Belief is Like a Guillotine: Reflections on Power, Politics, and Mythology
Bradley Olson, Ph.D.
"A belief is like a guillotine, just as heavy, just as light."
Every day on my drive to the office I see a metaphysical food chain exhibit itself in front of me: silver, stylized fish hungrily gobble up similarly crafted fish-like amphibians. Or, in retaliation, the four-legged fish with an alphabetical Darwin, held Jonah-like in its belly, devours Ichthus. The casualties in these bumper sticker wars are not human beings, blood isn't spilled, and geographic borders are not overrun. They're not...are they?
These tailgate semiotics are not simply the harmless expressions of opinions about religious beliefs, modernism, and post-modernism. A battle of ideas and rhetoric is at its bottom, a struggle for power and ideological supremacy. Believers -- True Believers -- always seem to lose their heads, they become irrational and worse, they lose their hearts. Worse, they cause others to loose their heads...literally. Individuals who do not believe, or those who blatantly oppose them are often treated as an enemy to be overcome. The I-Thou relationship becomes an inconvenience, and an ego based i-Other relationship predominates. The Other is often demonized, pathologized, or scandalized. The conflict is not restricted to fundamentalists on either side of the issue, but the struggle for power also rages internally within each one of us to greater or lesser degrees. And every living mythology, be it religious or secular, political or personal, will be subject to such a struggle.
It would appear that it is nearly impossible for human beings (as a collective group, at any rate) to hold conflicting, or paradoxical views about any one subject for very long, and when it comes to tenets of belief, especially those that explain creation and continued human existence in the face of an apparently uncaring world, an even narrower vision and a more intense aversion to thoughts and evidence that appear to contradict doctrine and threaten to undermine belief arises. This is a curious trait of cultures and human beings, and the inability to hold conflicting ideas about a sacrosanct image, belief, or person creates a tremendous imbalance in the psyche. The good, savory, pleasurable, beneficial, virtuous, benevolent, and loving aspects are assigned to one's conscious awareness while the sinister, evil, maleficent, destructive, baleful, and shameful aspects are relegated to the psychic trash heap of the unconscious.
In a letter to a colleague, C. G. Jung noted the problem arising from the split between consciousness and unconsciousness, which he said leads "to a psychic uprooting of man. This also explains why practically everybody falls victim to some kind of -ism, with the result that any cause, however reasonable in itself, gets a pathological streak" (430). That "pathological streak" is most probably, if we are to round up the usual suspects, related to an unconscious drive or need, an instinctual urge to establish a sense of power, control, and create or participate in a mass delusion that often results when the phenomenon of belief -- especially belief that tends to literalize and concretize an unknowable or invisible reality -- achieves a position of strength and moral authority in a given cultural setting.
People concretize mythologies because believing concretely supplies an explanatory function; it explains the world and one's role in it. Belief in something, or someone, gives people comfort and a sense of control, often a sense of power. Wendy Doniger's term, "orthopraxy" (The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion 343) is somehow implicate in all of this striving for power and believing, and striving to believe powerfully.
Doniger suggests that people define themselves more on the basis of what they do than what they think (344). "Doing," if it is to be done well, requires skill; it requires one to be in control of one's self and simultaneously be able to master one's own environment. Perhaps most significantly, doing requires achieving mastery over the "others" who inhabit the same milieu. In my clinical experience as a psychoanalyst, power and control are merely euphemisms for fear, and power helps one to create the illusion of safety. A sense of safety is a feeling -- the satisfaction of an archetypal desire -- that human beings simply can't get enough of. The desire for safety is mistakenly linked to the acquisition of power and then, instead of finding a way to live with uncertainty and risk, human beings simply lust after power. They long for power, and often pray to their favorite deities for that power with which they can create the fantasy of safety. Unconsciously therefore, our religions -- our cultural mythologies -- serve to endorse the accumulation and application of power, so that it appears that the possession and use of power to control others is sanctioned.
