In this November series I’m looking at the thinking of Paul Tillich and his work on the search for the identity of the essential self. He thought this was the reality of salvation received as grace. Interestingly he was also interested in salvation as healing and distinguishes between what he calls existential angst and pathological anxiety. Both need healing but existential anxiety is the search for healing through unity with one’s essential being – in other words salvation. This he thought was something that needed priestly help. He contrasts this with pathological anxiety which he related to neurosis and thought it was a way of avoiding non-being by avoiding being. In other words neurosis limits the person and their essential truth through a very reduced self-affirmation. It is here that he thinks that the psychotherapist can play a part.
In the general sense he thought that the great and universal human illness is our estrangement from the essential truth in the divine. Here are echoes of Augustine and many other religious figures who understood pain as separation from God. Tillich also thought the recovery of this truth is the only thing that heals in-depth and this is essentially a religious task. It is the work of the therapist to overcome pathological self-denial and to help the person in their defensiveness and their flight from life – from the challenge of becoming the person they are meant to be and the affirmation of their essential self.
However Tillich is able to see that the priest can be a healer and the psychotherapist can be priest and that even in the psychological work there are religious overtones whether there recognised as religious or not. For divine immanence is present in all and through all and with all. Above all we are encouraged to acknowledge and own our personal experience and the interiority of what happens within us and to our self. From the experience of so many people it is only in the depths that we can search and be met by the God who leads us home.
I love this picture which Leila Smith has used on her website for The Yoga Studio in Somerset and she includes very relevant teaching from Patanjali’s Yogasutras about non-violence.
It seems such a hopeful picture in the face of such recent frightening events. But I think we probably are afraid often of what the future holds and the uncertainty that surrounds us in terms of both our physical environment and the uncontrolled aggression that seems so present in our very natures. For of course once all that anger is unleashed the potential for sadism is very serious. Carl Jung thought the best thing that we could do for the world was to own our projections – in other words to know ourselves both good and bad. And that’s along process and requires delving into the unconscious and all those places we would rather not think about in our psyches. For fear is born out of ignorance and so the more we know about ourselves and about each other the less frightened we will be and therefore also less violent. So not being afraid is to do with knowing ourselves and understanding our connection both with each other and with the earth.
And it is Jesus who reminds us over and over again not to be afraid and that requires faith.
The value of the field
There’s been a big campaign going on to try and prevent the local council from turning the Bathampton Meadows into a large car park. The meadows have been there since the Bronze Age as a place for grazing cattle and sheep and that still goes on and now it is also a nice place to walk and makes the approach into Bath very attractive. Walking across the meadows gives you a sense of space and some tranquillity not always so easy to find. They also act as a floodplain when there is excess rain and often that aspect seems to get forgotten.
Yesterday I took a walk across part of the meadows and met two people who were also talking about where the park-and-ride might go – there would need to be spaces for the buses to take people in to town and a lot of tarmacadam, roads and walkways, probably a bus shelter or two – possibly public toilets and then who knows what else might also develop.
I talked to them about the plans and said how against it I was – one of them felt the same but the other looking across the green field said ‘well it’s not really doing anything… Is it?’ Aside from the fact that there are usually cows grazing that are now obviously in for the winter, it did leave me wondering whether a field had to be doing something to be of any value. For in our current set-up we all have to be doing – we have to be productive rather than just being. It is as if the primary value of being alive and that includes all of creation have been relegated.
Of course I understood that he was reflecting the current status quo where everything is weighed in terms of production and economic success. He seemed a nice enough person and eventually commented that he thought it was good to keep green spaces, but his initial response helped me understand the old saying that for some people a tree is an object of beauty whilst for others it becomes an obstacle in the way or merely some firewood. Too often now the meadow and the tree are only obstacles in the way of a new road or in this case a massive car park.
Incidentally as far as I can understand from looking at the blog from last night’s council meeting it seems as if also the general idea has been passed for a park-and-ride but the whole business goes out for further consultation and review. This seems an excellent idea because I think the longer the debate goes on the less realistic the use of this land will seem for a park-and-ride – after all anything that encourages more car use must be an outdated way of thinking.
