The Gestalt of Paranoia: Religious Experience and Reality

A review of James Hillman's Eranos lecture On Paranoia

Christine Norstrand

I originally wrote this for the column I shared with Ken Urquhart. However, it became unwieldy and may be a little too personal for that publication. It is certainly too long.

The Eranos Lecture Series, Eranos 8: On Paranoia, by James Hillman, Dallas, TX: Spring Publications. 1988. Presented originally at the 1985 Eranos Conference in Ascona, Switzerland.

As I have chosen to dedicate this month's column to review a book that was originally published more than a decade ago, I feel that warrants some explanation. On Paranoia is a special book to me. It marks a milestone in coming to peace with my own cultural Christianity after a cult and cultural misidentification of individualism with self that resulted in the neglect of areas of life where one's self extends beyond one's individuality (e.g., relationship, community or polis, environment). Hillman lays the blame for our collective misanthropy and social irresponsibility at the feet of the anomic archetype of individualism, one that wears a Protestant face. That worship of individualism in its most narrow sense underlies many of the new religious movements whose adherents hold that they can dissolve the thin boundary between the God within and the "wholly other" God without -- if they're only self-actualizing enough, only a little more enlightened, a little more ethical, a little more good-hearted. Just tear away one more veil, peel one more layer of the onion. Aquinas says that religion is giving God what is due. The religious question becomes: To serve the gods? Or become one?

In On Paranoia, Hillman is vociferously anti-Christian, holding that in denying the pantheon of gods in favor of one true God (the Self or the self), the imaginal values that form the living infrastructure of our identities are abstracted and trivialized as "just ideas". As Hillman said in his seminar on Longevity and Aging, given in Santa Barbara on March 13-14, 1998, "We've had 2000 years of Christianity on our backs." This is some truth to this; in fact it was so true for me that it prompted my own resignation from the church in fall of 1996. I wanted to dissolve, forever, the difference between holy and secular. Well, I was wrong but I will leave that for later in this article.

As Hillman rails against Christianity, he rails against the hoodlum bullies who beat him up as a youth on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, against the cultural paranoia of McCarthyism and Senator Rankin's thinly veiled attacks against the "communists who crucified Jesus and cast lots for his clothes", against a lifetime of impatient tolerance of accusatory fundamentalists who were his intellectual and moral inferiors. I bring in Hillman's personal past because he drives home, both in On Paranoia and in his recent seminar, that it is literalization and concretization of images that turn the heart to stone. At the same time, however, he exposes his own soft underbelly by shadowboxing with a theological strawman, a literalizing and concretizing Christian even the most conservative Christian speaking from the center of the theological circle would disown. Hillman's representation of Christ as a political leader is a particularly Jewish interpretation; it does not represent the Christian take on reality, and doesn't represent the views of mainstream Christian theologians.

On the contrary, intelligent Christians with I.Q.'s in three digits hold views more similar than different to Hillman's in this regard:

      Now all this, if taken literally, is absurd. If it is taken symbolically, it is a profound expression, the ultimate Christian expression, of the relationship between God and man in the Christian experience. But to distinguish these two kinds of speech, the non-symbolic and the symbolic, in such a point is so important that if we are not able to make understandable to our contemporaries that we speak symbolically when we use such language, they will rightly turn away from us, as from people who still live in absurdities and superstitions. -- Paul Tillich Theology of Culture

This misrepresentation of Christianity is the central flaw in Hillman's attack on Christianity as a literal, fundamentalist experience, one I will revisit in my closing comments.

Again, On Paranoia is the single book that has most impacted my life in the last seven years, years so strewn with depressions, cataclysms, and mammoth betrayals that the question of "correct reality", which I had dismissed as philosophically irrelevant, became of great important to me. On the surface, On Paranoia focuses on a set of three case studies on paranoia -- a subject of perhaps passing interest to an audience that concerns itself with psychological abnormality, but without wide appeal or address of the "ultimate concerns" of the body politic. Yet, in addressing the subject of paranoia, Hillman begins in the place where psychology cannot be separated from religion, either in substance or in method.

