Living Life Well
Beliefs, and useful knowledge
By Jim Shere
Toward the end of his life Carl Gustav Jung, when asked if he still believed in God, replied slowly with a delightful smile: “I have no need to believe — I know.” Now, there are those who say we cannot know the existence of God with any objectivity, but Jung was no longer just talking about God; he was distinguishing belief from knowledge as the difference between information and a personal, useful experience — the menu and the meal, you might say. He was talking about his childhood belief in God as an attitude that he seems to have outgrown by having had a direct experience with what it is that we call God, and for that reason having knowledge — albeit a subjective one. Belief is the passive acceptance that something is true, while knowledge makes what is true useful; and wisdom is putting what we know to use.
We live within a narrow place I think of as the Village of Common Consent, and within its walls we build a consensus opinion that we believe is reality. We use the same language in order to describe what we have in common, and we build traditions and rituals to remind us about what we believe is real. And yet, quantum physics tells us that there really is no such thing as an objective reality, and nothing matters except to the subjective mind, which goes about making things matter. And so we become hostages to public opinion, a principle upon which politicians and other entertainers base their careers. In reality, the dance of electrons that are the building blocks for our perception of reality are in fact swirling vortices of pure energy, and the old wives’ tale about the conservation of energy and matter no longer really holds true.
You and I may drink glasses of wine from the same bottle, and talk with one another in the most erudite manner about its characteristics and quality; and yet, though we may each believe one another’s description of what had been tasted, we would know for a fact only what it was that we ourselves had tasted. The expression on Jung’s face as he replied tells me that he knew what he had tasted; and although it was clearly a subjective experience, it was a most satisfying one for him. In 1909, the European ethnographer Charles-Arnold Kurr van Gennep postulated three steps in what Joseph Campbell later referred to as the Hero’s Journey. Van Gennep called it the Rites of Passage, which he divided into three distinct phases: preliminary, liminality, and post-liminality. With these, entomologists will recognize the three stages of metamorphosis: larva — or caterpillar; pupa — or cocoon; and moth — or butterfly. It’s within the wilderness of the cocoon that interesting things take place, but you won’t want to remain there.
There are some within the narrow village who hear a voice calling from the wilderness, beyond the walls that had been built for protection against the Unknown. Some of them still resist the powerful draw of that call and remain within those walls, seizing for themselves the message that they hear, and channeling the information as their own. These are the charismatic narcissists who hijack that power to gain the adulation of their true believers. Others, however, respond to the call and venture out into the wilderness, setting the ego aside to make themselves vulnerable — and as they seek to embrace something larger, they become embraced by something even larger.
It has been said that those who remain within the walls of the village are the neurotic ones of all sorts, ranging from the normal to the extreme, including those narcissists and their true believers. On the other hand, those who venture out into the wilderness have been considered the psychotic ones. Only the ones who eventually return to the village, transformed by their numinous experience, become healed and whole, and what they have learned may be put to use.
In light of this, I recall writing a month or so ago about work I had done long ago with a mother who had lost her son to Jim Jones’ infamous cult, from which the term “drinking the Kool-Aid” originated. Over 900 members of the Peoples Temple died in 1978, when Jones — a charismatic narcissist — ordered his followers to drink the beverage laced with cyanide. The mother struggled to understand how the child she had raised so caringly could have died so horribly, caught up in such a dreadfully delusional belief in such a dangerous man.
When Moses heard the call, he climbed Mount Sinai to sacred ground before the Burning Bush, where he removed his shoes — and his ego — to receive a message. Meanwhile, a charismatic man the Quran named Samiri raised doubts among the Israelites below, claiming Moses had abandoned them. Samiri ordered his followers to bring all the jewelry and gold ornaments they had, which he fashioned into a golden calf for their worship. Many of us were amused to see the public adulation given the gilded statue of Mr. Trump in Florida the other day, a reference perhaps to the golden idol fashioned by the Israelites at the foot of the mountain where Moses was meeting with God.
We all know what happened when Moses returned. Van Gennep and Campbell didn’t say much about the Hero’s Return from sojourn in the wilderness, nor about how the Hero is received by those who had never left the village in the first place; but the ultimate proof of knowledge lies in its usefulness as wisdom — though it may take time to be recognized and put to work. The implications of Jung’s reply regarding belief and knowledge are neither quickly nor easily understood.
Certainly we must take time to examine our beliefs — their source, and the direction they would take us. Our conversations are often cluttered with hearsay and rumors, but somewhere beyond the walls of opinion we are invited to know something larger, something more fundamentally true — still subjective, of course, and yet still far more useful, and potentially much more satisfying when put to work.