Presenting a talk given at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco on May 3, 2012. A transcript of the talk follows.
(I realized later that I should also like to give thanks to visionary activist astrologer Caroline Casey for all she’s demonstrated to me about the trickster archetype and the importance of using language to “animate the desirable story.” Thank you, Caroline!)
There’s No Salvation from the Myth of Salvation
I entered the Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness [graduate] program in search of a beautiful critique of our times, as expressed by the following sentiment which I carried with me into this program: “It strikes me that providing hospice to a dying modern world view is just as important to human evolution and survival, as is living the possibilities of a different way forward into being, and I would only hope to discover a language of reconciliation sufficient to the task.”
I must be clear here, when I say “beautiful,” for the beauty I speak of isn’t something nice or pretty or any of our domesticated ideas of life bound up in a cage. Life is beautiful, and so there is also terror. The beautiful critique I seek is one which doesn’t wallow in postmodern angst about the shadow of self-reflective consciousness, that self-satisfied embrace of misanthropy—that is, the fear and hatred of humanity—which is supposed to somehow keep us safe from ourselves. The beautiful critique isn’t afraid of the terror which accompanies beauty, it stares straight into the face of these strange days of death which doesn’t die…and smiles.
For our existence exhibits a great many qualities, and the aesthetic and emotional response to life involves ALL of those qualities—not just those which may be desirable or attractive. Life involves the perception of finitude, of death and loss—the ultimately mysterious nature of the universe, with all of the unknown, the unexpected— To attempt to eradicate the wild, the mysterious, the uncivilized is to fail to acknowledge beauty’s depths, and has invariably led to the truly ugly.
Misanthropy can hide in the strangest places, it’s not just that which resides in the pit of the stomach of the activist working for improvement of what seem like intractable situations: such as the Sixth Mass Extinction underway, the conflict in Palestine and Israel, the mockery of democracy in a world so riven by structurally-embedded inequalities. One of the more curious places where I detect the fear and hatred of humanity is in the idea of salvation, the millennial idea that there will come a time—and depending on who you consult, it involves different variables—when we are free from this horrendous, fallen state of being human. When finally, at last, we will have escaped our hideous condition of decay, death, and the problem of free will which seems to bring with it so much suffering.
Hence the title of this talk: There is No Salvation from the Myth of Salvation. I mean that in every way you can read it…that the myth of salvation—or escape—will not actually provide salvation. Or that there’s no escaping this myth of salvation, this myth of escaping or of a change to our condition. I suppose my ideas cavort about in the grayer areas of the latter interpretation—that there may indeed be something that needs to change, but perhaps it’s simply our orientation towards the human condition and inhabiting bodies and the multitude of “mistakes” that we can make. For where we judge strictly, harshly, and see the world in sharp, black-and-white terms, I believe we inhibit the possibility of a real live, fundamental transformation, involving something greater than ourselves. We may think that razor sharp boundaries protect us, but actually, they interfere with the fact of the unity of existence. Of course, I am not talking about a patriarchal notion of unity, which is equated with uniformity and consuming the “other,” in the obliteration of any distinctions between self and other; rather, I propose that we accept the terror which accompanies Beauty. That we find the courage to accept that yes, bad things happen, and they happen to good beings, to innocent beings. The rejection of the existence of the unwanted, the “bad,” has the eerie side effect of rejecting the existence of the “good,” of that which is salutary and promotes the flourishing of life. (And to qualify: I speak not of absolute moral relativism—I’m more speaking to the problem of the necessity of an ethical orientation.)
My study of archetypal astrology has proven invigorating because the concept of the archetype allows that “good” and “bad” are not ontologically separate, but reside in the same place. It has also shown me that it is possible to organize consciousness in so many contradictory ways AND that that is a part of the structure of reality—the flexibility of perception is not a human “mistake.” More importantly for me, however, the study of archetypal astrology has shown me that something like the noble aspirations of collective self-governance, for example, democracy, are just that: noble aspirations, which reflect not a merely human-bound perspective, but cosmic principles, cosmic forces. I can more clearly see the limitations of critique alone, which in current discourse seems hell-bent on reinforcing an outdated worldview that deems the world static and unmoving, or any movement at all is quite by predictable clockwork. And so I am grateful to the work of Richard Tarnas and everyone in the archetypal astrological community for helping me discover a cosmos in process, feeding a beautiful critique.
