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The Blessing of Spiritual Poverty

Empty Hands. Valerie Everett, 2011, via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

However, one has to recognize a distinction between the ends and means of devotion and of science; and in relation to the latter there is no reason to fear a demonstration of the derivation of local [mythic figures] from more general [archetypal] forms [of myth]. It is simply a fact—deal with it how you will—that the mythology of the mother of the dead and resurrected god has been known for millenniums to the Neolithic and post-neolithic Levant. (Masks of God: Occidental Mythology , 56-57)

Reading the third volume of Masks of God: Occidental Mythology is a formidable endeavor, especially as it touches the mythic roots of our own historic consciousness. It is for this reason that Campbell highlights the difference between a devotional attitude towards myth—the attitude of the believer—and a “scientific” or phenomenological approach. Drawing a line between being contained in myth and a genuine independent outlook, the project of a “New Science” of myth was always beating in the heart of Campbell’s writings. This is most evident in the encyclopedic scope and historic depth of The Masks of God series. 

And Campbell is absolutely right in stating “there is no reason to fear a demonstration of the derivation of local [mythic figures] from more general [archetypal] forms.” (56-57) But given Campbell’s own emphasis on the stuff of personal experience, neither should we fear the predominance of historic content over an empty generic form. For it is our own history that matters to our soul, providing as it does the material ground of our ecstatic experience of being in the world. 

In the same way, across the ages of our mythic history, the human experiment carries the hope of a possibility forward—through detours, regressions, side-steppings and meanderings—moving towards an unknown destination with the vehemence of mortal finality. Such is the journey through the eons, which has taken us to the precipice of this very moment in time, the present state of our mythic history. Convinced as Campbell was of “the unity of the race of man, not only in its biology but also in its spiritual history,” (8) let us then raise the question of where we have come thus far. What is the spiritual situation and interpretive horizon of our own times?

Without giving way to harsh value judgments, we can say at least this much: the solution to all our present problems with the Judeo-Christian tradition must be worked out from within this tradition—that is, our tradition here in the West. On this point, I cannot help but agree with C. G. Jung when he writes in Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious:

I am convinced that the growing impoverishment of symbols has a meaning. It is a development that has an inner consistency. Everything that we have not thought about, and that has therefore been deprived of a meaningful connection with our developing consciousness, has got lost. If we now try to cover our nakedness with the gorgeous trappings of the East, as the theosophists do, we would be playing our own history false. A man does not sink down to beggary only to pose afterwards as an Indian potentate. It seems to me that it would be far better stoutly to avow our spiritual poverty, our "symbollessness," instead of feigning a legacy to which we are not the legitimate heirs at all. We are, surely, the rightful heirs of Christian symbolism, but somehow we have squandered this heritage. We have let the house our fathers built fall into decay, and now we try to break into Oriental palaces that our fathers never knew. (CW9i ¶28)

What Jung is trying to express here touches upon what is precisely unique and historic about our own spiritual situation and times. Any way you slice it, the point at which we have arrived is unthinkable without the transformations and reiterations of the Judeo-Christian tradition. For it is precisely this tradition that has paved the way for the spiritual poverty that Jung finds so horrible and unacceptable. But rather than wishing to sidestep or “go beyond” the Christian myth, Jung intimates the fact that our present “symbollessness” or spiritual poverty may be, on the contrary, the good news of the Gospels! If we follow the Christian myth to its logical end, we may rediscover a dying and resurrecting God unlike any other! For rather than adorning oneself with the riches of puffed spirit or material wealth, it bids us cast aside all pretense and “spiritual” ostentation, accepting our metaphysical nakedness in the face of the Divine. After all, we are all familiar with the well-known adage of Christ the Savior:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)  


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