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“The point which I would like to make first of all is this: Mysticism is a definite stage in the historical development of religion and makes its appearance under certain well-defined conditions. It is connected with, and inseparable from, a certain stage of the religious consciousness. It is also incompatible with certain other stages which leave no room for mysticism in the sense in which the term is commonly understood.

The first stage represents the world as being full of gods whom man encounters at every step and whose presence can be experienced without recourse to ecstatic meditation. In other words, there is no room for mysticism as long as the abyss between Man and God has not become a fact of the inner consciousness. That, however, is the case only while the childhood of mankind, its mythical epoch, lasts. …

The second period which knows no real mysticism is the creative epoch in which the emergence, the break-through of religion occurs.Religion’s supreme function is to destroy the dream-harmony of
Man, Universe and God, to isolate man from the other elements of the dream stage of his mythical and primitive consciousness. For in its classical form, religion signifies the creation of a vast abyss, conceived as absolute, between God, the infinite and transcendental Being, and Man, the finite creature. For this reason alone, the rise of institutional religion, which is also the classical stage in the history of religion, is more widely removed than any other period from mysticism and all it implies. Man becomes aware of a fundamental duality, of a vast gulf which can be crossed by’nothing but the voice; the voice of God, directing and law-giving in His revelation, and the voice of man in prayer. The great monotheistic religions live and unfold in the ever-present consciousness of this bipolarity, of the existence of an abyss which can never be bridged. To them the scene of religion is no longer Nature, but the moral and religious action of man and the community of men, whose interplay brings about history as, in a sense, the stage on which the drama of man’s relation to God unfolds.

And only now that religion has received, in history, its classical expression in a certain communal way of living and believing, only now do we witness the phenomenon called mysticism; its rise coin­cides with what may be called the romantic period of religion. Mysticism does not deny or overlook the abyss; on the contrary, it begins by realizing its existence, but from there it proceeds to a quest for the secret that will close it in, the hidden path that will span it. It strives to piece together the fragments broken by the religious cataclysm, to bring back the old unity which religion has destroyed, but on a new plane, where the world of mythology and that of revelation meet in the soul of man. Thus the soul becomes its scene and the sours path through the abysmal multiplicity of things to the experience of the Divine Reality, now conceived as the primordial unity of all things, becomes its main preoccupation. To a certain extent, therefore, mysticism signifies a revival of mythical thought, although the difference must not be overlooked between the unity which is there before there is duality, and the unity that has to be won back in a new upsurge of the religious consciousness.”

From Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem (1941).


It is curious to see Jung, as a scientist, criticizing the rational mind:

“things have gone rapidly downhill since the Age of Enlightenment, for, once this petty reasoning mind, which cannot endure any paradoxes, is awakened, no sermon on earth can keep it down.” (C.G. Jung, Introduction to the Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy, p. 16)

This criticism on the part of Jung arises out of Jung’s unique point of view: he is looking forwards at the same time as he looks backwards. Looking forwards, Jung sees the potential of the rational mind to understand the psyche in ways that were never possible before. Looking backwards, he sees that have lost as much as we’ve gained: The capacity to hold the mystery that religious paradox points at.

For quite a while I was laboring with a “insufficiently cultivated mind” and as sure of myself as possible. I saw religious dogma as “manifestly absurd” therefore completely empty of value. Slowly I was able to accept that religion may have some value, although only for others, not for myself. Over the years, my point of view shifted even further.

I was initially attracted to Western occult traditions as those seemed to embrace the paradox head on. Modern incarnations of these traditions seem to accept the reality of the psyche wholeheartedly and all that comes with that. This seemed to fit my understanding at the time however I was unwilling to completely commit (surrender) to such a drastic path. My rational mind still required a hold on a rational world, safe from paradox.

I found a compromise in Buddhism where I was able to slowly approach this new world. Starting, as I did, in Theravadan Buddhism I was not overwhelmed by religious imagery which allowed me to find my own way in negotiating my relationship with this part of the psyche. Within this framework I started to tackle the “new task”: “to lift this still undeveloped mind step by step to a higher level” and to acquire “at least some inkling of the scope of paradoxical truth.”

I think that today, I may finally have exactly an inkling of the scope of this paradoxical truth. One way that I see this kind of paradox manifesting in my life is in my relationship with meaning. Looking back at this particular exploration I can see the time where I was attracted to one extreme (meaning is all-important) or another (meaning is an illusion). I can also see the resolution of this conflict – accepting the paradox – learning to hold meaning as both important and contingent.

Returning to the larger picture, I believe that rather than having suffered a loss of connection with the soul as part of the Enlightenment, humanity has actually gained the potential for a greater connection than ever before. Being able to step beyond what is conventionally accepted, we are able to see the paradox in its fulness and choose to ignore its existence or engage with it consciously.