Imagine…democracy not as a fixed ideology but as a process that is happening—all the time. It is inventing and reinventing itself in each moment—I think it can be difficult, but try to wrap your head around the idea that our actions in the present moment create “what is democracy,” not the dictates of some old men a few millennia ago or even a few centuries ago. The human being alone did not invent democracy—the cosmos is creating it with us. Right now. Aaahhh…if we choose to participate, of course.
(sniff, sniff) Ah, is this the sweetly rancid smell of salvation I detect? I doubt it, because I cannot promise an outcome that will be “good” or even workable. Who knows? But a change of perspective on the rapidly deteriorating state of human affairs can certainly open the way for a reconciliation to happen. This is hospice work. This is facing the shit and accepting that it’s there, so that death can have a chance to die again. Otherwise, it’s difficult to notice that the “salvation” one seeks is already at hand, fully present and available right here and now. It’s not in some distant future, or when some savior will descend from the skies—either in the form of a resurrected Jesus, or these poor “Indigo children” who are talked about as if they, too, are not subject to karma, as if they are somehow positioned outside of history.
When we begin to look in this different way, embracing our karma—and by karma, I mean our actions—and all its terror and its beauty, the path to liberation is detectable within current events. Entering into the present moment, all the messiness we would rather escape suddenly contains incredible generative power.
But we must be willing to be transformed ourselves, in the encounter. Yes, we humans will always have limited vision. But why must we then cast ourselves into hell? Just because this life isn’t easy, it’s not a static state of perfection…but a non-linear, ever mysterious process of happening which requires our care and our tending…our presence. If I were to argue for a fundamental change to help alleviate unnecessary suffering, I suppose I would argue for presence. Being present to the other in all its expression—and the other lives within us each, too. The courage it takes to be so vulnerable is an uncommon one, I find. And let me be explicit, for it is not the oppressed part of ourselves, or the oppressed parts of creation who need to find the most courage, but very much the oppressor. The oppressor within, and the oppressor classes.
Helping oppressors to see themselves—and thus the other—seems to require a third party witness in entrenched cases, because the pattern of violating is set, and the cycle of violence renders the transgression permanent, as victims and perpetrators exchange roles with each other over time.
And so I find myself now responding to a call to eldership. Not elderhood, as if designated by some kind of linear, temporal path—but eldership in the sense of one who treats ALL beings with respect and dignity. One who knows that cultural healing must not be based on the notion that community is a private clubhouse, and only some peoples’ experiences are welcome while others’ are trivialized. Oh yes, I must open my heart to the lament of the privileged, financially wealthy person, sobbing over the loss of an idea of what a golf course should be, sacrificed to ensure a viable biosphere—and I admit that cultivating this kind of deep compassion requires dedication, persistence and forgiveness of oneself—as the elder is not condescending, either, because the fact of that person’s privilege is not their creation alone. A whole society has created the situation; I must recognize a larger context. This approach of eldership comes out of the social change work of Jungians Arnold and Amy Mindell, who have developed an intriguing method of working with collectives, facilitating large group transformation using conflict and diversity, which they call “worldwork.”
