Healing

Like me, this post is a work in progress. I will value your comments.

Everyone is a hero.[1] Only the shape of our heroism differs. 

The Persecuted Hero always has to be wronged. All of life, all of their mental landscape, all of their inner talk, is centred around this. This is their being, their identity. Kind, loving, responsible—they may be all these, and honest and ethical to a fault, but that is all lived within the mental landscape of the persecuted hero. Not visible today? Wait until the pressures of tomorrow, and a reversion to their basic self, and we will see. Their internal dialogue will shift back to the language of the persecuted one.

It is so natural, so much a part of them, that they are mostly unaware of it. It's something like the way we don't really see the screen on which a movie is being projected. It takes a long time to understand that our particular kind of hero is there all the time, as the screen on which we play out our lives.  It is not just present on our bad days.

Despite all their good qualities, the persecuted hero is living for themselves. Wronged, persecuted, they are nonetheless the hero. They will persist despite the pressures that seek to destroy them. They are the hero who, in the end, is right and true.

This mental landscape allows them to survive. It is the reason they are alive, why they survived childhood or some other trauma. But it is also burden. It has to be maintained. There has to be a struggle. Happiness can only be fleeting, for happiness delegitimises their reality if it lasts too long. If they are happy, much less peaceful, it means their whole world is wrong. So, they are always tired. Always on the edges of things. Never quite able to trust, or be loved. Always sabotaging themselves at some level, and reshaping reality back to the perception that they are being persecuted.

The beginning of conversion is to recognise this selfishness. All of us must see that our illness[2], whatever it is, is some kind of misplacing of ourselves as the centre of Creation, as the Hero.  We all play a role. Perhaps this is not such a surprising statement. What is harder to accept is that the role plays us.  Conversion is to become aware that the dynamic of the Persecuted Hero, or whatever role we have adopted or been given, drives us, and seeks to determine us. Conversion begins as we recognise that our mental image of reality is not merely an accidental landscape to life, but a driving force which subverts true joy[3].

True conversion is a real heroism, for the petty hero recognises and confesses how much they are at the mercy of the life they have imagined. Such a person owns that perhaps, at base, they do not want to be healed. They wish, rather, to remain at the centre of life, only without the pain that this requires. True conversion is to let go of the self. Only then can there be healing, a healing process which will be life-long.

The one who is being converted wonders about the inner life of Christ. How could he not be consumed by his self? What tectonic landslips and tsunamis of the mind reshaped his being away from himself? Was it some happenstance of his childhood? Or did he, as we have all done, cultivate an imagination of himself, only different, not self-centred? What did he practise being? Who did he practise being? How did he conquer the fear of not being at the centre of his world? How was it less exhausting to change, or be changed, than to shore up the walls of self-defence?

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We often look upon a person's confession of their internal struggles with a kind of dishonesty.  For, whether sympathising with them, or scorning them, we often conveniently ignore that we too have a mental map. We pretend, for a moment, that we don't live with a model of reality which drives and shapes us, and all our responses. Perhaps not as painful as that with which that other person lives, but indelibly there.  Sometimes another person's pain is secretly a sort of relief: at least I am not that bad! Much less do we tend to say, "Well, yes. I am a hot mess, too."

It is also common for some part of us to wonder why they don't change. Secure, for the moment, in our own place, we wonder how hard it can be. Until, of course, we need to change. Then we realise how hard it is or, perhaps we excuse ourselves by intensifying our judgement of the other person who is struggling.

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The mental map which haunts everything I do was laid down in early childhood. I can trace quite clearly where some of it was formed during the struggle of my first years in school.  But I sense glimpses of it from even earlier, in apparently stray scraps of memory. When I place these next to family stories, and some of the struggles my parents shared, suddenly I see why I am the way I am. I see patterns in my own life which reflect things I observed in the lives of my parents, and even the lives of their parents. I was given some, perhaps much, of whom I am. And I unconsciously laid down, like bedrock, behaviours which were reinforced as they helped me make sense of, and survive, the world in which I found myself.

