Tag: religion

to quest, or not to quest

I want to connect an older post from Jung with some Wendell Berry.


Dear Frau V.. 15 December 1933

Your questions are unanswerable because you want to know how one ought to live.
One lives as one can.
There is no single, definite way for the individual which is prescribed for him or would be the proper one.
If that’s what you want you had best join the Catholic Church, where they tell yo what’s what.
Moreover this way fits in with the average way of mankind in general.
But if you want to go your individual way, it is the way you make for yourself, which s never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being of itself when you put one foot in front of the other.
If you always do the next thing that needs to be done, you will go most safely and sure-footedly along the path prescribed by your unconscious.
Then it is naturally no help at all to speculate about how you ought to live.
And then you know, too that you cannot know it, but quietly do the next and most necessary thing.
Sc as you think you don’t yet know what this is, you still have too much money long to spend in useless speculation.
But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.

With kind regards and wishes,
Yours sincerely,
C.G. Jung

Kingsnorth on Berry:

Wendell Berry’s formula for a good life and a good community is simple and pleasingly unoriginal:
Slow down. Pay attention. Do good work. Love your neighbours.
Love your place. Stay in your place. Settle for less, enjoy it more.

Charles Taylor:

The modern ‘Maximal Demand’: “how to define our highest spiritual or moral aspirations for human beings, while showing a path to the transformation involved which doesn’t crush, mutilate or deny what is essential to our humanity”

In the nature of things, Christianity offers no global solution, no general organization of things here and now which will fully resolve the dilemma, and meet the maximal demand [in disagreement with Jung here]. It can only show ways in which we can, as individuals, and as churches, hold open the path to the fullness of the kingdom… we can’t exhibit fully what it means, lay it out in a code or a fully-specified life form, but only point to the exemplary lives of certain trail-blazing people and communities [this then is what is going on with Berry-peddlers].

There is a hard distinction running through spiritual thought (and hence, the church—or should that be the other way around?), a division of “spiritual attitude”, of “religious sensibility” as Taylor demarcates it—and Taylor is the only one I have seen name it and talk about it at any length. I returned to him in the course of writing this most, and gosh it’s all in there, or most of it anyway. I’ll have to return to him and follow up.

But I have only made the connection with both Jungian thought and Berry’s thought. It is a tension between ‘dwelling’ and ‘seeking’, and while Taylor (rightly) argues that those who flatten the reality of the two (something he accuses the doctrines of the western church of directly doing)—and hence drive self-understanding to the extremes—do a disservice to everyone involved, the distinction is remains stark in concrete lives and leaves uncomfortable (unanswerable?) questions for the individual.

I—like many—fall back on Rilke (although that is perhaps to already have foreclosed as a seeker!), “Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer”.
Our lives, the families, churches and communities we create will be our answers.

“There is no single, definite way for the individual which is prescribed for him or would be the proper one. If that’s what you want you had best join the Catholic Church”. Well one must ask, is that what we want? Is it up for debate? And if it is—in any given life—then the ‘questers’ seem to win by default.

Berry’s distinction between ‘Boomers’ (“those who rush through and past”)and ‘Stickers’ (“those who find a place and make it home”) runs uncomfortably close to this same duality—for ‘Questers’ inherently have a disconcerting affinity with the pathologies of modernity; limitless exploration, colonialism, individualism etc. But are Questers fundamentally a modern aberration? Or are they possessed of spiritual aspirations with their roots much deeper in both human history and the human psyche? Completely legitimate—and completely Christian—aspirations?

Eternal aspirations, the kind that the contingent revelations of scripture and church simply frame and reframe but neither create or direct? Taylor dates the division above to the start of modernity, around the time of the Reformation, but it surely goes further, much further?


Perhaps [Gregory of Nyssa’s] most important contribution to Christian thought was (and is) his sophisticated development of Origen’s view of Christian life as unceasing advance, ‘straining forward to what lies ahead’.. because of its limitless nature, this journey is always marked by Desire, by Hope and longing, never coming to possess or control its object… human Nature is seen as essentially restless, precarious, mobile and variegated, because of its orientation towards a reality outside itself.

To shift from a theological-metaphysical key to a (more) physical-historical one. Might they be aspirations which pre-date the agricultural revolution and hence skirt—or have an authority which in some sense supersedes (by what mechanism you may rightly ask), like Melchizedek’s priestly order—the settled compromises and virtues of that cultural architecture?

“All the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish. With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts” declaims Ishmael.

As another frontier seems imminent—after the local woods, the remote mountain, the arthurian forests, the eastern steeps of the continent or the southern deserts, then the great ocean, the new world, and the oceans and heart’s of darkness even beyond that—men will, it seems, not be denied the white goddess who were not denied the white whale.

The Jungian connection brings into stark relief how the hero-myth, the grail quest, archtypes and narratives of being which form the substructure of the western soul—perhaps the human soul—partake shamelessly and often extravagantly in questing modes; questing is often the essentially human activity. Christ partakes in it, the patriarchs, our patron saints, and our deepest selves. How fundamental, it must be asked, is questing to being human? How much of ourselves is mutilated by agrarian sedentariness? Can a whole-questing (one which involves whole communities and families like in the paleolithic) ever be recovered once the machine of human techno-‘progress’ levels its way through all frontiers, leaving only the heavens?

What is the true relation between (supposedly) interior and exterior human questing? What of said technological grounds which have enabled the present post-agrarian ‘external’ forms: oceanworthy ships, the automobile, Raptor spaceship engines, gender-reassignment surgery, jungian psychotherapy etc.

One wants to say this is all just extension of aspirations that were and always will be present, aspirations that must be funnelled and directed into traditional (!) forms of spiritual practice; whether that be contemplative prayer, Ignatian excercises, active imagination, or the local charismatic church. But what of the physical necessity, the need for embodied questing (which Taylor doesn’t touch on at all)—the old hunter-gatherer itch for things remote—an itch which is culturally divorced from family and community and therefore must deeply impoverish one in order to be accomplished.

Robert Johnson:

I suppose that the historian Toynbee would say that here the two great archetypes of Western Europe were, once again, fighting it out on a primitive level within my individual soul: on the one hand, the settled landowner and townsman, putting down roots, seeking security, making a life in a stable community; on the other hand, the nomad [this Dionysian, sensual, nomadic quality] roaming the beaches of Solana Beach, California, instead of the steppes of Mongolia, but nevertheless roving, living by his campfire, refusing to be pinned down to a place, a job, or responsibility… If you go to your inner [nomad] and give him or her a chance to live, you find eventually that this bum is really a sunyasin, a wandering mendicant holy man, in disguise. And the nomadic wanderings turn out to be pilgrimages.

Pilgrimages with no family in tow, pilgrimages which further endanger the planet, pilgrimages which (of necessity) uproot and alienate the mendicant (and oh if only we were mendicant!) from any local spiritual dependence or authority. And yet, Berry and those like him, where is their spot on the map for pilgrimage, for its un-accomodated form threatens to suffocate the whole, and explode the world in its striving.