Idealized notions about manifest destinies, spreading the kingdom of heaven about on the face of the earth, and bringing peace, order, and enlightenment have been notions which have been used, probably since time immemorial, to put an innocent face on the brutal truth contained within religions and myths. But it is never long before these utopian visions inevitably seem to contract glaucoma and become blind to the very collective they putatively benefit. In a remarkable essay on Jim Jones and The People's Temple cult in Guyana, Jonathan Z. Smith writes, "...religion has rarely been a positive, liberal force. Religion is not nice; it has been responsible for more death and suffering than any other human activity" (The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion 378). Religion is archly conservative and traditional; among its primary functions is to preserve centralized power, order, and enforce civility, all the while maintaining the bounds of the status quo. This is why, for instance, such emphasis is placed on the reality of an afterlife. If your lot in life is poverty or suffering; if you are an untouchable, a barbarian, fear not! If you can successfully sublimate libido to credo, you will win another and more importantly, a better life, be it in heaven or in your next incarnation.
Few religious or political leaders are truly liberal or liberation thinkers. If they are, like the Berrigan brothers, they are excommunicated, impeached, scandalized, or otherwise renounced in some public manner. I think that the tendency toward conservatism in mythoreligious thinking (and therefore political thinking) explains why, as Robert Ellwood points out, C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Mircea Eliade all were possessed of conservative, iconoclastic leanings (The Politics of Myth: A Study of C.G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell). The irony is that many who align themselves with the liberal intelligentsia often speak of the three men just mentioned in hushed, romantic and reverent tones. Perhaps the reason that Jung, Campbell, and Eliade often find intellectual homes among those who lean to the left of the political spectrum, is that these three men are proponents of religious points of view which are judged to be heretical, remote, dead, or so exotic that there is an anarchic and revolutionary attraction operating in the desire for their assimilation. Moreover, liberalism is powerfully attracted to the romantic, articulate, anti-modern notions that these three men each expressed in their different ways.
The conservative position that a living religion or mythology occupies (a position it must occupy to ensure its survival) necessitates a reliance upon a relationship to its adherents (as well as in its attitude toward non-believers) which is composed of politics and power. Lynda Sexson beautifully, and humorously, describes this dynamic in an essay in which she attempts to have children improvise their own Christmas play. Even as Sexson tries to have her own children get the ball rolling by supplying a beginning to the play, the politics of power and the power of politics immediately emerge:
My daughter, seven, fascinated with visions of holy families, loved the idea. "Let's begin," she said calculatingly
with her eye on a good role, "with Mary and the baby Jesus." "No," said her brother, "I wouldn't be in any play
with Mary and Jesus." "Well," she retreated, "At least the three kings." "No!" Again she sought compromise. "At
least Martin-Luther-King." Her brother hooted at her...Just as I was desperately beginning to see "possibilities"
in her script, her brother saw that there were none and finally agreed to cooperate. "Okay, you can't have
Jesus, but you can have a god. I'll compromise." End of conversation. End of planning. End of the old
mythological order. (Ordinarily Sacred 57)
Out of the mouths of babes... I have a feeling this scenario is as close or perhaps as accurate as any other scholarly speculation could possibly hope to be in describing what the process of formalizing religious dogmas is like.
As humorous as these strivings for personal and political advantage are in Sexon's children, the same attempts to amass power are just as evident in adults who find themselves -- by virtue of charisma, intellect, or nepotism -- in positions of religious or civic leadership. Even though a veneer of sophistication or sanctification might have been applied as a gloss designed to camouflage the same childlike aspirations to power, it doesn't take a great deal of effort or discernment to detect the same fevered dreams in adults, especially adults who find themselves in positions of influence.
There is psychological safety to be found in ensuring the ascendancy of, and widely disseminating, one's personal truth. Of course to protect that truth, contradictory assertions need to be ruthlessly put down, and the most effective method to this end is to nurture that which instills fear while condemning any opposing point of view as heretical and/or dangerous. The use of physical and psychological violence (the bumper battle of the devouring fishes betrays an underlying violence to the argument) is often an essential tool exploited in the unsentimental "exposing" of dangerous ideas or heresy.
The irony here is, of course, that every established order was itself at one time subversive. Heretical new orders if successful, be they social or religious, always become old ordering factors against which to protest. A living, vital mythology must of necessity organize itself along principles of conservation and the centralization of power (my god or gods must be more powerful than another's, or what's the point?).
