In times of uncertainty faith is: 1) hard to come by, 2) something we cling to, 3) more necessary now than ever and 4) a way of separating believers from philistines. The current zeitgeist proliferates fear, thanks in part to our constant exposure to the negative thoughts and feelings of others via global communication systems. The resulting contagion of anxiety is corrosive to self and community. Many benefit from religion, having a place of peace and prayer to turn to, although the Abrahamic legacy reflects the harshness of its desert roots, leading many to explore religions focused on peace and compassion. Yoga, Buddhism, Taoist and Humanistic psychology have claimed adherents from the non-believer camp, substituting faith in an external God with faith in Self (defined variously depending on the system). Most agree that the Self is the center of our individual and collective identity, the hub of being.
A recent NY Times editorial, Why the Antichrist Matters in Politics reminded me of the value of Erich Fromm’s theories of rational and irrational faith.
“Irrational faith is the unshakable belief in a person, idea, institution or symbol, which does not result from one’s own experience or thinking, but is based on one’s emotional submission to authority. Rational faith exhibits qualities of firmness and steadfastness arising from genuine intellectual and emotional activity and is not subservient to an authoritarian power based on masochistic attachment.”
Given today’s political hurly burly, the question of faith is pivotal. When Fromm published his 1942 essay on Faith as a Character Trait he asked that we consider faith as an aspect of human character, one not dependent on religious objectification and cautioned us against throwing the baby out with the bathwater .
“The man attempting to live without faith becomes sterile, and hopeless and afraid to the very core of his being. He must resign himself to clinging desperately to an inner and outer status quo, while finding that he has no defense against even the most completely irrational philosophies and doctrines. Was then the development of modern thinking away from and against faith a fatal error? Must we return to religion unless we are willing to accept the kinds of heathen doctrines, which spread their gospel with concentration camps and dive-bombers? Is „faith“ really an essentially religious phenomenon, only a matter of faith in God or religious doctrines? Is it bound up with religion and destined to share its historical fate? Is faith by its very nature something in contrast to or divorced from rational thinking. Or is there on the other hand a less specific faith, which is an essentially basic attitude within the person towards life, a character trait which pervades all his experiences?”
Erich Fromm (1973) The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness
“To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible; it is the paradoxical hope to expect the Messiah every day, yet not to lose heart when he has not come at the appointed hour. This hope is not passive and it is not patient; on the contrary, it is impatient and active, looking for every possibility of action within the realm of real possibilities. Least of all it is passive as far as the growth and liberation of one’s own person are concerned….
The situation of mankind is too serious to permit us to listen to the demagogues – least of all demagogues who are attracted to destruction – or even to the leaders who use only their brains and whose hearts have hardened. Critical and radical thought will only bear fruit when it is blended with the most precious quality man is endowed with – the love of life.”
In 1942, the intellectual climate of the day was severely rational, in response to what Carl Jung described as the “mass psychosis” of the Nazi movement in The Undiscovered Self. Both Jung and Fromm saw the exploration of one’s inner landscape and the ongoing integration of self and other/conscious and unconscious as necessary to bring about equilibrium and equanimity in a world torn by conflict and mistrust. Jung’s incorporation of alchemical motifs and his understanding of the psychological reconciliation of opposites are very compatible with many eastern and western spiritual traditions. Despite his formidable intellect, Jung had a mystical bent, something his professional community disdained. Jung’s father was a Methodist minister and Fromm was tutored as an Orthodox Jew, eventually calling himself an atheistic mystic, a combination of Jung and Karl Marx. Both men understood the necessity of reconciling the individual and collective aspects of human nature and society.
Jung’s theories on withdrawing projections and his call to explore the unconscious and integrate repressed elements that constellate in the shadow were driven in large part by the horrors of World War I and II. The advent of analytical psychology and Humanistic Psychology gave modern philosophers a bridge between individual and collective human identity, both conscious and unconscious. Confronting the shadow can be a nightmare, as we see reflected in our ongoing collective struggles to awaken. To recognize the emergence of the human spirit beyond the Darwinian paradigm of historical precedent is to have faith that we can evolve beyond denial and shadow projection.
A few years ago I had a dream that brought this individual/collective struggle home in a way that continues to unfold.
I dreamed I was in a club listening to music with my sister then returned home and went to bed. I woke up suddenly in a room that looked like one of my childhood bedrooms and saw a tall shadowy figure standing silhouetted black in the brightly lit doorway. It loomed tall and somewhat menacingly and I knew it intimately but not specifically. I leaped out of bed and grabbed it by the neck and shoulders, shouting “Who are you and what do you want from me?” We grappled our way down the stairs and out toward the front door where the sun was rising at dawn. The closer we got to the front door the more the walls started to dissolve. They were replaced by murals of people from around the world, scenes from every continent, people of every race and color, age and sex. The closer we got to the front door the more the shadow started to shrink and become a part of me. It started to dawn on me (don’t ignore the power of puns in dream imagery) that as the shadow lost its threatening aspects, I was able to embrace the world and all the people. I was filled with awe that this was possible and great warmth shone through me and suffused the tableau.
Dreams are vehicles for integrating the conscious and unconscious aspects of our awareness. Compliments of the Self, we are guided to fulfill our humanity, to become whole both individually and collectively. See Ocean.