Me and My Shadow

Me and My Shadow
An address given to the Manchester College Oxford Chapel Society
by Professor John Toye on Sunday 25 February 2007

[The sermon was based on the story of Rabbi Judah from the Midrash, a mediaeval commentary on the Hebrew scriptures:

Rabbi Judah, who was renowned for his wisdom, was on board a ship with several merchants. The merchants each had valuable merchandise in the ship’s hold. “What merchandise have you got?” the merchants asked the rabbi. “The best merchandise in the world”, Judah answered. The merchants went to the ship’s hold to look at his merchandise, and, when they found nothing, they ridiculed him.

A few days later a storm arose, and the ship was blown onto rocks, destroying all its cargo. The merchants and the rabbi swam ashore, and walked to the nearest town. The merchants had nothing and were forced to beg for food. The rabbi preached each evening in the market place, attracting a large crowd, and they offered him money as a sign of their appreciation. He took only as much as he needed.

But the merchants now understood why he had said that he possessed the most valuable merchandise in the world.”]

Three weeks ago, I went with a group from this congregation on a visit to the Oxford Synagogue. We were greeted by our guide, who showed us a plaque on the wall that proclaimed the purpose of the building, which was constructed in 1974. It was to allow members of the Jewish community “to meet together and follow all (and here I emphasise the word “all”) forms of Jewish worship”. She told us that the Oxford synagogue was therefore unique. There is no synagogue elsewhere in the country – and possibly in the world – that accommodates the many different forms of Jewish worship – including the Hassidic, orthodox, liberal and reform traditions. I sat there and thought: ‘Isn’t that absolutely brilliant! Well done, the Oxford Jewish community! What a triumph for understanding, tolerance and common sense!’

One of our group then asked the guide how it was possible to achieve such flexibility of use within one building. She replied: “It is because we do not have a rabbi.” This reply struck me as pretty startling. The Midrash presents us with many stories, like the one about rabbi Judah that we heard earlier this morning, about the wisdom of the rabbis – the teachers who understood true values and could resolve baffling human difficulties. Yet it seemed that we were being told that it was the very absence of a rabbi that allowed the wisdom of sharing space for religious worship to prevail. How strange and paradoxical!

My mind then travelled back to another version of the story of the shipwrecked rabbi, which had been told to me by a Jewish friend in Cambridge many years ago. In the original version, you will recall, the shipwrecked rabbi Judah swims to an inhabited shore where, by preaching and teaching in the public square, he is able to survive on the money that is offered to him by his grateful hearers. Thus he demonstrated his possession of something of universal value – spiritual understanding.

In the alternative or underground version of the story, the rabbi – let us name him David, after my Cambridge friend – swims instead to a desert island, where he is marooned for five years. He stays marooned there until sailors on a passing ship notice something unusual and send a boat to the island. The rabbi is glad to see the sailors, and welcomes them. He asks them whether they would like to see the two synagogues that he has built during his five years living on the desert island. Naturally, the sailors are completely astonished. ‘You have been here all alone”, they say incredulously, “and yet you have built two synagogues? Why ever did you do that?” The rabbi pointed to one of the buildings. ‘That is the synagogue in which I say my daily prayers to God’, he replied. Then he pointed to the other synagogue. ‘That is the synagogue in which I would not set foot’.

Here we have a story about the urge to establish religious differences so that we can condemn, and to manufacture social distance between us and what we reject. Clearly, if rabbi David had ever come to the Oxford synagogue, the chances of sharing the building between followers of all forms of Jewish worship would have disappeared pretty quickly. Thankfully, he is only a figment of the underground imagination.

Yet this underground version is not really about rabbis and forms of Jewish worship at all. It is about the predicament of humanity. It is the story of me and my shadow. That is what I want to say this morning. We need to understand more about ourselves than merely the nature of our ideals, our moral aspirations and our hunger for goodness, if we are to go far down any spiritual path. We also need to understand what we despise, what we reject – and why we reject it – if we are to find forgiveness ourselves for what we are – beings that are human, all too human. As we walk together towards the light, so our shadows must become more ever more visible.

Let me borrow some words from David Doel, a retired Unitarian minister from Cheshire who is also a practising therapist and counsellor. He wrote:

“Carl Jung taught that we all have a shadow side to our persona (that is, our surface self), representing the inhibited, socially unacceptable aspects of human nature – including rage, hatred, jealousy, envy, despair, lust greed and pride. We are all “divided selves” – divided by the internalised standards deriving from our culture, passed on by our parents and confirmed by our peers. When these rejected aspects of our nature rise into consciousness, we feel we are no longer our selves – as if like Dr Jekyll, we have been possessed by Mr Hyde. Jung believed that we could mature and become integrated people only by tolerating, understanding and assimilating these lost areas of ourselves, so that hidden strengths and creativity, potentially present in the shadow could blossom into freedom of person and genuine innocence.”

