Sermon: “Soul Loss”

By Sheri Hostetler

Second Sunday of Lent — “Soul Journey: Joyful is the Dark”

Matthew 16:24-26

In 1939, on the eve of World War II, Carl Jung — one of the founders of Western psychiatry — was giving a talk in London in which he recounted a conversation he had had years before with the chief of the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. Standing on the clay roof of fifth floor of the main building of the pueblo, at 7,000 feet in elevation, with the sun shining on their faces, Ochiway Bianco said: “We are a small tribe, and these Americans, they want to interfere with our religion. They should not do it, because we are the sons of the Father, the Sun. He who goes there” (pointing to the sun) — “that is our Father. We must help him daily to rise over the horizon and to walk over heaven. And we don’t do it for ourselves only; we do it for America; we do it for the whole world. And if these Americans interfere with our religion through their missions, they will see something. In ten years, Father Sun won’t rise anymore because we can’t help him.” (From Jung’s essay “The Symbolic Life.

Speaking, in London, to rational men, sons of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, Jung said, “Now you may say that is just a sort of mild madness. Not at all! These people … get up in the morning with a feeling of their great and divine responsibility; they are the (children) of the Sun, the Father, and their daily duty is to help the Father over the horizon — not for themselves alone, but for the whole world.” Their life is “cosmologically meaningful,” Jung said. “If we set against this our own self-justifications, the meaning of our own lives as it is formulated by our reason, we cannot help but see our poverty. Out of sheer envy we are obliged to smile at the Indians’ naiveté and to plume ourselves on our cleverness; for otherwise we would discover how impoverished..  we are. Knowledge does not enrich us; it removes us more and more from the mythic world in which we were once at home by right of birth.”

What is Jung saying here? He himself was a man schooled science, in reason. He was a Swiss medical doctor. Surely he wasn’t saying that the scientific method was bunk. That knowledge of how the world works is bogus. That fact-based reality doesn’t matter. These things all mattered to him. He was saying that on the way to becoming modern in this way, Western people had lost their souls. In fact, one of his most famous books is entitled Modern Man in Search of a Soul.

On the way to becoming modern, we discovered how to unlock the secrets of the atom and the cell and how to make computers we carry in our pockets any how to mine coal and extract oil from deep in the earth and convert them into energy that can do the work of thousands of people or horses, but in the process we went from seeing nature as a numinous, sacred realm with which we were in covenantal relationship to seeing nature as a “hardware store or refuse heap” (from chapter two of Bill Plotkin’s book Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche).  We extracted soul from nature. It was no longer naturally sacred, deserving our reverence and respect, requiring relationship with us. It was there to be manipulated, used for our own consumption. And so, we could clearcut an old growth redwood forest to build our homes. We could blow the tops off of mountains to get to the coal underneath. We could torture animals by putting them into cages in which they can not move because that is the most efficient way to produce our food. We could so relentlessly undermine earth’s water cycles, atmosphere, soils, and oceans that we are literally shutting down the major life systems of our planet.

We extracted soul from nature. And, we extracted soul from ourselves. We lost a mythic, religious sense of who we are. Since the late 18th century, traditional religious understandings of what it means to be human were steadily discarded in favor of more utilitarian, rational understandings. We were no longer the imago dei — beings made in the image of God. We were no longer here to “glorify God and enjoy God forever,” as the Presbyterian catechism puts it. We became individuals who are rational actors, motivated by material self-interest. That is the understanding of human beings that our modern economy and politics is built upon. We went from the imago dei to homo economicus (the eonomic human), as one person put it, people primarily motivated by “rational egoism, competition and acquisition” (from the Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra).

And so, we became people who could clearcut old growth forests, blow tops off of mountains, torture animals, and shut down the life systems of our planet for profit. We could treat each other as the soul-less humans we believed ourselves to be. Why not dump mercury into the river that is the primary food source for an Indigenous people group? The gold we are mining is more important than their lives. Why not have children work picking cotton, as I read recently in an article on “Children in the Fashion Supply Chain”? Their fingers are smaller and don’t damage the cotton plant as easily as adult hands do. Plus, you don’t have to pay them very much. We need our cheap, fast fashion, our $5 t-shirt that we wear twice

And we became people who feel empty inside, despite having so much stuff on the outside. One therapist wrote that the complaints he hears every day in his practice are basically all related to “loss of soul” — emptiness, meaninglessness, vague depression, a loss of values, a yearning for personal fulfillment” (from Thomas More in Care of the Soul). To drown out the cry of our soul, we fill our emptiness with a 1,001 distractions. Often, as Bill Plotkin says, “these distractions become addictions — consumerism, eating disorders, substance abuse, compulsive sex, pornography, workaholism, religious fundamentalism, obsessive thrill-seeking or gambling, and excessive TV watching.”