I have known for a long time that these behaviours are unhelpful—damaging, in fact, but there is no changing the basic person who is me. I think this is true of all of us. We can't go back, begin again, and lay down a different foundation of the self. We can only live with, and work around, the person we are, growing from there. And when life's pressures set us off-balance and we revert to the person who seems to undermine and give the lie to everything we have tried to become, all we can do is accept the grace of God, which is that we are loved anyway. Despite however much we let ourselves down, and let others down, God loves us without restraint. This is the meaning of the story we traditionally call the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Profligate Father waits eternally for him to return, and utters no word of reproof. He interrupts the boy's apology and self-rationalisation, to bless him and embrace him. (Luke 15:11-32)

Well what of those who claim to be healed, and radically so, you ask. The one who stopped drinking instantly? The person whose whole life turned around in a moment? Are you saying this is all exaggeration, something dressed up to sound good in church? Are you not denying the power of the Christ? And making an excuse for yourself?

I am saying that this is often low hanging fruit, and I emphasise that some of the best peaches currently ripening on the tree outside our window, are ones that we can reach with ease. Others are high up in the tree, and beyond our reach.

People do experience profound healing. A sense of God's love for them, which enables a person to stop self-medicating with alcohol, can change a life almost beyond recognition. The love of one single Sunday School teacher can keep a person alive. A teacher who praises a kid's composition and reads it out to the class, can give that child a life. Committing to following the Christ can seem to redirect everything about us! None of that would have happened if I had not followed him, we say. And it is true.  We often wonder—I do—what would have become of us if we had not done that!

What I say to you—and to me—in our moments of despair, is that as profound as all that often is, it is the low hanging fruit. Profound as it may be, it is the easier stuff. Often, it has been a dealing with some of the symptoms, rather than the deeper disease. If we are made to feel guilty, if we are asked, "Why have you not gotten over this," it is sometimes a sign that the questioner has not yet seen their own self. They do not yet understand how driven, how pre-determined they, and all people, are. Far less do they realise how our bedrock mental map can flood over any of us and sweep away the low hanging fruits of healing. Or perhaps, at some semi-conscious level, they have glimpsed this, and are shying away in denial, using us and our pain, as a kind of scapegoat. Here, our pain has offended a person, frightened them, and "Why aren't you over this" is an attack to enable their own self-preservation. 

Central to our understanding of ourselves as humanity is the recognition that we are all flawed. Theology calls this insight Original Sin, but we too often deflect its challenge to us by watering it down to mean a local set of shibboleths and forbidden practices (often to do with sex.) This helps us avoid facing just how radically different the structures of human culture are from the way of being Jesus called the Kingdom of God.  Indeed, much positive thinking, and also the heresy which aligns grace and blessing with financial gain[4], both of which promise healing, often do nothing of the sort.  Too often, they merely help a person operate more successfully in the realm of Caesar, and to become even more a child of empire, rather than to be healed.

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To see how driven we are, how pre-determined in so many ways, and how broken we are, seems to me a profound gift of grace. For then we are seeing the reality of what it is to be human. And we are in a place where we can seek healing.

The question is how.

I think we western Christians, in particular, have fundamentally misunderstood our scriptures.  We read them primarily as a description of how the world is. What I mean is that we read them with a scientific mindset, or at least a mindset heavily influenced by science. This is why fundamentalists insist on there being a six day creation; the words of scripture have to correspond with facts about the world. How else can they be true? This is a rationalistic, scientific mindset. But this is not just the fundamentalists. We all read all literature infected by this mindset. Even detective novels. They are so popular because, even though fiction, they correspond so well with the facts of our world: evil is rampant.

Is that the mindset of scripture? No. Scripture is myth. When we say this we mean not that scripture is untrue, but that it is about meaning, and that its stories are told to give meaning to life, not to inform us of physical facts.  But myth is far more radical than we are. For all our cultural conditioning drives us to seek too much correspondence between the events of biblical stories and the historical facts; far more, than was felt necessary in the minds of the authors and their original audience. "The story of The Exodus is about beginning to leave the culture of Empire (Egypt) and move towards trusting God instead. We are still always living in the Exodus," says the theologian. And immediately a small voice in us says, "But how can this be true if the Exodus didn't actually happen in the way scripture says?"  It feels to us that if the authors played fast and loose with the facts, we can’t trust the story. But as Sallie McFague[5] said, "Theology is mostly fiction." We mostly want it to be far too bound to our prevailing opinions about what constitutes historical "fact," and so we miss what it is saying.

