Nativity

Polly Toynbee recently wrote in the Guardian protesting at the way organized religion still dominates politics, arguing that ‘atheists’ are the best social democrats. She is pleased that so many people responded to the census by saying they are not religious. She makes a strong argument against the remaining dominance of the Abrahamic faiths, casting ‘believers’ against ‘non-believers’.

But the word a-theist still defines you on the terms set out by those religions, just negatively rather than positively. So does the convenient cliché through which commentators refer to “those of all faiths and none.” As one commentator put it, you might as well call non-stamp-collectors “Aphilatelists.” Can I not be a “religious” person, in that I experience some numinous quality running through the world, some quality I might call anima mundi, without being defined in the terms established by monotheistic religions? Faith in the existence or otherwise of “God” is not relevant to me.

So I was mildly disturbed by Polly Toynbee’s article, feeling sympathetic to her examples of inappropriate influence (in particular the right to die) but left with an odd feeling of emptiness, maybe brought about by a surfeit of literal rationality. So I turned to the archetypal psychologist James Hillman, who wrote of the dangers of being caught in the literal, how it stifles our imagination and shrivels our souls. Hillman followed Keats in seeing the world as “the vale of soul making” and argued that the archetypal or imaginal lens shows our world as alive with meaning. For archetypes are the deepest patterns of psychic functioning. They are powerful images that govern the perspective we have on ourselves and our world. Hillman argues that the perspective of soul develops our imaginative capacities and allows us to see through archetypal patterns, which otherwise can bedazzle consciousness so it becomes blind to its own stance.

A few days later, watching Waldemar Januszczak’s series on BBC4 exploring the art of the so-called Dark Ages, I realized how, when the Christian tradition dominated the European mind and heart, all aspects of life would be perceived through the archetypal imagery of Lord God the Father, the Christ Child, the Virgin Mother, angels, Heaven and Earth and so on. This was the source of the power and dominance of the Christian worldview, bringing both enormously rich imagery and the capacity to bedazzle.

Polly Toynbee points to the dangers of the bedazzlement, but appears blind to the richness of the imagery, the capacity for meaning making, the significance of imaginal capabilities. The humanist view, I fear, remains caught in the literalism established at the Enlightenment. It offers no alternative to the conventional religious imagination.

So this Christmas time, while no longer calling myself a Christian but having the Christmas message running through my soul (I know most of the words of the classic nine lessons by heart), we decorate the house and make ready for the celebrations. I set up the modernist Nativity figures we bought at the Bauhaus in Berlin; Elizabeth places a religious picture from Ethiopia behind it; and arranges thoroughly Pagan evergreen foliage above. It is a postmodern pastiche of symbols, a jumble that is appropriate for our confusing times. Tonight we will go to Carols in the Abbey: it feels important to acknowledge the birth of a spark of new life in the middle of these dark days.

I know that by participating in these ceremonies, without bothering too much about what I “believe” and what I “don’t believe,” new images, new insights, new realizations will arise to me. My imagination is enriched, as is my capacity to know what gifts and responsibilities I bring to this world.

 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/14/atheists-better-for-politics-than-believers?

Hillman, J. (1975). Revisioning Psychology. New York: Harper  Collophon.