I just finished reading a fascinating book called The Age of Anger: A History of the Present that tries to explain the “origins of the great wave of paranoid hatreds we are seeing in our time — from mass shootings to ISIS to Donald Trump, from the rise in vengeful nationalisms happening across the globe to racism and misogyny on social media” (from the front cover flap of The Age of Anger). And in so many words, the author Pankaj Mishrawho is not a depth psychologist or in some kind of touchie-feelie profession but rather a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a columnist for the New Yorker — pins the blame on the very thing we have been talking about — this modern world characterized not by “too much intellect and too little soul but too little intellect in matters of the soul,” as he puts it.

Jung also believed that this loss of soul, this alienation from nature and from ourselves and from what he called the mythic or symbolic life, had dire consequences. Speaking to rational, enlightened people on the eve of World War II — surely one of the most irrational, unenlightened things to happen to humanity — Jung said: “We have no symbolic life, and we’re all badly in need of the symbolic life. Only the symbolic life can express the need of the soul, the daily need of the soul, mind you…  And because people have no such thing, they can never step out of this mill, this awful, grinding banal life in which they are ‘nothing but.’ (nothing but rational individuals seeking their own material self-interest)… And that is why people are neurotic. They are simply sick of the whole thing, sick of the banal life. And therefore they want sensation. They even want a war. Now something is going to happen, something bigger than themselves. No wonder people get neurotic. Life is too rational, there’s no symbolic existence in which I am fulfilling my role as one of the actors in the divine drama of life” (from The Symbolic Life).

Perhaps what all of these people are saying — using the interpretive model we talked about last week — is that in the course of becoming modern, the Western mind enshrined the ego — the trunk of our tree — as the lord of ourselves and the universe.  We denied Spirit and therefore find no wider perspective, no transcendence, only the awful grinding mill. We denied Soul and therefore cut ourselves off from our roots in the dark earth, from the nourishment of nature and our own wild souls. By doing so, we also deny the irrational — for the irrational, unconscious parts of ourselves (called the shadow in soulwork) live in the realm of Soul, live in the darkness. Trauma lives in the darkness. We are then unprepared and surprised when our collective shadow erupts in irrational hatreds, in paranoid political conspiracies, in really confusing election results, and in terrorist violence. We are then unprepared and surprised when our personal shadow shows up in our lives, as afflictions unresponsive to our rational attempts to make them go away — afflictions in the form of anxiety, addiction, terrors, compulsions, conflicts.

Jung knew that we children of the Enlightenment, of the Scientific Revolution couldn’t turn the wheel backwards. We can’t literally believe that we help the sun go across the sky just as we can’t believe that God created the world in six calendar days. We can’t and wouldn’t want to give up the gifts that the scientific method and our reason have brought us. But we need Spirit and we need Soul, and we desperately need new understandings of these realities that reconcile with our modern selves. We desperately need to bring Spirit and Soul back into our consciousness, back into our world, because if we don’t, we won’t make it as a species, as Ochiway Bianco predicted.

I feel incredibly blessed that every day, I work with a community that is doing just that. I can’t imagine how I could survive our soul-less world without you. Kinari told me that when she moved back to the U.S. from Indonesia, she saw this emptiness, disconnection, floatiness in people’s faces here. This was in contrast to how she experienced Indonesians who, she said, for the most part were present, alive and connected. But in our community, she didn’t see that emptiness; she felt our presentness and aliveness. And I see the same thing. Because here, I find a community of Spirit and Soul. I see people who are a part of the great, divine drama of following Jesus in building the kindom of God on earth. I see you denying the demands of your ego for safety and comfort and taking up your cross in the form of courageously confronting our collective shadow of racism and greed and xenophobia. I see you courageously doing your own soul work — struggling to find your unique role in that drama of “kindom building,” struggling to find the treasure that is yours to develop and embody as your contribution to that realm. And here, I see us living the symbolic life. We re-enact the divine drama of dying and rebirth and immerse ourselves in the waters of baptism; we prepare a heavenly feast every Sunday for all to enjoy; we tell stories; we light candles; we listen to ancient texts of wisdom; we sing together, and sometimes our breath becomes one.

I believe that we are a light to a soul-less world. I believe that we help the Sun rise every day. May God give us everything we need to continue offering our Soul treasure to each other and the world. Amen.