I want to suggest that myth is not concerned with the smaller details of the world. It is not concerned with tables and chairs. It simply assumes they are there. Myth is about how to act, how to live, given the reality of tables and chairs. Where it mentions the details of kings and histories, this is to convince us of the need to act in a certain way, not to instruct us in historical and physical details of the world. What changes us and heals us, in the end, is not knowledge of tables and chairs. That knowledge can give us some low hanging fruit, perhaps.  But profound healing comes from acting in a certain way. Everything we do is practice for the next time. Doing is what changes us.

Richard Beck says 

The issues of Genesis 1 are not "Did the Lord God create the world in six literal days?" but concern, rather, "What does the world signify? What is human life for? What are the navigational points on my moral compass?" ... myth is both less and more. Less because it's not really good as a scientific account of the world, but more in that myth considers value, meaning, and morality as real, even more real than atoms and electrons[6].  

Knowing the scientific facts of the world does not heal us. Living the right myth, acting out the right myth, being immersed in it, is where healing lies. Understood this way, myth is more real than scientific knowledge which says little or nothing about meaning. Myth is where we get meaning and, therefore, where we find healing.

Theology, and the reading of scripture, is an art. It is learning to discern the key correspondence points between factual knowledge and the stories of scripture. The stories of scripture are always more concerned with challenging our cultural preconceptions than is comfortable for us. This is why our culture is so determined to discard the truths of scripture.  If we invalidate them because of their "poor" correspondence with tables and chairs and the dates of kings (this is a category mistake), we can avoid facing the reality of our idolatry which places our own personal version of the Hero at the centre of creation.

I have taken this deep dive into the nature of myth in the hope that you will see, and that I will remember, just how much our culture overvalues scientific knowledge, and how much that overvaluing can distort our reading of the Christian myths. Scientific knowledge is important. The myth makers had their own versions of it in all the practical skills which kept them alive in the world. But it is not the key knowledge for our healing.

There is also knowledge which is closer to myth. That includes the knowledge of our own story; knowledge which may help us understand our own particular version of the self-centred Hero by which we live out our lives. This knowledge is already half myth. It is a reconstructed story. But even this knowledge, and certainly, knowledge of the story of Jesus, is nothing without action. On its own it does nothing. What will we do with it? Sit in the shallow pleasures of self-pity? There is no healing there. In this respect, knowledge is the lowest of the low hanging fruits. Even the knowledge that God loves us unreservedly does nothing without action. It is only in trusting and acting by living out the old stories of Jesus, the Christian myth, that healing is found.

I have also emphasised the meaning of myth, and our often deep misunderstanding of the mental maps of the human minds which have given rise to scripture, because if we seek healing of our own mental map we need to be clear on what we are attempting. Value, meaning, and morality are not what drives the culture in which we live. It is driven by money and power. If we will not place value and meaning above money and power—which will cost us money and power—deep healing is difficult. Indeed, all the powerful tools at our disposal; eg cognitive behaviour therapy, will be subverted by the culture.  And the real things, such as morality, will be trivialised into shibboleths and petty rules rather than being a measure of our compassion. Instead of seeing the divinity of the Jesus of whom the hymn sings

Jesus, thou art all compassion,
pure, unbounded love thou art[7]

we will seek the divine (and healing) through rules and exclusions.

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The heart of Jesus' divinity lies in his selflessness. His life was not centred around himself. Since he was fully human that selflessness didn't "just happen." Humans, by our nature, are self-ish. We could not have survived long enough to evolve as a species if it were otherwise. But to become fully human, to become like God, which is God's desire for us, means to be healed of that. It means to transcend the self in some way, so that life is about more than us and our survival. The Jesus of scripture, the Jesus who could choose the cross, is a person who lived through the reshaping of his foundations. Who, in his compassion, practised putting his life at risk by sharing the vulnerability of those who were weak, marginalised, poor, and dying. Who faced the probability that, becoming so vulnerable, he would probably die with them, or instead of them.

So discipleship, which is the path of healing, is not about knowing the right doctrine. It's not about keeping the rules of our church, which are always far more local and self-serving than we realise[8].  Those are secondary things which are only ever healthy if they have flowed from the first thing. Discipleship is, first of all, to read the stories, ignoring our 21st  century reservations about whether such and such an event really happened, or could happen, and to ask one simple question: What does Jesus want me to do? What was he telling me in this story about how to act, how to live?

I suspect that in the story of the Profligate Father, once the party had cooled down, and the younger son was sitting there after a bit much to drink, still wondering at his good luck, his father sat down next to him and said, "Mate, if you really want to enjoy life you need to change things. You need to live differently. You are always welcome here, this is your home, and I love you from the bottom of my heart, and always will. But you'll never truly enjoy it until you get some stuff in order."