Summary of the Argument


  1. There is a juncture where psychology and religion cannot be separated, at the place where "the nature of reality, and the unseen order" meet in the heart of the individual.

  2. Theology postulates "a correct revelation".

  3. Psychology examines and identifies what is "incorrect revelation" or delusion, or paranoia.

  4. We may be able to get at what comprises "correct revelation" by defining the characteristics of "incorrect revelation". In this way, Hillman examines psychological literature and autobiographical writings of three famous institutionalized cases, as well as excerpts from Jung's memoirs, all men who lived consistently and religiously with their "revelation". Drawing on the three case studies, he identifies characteristics of paranoia that include:

    - an "incorrigibility" in the delusions that attests to an impersonal, noetic factor that intimates that the disorder of mind rests in a prior disorder of spirit,
    - "literalization" of ideas. Succumbing to a seductive search for meaning, and
    - "concretization" of words into events.

  5. Hillman also notes a common theme: a hinging of universal "meaning" on the individual.

  6. Hillman examines traditional interpretations of paranoia by Freud as modes of denying homoerotic desire. (I have intentionally abbreviated this discussion).

  7. He examines and rejects the following as criteria in determining "incorrect revelation":
    - content,
    - mission,
    - societal acceptance,
    - context,
    - harmfulness,
    - in-character.

  8. He questions the question, as "rising from the assumption, both theological and psychiatric, that there is a clear distinction between revelation and delusion, between correct and incorrect method of manifestation of the hidden."

  9. He argues against the context that invites systematic theology and systematic paranoia in favor of the assertion that all delusion is revelatory and all revelation, delusional, or in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, "an intelligble event which make all other events intelligible." That the assumption that what we call the Deity or Spirit is hidden necessarily brings revelation to religion, and so delusion as well.

  10. Because paranoia is given with our theological worldview, we have to enter theology in order to reach the psychological roots of paranoia. Hillman seeks to apply a deconstructionist therapeutic exegesis extrapolated from the characteristics identified in the case studies (incorrigibility, literalization, concretization) to the idea of "revelation" itself, such that the veils are themselves delusional.

  11. He brings in the polis as an unacknowledged, primordial psychic phenomenon, that thereby manifests its shadow in an anachronism of 18th century literalism called secularism.

The Juncture of Psychology and Religion

As did Freud in The Future of An Illusion and Jung in his theological writings and controversies, Hillman begins his examination of paranoia where religion as relation with divinity and as relation with community draws psychology to consider theology and politics. He does this because he believes it is inherent in our theological worldview that psychology cannot reach the endemic paranoia, because its source is collective.

Theology of Revelation

Hillman begins with two quotations that are so important to his argument that they warrant being quoted again here. The first is from William James, the father of Psychology:
      Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest sense and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul. (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, London: Longmans, Green, 1902: the opening of the third chapter "The Reality of the Unseen").

The second, from Gerhard Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament:

      All religion is concerned in some way with the manifestation of deity. This consists in removing concealment. There can be no direct access to deity . . . deity is hidden. Even primitive man knows this. On the other hand, there could be no dealings, let alone fellowship, with a God who remained permanently hidden. In the broadest sense, then, all religion depends on revelation. . . it belongs to the nature of deity to manifest itself. What really counts is the correct method. . .  [Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (G. Kittel, ed.), vol 3, Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1965: Apokaypto: Sacramentum Mundi (Norbert Schiffers, Karl Rahner, Heinrich Fries, "Revelation", vol. 5, Herder & Herder, 1970].

"What really counts is the correct method" (Kittel) of revelation, or "harmoniously adjusting" to the unseen order (James). The boundaries of correct revelation fall within the purview of theology, while the determination of wrong or deluded revelation has fallen, rightly or wrongly, to psychology.

What Is Paranoia?