To accomplish “worldwork,” the Mindells describe the need to develop the skill and awareness to facilitate interactions between people in a way that is lovingly supportive of all parties. Not taking sides and allowing the truth of what each voice and each view is trying to communicate. It is a way of allowing all views present to belong to the conflict at hand, to be valid so as to not be excluded and then act out in various dysfunctional ways, in the attempt to be heard, seen and loved. And this need to be heard, seen and loved can surround the most juvenile things—my hypothetical golfer may rail, “I can’t have perfectly green fairways because it is poisoning the river???”—but the juvenility of the desires which are presented is irrelevant, my judgment about that is irrelevant, because what will allow a relational system to move in a more healthy direction is allowing for everything to belong in a deeply democratic process, because ultimately, everything does belong. Whether it is beautiful, or despicable. It belongs, everything has a place, a role to play, wisdom to communicate…and we ignore any voice at our own peril, because it will manifest sooner or later, and in a perhaps distorted timbre. And I think that making a space where the truth can be heard and heard deeply, will allow the individual to actually hear themselves and see themselves, in ways previously unknown. No guarantee of salvation, of course, for life is messy—but there is at least the possibility of a transformation.
Because the reason to include the voice of the marginalized AND the traditional power holder alike is to make it possible for a transformation to happen, a realization to happen. In the right container, with the right eldership, a great many transformations in understanding can happen, as our stories about the other fall away into the reality of the presence of the other. Again, I think that coming into the presence of the other is absolutely key to navigating these transitional times in any way which could be thought of as “successful.” “Worldwork” seems to activate and involve the mythic and emotional dimensions in the transformation of conflict, and perhaps some form of it can both serve as hospice and provide a catalyst for a new iteration of the experiment with collective self-governance—democracy.
Indeed, Carl Jung made a long study of alchemy, and he observed that: “The greater the tension between pairs of opposites, the greater the energy that comes from them — the stronger its constellating power.” Here he is speaking about individual psychology, but when I take this view into the collective level and think of culture as analogous to ego, I wonder how one can elicit what Jung called the tertium non datur, the third thing not given, the reconciling “third,” not logically foreseeable, which is characteristic of a resolution in a conflict situation when the tension between opposites has been held in consciousness. The processes of “worldwork” and the need for eldership to help all parties in a conflict to be present to each other, and to be heard, seen and loved—however ugly or objectionable they may be—represent something like bringing all the “opposites” into consciousness and holding them there, as a wise elder would, with dignity and respect for all. Quoting Jung again,
“As a rule it occurs when the analysis has constellated the opposites so powerfully that a union or synthesis of the personality becomes an imperative necessity. . . . [This situation] requires a real solution and necessitates a third thing in which the opposites can unite. Here the logic of the intellect usually fails, for in a logical antithesis there is no third. The ‘solvent’ can only be of an irrational nature. In nature the resolution of opposites is always an energic process: she acts symbolically in the truest sense of the word, doing something that expresses both sides, just as a waterfall visibly mediates between above and below.” [“The Conjunction,” CW 14, par. 705.]
And it is my living question: can we elicit this third thing, this connecting fabric—a thing which, I maintain, isn’t given because it’s already there. We are already connected, we are already in communion, just as a cosmological condition. In fact, I am now curious to investigate how institutionalized prejudices may be imitating and taking the place of social bonds which would otherwise serve true collective security.
I imagine that this exploration of negotiation and dialogue within harsh human political realities will naturally feed into other ideas I have for developing biocracy, or a democracy inclusive of the nonhuman world, for again, the revelation of a paradoxical salvation seems to require the presence of the other, in all its forms. Devastatingly beautiful, ugly, pretty, always welcomed or previously marginalized…. Because—as I like to phrase the phenomenon of psychological projection—you know I am not the devil I make you out to be.
So I think I will end with the words of the poet and scholar-practitioner of nonviolence, Barbara Deming—this poem she penned in 1940, as the human world warred against itself:
Have been not admitting it all to be present, and given.
If love, love. Possible or impossible because of other
person. But actual, not dreamt.
And I no more the victim of than anyone of any
love. This is not the devil. It is the devil who
says this is the devil.
Will look at everything, will not turn eyes down or
sidewise. For it is not for me to say where the hope
lies, where death is made life.
This stiff shroud of ice, this mock of bloom,
this weight, this glittering load with the appearance
of feather, is promise given of spring, this anything
but green, this load from above, most icy, most harsh,
yet there it is—spring.
–Barbara Deming, 1940 (1917 – 1984)