RESPONSE TO ALAN SEGAL

by Walter Wink

It is a pleasure long deferred to meet my neighbor Alan Segal and discover how irenic he is. Dialogue over my paper is really a trialogue, between Segal, myself, and Carl Jung. Alan is kindness itself when dealing with me. But he is thoroughly ambivalent when dealing with Jung; some aspects he likes, some he doesn’t. To various degrees, most of us are like that. In some ways, however, I think Dr. Segal simply doesn’t grasp Jung’s notion of the archetypes (do any of us?). For example, Segal states that his understanding of the Jungian system suggests that “Son of Man” cannot be an archetype but is instead a “constellation.” He fails to distinguish between archetypes and archetypal images. Archetypes are unknowable except by their effects. Archetypal images are culturally conditioned symbols that change from one society to another. The issue is important, because part of the reason for my including chapters on Jewish mysticism and Gnosticism was to underscore the archetypal explosion of the human being into the entire Mediterranean region. That explosion, which Segal rightly calls a revelation, looks different in different circles, and is symbolized as such. But what was happening was happening all over the first-century world, and Jung’s terminology is, I believe, the most helpful in tracking this seismic upheaval.

Jung has been rightly pilloried for being too contextless, as if the archetypal images were immutable. But this is a failure of practice not of theory. He simply fails to live up to his own strictures. In my study, there is an additional check on this a-historical approach, and that is the figure of Jesus. As my mentor Elizabeth Boyden Howes often commented, Jung failed to distinguish between Jesus and the Christ. The latter was pure archetypal imagery, whereas Jesus was a historical figure subject to his own society, upbringing, struggles, and death. That particularity keeps Jesus from being swallowed up in mythology. The Apostles and Nicene Creeds went a long way toward that mythicization by their omission of the life, teachings, healings, exorcisms, parables—in short, almost everything in his life that is of interest to us. Instead, they jump from “born of the virgin Mary” right to “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” The historical Jesus acts as a corrective to that incipient docetism. Alan perceptively suggests that the historical Jesus “is the datum of human life that will keep the ‘Son of Man’ from escaping into self-projection.”

Though he candidly admits to not having read my trilogy on the Powers, he has grasped their focus on overcoming domination. Of course, Jesus was not the only person to ever critique domination, but he does deserve credit for making it the centerpiece of his message of transformation that included not only persons but also the systems, institutions, and structures that support and cripple human life.

Alan is correct in seeing the “son of man” archetype as non-historical. At that point, however, it seems to me that he mixes categories by treating the claims of history with the realm of truth. “The Tao that can be spoken is not the real Tao,” yes, but it can also be fictional. The “son of man” is, he avers, the same. “Because we say that we can posit a heavenly figure called ‘The Son of Man’ does not say that such a figure exists.” But this plays straight into the hands of Feuerbach, and it repeats his failure to grasp the archetypes. The Tao is not an idea, about which one can speak; it is an experience, and as such is an intrapsychic event. Alan compares “the Force” in the Star Wars trilogy, which has a certain numinosity, but is thoroughly fictional. It is true that the Force can serve as a universal, human transcendent symbol; my grandson found it to be the only God-image with which he was comfortable. But the Force is symbolically thin. It works, but lacks the depth of tradition, liturgy, community, music and art. Just so, the son of the man is a charged image arising, unbidden, from the unconscious, rich in its symbology, mysterious in its meanings. It does come from the imagination, but that is where much truth comes from (as well as falsehood!). We don’t “make up symbols which we know are fictional,” we are overtaken by them. They burst upon us from the archetypal realm as in the visions of Ezekiel and Daniel. I am not appealing for faith in these texts, I am speaking, rather, of psychic facts that are every bit as factual as those of outer history.

History deals in facts, archetypal images in truth. We can apply the category of history to the theme of the son of the man insofar as our goal is to under stand the evolution of the archetypal image as we find it in texts. Historiography helps us recover what others have considered to be the meaning of the phrase. But it cannot pronounce on the question of its truth.

Alan understands all this quite well, with one caveat: he says that I use the Jungian analytic to sidestep the entire historical question. The importance of the son of the man has little to do with its historical instantiation, he says. In fact, the historical question is swallowed up in transcendence. The son of man is a Jungian constellation of values, the purpose of which is to help us individuate as persons. “Therefore the actual historical question is irrelevant; it is the potency of the symbol which does the work for Jungianism. That caveat is that I subordinate history rather than abandoning it. How else explain my long historical critical introductions to the pre-Easter son of man sayings? Or my involvement with the Jesus Seminar? Pure Jungianism cuts the historical Gordian knot. I cannot dispense with the historical because history is our modern myth. It is one of the most successful of all our tools for developing the myth of the human Jesus.

Among the best thoughts in Alan’s paper is the recognition that our formulations of transcendence are combinations of high ideals with images which fail to express transcendence as time goes on. His example is the way the Grail myth was warped by Richard Wagner in his opera Parsifal, and from there to Nazism. There are tragically many examples of this phenomenon in Christian history as well. The dangers of an archetypal theology are even evident in Jung, who was initially fascinated with Hitler’s capacity to stir up the old Nordic gods (he soon recognizes the demon incarnate in Hitler, but not before besmirching his own name). As Alan sums it up, “We only appreciate the artistic achievement in and of itself and decry the social context that we recognize is behind it.”

I do not mind my book being called theology, as long as it is also seen as psychology and historiography and, above all, biblical exegesis. I am indeed trying to breathe new life into the son of the man symbol, even if I go beyond its original meaning in its original context. I believe that such freedom is essential to the reading of any text. Interpretation can save a text from irrelevance, preconceptions, and dogmatism. Our texts need us as much as we need them. It would be my hope that the son of the man archetype can help us recover something of what it means to be more fully human, and actually empower seekers in their struggles to become authentic.

Finally, I think Alan is right about the subtitle: it should have been “The Enigma of Jesus and the Son of Man,” because both are enigmas and both baffle us.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2003, Vol. 53,  No 2.