Symbols of Transformation

Carl Jung wrote a hefty book entitled “Symbols of Transformation,” and I like the title so much, I’m using it here. I trust that Dr. Jung would be kind in his response to my pilfering his term.

Take all of the symbols of the Christian Church—the Bible, the Promised Land, the Manger, the Cross, the Empty Tomb, the Bread and Wine of Communion, the Water of Baptism, and all of the rest—and put them on, say, the Communion Table. Now, rake them all onto the floor. Our task is to put them back on the table reclaimed, reconsidered, reimagined, reinterpreted, reconstructed—and quite alive and well.

We could start anywhere, but to give you a sense of the nature of the work before us, let’s start with the Virgin Mary and the Manger on Christmas Morning. This isn’t going to go very well if you don’t play your part. You have to understand your role in the whole show if there is going to be a show—which there hasn’t been in over two thousand years, when the high priests and politicians of the early church took the people out of the show entirely, and told them that they could only come as far as the Communion Rail, and must never consider approaching the Host on the Altar or any of the Holy of Holies that were the divine prerogative of those charged with their oversight and supervision, and the salvation of the people.

And that, of course, was just fine with the people. They were off the hook, free to be penitent, forgiven and redeemed, with nothing asked of them but an occasional offering, a few Hail Mary’s and an Our Father here and there. Oh, they had to believe what they were told to believe, and take everything on faith with no questions asked, but that was no problem. Theirs was an easy glide to life everlasting. Never mind that religion devolved into the “empty bell,” the “clanging cymbal,” the Apostle Paul spoke of—and the “tale told by an idiot—full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” of Shakespeare.

All of the symbols of the Church became, in a twinkling, nothing more than the presiding officials said they were. All were defined and explained by the doctrines and dogmas, and what wasn’t understood, or understandable, was “taken on faith.” And that was that. We had the catechisms to keep us warm.

Our hearts had nowhere to go and nothing to do. Religion was all in the head. The heart was an empty region. A wasteland of the soul. Meaning was nowhere around. We could go to church, but our hearts weren’t in it. Our soul was not to be found. We were the soulless ones, going to hear someone talk about saving our soul. How about just finding it for starters? But we didn’t—we don’t—know where to start looking. And the spokespersons for the Church couldn’t/can’t tell us because they were/are as soulless as we were/are.

A good place to start is with those old symbols of the Church. They contain all we will ever need. But. We have to reclaim them. Reconsider them. Re-imagine them. Reinterpret them. Reconstruct them. And here’s the worst part. We have to do the work ourselves. There are no priests to do it for us. They will be busy doing their own work. Saving themselves.

We all have to save ourselves. “Work out your own salvation,” says Paul to the Philippians (2:12-13), “with fear and trembling—for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Working out our own salvation comes down to working out our own life. It comes down to understanding that it is all up to us—and we can’t do it alone. But we make the first move. It is crucial that we understand that we have to make the first move.

When we move toward our life, our life moves toward us. When we start walking, the path opens before us. When we stop waiting for someone else to tell us what to do to be saved, to be alive (which is the same thing)—and see for ourselves what is happening, and what is called for, and what needs to be done about it, and do it, there you are. Doors open where, as Joseph Campbell would say, we didn’t know there would be doors, and the angels minister unto us, and the Inner Guides show us the way—where only a moment before, there was no way.

I’m going to begin with the symbols of the Christian Church—but it could be with the symbols of any church, of any religion. All religion starts out as good religion, as the touchstone between human beings and numinous reality that can be felt, sensed, intuited, known, but not understood, explained, defined, said or told. But then religion slips over into bad religion, and starts explaining, defining, saying and telling. Doctrine and theology become stand-ins, surrogates, for that to which they refer, and it all goes to hell rather quickly.

Our place is to turn that tide by reclaiming, reconsidering, re-imagining, reinterpreting and reconstructing the symbols that connect us, even yet, with the divine. Come, then, let us play together with them, and in playing, call back our soul from its self-imposed exile in the hinterlands, which it reckoned was better than dying a slow death at our hands, ignored and cast off as it was from our life. At-one with soul, playfully and compassionately, we take up the transformation of the world!

But, first things first: The Virgin Mary, the Manger, and the Bebe Jesus. You know the story, the old-old story. It’s time for a re-write.

Look closely at your life. Where is the Manger there? Where is your life telling you there is no room in it for your life? You just said, “Huh?” didn’t you? But, you also know exactly what I mean, don’t you?

