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Failure of the imagination

Deepak Chopra and James Hillman look at war and violence

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Consider two photographs of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath. In the first, a grieving woman, having just learned her child is dead, is surrounded by National Guardsmen. In the second, a jubilant woman hangs up the phone, having just learned that her husband is alive. Both women, according to the captions, shout, "God is good!"

I suppose you could say one woman's cry was thankful while the other's was an effort, like a prayer, to invoke divine goodness at a moment of profound abjection. But it's impossible not to wonder how the same "good" God who saves a man could let a child drown. This question -- Why does God let tragedy occur? -- has always perplexed Christians, who seem to simultaneously believe in free will and a god who will intercede when asked. The usual resolution of the confusion is to say that God has a plan grander than we can perceive. And of course, there's the ultimate funereal bromide: "He's in a better place."

My own reaction on reading "God is good" in such oppositional contexts was to ask "Which god?" Such a question would occur to the ancient Greeks since one's life circumstances could be under the influence of any number of gods in the polytheistic pantheon. In that tradition, every god stood for a human with good and bad qualities. For example, Aphrodite, who represented beauty and love, could also be murderously jealous -- just as we can be in the throes of love. In a polytheistic world, it would be quite acceptable for a woman whose child had drowned to say that a god had behaved cruelly. Arguably, such an approach is more psychologically healthful, since it permits expression of the full range of feelings, whereas Christianity demands we behave in accord with a just and loving god, no matter how tormented we feel by that god.

Thus the gods of the pantheon, both helpful and cruel, sanctioned a complex view of life that monotheistic religions avoid by subsuming all the "good" qualities of the different gods into one deity. The less appealing qualities of the gods were completely split off and incarnated in the form of the unspeakable Satan. The gods became, in the words of Carl Jung, "diseases."

The problem with that is well known. By repressing the unpleasant part of the gods -- the less wholesome parts of ourselves -- we guarantee that those very qualities will return to overwhelm us. That is why so much harm has been done in the name of Christianity, from the Inquisition to Pat Robertson's recent advocacy of the murder of another nation's president. The Christian far right has even heartlessly described the massive death in New Orleans as God's apocalyptic revenge on sin.

The failure to imagine the gods and human nature more fully also accounts for wars like the one we are conducting in Iraq, according to James Hillman, who will be participating in a discussion here at 8 p.m. on Tues., Sept. 20, at Glenn Memorial Auditorium on the Emory campus. Hillman, most recently the author of A Terrible Love of War, will be discussing "War, Peace and the American Imagination" with New Age guru Deepak Chopra, who recently authored Peace Is the Way. The discussion will be moderated by Jean Houston, the Jungian psychologist whose association with Hillary Clinton produced quite a firestorm during her husband's presidency.

In Hillman's way of thinking, war and violence are natural impulses of the human being, personified in the god Ares, who must be placated in some other way if war is to be avoided. Chopra, on the other hand, believes people can completely transform consciousness and transcend the very idea of war itself. Thus, both men regard war as a failure of the imagination and, although their goal is the same, they imagine different ways of ending it.

Since my own doctoral work was in Hillman's archetypal psychology, I tend to be on his side. He proposes "aesthetic intensity" -- Ares brought into dialog with Aphrodite, so to speak -- although he is never clear about how to do that. I heard him at last year's Mythic Journeys conference advocate art as a way of defusing the warrior instinct, but he was immediately challenged by Wendy Doniger, a brilliant religion scholar. She regarded the suggestion as impractical in a society so devoted to competition. About the most one can hope for in such an angry culture, she joked, is that men could act out their aggressions on a football field.

Perhaps. But Hillman's contribution has always been to provoke deeper thinking, not to prescribe immediate solutions. In his way of thinking, the questioning itself is an expansion of the imagination that can lead to unexpected resolutions. "There is no practical solution to war because war is not a problem for the practical mind," he writes. It will be very interesting to see him in dialog with the more prescriptive Chopra.

The event is sponsored by the local Mythic Imagination Institute and Chopra's new organization, the Alliance for a New Humanity. Consult www.mythicimagination.org for more information. For tickets ($20 for general public), call 404-727-5050.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.

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