In its attempt to enumerate the characteristics of the paranoid states (paranoid, paranoiac, paranoidiform, and so on) the APA identifies the following in the DSM:

  • pervasive and unwarranted suspiciousness and mistrust.
  • Individuals are hypervigilant and take precautions against perceived threat.
  • Perceive an unusually wide range of stimuli
  • Tend to avoid blame even when it is warranted.
  • Avoidance of depression.
  • Question the loyalty of others.
  • Insist on secrecy.
  • Severe and critical with others.
  • Tendency to counter-attack.
  • Unwillingness to compromise.
  • Intense, but suppressed anger.
  • Driving, ambitious, aggressive and unusually hostile and destructive.
  • Generate uneasiness and fear in others.
  • Often interested in mechanical devices, electronics, and automation.
  • Avoidance of group activities unless in a dominant position.
  • Avoid surprise by virtually anticipating it. Dread… passive surrender.
  • Friends are constantly tested… until they withdraw or actually become antagonistic.
  • Inordinate fear of losing power to shape events in accordance with their own wishes.
  • Transformation of internal tensions into external tension.
  • Continuous state of total mobilization.
  • Giving in to external domination and giving in to internal pressure involve a threat.
  • Fear of being tricked into surrendering some element of self-determination.
  • Generally uninterested in art or aesthetics.
  • Rarely laughs.
  • Lack of a true sense of humor.
  • What looks like comfortable familiarity. . .  seems like an imitation. . . . It is not friendly; it is only designed to look friendly.
  • Keenly aware. . .  of who is superior or inferior.
  • They dislike people seen as weak, soft, sickly, or defective.

Yet underlying such symptoms is a sincere attempt to live according to one's personal revelation and adjust oneself to the unseen order, a religious concern, no matter how we determine the character and correctness of that revelation. By identifying the essential character of paranoia, Hillman hopes to come to an insight into what is "correct revelation". That underlying worldview is inherent in the etymology of paranoia itself and the dual concepts of correct/ incorrect that are inherent in it:

      Paranoia: mental derangement, madness, délire, lunacy. Para + noia: besides-thinking, mentation that is off, faulted, derouté, entgleist, dis-tracted. Delusion is the psychic essence of psychosis. Paranoia presents the delusional state most immediately and openly… (Niel Micklem, The Intolerable Image: The Mythic Background of Psychosis, Spring 1979).

Incorrect Revelation

Hillman wants to get at the heart of "correct revelation" by identifying the soul of "incorrect revelation"; he undertakes a case study of psychological literature and autobiographical writings of three institutionalized cases, as well as excerpts from Jung's memoirs, men who lived consistently and religiously with their "revelation".

Anton Boisen

A Presbyterian minister and author of many works on psychopathology and pastoral psychology, he published in 1960 an account of his breakdown during the 1920s. Boisen himself presents it in his memoirs as a case of "valid religious experience which was at the same time madness of the most profound and unmistakeable [sic] variety."

At the age of 44, Boisen withdrew to formulate his personal Statement of Belief. As he wrote the statement, at a point he pinpoints later at the third paragraph, an idea broke into his consciousness with tremendous power, accompanied by a four-fold schema, which Boisen found himself repeating over and over.

      Everything then began to whirl. It seemed the world was coming to an end…. Some sort of change was due. Only a few tiny atoms we call 'men' were to be saved. I was to be one of these. I might, however, be of help to others.

Three days later Boisen was incarcerated in Boston Psychiatric Hospital, where he stayed for 15 months. Highlights of his account of his experience include:

  • Singing and shouting and pounding on the glass,
  • Talk of dying that he might be born again,
  • Suicidal ideation and action,
  • "The motive that has sustained me throughout this whole affair is the conviction that I was really acting in obedience to a divine command",
  • A premonition of impending world disaster and plots by enemies that required "constant watchfulness",
  • A sense that the "world was all ears, and the wrds which I had spoken would bring about my undoing",
  • That he was the woman Magdalen and had "to go insane in order to get married",
  • A belief that he "must descend to the lowest possible level" and often presented himself naked on the floor, provoking attendants to beat him severely,
  • He would open the Bible at random in an oracular fashion for guidance, declaring 40 years later that "those passages of Scripture bore with amazing directness upon the questions uppermost in mind…. Something more than coincidence was here involved." (All quotations from Boisen throughout this article are from Out of the Depth: An Autobiographical Study of Mental Disorder and Religious Experience, NY: Harper, 1960 and cited by Hillman in On Paranoia).