Jesus himself acts this out in another place.  A woman has been caught in adultery, and the religious heavies try to use her to discredit Jesus. (You'll notice in this story from John 7:53-8:11, that the adulterous man is nowhere to be seen.) If Jesus says to stone her, as the Law demands, then all his talk about compassion and love is shown to be empty talk, and it may also be that he will be in trouble with the Roman overlords who had taken the right to enact the death penalty away from Jewish people. But if he says to spare her, which is really what they want him to do, they can charge him with contradicting the Law. He outwits them. He says that the Law should be followed, but then adds the proviso that the one without sin should cast the first stone. It is an amazing appeal to the better nature of those in the mob, calling them to reconsider who they are in the presence of God, and to remember what the law is really about: I desire mercy, not sacrifice[9].  And they leave; the oldest and humbler ones, first of all. Jesus tells the woman that he does not condemn her either. He has acted out the role of the father in Luke's parable of the father and the two sons, loving her regardless. And only then, does he tell her she needs to change some things in her life. "Go and sin no more."

Jesus' quintessential action is to love first, and then consider what may need to be altered in a person's life.  Our almost universal human tendency is to insist that all the rules of life be fulfilled, and then, perhaps, see if there is some place we can apply a little love. This is because the rules, the locally agreed boundaries of behaviour in our culture, are, at base, set up to serve our self. Rules keep us safe. Love endangers us.

But Jesus loved.  And the practising of love changes us. It begins to open us to deep healing, for we are finally able to practise being something other than the self-centred hero of our lives. Rules are all about us being right. They are selfish; they place us at the centre of everything. If I keep the rules, you don't matter in the end, for the rules say I have to be right.  But love.... love removes us from the centre, and healing can begin.

Andrew Prior (Feb 2022)

 

[1] My mother told teenaged me when I was busy condemning a neighbour: "He has his problems, but everyone is a hero, Andrew. Even him."

[2] Richard Beck is clear about our tendency to look at others as though they have things together. "The people we borrow meaning from are themselves as broken, confused, lost, and unwell as we are. Neurosis mixes with neurosis in an enmeshed tangle of neediness. We are unable to provide steady help for each other because we need so much help ourselves. Just look at social media, it is a circus tent full of funhouse mirrors where distorted, twisted images stare back at other distorted, twisted images. Every screen is a portal into a vast, churning sea of human insecurity, confusion, and anxiety.  http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2022/02/escaping-quicksand-of-your-neurotic-self.html

[3] Joy is the result of healing of our selves.  It is something far deeper than happiness, which always has an element of luck about it. (Hap means luck.) Joy is the mindset which knows it is eternally loved despite all the horrors of the world.

[4] Prosperity Theology. This is a 'monetised' version of the theology of Deuteronomy which says do the right thing by God and God will do right by you. Don't, and you will suffer judgment.

[5] McFague, Sallie (1987) Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, xi

[6] Beck is reflecting on early work of Jordan Peterson, "before Peterson became famous... trying to understand what makes Peterson's Jungian reading of the Bible so compelling to modern audiences." I find work of the 'famous Peterson' quite repugnant, but Beck's exposition of his early work has clarified my understanding of myth. http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2022/02/maps-of-meaning-with-jordan-peterson.html

[7] Charles Wesley, Love Divine, all love excelling

[8] For example: One of my friends grew up in tobacco country in North Carolina, but married an Australian with family links to the Barossa. I remember her saying how in North Carolina, drinking was a sin, but tobacco was fine. But here, wine was good, and tobacco a sin!

[9] Matthew 9:13, quoting Hosea 6:6. Sacrifice, in the context in which Jesus uses it, means a rigid following of rules rather than discerning the actions and way of being that the rules are meant to point us towards.


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Yup.
Bill Schlesinger 20-02-2022
I find your work here evocative of Kierkegaard's reflections in teasing out the subtleties of self-deception. While finding a lot of the Westminster Confession defensive and boundary creating, I've appreciated the part on perseverance of the saints: "Nevertheless, they (those accepted, called and sanctified) may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God's displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves." Or - in other language, "We all are screwed up. All of us. Deal with it." On the other side of those observations: Another aphorism: When up to one's keister in alligators, it's hard to remember the intent was to drain the swamp (apologies to the ecologists among us).

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