Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Archetypes in General Conference

I realized something as I began watching last weekend's General Conference: the twelve apostles are basically a pantheon of gods. By that I don't mean that they're perfect or infallible, not at all. But I'm actually not referring to their divinely sanctioned roles, either. Instead, I think that the twelve apostles are so many different facets of a "prism" that God's light shines through, with each one refracting that light just a little bit differently. In that way, they're like the twelve Greek gods: representations of divinity shining through into the many ways we live our lives.

The divine variety in the twelve apostles

Take Dieter F. Uchtdorf, for instance. He's probably the funniest general authority alive today, as he generally gets the audience to laugh at least once in every talk he gives. He also has a knack for explaining deep metaphysical truths in simple language that even children can understand. In these ways, President Uchtdorf reminds me of the archetypal old man who--though unassuming and a apparently foolish--is wiser than all of us. Socrates and Gaston Bachelard (who Foucault once said had the panache of a chess master who sneakily checkmates his opponent only using pawns) are other examples of this archetype.

And who could be more different from Uchtdorf than Dallin H. Oaks? Elder Oaks gives off a stern, no-nonsense countenance, perhaps reflecting his past as a judge, and I don't remember him ever giving a joke in a conference talk. If Uchtdorf is the archetypal Divine Fool, Oaks incarnates the archetype of order itself, bringing the stark lines and organization of eternity into clearer focus.

And Jeffrey R. Holland is different from either of these two. I realized over the weekend that nobody gets closer to the voice of God in the scriptures (especially the Doctrine and Covenants) than Holland; he combines fervor, intelligence, and emotion in ways that reflect heaven's depth more than any other apostle. In a way, his voice also reminds me of the voice of Allah in the Qur'an--a fiery passion that contains beauty, love, and soul. In fact, Jeffrey R. Holland might do more than most apostles to unite "spirit" and "soul"--he doesn't idealize the life of the spirit to where ascension seems easy and direct. Whether in terms of depression, poverty, or the difficulties of same-sex attraction in the Church, he brings out the "lows" of Church life in full relief, never denying that those lows exist. And yet he shows us that these lows too are divine, in a way that President Uchtdorf perhaps never could.

Each of these "styles" are different ways that the plenitude of God's light can incarnate in flesh. God doesn't just show up in one way; He shows up in many ways, each fit to a different type of person. See Him now in President Nelson's heart surgeon garb, now in the residual open-mindedness of Henry B. Eyring, the son of a scientist. They are all windows to divinity, ways by which the divine itself can show itself to us in its diversity.

The apostles as the Senex or "Wise Old Man"

And yet there is another way in which all the apostles embody a single archetype: the "Senex" or Wise Old Man of Jungian psychology. The Senex exists in a complementary dichotomy with the "Puer Aeternus" or "Eternal Child," and so where the Puer shakes things up with new ideas and irruptions from the timeless, the Senex represents the corresponding principle of order, limitation, and temporality. If the Puer is Eternal Youth, the Senex is Father Time. If the Puer questions established truths to "let in the new," the Senex embodies certainty as to that truth. So when an apostle seems stodgy and resistant to change, let's not see that as a bad thing--they're just incarnating the virtues of Senex. In its oft-noted entitlement and its incessant focus on idealistic politics, the rising generation is on Puer "overload," so to speak. We see the eternal ideal, but we don't recognize the value of time-proven truth and established certainties. In our millennial narcissism, we feel ourselves to be primordially perfect, never acknowledging our limitations or our tendency toward weakness. The Senex as embodied in the Apostles reminds us of this certainty. While the idealistic youth might protest the apparently embittered attitude of a Boyd K. Packer or a Dallin H. Oaks, that reminder of our limitation might be the only thing keeping us from, like Icarus, flying too close to the sun in adolescent idealism.

And yet neither Puer nor Senex are complete in themselves. They both need each other, and neither is completely itself without the other. And as James Hillman points out, the union of Senex and Puer, Time and Eternity, Father and Son, etc. can only come with the feminine element as a mediating "third." From this perspective, how glad we should be that the general authorities are increasingly valuing women, motherhood, and other faces of "the feminine!" Whether Russell M. Nelson extolling the succoring power of women or Jeffrey R. Holland explicitly comparing Christ to a mother (!), this attention to the feminine indicates the appearance of an archetype that can heal the split between old and new. The feminine in its own subtle strength can give the Church the perspective it needs--as I pointed out inmy post analyzing the Peter Pan story, the feminine is the bridge between "grown up" and "child," able to contain without being crustily self-enclosed like the negative Senex, to give without being manic like the negative Puer. And as Luce Irigaray said, woman is "the sex which is not one," able to hold the tesnion of opposites together without reducing one to the other.

So if I see any way forward in the Church, it's toward the feminine as a mediator between the old and the new. This doesn't mean elevating women to the apostleship, since that would just be the effect of a perspective that confuses the different authorities of Senex and the feminine. Instead, I can see women progressively taking up the heart of the church, more as the sustaining center than the controlling "top." The feminine is a subtle strengh, which, though hard to see, is far more powerful than anything masculine strength can do. Masculine strength is apparent and thus unsustainable; feminine strength is hidden and long-lasting. Perhaps the best way to explain this principle comes from the Tao Te Ching, which recognizes this feminine strength very well. Here are a few quotes that show what I mean:
"The Valley Spirit never dies.
It is called the Mysterious Female.

The entrance to the Mysterious Female
Is called the root of Heaven and Earth,
Endless flow
Of inexhaustible energy."
"Know the male, maintain the female,
Become the channel of the world..."
"The world has a source: the world's mother.
Once you have the mother,
You know the children.
Once you know the children,
Return to the mother..."
"...The female constantly overcomes the male,
In stillness
Takes the low place."
There you go! I think I'm going to write at least one more General Conference post, but don't hold me to it.

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