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Dave Richo

Myth and Meaning:
Religious Truth is Our Inner Truth
by David Richo, Ph.D.

It is the role of religious symbols to give a meaning to life….Modern people do not understand how much their rationalism (which has destroyed their capacity to respond to the numinous)…puts them at the mercy of the psychic underworld. -- Jung

A child sees the divine-human archetypes as witches and demons and easily believes in the literal truth of them. Most of us were presented with a literal picture of religious truth. We imagined that all the events in Christ’s life actually happened in exactly the ways the Bible describes. New scholarship in this century has shown us that the Bible is a faith document and not a news report. The Bible uses metaphor to tell about an experience of faith. It was never intended to provide a linear record of historical events in the western style.

Unexpected Miracles by David Richo

Literalism is a defense against the depth reality of religious experience. It reduces the mystery of a faith experience to a story. Adults see through stories. "Losing our faith" may mean simply losing our literalism. Something remains for those who appreciate and honor the depth of the psyche. It is the ground of being that lives through and beyond story. In fact, the story of our own life contains the mysterious revelation that we are more than we seem. Dogen Zenji, the thirteenth century Buddhist master and poet, says: "This birth and death is the life of Buddha." Our life story is the story of the divine life. The divine is that which we contact in the moment in which we touch the depth of our being, life, and purpose.

All spiritual and religious truths are mysteries. Literal descriptions do not have the capacity to describe or even approximate the infinite. For that the imagination is required. Only in figurative language, poetry, and metaphor can the deepest human/divine realities be presented. Once we appreciate the metaphors in all the stories we remember, we expand our faith in the divine life. We see it in a more expansive and living way. For example, after the Resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples eating honey and fish (Luke 24.) This scene is a metaphor for aliveness without having to be a proof that Jesus is alive in a bodily way. So much of our religious education had to do with proving the literal truth of our beliefs. These were attempts to make ego-sense of something that is ineffable. The emphasis on proving is an attempt not to have to have faith.

The deepest reality uses symbols and images that embody it more adequately than intellectual description. The challenge of faith is to trust that there is something in us that transcends our mind and its ways of knowing. Faith relies on the depth perception in the Self: intuition, vision, imagination, assent to realities that defy explanation or even logical comprehension. These are the vehicles of revelation. The challenge of faith is to see with the eyes of the Self. We then recognize that these eyes are both the divine center and the human ground of reality.

Religion, like psychology, can produce only models of a reality the infinite reaches of which cannot be adequately measured. To codify it or define it as permanently and finally expressed is to diminish the mystery. A living mythologem cannot be expressed once and for all or once completely. It is a too many-splendored thing. We think of revelation as located in books, thus limiting the limitless. It comes to us in every form of human communication, including nature, life events, etc., and is directed to us in a personal way. It is not a book to read but a limitlessly expanding cyberspace of human consciousness.

Archetypes are evolving, like revelation and consciousness. We limit the evolutionary nature of human development when we imagine that revelation is closed. It is alive in every way that we are. It walks to us on every avenue of understanding anything human, divine, or natural. The source of this knowledge emerges from within our consciousness not from elsewhere to it. Tablets from Sinai contain the words of an inner Sinai. Revelation happens in continuity and contact with our interior life. The word of God is inner wisdom that has found its way into external signs and messages. Revelation is an encounter with the inner images that arise from the unconscious and reflect higher consciousness, i.e., a Higher Power. The fact that the human psyche is the mediator of the divine does not make it unreal anymore than two hands clasping in the dark make one of them unreal. In fact, attachment to orthodoxy can prevent access to a unique discovery of divine life in the personal psyche.