You have a life that you aren’t living, and you know it. You may not think about it, but, when you do think about it, you know there is more to you than meets the eye—more to you than you know, more than anyone knows. And you wonder, don’t you, who you might have been, what you might have done with your life, if… If what? If your life hadn’t interfered? If you hadn’t gotten married? Had children? Lost the baby? Gotten the divorce? Been run over by the 10,000 things?

Look at it like this: There is the life you are living, and there is the life that is yours to live—even yet.

And there is the Christ. The Anointed One. Anointed for what? Anointed by God to live the life that was his to live. “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Break! Break! We have to take a break here and talk about God. “God,” the word, the term, is another symbol that goes on the Communion Table, and onto the floor. When Carl Jung hung the phrase from the Delphic Oracle on the lentil of his house, “Invoked, or not invoked, the God is present,” that word “God” did not mean, or imply, “The God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, and of Jesus Christ His Only Son Our Lord.” And we have to do the work of cleansing the word “God” from its accumulated inferences, assumptions and references that have built up over the past two thousand years and counting.

“God” is a symbol for the Numen, the ineffable, the un-say-able ground and essence of awe and wonder at the heart of experiences that transcend normal, apparent, reality and transport us into the realm of mystery and grace. People still go there, but we all used to live there–in the ever-present presence of more than words can say.

The symbol, the name “God,” meant something in those days. “God” conjured up actual experiences with the divine holiness at the heart of life and being. Nowadays, “God” means “The Man Upstairs.” That’s ridiculous. There is no man. There are no stairs. And everybody knows it, and no one knows God-As-The-Mystery-The-Wonder-Guiding-Directing-Infusing-Our-Life-And-Our-World-With-Meaning-Purpose-And-Vitality-Beyond-Imagining-And-Certainly-Beyond-Saying.

That’s a problem. The problem. The problem of existence. We live, but we do not know why we live. We do not know for what we live. We spend our life looking for something to live for–for some reason to be here, now. That was not a problem with the Ancient Ones. God as Mystery and Wonder was a steady presence, a constant companion, ordering their world and their life. That is the God who is God!

Any God who can be defined (“God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, unchangeable,  in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth”) is not God, but an idea, a concept, a definition.

The Numen cannot be defined, said, told, explained, comprehended, understood… The Ineffable is beyond words. “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” And so, I will use the term “Numen” in place of the word “God,” because “God” has been co-opted, shanghaied and transformed into a definition–and no symbol can be defined, because its meaning is always more than words can say, and you have to know what a symbol means before you can understand what I’m talking about when I use the word that stands for the symbol.

And you can only know what the Numen is by having a numinous experience, an encounter with sacred wonder, mystery and awe.

Break’s over. Back to the matter at hand.

Jesus was the Christ, anointed by the Numen to live the life that was his to live. You are the Christ, anointed by the Numen to live the life that is yours, even now, to live. “For it is the Numen who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for its good pleasure.”

Just as “The Numen was at work in Christ, reconciling the world to itself,” so the Numen is at work in you to redeem, reconcile, make whole and make well. If you are going to take all that other stuff on faith, why not take this on faith—and live as though it is so?

Your place is to say “Yes!”—both to the life you are living and to the life that is yours to live–the life you were cut out to live before you were born–the life that no one but you can live–that life that is waiting on you to live it within the life you are living.

This is called walking two paths at the same time. How do you do that? You have to work it out. “You have to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” No one can do it for you. It’s all up to you. Well, not all of it. Just the first step. You have to take the first step toward, well, toward YOU!

Toward your life—both of them: The one you are living and the one that is yours to live. You have to get them together, and live both of them.

Let’s back up. Where is the life you are living being inhospitable to the life that is yours to live? Where is the life you are living telling you there is no room in the inn? That there is no place for you to birth the Christ (Yourself) into the life you are living—no room for you to begin living the life that is your life to live, the life you are called to live, the life you were born to live, the life no one but you can live in the life you are living? It’s impossible! It’s out of the question! Forget it! You cannot do it—because there is no place, no time, no money, no room?

Where are you being tempted to forget your other life (Your real life) again? To tell your soul to find its way back to the hinterlands because you don’t have room in your life for the life that is your life to live? That’s where the Manger is to be found in your life, right here, right now, today. “Away in the manger, no crib for his bed…” That’s you the song is about. And you, and you, and you… and me.

