a story lay claim to a theological meaning?
In the depth of each person’s biography lies the story of all people. The peach-seed monkey, thus, belongs as much to you as to me. Who can deny that his civility and humanity have been nurtured by a matrix of promise too rich and intricate to detail? To be minimally human involves the use of language and reason which can only be learned where there has been a modicum of civility and promise-keeping. He who reads or speaks confesses in that very act that he has been succored, educated, and humanized in a social matrix. Psychological reflection shows that when the individual goes to the heart of their own biography unhampered by shame or repression, they find there a universality of experience that binds them to all humanity.
If we look more deeply at the story of the peach-seed monkey, we discover that it has a theological as well as a universal significance. There is, of course, no way in which the existence, activity, or reality of God can be demonstrated from such a story. Therefore, if the criterion for theological significance is the use of God-language, the matter ends here. As we suggested earlier, however, theological language need not be limited to God-talk. Any language is authentically theological which points to what is experienced as holy and sacred. And we may now define the holy as “that irreducible principle, power, or presence which is the source and guarantor of unity, dignity, meaning, value, and wholeness." If such phenomenological and functional definition of theological language is permissible, it becomes obvious that the peach-seed monkey points to a dimension of reality which is sacred. The sanctity of promises is the sine qua non of humanness; it is the principle upon which identity and community are founded.
Traditional theists and humanists alike will deny that any principle grounded in purely human commitment is a candidate for theological honors. Both will maintain that theology has to do with the extraordinary rather than the ordinary, the supernatural rather than the natural, or the transcendent source rather than the subterranean foundations of life. A phenomenological approach does not allow us the luxury of such a segregation of the holy. If we begin with a description of the functional significance of the encounter with the holy, we are forced to conclude that the power to give unity and meaning to life which was once mediated by metamundane myths is today experienced as present in the principles which are the foundation of identity and community.
By locating the holy in the spiritual depths rather than the heights—in the quotidian rather than the supernatural—the form and imagery, not the substance, of the religious consciousness is changed. If the promises that redeem us spring from mundane soil rather than from an authorized covenant with God, history is, nevertheless, experienced as the story of promise and fulfillment. Human existence is still sanctified by sacrifice, and we may appropriate face the mysterious givenness of life and personality with gratitude and reverence.
This change in language from images of height to depth represents the religious response of the 20th century mind to the loss of the traditional metamundane myths. If God is gone from the sky, he must be found in the earth. Theology must concern itself not only with the Wholly Other God, but with the sacred “Ground of Being” (Tillich)—not just with a unique incarnation in past history, but with the principles, powers, and persons which are presently operative to make and keep human life luminous and sacred.
Whether such a subterranean theology will allow us to weather the crisis in spiritual identity through which we are passing is still unknown. For those who no longer find in the stories and myths of orthodox religion the power to inform life with creative meaning, it may, at least, point to a locality and method which may be useful in discovering a sacred dimension of life.