Enduring religious doctrines contain a powerful and archetypal kernel of truth. They reveal the larger life of the psyche and how it evolves toward individuation and enlightenment. If it becomes tied to one time or culture or becomes fear-based and loses its lively energy. That is how we lose out on the wonderful riches in it. There are multiple and illimitable theophanies in accord with the multiple capacities and multiple avenues of accessibility in us. Revelation is contact with that deepest level of our psyche where archetypal wisdom rests. It also lies between the paws of the sphinx and in the words of the Sutras and Gospels. The good news is not a message from above or beyond but wells up from deep within. It is more like an underground spring that rises than like rain that falls. The equivalent of revelation in Buddhism is the dharma, the teachings of Buddha. The word dharma refers to the truth that is inherent in all reality. In that sense all phenomena is revelation.

When rituals and beliefs are taken literally they lose their meaning as inner events. Dropping literalism in favor of mythic, that is, archetypal meanings, is the central task in the transition from childhood belief to adult faith. How? By finding continuity with our religious past not in its literal forms but in the experiential meaning that underlies it. Biblical imagery and sutra imagery then apply to every individual. Our projections about it are the contents of our own fully realized psyches. For instance, we are meant to be alone in the wilderness and confront our destiny. The same forty days was what was required for the alchemical process and for Egyptian embalming. It is the sacred number for the passover from limitation to limitlessness, from Egypt to the Promised Land. Incarnation, kindly love, healing, crucifixion of ego, descent and ascent, rebirth: all the experiences of Christ make up the story of the Self.

Since we perceive through limited senses we are innately unable to see the full extent and meaning of the divine. Faith is the complementary way humanity knows its own deepest reality. Marcus Aurelius, in Meditations: VII, says that we find religious truths in images that arise from the depths of our souls. This is because they describe a psychic truth that does not require a logical or linear foundation. They are the archetypal facts of life and of mankind’s vision of itself, of nature, and of the divine.

Catholic Means Universal by David Richo

"Symbol is essence and image is psychic energy," wrote Jung. A symbol is our way of conceiving the inconceivable. A true symbol not only directs us to a hidden reality but reveals that same reality in ourselves. A symbol thus creates immediate contact with the transcendent/immanent Self. Paul Tillich says: "A real symbol points to an object that can never become an object. It points to ourselves." Religious symbols can be appreciated for their adaptive potential, a capacity to discover the core of our inner world, something deeper than anything psychological, something expressible only in symbols. Such symbol-making might not have happened without religion. Mythic art, poetry, and images indicate our capacity for depth. They are not signs of regression but of potential. Childhood religious images that comfort us are retained within us and arise later in our imagination when they are needed. Faith is actually the transcendent use of imagination.

The Buddhist practice of devotion to Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion is fourfold: to venerate his image, to let it appear as both male and female, i.e., whole, to grasp that the image is a mirror of oneself, and to act with a similar compassion in the world. (Avalokiteshvara means "the Lord who is visible from within.") The result of devoted imaging is that a "wisdom duplicate" of the god becomes detectable in us. Devotion is thus a path to self-realization. This does not minimize the divine but grants it full purchase of itself. Authentic religion thus does not repose in adoration but opens into consciousness of inner divinity and universal love.

The Chinese form of the Buddha of compassion is Kuan Yin, a name that means "she who hears the cries of world." She was so touched by the pain of those in the hell realm that she emptied it in one moment of boundless mercy. (It was refilled in one moment to show the boundlessness of the shadow too!) Notice the striking archetypal similarity between this story and that of our Lady of Mount Carmel, the merciful patroness of those in purgatory. In fact, she was pictured with them in her icon. This was the first time the image of the Madonna included other humans and it declared the intense and indelible commitment of heaven to earthly beings. The feminine presence of the transpersonal is a caring reality.

Throughout human history, experience leads to documentation which becomes orthodoxy of belief and moral principles. Then institutional religion makes anyone wrong and bad who does not follow the rules. The mystics however, put the accent on experience not the dogma. This animates rather than codifies the experience of human-divine encounters. Dogma may put imagination to sleep but an animating myth stimulates consciousness so that buried truths can arise. Then we are ready for the next experience, i.e., we progress, we evolve, our God is marching on. This is a way of saying that the reality of movement is contact with the Source. "Myth is the revelation of the divine life in man," said Jung. Religion works when it taps into our mythic roots and the psyche cannot be fooled by patriarchal biases or ego conceits.