Boisen intimates three factors in his account of his experience that intimate "inharmonious adjustment":
- Universalizing while literalizing his experience ("I went too far and attempted to universalize my own experience.", "things are working out more literally than I had anticipated."),
- misassignment of authority by virtue of its sudden appearance in a rush of enthusiasms ("The fundamental fallacy was the assumption that an idea carried authority because of the way in which it came."), and
- misassignment of authority by virtue of its novelty ("derived their authority from the fact that they were absolutely different from anything I had thought of or heard before.")

In his account of his recovery, Boisen considers his recovery to derive, not from re-establishing the boundary which repudiates the delusions, but by "faithful, carrying through of the delusion itself" because of "the curative forces of the religion which was largely responsible for the disturbed condition." That is, recovering the divine within the disorder and acknowledging that content as authentically religious, if at the same time, disordered.

John Perceval

A second biography of a paranoid disorder is that of John Perceval, born 1803, the son of British Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval. Just as Boisen marks the moment when he began to write the third paragraph of his Statement of Belief, Perceval marks a specific date, December 19, when "in a state of great excitement… it came into my head to put my hand into the fire" and, like Boisen, "to take a position on the floor." (All quotations from Perceval throughout this article are from Gregory Bateson (ed.), Perceval's Narrative: A Patient's Account of his Psychosis (1961) NY: Wm. Morrow, 1974) and cited by Hillman in On Paranoia).

Perceval's two-volume account retraces the patterns outlined by Boisen: voices, violence, suicide attempts, submission to degradations, spirits or daimones, and the like. In his account of his recovery, Perceval restates Boisen's points about universalism and literalism:

    I suspect that many of the delusions which… insane persons labour under consist in their mistaking a figurative or poetic form of speech for a literal one… the spirit speaks poetically, but the man understands it literally. Thus you will hear one lunatic declare that he is made of iron, and that nothing can break him…. The meaning of the spirit is, that this man is strong as iron… but the lunatic takes the literal sense… it does not follow that things seen in the spirit are to be practised in the flesh.

Perceval's opening of that door into psychic reality where the spirit of the law is not the letter of the law initiates his recovery. In his reflections after his release, he presents a theory of lunacy:

      I conceive therefore that lunacy is also a state of confusion of understanding, by which the mind mistakes the commands of spirit of humor, or of irony, or of drollery; that many minds are in this state; that, perhaps, this is the state of every human mind…. I mean that in the operations of the human the Deity,… often intimates his will by thus jesting, if I may be allowed to call it so… that in the misapprehending or perverting of this form of address may consist original sin; or that such misapprehension… is the first consequence of original sin (if such there be)… making false every future deliberation, and conception, and action.

Daniel Paul Schreber

In his Memoirs of my Nervous Illness, published in 1903, Schreber also tries to fix the date of his experience:

      The voices which talk to me have daily stressed ever since the beginning of my contact with God (mid-March 1894) the fact that the crisis that broke upon the realms of God was caused by somebody having committed soul murder. (All quotations from Schreber throughout this paper are from Memoirs of my Nervous Illness, translated by Ida MacAlpine and Richard Hunter, London: Dawson, 1955, and cited by Hillman in On Paranoia).

Unlike Boisen and Perceval, Schreber did not recover from his delusions. He returned to his wife and home in 1902 at age 60 and functioned as a lawyer for five years. Two weeks after his wife died, he was recommitted and died 40 months later.

Schreber communicates his delusions, and his delusional thoughts about those delusions over a nine-year period. His monumental task as he conceived at that time was to "solve one of the most intricate problems ever set for man and that I had to fight a sacred battle for the greatest good of mankind." He conceived a conflict in the realm of God and the "Order of the world" that was due to God's being out of relationship with, and consequently ignorant of, human beings. It was, in essence, a theological task, making a literalized, wholly other, God conscious of His inadequacies.