Often, what happens is that a nascent, loosely organized "cult," succeeds in co-opting images and rite from more established religions and makes them its own. In time it convinces the masses of its efficacy and is established as a centralized religion, or a fundamental societal tenet, as well as an agent of social order. At this point of development the world is divided into two categories: believers and non-believers or the insiders and the outsiders. And to make matters even more complicated, two inherently contradictory duties must now be faced: on the one hand, to continue to provide the means by which the relationship between a god, or an apparently immutable principle, and its followers may continue to be facilitated, and on the other hand, to ensure the political survival of the institution that has evolved, seemingly fully formed, from the ideal.
The political survival of any institution requires that it have the flexibility to internally order itself as well as prosecute its wars, as well as having the capability to focus all of its institutional power, which is obviously considerable, on discrediting breakaway cabals or competing philosophies. The institutionalized voice sends a clear message that it is doubtless more comfortable to be allied with a powerful force than to be exposed to risk, humiliation, and exile. As Shakespeare wrote, "When rich villains have need of poor ones, poor ones may make what price they will" (Much Ado About Nothing Act III, Sc. 3).
The battle to be the standard bearer goes on in the academy as well as in religion and politics and it is prosecuted most notably perhaps, in two academic departments that focus most on religion and mythology: the departments of psychology and religious studies. In his preface and first chapter of The Politics of Myth , Robert Ellwood clearly defines an academic battle that pits romanticism against modernism, gnosticism against scientism, modernism against post-modernism. But these are battles that if won, can at best result in only pyrrhic victories. Let me try to explain...
Despite her indulgence in the same sort of behaviors I am critiquing in this paper -- specifically her rejection and often harsh criticism of C. G. Jung and Joseph Campbell -- Wendy Doniger offers a flexible solution and even a possible rapprochement to these multivariate and opposing views. The move made by Doniger in her book, The Implied Spider, lives on the edge of many expeditions to come that venture out beyond the current postmodern zeitgeist and seek to find a practical, reflexive approach to the study of myth, religion, anthropology, and depth psychology. She argues for an awareness of the method, the peculiar lens one employs in the examination of others, and a flexibility to move between insider and outsider considerations.
Doniger writes, "One must end by going over to the other side" (35) and I think, however imperceptible that going over may be, that is what I've tried to do in order to write this essay. I can understand the desire for power and political advantage because, in the shadows of my own psyche, that longing is alive and kicking. As Doniger writes that whatever bus we're on, "we are likely to find that we are not there yet. We have to get on another bus...or several buses. We need a lot of transfers on the mythic journey" (149). As I say, I have tried to keep this method in mind while writing this essay, but I don't think I was successful in doing so. What my lack of success demonstrates is how hard it is to achieve what Doniger prescribes.
I have tried to look at the issue of power from more than one side, "from another bus" so to speak, and to apply my observations and methods "without...ideologies" (Doniger 150), but I find it is hard to escape what my truth is. My truth is decidedly different than the current power structure. Being aware of that is, however, a way of realizing that there really is no final landing place on this issue, no ending point where one says finally, "So, this is it ..." But it does, as Hilary Mantel suggests, "let you know you are working closer to the truth" (Doniger 153), and perhaps that is the best one can do with issues as powerful and provocative as these.
Doniger, Wendy. The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth. NY: Columbia UP, 1998.
Ellwood, Robert. The Politics of Myth: A Study of C.G. Jung, Mirce Eliade, And Joseph Campbell. Albany: SUNY P, 1999.
O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. "The Uses and Misuses of Other People's Myths." The Insider/Outsider Problem in the
Study of Religion: A Reader. Ed. Russell T. McCutcheon. London:Cassell, 1999. 331-49.
Sexson, Lynda. Ordinarily Sacred. Charlottsville: UP/Virginia,1982. 55-68.
Shakespeare, William. The Complete Illustrated Shakespeare. Ed.Howard Staunton. NY: Gallery, 1989.
Smith, Jonathan Z. "The Devil in Mr. Jones." The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion: A Reader.
Ed. Russell T. McCutcheon. London: Cassell, 1999. 370-389.
© Bradley Olson, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
Published with permission from the author.
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