If revelation touches base with archetypal roots, it speaks to the depth of the psyche, the divine life awakening, the God within. This cannot easily happen in statements that are culture and time-bound or imposed from without. An adult does not confuse a theological formulation with the mysterious reality of the one psyche-God that can never be adequately described and hardly even approximated.

A human person is one moment of being that has become aware of itself. The universe is being creating itself. God is being in itself. This equation/ratio—God is to the universe is to mankind— and its triune nature, cannot be known logically. Our linear mind is only equipped to know the forms being takes not being itself since it is ineffable. There are, however, elements of the psyche that transcend space-time linearity such as dreams, intuitions, psychic readings, and synchronicity. In mystical states or in mindfulness meditation we dissolve limiting representations and contact essential being. Meaningfulness is in that which has essential, enduring unlimited, being. This is why spiritually oriented people do not see the world as meaningless, i.e., having no essential being.

There can be no name for the ultimate lest it become reified and then become an object of fear and desire. This is especially contradictory and confounding since the spiritual path is about letting go of fear and desire, the sports of the ego. Our collective intrapsychic image of God may have become ego-designed and ego-motivated. The word God is a way of describing our vast potential for love. God within means that God is whatever in us becomes more and more conscious, more and more loving.

The vastness of the psyche is exactly congruent to the vastness of the universe. Psyche reflects cosmos. Our work is to experience something transcendent in nature and to say: "This is familiar; I felt this in the depths of myself." The meaning out there matches the felt meaning we always find within. This is how we realize that the sacred is not an object but a continually unfolding reality that reflects itself in us. We can see it as reflecting the vastness of our psyche and stop there or we can say it has a foundation transcendent of our psyche. Both are religious statements since both acknowledge a transcendence of that which the linear mind calls real.

In Hinduism, liberation happens when the atman, the inner Self and the divine Self are recognized as one and the same. Notice this same idea in the following words of a western thinker, Thomas Merton: "The spark which is my true self is the flash of the Absolute recognizing itself in me. This realization at the apex is a coincidence of all opposites...a fusion of freedom and unfreedom, being and unbeing, life and death, self and non-self, man and God. The spark is not so much an entity which one finds but an event, an explosion which happens as all opposites clash within oneself. Then it is seen that the ego is not. It vanishes in its non-seeing when the flash of the spark alone is....The purpose of all learning is to dispose man for this kind of event. The purpose of various disciplines is to provide ways or paths which lead to this capacity for ignition."

The True Self is the farthest reach of our potential, i.e., God, the complete articulation of the best of our humanity, the actualization of every potential for human love, wisdom, and healing. This is not a person above us as traditional theism teaches. God is the climax of human powers that made an appearance in Christ and keeps appearing in many other saints. It makes an appearance in us every time we love. God’s presence is that moment of love made human in any here and now.

The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogma and theology....It should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. --Albert Einstein

Copyright © 2000
David Richo, Ph.D. This article is an excerpt from Catholic Means Universal: Integrating Spirituality and Religion (Crossroad, 2000).


Shadow Dance by David Richo Mary Within by David Richo How to Be an Adult by David Richo When Love Meets Fear by David Richo

Dave Richo
David Richo, Ph.D., M.F.T., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and writer in Santa Barbara and San Francisco California who emphasizes Jungian, transpersonal, and spiritual perspectives in his work. He is the author of: How To Be An Adult (Paulist, 1991), When Love Meets Fear (Paulist, 1997), Unexpected Miracles: The Gift of Synchronicity and How to Open It (Crossroad,1998) , Shadow Dance: Liberating the Power and Creativity of Your Dark Side (Shambhala, 1999) and Catholic Means Universal: Integrating Spirituality and Religion (Crossroad, 2000).  For a catalog of David Richo’s tapes and events, please visit www.davericho.com.


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