David Doel went on to point out that “in classical Christian theology, Sin was a state of division universally present in the human psyche. It was the opposite of holiness, the condition of wholeness and spiritual unity.” In popular parlance, the focus has moved from the condition of sin to particular sins – the bad deeds that other people do, the seven deadly sins, and so on. That was highly misleading, because people came to believe that they could escape from the condition of sin by not committing any sinful deeds, not doing any of the deeds that the religious authorities outlawed. However, the claim to be without sin is an illusion, and if we believe it, we are heading ourselves straight towards hypocrisy. If we fail to call out, and wrestle with our own demons, we are very quickly led into demonising others.

Perhaps you are not all convinced that you are always accompanied by your shadow. I can suggest an easy way to find out. Have one drink too many. Alcohol neither cheers us up nor depresses our mood. What it does do is relax our inhibitions. After one drink too many, your shadow self will soon make itself known to you – and you will discover that it is boastful, aggressive, quarrelsome, lecherous, childish – and greedy for another drink, until finally you start weeping into your beer. Please don’t embarrass me after the service by asking me how I know all this.

As the Rev. Frank Walker said in his recent address from this pulpit, one of the sources of Unitarianism, besides Judaism and Christianity, is the civilisation of ancient Greece. It was Socrates who said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and began a process of ethical enquiry that we continue today. However, as soon as one does begin to examine one’s life, one becomes committed to a most extraordinary project – the project of consciously constructing the kind of person that one wishes to be.

We do so in the light of what the Greek philosophers called kalon k’agathon – “the beautiful and the good”. We do not all agree on what is beautiful and good. Yet, as we take moral responsibility for our selves, we pursue our ideas of the beautiful and good, each one according to his or her lights. The principles that we choose to live by are thus noble ones and all the more compelling because we think we have chosen them freely, after rationally reflecting. We have gone beyond the pressure of parents or the demands of creed-based religions.

Our efforts to achieve moral autonomy are well respected by other people. Our web of sustaining relationships is based on who people think we are, and they normally take us at our own estimation. I dare say that most of you here today, at least those of you who know me at all, think that I am a reasonably good fellow, trying in my own particular way to do no wrong and improve other people’s lives. In short, I expect that you would be willing to give me the benefit of the moral doubt. On one level that is fine, because that is what I want you to think of me, because that is the life that I have been trying to lead for the last fifty years. As the shipwrecked rabbi David said to the sailors, “That is the synagogue in which I say my daily prayers”.

Where I think the fictional rabbi David went wrong was in refusing to set foot in the other synagogue, the synagogue that he built in order to despise. If Jung is right, we cannot escape from our shadow by repressing it. We must try to tease into our consciousness awareness of the nefarious elements of our self “the inferior, primitive, unadapted, awkward – not necessarily the wholly bad.”

When I first gave a sermon on the place of the shadow in our religious life, in Brighton ten years ago, I concluded it by referring to the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. Since then I have discovered that the latest translation of the Bible has excluded the entire passage! Biblical scholars no longer regard it as authentic. Well, it may not be biblically authentic, but in terms of psychological realism and moral penetration, it is unsurpassable. So here it is again.

The Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They say: “Rabbi, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. In the law of Moses, we are commanded to stone such as her. What do you say about her?” After some hesitation, Jesus say to the Pharisees: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her”. And, when they hear this, they go away, one by one, leaving Jesus and the woman standing before him. “Where are they?” asks Jesus. “Has no-one condemned you?” She replies “No one, Lord”. And Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go on your way, and do not commit adultery again”.This is a story, not about adultery, but about the attitude of the Pharisees, as examples of people whose moral blindness leads them into displays of self-righteousness and the desire publicly to condemn others. Who is without sin? That is the question that Jesus asked. Certainly it was not the Pharisees, despite their zealous efforts in upholding of the religious law. The larger point is that we all have Pharisee potential within us, not least when we are on a religious quest.

In another confrontation with the Pharisees, they charged Jesus with letting his disciples eat food when they have not washed their hands. Jesus replied that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out. Then Peter said, ‘Tell us what that parable means.’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you not see that whatever goes in by the mouth passes into the stomach and so is discharged into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth has its origins in the heart; and that is what defiles a person. Wicked thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, perjury, slander – these all proceed from the heart, and these are the things that defile a person.’

Defilement, or the condition of sin, is a topic usually politely avoided by most people, including many Unitarians, today. When sin is mentioned, it is often applied to other people – single mothers, sufferers from AIDS, drug abusers, illegal immigrants, vandals and rough sleepers, to name some from a long list of those whom we tend to want to demonise. My belief is that sin touches all the descendants of Adam and Eve. It touches all of us whose minds have to live in bodies, all of us who can therefore feel it physically when we harden our hearts and can feel the release when the presence of love enables us to open our hearts once more.

We ask to be restored to our rightful mind. But what is our rightful mind? It is not a self-righteous mind. It is not a defensive mind or a mind in denial of our flaws and failings. To quote Oscar Wilde, life is never pure and rarely simple. Therefore, when I have trespassed and when I have repented, I need to be forgiven. The moral of this sermon is that my trespasses can be forgiven only as I am able to forgive the trespasses of others.

Amen.