We have been singing our song all these years thinking it is about Jesus. And now, we hear that Jesus is about us—about you and about me. Jesus is us. We are Jesus. Bringing forth the Christ within us. We are the Virgin Mary and we are the Bebe Jesus in the manger. Our Virgin Mary side is in labor striving to birth our Christ side into our life which wants nothing to do with either side.

Where is your life striving to come forth, and finding nothing in the way of encouragement and cooperation? Where are you blocking the birth of your own Christ? Where is your King Herod side coming after your Bebe Jesus side? Whose side are you on?

This is the approach to take with all of the stories of the Bible, and all of the symbols of the Church. Another example: The Conquest of the Promised Land.

Joseph Campbell said, talking about the stories in Deuteronomy regarding the Conquest: “Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife—except abroad. Then you should put all males to the sword, and the women you shall take as booty to yourself.” (The Power of Myth (p. 215). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition). He goes on to say, “The Hebrews were absolutely ruthless with respect to their neighbors.”

You can read about the Conquest of Canaan in Deuteronomy, chapter 7 and following, but there is a succinct summation in verse 16: “And you shall destroy all the peoples whom the Lord your God delivers over to you; your eye shall have no pity on them.” What do we do with this? As with the Manger, so with the Land of Promise.

Your Canaanite side stands before your Joshua side—and Joshua can have no pity.

Toward the end of my career, I preached an object lesson sermon each Easter Sunday. The object was a pottery egg, about seven inches high and four inches in diameter. But, not your typical Easter Egg. The potter had opened up a portion of the egg, from which protruded a curled, scaly dragon tail, which was joined by a clawed rear foot breaking out of the egg.

My point was this: “You think in terms of Happy Easter with it’s brightly colored hard-boiled eggs, and baby chicks, and soft, white, bunnies. That’s a happy fantasy. Here’s a real Easter Egg for you—and if you are smart, you will have nothing to do with it. When this baby hatches, it will eat you alive!”

I continued, “All this talk about New Birth doesn’t mention the Death Of All That Is Old. Well. Nothing comes without something going. Your New Life In Christ will eat your old life alive. That is what Easter is all about. Jesus died on the cross, and now it is your turn. Do you have what it takes to pick this egg up off the fresh cut grass of spring and carry it home with you? Whether you do or not, don’t kid yourself about ‘Happy Easter’! Jesus comes out of the Empty Tomb like Joshua entering the land of Canaan. He’s going to sack, pillage and destroy everything you knew and loved. Or, do you think Paul was only joking when he said, ‘I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!’ (Galatians 2:20)?”

And do not think here in terms of Christ and you—think in terms of YOU and you. You are the Christ, remember? You are the Bebe Jesus being born in you and through you into this present moment in time, which is inhospitable and un-receptive—and your Bebe Jesus side has to face up to your Herod side, and, like Joshua entering Canaan, show Herod a thing or two.

This is the struggle that follows you throughout your life. Every Hero’s Journey follows this exact path, the middle way between mutually exclusive contradictions: Jesus and Herod, Joshua and Canaan, you and YOU.

And you, like all of the heroes before you, have to work it out. You have to come to terms with how things are and how things also are. You have to make your peace with being torn asunder—and take up the work of reconciliation and integration, healing and restoring, breaking down the dividing wall and making peace—in an “I believe, help my unbelief!” kind of way.

And so it goes with every other sacred symbol of every religion that has ever been. But you have to do the work of making it so.

The Bread and Wine of Communion? Stop thinking about the body and blood of Jesus.

The Bread of Affliction is the Bread of Life. The Cup of Salvation is the Cup of Suffering. Understand how this is so—how this fundamental spiritual truth that is true across the ages, in every time and place throughout time—plays itself out, over and over, in your life.

And so on with all of the symbols that are still capable of being living symbols to eyes that see, ears that hear and hearts that understand.

(Postscript: Some of my Symbols of Transformation are posted on my SmugMug and my Flicker sites, and an internet search for my name in conjunction with those sites, and Wala, there you are!)

Published by jimwdollar

I'm retired, and still finding my way--but now, I don't have to pretend that I know what I'm doing. I retired after 40.5 years as a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, serving churches in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina. I graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Austin, Texas, and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. My wife, Judy, and I have three daughters and five granddaughters within about twenty minutes from where we live--and are enjoying our retirement as much as we have ever enjoyed anything.

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