The torment that ensued follows the pattern in Boisen and Perceval: violence and suicide attempts, obsessive preoccupation with the meaning of things, degradations, thoughts of impending world catastrophe, inflated sense of his individual importance as "the center of divine miracles", communications with spirits, and in Schreber's case a process of Entmannung, unmanning, not emasculation in the literal sense but removal from the category of men and a psychological embracing of attributes associated with the dark feminine.

In comparing Schreber's case with Perceval and Boisen, we notice that despite the many similarities, the accounts differ. Perceval sees literalism inextricably entangled with lunacy. Schreber, however, often observes souls or rays appearing as diminutive little men, believing that this is a heretofore undiscovered potential of divine rays, a literal interpretation:

      One must assume therefore that the capacity to be transformed into human shape is an innate potentiality of divine rays. An entirely new light is thus shed on the Bible: 'He created man in His image'…. This message from the Bible has to understood literally, which no human being has so far dared to do."

Even Schreber sees humor in the delusions, "a kind of practical joke is played with the things I most commonly use." Ideas presented themselves spontaneous to Schreber as a series of incomplete thoughts, or isolated images, "speaking poetically", neither hidden nor revealed but hinted. Schreber however felt it was, as part of his mission, "left to my nerves to complete the fragments in a manner satisfactory to a thinking mind." He did not follow the delusion.

Freud and Schreber

Freud's interpretative system published in his 1911 study of Schreber's case reduces his paranoia to an etiology of a homoerotic desire ("I love him"). Hillman points out that this is contradicted by:

    - delusions of persecution ("I hate him"),
    - of self-referential erotic reference ("I love her…. er, she love me"),
    - projecting jealousy ("I do not love him… she loves him, and a man suspect the woman in relation to all the men whom he himself is tempted to love"), and
    - megalomania ("I do not love at all,-- I do not love anyone" wherein the libido must go somewhere, to "I love only myself")
to which I would add the externalization of that last ("I love only God").

Hillman make the point that it is not the material desire nor the formal denial of desire that gives rise to the disorder, in Freud's terms, but their double literalization. When the desire is literal, its defeat is also literal. Hillman holds that one necessarily follows the other, that freedom from desire's materialism and denial's formalism is to be found in the middle earth of the poetic, the fantastic, the numinous, where things are not "one way or the other":

      From this middle ground, Freud's explanatory scheme itself looks like a noetic formula for eluding the actual theological material in Schreber's delusions. And now we can see why Freud's theory has proved so successfully resistant to change, having been held by orthodox psychoanalysis without major objection or deviation for seventy years. For it is not to be taken literally. Facts have nothing to do with it.

Revelation and Delusion

Based on the case studies presented, Hillman rejects the following as criteria in signal difference between correct" and "incorrect" revelation:

Content
Calling, forewarning, vision, androgyny are religious themes that occur in the sane and the insane, in Ezekial and Jeremiah, in Swedenborg and Blake. Boisen considered that universalizing his experience was a mistake, but this mistake is exactly what mission and prophecy demand.

Societal Acceptance
If I go alone to the top of a mountain and wait for the alien spaceship behind a comet, I may be considered paranoid. If you join me, we are the beginning of a cult. If you or I have money, we are on our way to becoming a recognized religion. Mass suicidal delusions such as Jonestown or Heaven's Gate were not determined by their own society.

Context
Schreber's ideas were inconsistent with his personal history but Boisen's were not. In fact, Boisen claimed to have been seduced by the ideas partly because of their novelty, altogether out of context. But what of Hosea? And Teresa of Avila, who saw horrible demons and monsters. The kairotic breaking into their personal reality, imbuing their life with its life, is the point of miracles and the extraordinary manifestations of the Divine.

Harmfulness
Is the idea harmful or dangerous to the person or others? Should we 5150 Moses for his vision, for failing to reach the promised land, for leading his followers into the desert to die? Can we say that violations or our moral codes are inherently irreligious, as Abraham prepared to slay Isaac? How many crusades have been waged, and countries conquered in the name of Christianity?

In-Character
Many exhibit paranoid personality characteristics; rigid, suspicious, hypervigilant, mirthless, and self-important, yet experience no delusions and revelations. Schreber was a conventional bureaucrat, and very insane. Jung mentions speaking to his imaginal characters spoke to him with ideas that he could not anticipate:

    The conflict between the opposites can strain our psyche to the breaking point, if we take them seriously, or if they take us seriously. (Memories, Dreams, Reflections).

