Yesterday as I hiked through a high country snowstorm, I got to thinking about our human tendency to resist holding the tension between an acknowledgement of the positive AND negative sides present within all human endeavors. It seems we want things to be either all positive or all negative. For example, I find that students in all of my Contemplative Christianity courses have quite a bit of difficulty when we study the spirituality of 5th century church father St. Augustine of Hippo.
On the one hand, Augustine's theology contributed some of the most negative and problematic elements to the Christian tradition. The depravity of the human soul (a position which he later recanted), Original Sin, the sinfulness of sexuality, limbo, etc. are examples of the things that make us shudder. But Augustine also contributed some incredibly creative insights to the Christian Mystical tradition. For example, he had a psychological view of the Trinity, where the spacious expanse of human awareness (memoria) corresponds to the First Person of the Trinity, the mind's self-reflection on itself and its goodness represents the Second Person, and the soul's joy in knowing itself in this self-reflection corresponds to the Third Person. Or, in Hindu terms: "sat" (being), "chit" (consciousness) and "ananda" (bliss).
Augustine also contributed his insight that faith is a form of creative perception which gives us knowledge of divine truth; that God is a light in which all things - even so-called "secular" knowledge - are "seen" and known; and the realization that love of neighbor is an integral part of knowing God. Even regarding the negative elements of Augustine's theoIogy, I try to bring greater understanding to the subject by appealing to Ken Wilber's Spectrum of Consciousness. In the class notes, I write:
"I theorize that Augustine was the first major figure in the West to write from what Wilber calls the egoic-existential state of consciousness. That is, Augustine was at the beginning of the shift away from identifying the self either with a pre-conscious awareness of the all-embracing divine presence, or with society, identifying himself instead with the isolated individual self, a movement that also occurs in individual psychological development in late adolescence or early adulthood. With this new capacity for individual introspection came a subconscious sense of guilt that arose from feeling cut off from the Whole, or – as Martin Heidegger would put it – as “a being thrown toward death.” Thus, when Augustine began to identify himself with the isolated, individual self, he experienced a sense of guilt, which then spread to his views of human nature and sexuality in general."
If we really admit it, this kind of coincidence of positive and negative elements occurs in every one of us, no matter how "spiritual" we may be. Growth comes when we hold on to an awareness of the tension between the two. Carl Jung calls this "being crucified between the opposites until the reconciling Third is given birth." This occurs in large measure as we gradually allow the positive aspects of our identity (which actually come from our divine Core or True Self) to bubble up and transform the negative elements. I wonder: can we hold the tension and not resort to a fundamentalistic either-or mentality?
Photo: Ruddy Limber Pine trunk in a snowstorm, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO, February 29, 2016
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Stephen Hatch, M.A. is a spiritual teacher and photographer from Fort Collins, Colorado. His approach is contemplative, inter-spiritual, and Earth-based.