In the first November post I looked at Paul Tillich’s thinking about opposites leading to disintegration and needing a centring power within each of our lives and indeed of society that would unify major expressions of the human spirit. He thought that therefore we are always left looking for the source of the courage to be and for the integration of the opposites. Life by its nature seeks the support and vitality and balanced integration of divine life.
Paul Tillich as a Christian theologian sees the Christ figure as an image of a life which realises its essential humanity. This is a life at one with God. He believed that the Christ figure answers a longing and the deepest human need which is to realise one’s essential humanity in the turmoil of existence. He didn’t deny that the essential could be realised in other traditions and through other figures and nor did he deny that the essential could be realised by those who reject the Christian institution but he still believed that wherever essential humanity is present the reality of Christ is present and Christ is never present without it. This is the universal need for salvation where God is the ground of each life and of all life and being and where we are led into what he calls the spiritual presence.
John P. Dourley in his Guild of Pastoral Psychology pamphlet called Jung, Tillich and the Quest for Home and Self describes it in this way. ‘It would mean the experience of the courage to be grounded in the experience of a divinely bestowed centredness. It would mean living in the face of death but already beyond it. It would mean living with one’s guilt confident that acceptance ultimately is deeper than rejection. It would mean living in the face of meaninglessness and doubt and experiencing in them what Tillich calls ‘the God above the God of theism’ or ‘the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.’
Here is a description of life moving into a vital balance of opposites where there is participation in communities of communion and then returning to oneself enriched rather than robbed of one’s individuality. Here is life forming and reforming perhaps through many crucifixions with the creative forces developing in self-expression and creation. This would mean freedom becoming progressively more determined by one’s essential self, by one’s destiny by one’s image in the divine. Here is a spirit created consciousness – compatible with the consciousness of the mandala which Carl Jung describes as ‘God is the circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumferences is nowhere.’
This is the movement of life towards a centred and vital unity of opposites involving the drawing near of the centre of a personal life to the centre of all life both within and beyond the person.
Quite early on in my first psychotherapy my Jungian analyst gave me a copy of a book by Paul Tillich called The Courage to Be. It was an immensely important gift – it was her copy and some time later I bought a copy of my own to keep. For many years I carried around this small paperback. It was partly the title that was so important as it was very much an affirmation about my place in life and what it might mean to really be alive. When I did get round to reading the content it also had great meaning because essentially the book is about the anxiety of being human. Humanity in the anxiety of its finitude faces the terror of life and asks for the source of its courage to be. Paul Tillich asks for the source of human courage in the face of the three great negators of life, namely, death, guilt and meaninglessness.
Tillich gives the sense that the opposites that make up human life have only a tenuous unity and therefore may disintegrate and in that state life falls to pieces, into a state of nothingness. The only answer is to reverse this in a move towards balance, relatedness and vitality through the spirit- worked flow in the divine life.
There are three polarities or binaries that he describes: the first is individualisation and participation. Either to excess leads to illness for if you cannot participate in the environment and community then an isolating solipsism is the result. But with too much participation one can be swamped and there is a loss of self. The second is the binary of dynamics and form. In other words you need a structure to shape one’s life potentiality but if it’s too tight creativity becomes extinguished and the life goes out of the person. The third binary consists of the opposites of freedom and destiny where freedom can be used to abuse or lose one’s destiny. Being born into unfavourable circumstances can be a destiny where freedom is greatly limited, the alternative is to be sacrificed to people or institutions who promise some sort of realisation of destiny. Again there needs to be an interplay and in this interplay Tillich locates the reality of religion or self transcendence. He believed that every life is involved in responding to the draw of its essential self and so to God and is thus destined to be confronted in eternity with the extent to which this essential truth has been realised in time. Without this there is loss of the sense of life’s sublimity.
He argued that without a spiritual centre all these opposites tend to consume one another or fall apart from each other which leads to disintegration.