Riting Myth, Mythic Writing: (2) Riting the Religious Self through Ideas and Images
Updated: Apr 30, 2019
This post is an excerpt from Dennis Patrick Slattery's Riting Myth, Mythic Writing: Plotting Your Personal Story (Fisher King Press, 2012).
“First, imagination can be described as a rule-governed form of invention or, in other terms, as a norm-governed productivity.”
– Paul Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, trans. David Pellauer, p. 144
“In the first place, should the Gods express themselves in the psyche through its ideas, then our occupation with ideas is at least partly a religious occupation.”
– James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, p. 129
Perhaps we have misjudged psychology and religion by creating a gap or fissure between them and often pitting them against one another. I suggest that the bridge or connective tissue that allows a fuller and more satisfying conversation to ensue between these two ways of grasping what seems mysterious and outside or beneath or above the normal ways of thought, is myth in the form of enduring psychic patterns that give shape and meaning to both spiritual and psychological experiences.
The other element here that both share and that I owe a debt to James Hillman’s original work in archetypal psychology and its methodology for bringing more clearly to the surface, is vision. He explores these realms of seeing into our thoughts, behaviors, ideas and images in Revisioning Psychology to reveal in what way the mythic patterns we live within are akin to the visions “which govern human beings as the world believed itself ruled from Olympus and by daimons, powers, and personified principles which we now call ‘the unconscious’” (Hillman, p. 129).
As I read and think about what is implicated in his thought between psyche—myth—religion, I discover that as Gods are in my religious beliefs, so I tend to make my religion a God. None of this, to my mind, subtracts from spiritual experiences or religious beliefs—in fact the opposite occurs. I see for the first time that separating these modes of inquiry from one another truncates understanding, aborts a full vision of psycho-spiritual life and retards my own sense of each of these areas when studied isolated from one another.
My desire here is to offer a meditation in which we are asked to think about how the ideas I see the world through, the visions I carry into my interior and external life, are nothing less than the shaping forces and forming fictions by which I create both the picture of reality and its consequent meanings. These visions “grip us,” as Hillman writes of them. In a slightly different expression which captures the same sensibility . . . in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when, towards the end of the play, the young prince speaks to his close friend Horatio in a moment of revelation: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will,” Divinity is enfolded in our ideas; gods and goddesses appear as guides in our behaviors, habits, idiosyncrasies, which can also be understood as religious dimensions of our spiritual being.
A perspective, a prejudice, a firm and unshakable idea, a belief that brooks no quarter with others—all of these can be altars, even fully developed shrines, painstakingly built stone by stone over many years so that it and a fortress can not be distinguished as an edifice that keeps me sheltered and immune from other gods, other ideas, points of view, or realms of understanding. I see this most poignantly and dramatically in current political discussions, where real debate, open conversation, an ability or occasion to shift one’s point of view, a tacit or explicit respect for the other’s thoughts, a sense of civility that attends opposing philosophies, are considered weaknesses by candidates who suffer under the vision of unwavering, steadfast, clear-minded, non-negotiating, ego-driven, muscle-headed, God-sanctioned posturings. Unconquerable remain all parts of the shrine, brick-by-brick placed solidly with the certainty of mortar to allow no real thought that could show one’s Achilles’ heel, much less a foot firmly ensconced in one’s mouth! In the process, a religion of dogmatic assertions rules over one’s ability to see something from another angle. Leadership as despotism appears to rule the religious roost of the political shrine that voters then pay homage to with the sacrificial blessing of their ballot.
Myth, then, includes the historical, psychological and religious; we are inspirited, baptized, confirmed and may receive Extreme Unction through our steadfast ideas; behind the ideas, as Hillman invests this movement in the soul, are gods and goddesses so that spirit and psyche find a common ground. A close affinity develops in time in conversation wherein reversion, re-vision and religio—a turning or bending back and in, share a common weal. To speak of religion and psychology as two vastly different entities that “structure our consciousness with such force and possession” (Hillman, p. 129) is to further coerce the split in us into a wider fissure, then into a vast chasm where no one can any longer hear the voice of the Other. If we can, however, for the moment, entertain Hillman’s understanding of the classical Gods as attitudes or modes of seeing and understanding, then we can allow a greater elasticity in our lives to accommodate our personal myth in deeper layers of awareness.
Finally, I cite his definition or description of a God: “A God is a manner of existence, an attitude toward existence, and a set of ideas. Each God would project its divine logos, opening the soul’s eye so that it regards the world in a particularly formed way” (Hillman, 130). Without reducing the spiritual life we carry within in any way, I believe that his definition opens us to the mythic quality of religion and the religious qualities inherent in mythos, most specifically our personal myth, as it extends and tapers into a larger cultural myth that also envelops us. Both religion and myth are formative ways of understanding; history may then be conceived as an overt expression of that understanding in time and space. We benefit immeasurably by exploring within our own landscape the way in which our spiritual life is also in part an attitude as well as a set of ideas about creation, my purpose, the quality of meaning I inhabit, the good life, what virtue is, how I grasp the sacred in all things as well as what offers me comfort when I consider my own mortal and wounded precincts.
Describe in order of importance, three ideas that you worship, that is, what you give highest authority to in your daily life.
What is it within these ideas that carry so much value for you and may even make present on a regular basis the numinous in your life?
What do these ideas allow you to see that you might become blind to without them?
What is in in these ideas that help you to shape and form your way of understanding your life as having essential meaning and that gives you a perspective of yourself in a wider context of family, community and the larger world?
Would you ever, under any circumstances, sacrifice any of these ideas on a fiery altar of disuse? I am thinking of them as divine presences that you worship in the way you might worship the most valuable things, persons or situations in your life.
Do these ideas successfully keep other ideas from entering your sanctuary, chapel or cathedral you have constructed?
Are these ideas houses in separate tabernacles or do they speak to one another in divine discourse?
Is it possible for you to discern, within the power of these presences, what they do not allow in what you send might be of value if they did?
Are there any other ideas contesting any of these ideas, that even threaten to topple one or the other if given half a green light from you?
Does any one of these ideas keep chaos or breakdown at bay?
Do you sense that without this or that idea to shore you up daily, you might descend into the chaos of doubt, uncertainty, and ambiguity?
Do these ideas continue to satisfy your desire and ability to continue to deepen and broaden your spiritual self?
What, if anything, do you sense limits you because of any one of these three ideas?
If we shifted the language here to substitute the word image for idea, what images of divinity, of your spiritual life, of your own divine presence in the world would change?
Describe your self image as part of a divine image you carry and nurture.
Would you write differently about a divine image compared to a divine idea?
Would the image of the sacred or of a God be different in your description from the idea of the sacred?
Reflect on the questions posed in this Writing Meditation and (w)rite your responses in whatever form most inspires you...
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