Yet Jung, an unarguably eccentric man, was sane, and Schreber was not. Delusion cannot be explained away in terms of personality types, or traits, or internal conflicts. There is no particular sort of personality that can predict that a god will enter into a relationship with us. In fact, beings of spirit appears to favor surprise, choosing the lowly, the most reprehensible, the Nazarene, the Saul of Tarsus.

Deconstructing Revelation

      Since I have set this impossible question, I feel obliged to give it my impossible reply. I question the question: it is a false one, rising from the assumption, both theological and psychiatric, that there is a clear distinction between revelation and delusion, between correct and incorrect method of manifestation of the hidden. Hence "incorrigibility" has always been the stigma distinguishing true paranoia. Suppose, however, we start with another assumption: there is no, and can be no, clear distinction. Revelation always comes as incorrigible, always in delusional form. . . It comes from the Highest Authority, the very voice of Truth with all the certainty of the transcendent nous. What possibly could be corrected, and from what but an inferior, fallible and only-human perspective could such correction come? (Hillman in On Paranoia)
Hillman sets about deconstructing the context that invites systematic theology and systematic paranoia in favor of the assertion that all delusion is revelatory and all revelation, delusional, "an intelligible event which make all other events intelligible." That the assumption that the Deity is hidden necessarily brings revelation to religion, and delusion as well, that religious madness is endemic in the culture because the culture requires revelation for its religion. He seeks to apply this deconstructionist therapeutic exegesis extrapolated from the characteristics identified in the case studies (incorrigibility, literalization, concretization) to the idea of "revelation" itself, such that the veils are themselves delusional, no veil to lift or part or rend.

The ramifications he proposes as an outgrowth of this are daunting: a world where, as Blake says, "everything that lives is holy.", juxtaposed against a literal revelation from concealment to disclosure to an interplay of light and shadows where the world is "inherently intelligible in its aesthetic presentation, requiring no revelation for its divinity, no sousterrain or hiddenness for its meaning, no Schlüsserlerlebnis ("this intelligible event which makes all other events intelligible"). Hiddenness becomes a posteriori of insight, not its linear predecessor.

Paranoia and the Polis

Because paranoia is given with our theological worldview, Hillman argues that we had to enter through theology in order to reach the psychological roots of paranoia. Hillman brings in the polis as an unacknowledged primordial psychic phenomenon, that thereby manifests its shadow in 18th century "enlightened" literalism called secularism. Hillman draws upon the analogy between the soul of the state and the state of the soul in Plato's Republic to find the remedy for the paranoia of the state in the remedies proposed by individual paranoid souls for their own recovery, the return of the poetic and Jung's idea of the unconscious. In more "primitive" societies, the state respected the limits of its own ruling consciousness, turning to oracles to predict the future. Like Cassandra, who had the gift of prophecy yet no one would believe her, the paranoid polis distrusts itself, yet holds its own answer. The idea of an unconscious brings opponents to see the other's unconscious as a screen for their own concealed intentions. Statements about the other become self-reflexive. The human connection is not by way of perceived power differentials that isolate but through weakness, the need for community.

Shadowboxing

I have few objections to Hillman's argument but there are some. First, in philosophical and other arguments, one does well to first understand the position of one's opponent, restating it to the opponent's satisfaction. In On Paranoia and elsewhere, Hillman misrepresents the Christian position, easily done as there is a richness of traditions and theologies with the Christian tradition itself, and holds it accountable it for the cultural malaise and lack of "the holy". He combats a theological strawman and it weakens his argument. This was discussed in the opening paragraphs but I underscore it here:

    "lunatic literalism results from revelation which excites and ensure literalisms of every sort by announcing itself as the voice of the hidden, speaking truth. We cannot suppress the fact that the God of our culture's theology is a divinity who must reveal to be divine, reveal in words, words that literal, that this theological God is himself a literalist, which, if pursued to the end, is therefore 'lunatic', or paranoid. … Was Jung so wrong to connect the horrors of the Revelation of John with the Gospel of John which opens: "In the beginning was the word and the word was with god and the word was God."

A certain animus-possession, as Emma Jung defines it, is apparent in Christian congregations that are comprised for the most part of short-haired women who are often obsessed with words and literal interpretations of scripture, but it is a leap to attribute this to "Christian" nature or even "Christian" psychology. If this is indeed the nature of the Christian God, then it is not a nature specific to our culture's theology, or even to our psychology that prompts us to talk to our pets. It is nearly universal among religions to speak of God and from God, acknowledging in words an evocative, incantative, power that is both immanent and transcendent. And of course, Hillman knows too well that logos carries in it well more than the English translation word, a symbol for an idea that carries no intimation of command factor or of purpose.

Moreover, levels of understanding can exist simultaneously. Hillman says this through out his works but it slips his mind when he brings up Christianity. The imaginal understanding, as a little child, is evocative and numinous. It does not exclude abstract thinking about the same subject, or logical reasoning. Hillman identifies an either/or situation where one does not exist.

As mentioned in the opening paragraphs, Hillman presents Christ in a singularly Jewish orientation as a political leader, something very few Christian theologians would go along with. "… and Jesus's revolution concern the order of the community" -- this is itself a literal interpretation.

Consistent with what he recently called the "Jewish" definition of Christ, Hillman believes that elevation of Christ in western culture over the other gods is false, and exclusionary, and results in the secularization of our culture that would not be otherwise true. And in his recent seminar in Santa Barbara he quotes Ezra Pound as saying that the gods are real, not names for psychological complexes. 

In this characterization of Christ as a political entity whose existence Schweitzer and Bultmann failed to prove (and didn't care either), Hillman misses what Christ means for many people, reducing the Christian faith to a literal, fundamentalist common denominator. Jesus, and Mithras before him, and the Christ archetypes, if you will, in many mythologies from the Norse myth of Baldr to Sumeria's Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh. I am talking about something more at an imaginal expression of the particular truth in the context of communication in a specific relationship.

Even if Hillman's treatment of Christianity were correct, there is inadequate reason to believe it is endemic in our culture. Yes, we've had 2000 years of western civilization and not too long ago, I would have said that was long enough, the Christian idea is now copyright free. But what we have, both in the culture and in the church, is the brittle chiton of crumbling legalisms without the life that appears in relationship, communication, and the connectedness of polis. Orrin Mead in Once and Future Church believes we are culturally returning to an apostolic era, where the secular society is antagonistic to the church. If so, the church bears some responsibility for this dynmaic, having projected its own alienation onto the world as "other", all the while so overworked and uncared for, busy in the fulfillment of its call to ministry that Christ in the world is seen as entgleist, distraction. Unike Mead, I don't see this as a reactionary movement but a pendulum swing to the opposite extreme; society expected the church to bring the soul back into everyday life, something it should rightly do for itself.

My greater objection to Hillman's argument is not his treatment of Christianity but rather where I think he goes with his deconstruction:

      The irrational facts of experience are here, there, everywhere. Otherness abounds; aliens everywhere so we can never be alienated, unless we become wholly other to these irrational facts, estranged in our subjectivism, projecting our alienation upon the Gods and declaring them to be the Wholly Other…. We begin to find ourselves living familiarly, daily, in the mercurial, unwilling, irrational of otherness; the whole world religious, revelation so continuous and hiddenness so present that these terms become redundant. (italics mine).

Yes, the whole word is holy but you can't live there; when everything is sacred, nothing is. Rudolph Otto, a founder of Eranos, and to whose book, The Idea of the Holy, Hillman refers in this work makes this point: Holy means set aside for or by God, the experience of Holy is the experience of Other, a mysterium tremendum, of not us, not ordinary, not in the stream of time. It is an experience that happens to a person, as if the person were its victim, not a Kantian categorizing done by the person. We have a sense of being pulled out of time without revelation of delusion, in those moment of encounter, those Kodak "I, Thou" moments. We remember them forever, they are "set aside".


Other Hillman stuff


Christine Norstrand