The Song of Songs
Nuptial imagery has been the gold standard for western mysticism from before the middle ages. Its origins can be traced to Christian antiquity when the Platonic mindset of Origen of Alexandria, who died in 254 c.e., reconceived the Biblical Book known as the “Song of Songs” as applicable to the individual Christian “soul” and its relationship to “God.”
The Song of Songs is a book of ancient Hebrew poetry celebrating the erotic love between a man and his lover incorporated into the Jewish Bible. It was originally used by the priests of the Temple to poetically characterize the relationship between Yahweh and the nation of Israel. It was an intentional theological application in which an individual relationship was taken as poetic metaphor for what was considered a literal collective reality.
The shift back to an individual understanding of those poems seems natural enough, especially for a Christianity that had embraced Platonism as the ultimate truth. The principal Platonic category dominating the Christian worldview was that the human person was a “soul,” ― individual, immaterial and immortal ― a “spirit” that was substantially distinct from the body which it inhabited as a temporary tenant. It had the ultimate effect of extracting the human person from the world of material things and situating it in another world where only “spiritual” entities resided. It eliminated the community as the primary locus of human reality and substituted the spiritual individual. For Platonists, the family, clan or nation were not “essential” ideas and therefore not “humanity.” Humanity resided in the human individual alone. The theory worked well for the Roman Empire and its state religion whose investiture with divine favor was claimed to supersede tribal prerogatives. The one imperial power, a theocracy chosen and protected by God, ruled a whole world of isolated individuals.
The other entities that inhabited Plato’s “real world” of ideas included, first and foremost, “God,” the One, Pure Spirit, uncontaminated with even the slightest hint of matter, and his Nous, Mind, Logos, a divine emanation who took the “One’s” creative ideas that constituted his own reality and “poured” them into amorphous matter as into an “empty receptacle” (Timaeus). Those ideas were spiritual realities which humans could access because they too were immaterial spirit.
“Spirit” for Plato was naturally immortal because it was not composed of parts as matter was. Not being composed meant it could not decompose, i.e., it could not die. But because, in the case of humankind, spirit was “married” to matter, the “soul” suffered the weaknesses and limitations of the body, the principal one of which was its inevitable decomposition. But being spirit, the human individual could transcend its material side, and in anticipation of the final liberation from the body at death, relate with increasing exclusivity to the spiritual world to which it alone among earthly entities belonged; that included not only “ideas” but also the One and its Mind. The “spiritual life” was conceived of as the “soul’s” systematic disengagement from the world of matter including its own body, and engagement with “spiritual” realities and entities, the highest of which was “God.”
But “God” was pure spirit and no shadow of matter existed in “God.” His Mind, Nous, Logos, was believed to play the role of mediator and interface with the world of matter, and that would of course include the human individual wedded to matter. Christian Platonists assimilated Jesus as Jewish messiah to the Nous or Logos, and generated a narrative in which “God” united humankind with “Him”self and His immortality through the incorporation of the human individual into the saving events of Jesus’ (Nous, Logos) death and resurrection in Christian baptism.
Thus, the achievement of immortality was imagined as the by-product of new relationship in which the original ties to the body and its communitarian relations ― the family and tribe ― were replaced by a “marriage” between “God” and the individual human soul, mediated by the Logos. This created a new universal community: the Catholic Church, identical to the Roman Empire when Constantine made it Rome’s state religion.
Hence, the nuptial imagery on display in the Bible’s Song of Songs became an aspirational symbol for Christian mystics. It was used to represent this union between “God” (mediated by Christ) and the human “soul.” Following Origen’s commentary, Greek Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa accepted it as part of the truths received from the Jewish tradition and even used it, to the degree that the poetics allowed, to draw theological conclusions. For Ambrose of Milan it revealed virginity to be more than a personal preference, it became a transcendent goal of Christian perfection. Because the Platonic theory said that both “God” and the “soul” were exactly alike insofar as they were “spirit-persons,” the nuptial imagery was increasingly taken literally. The patristic practice of commenting on the Song of Songs continued on through the Middle Ages. The commentaries and sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux composed about 1136 were probably the most famous and widely read; they were cited by Martin Luther as a principal influence on his own spiritual development, and may explain his insistence on maintaining the doctrine of the real presence in glaring contrast to most of his fellow reformers. As late as 1584, Spanish Carmelite John of the Cross wrote Spiritual Canticle, an exposition applying classic Thomistic theology to an understanding of The Song of Songs.
Despite its revered tradition, it’s my contention that the Christian importance accorded to the literal interpretation of the imagery established by the Song of Songs is intimately connected to the Platonic worldview, and for that reason false and misleading. Even if the LIFE that has extruded and enlivened the material universe could in some philosophical sense be called a “person,” it is not as we are persons, and LIFE does not interact with us as we interact with one another which is what the nuptial imagery projects. Most specifically, the erotic dimension so prominent in the Song is entirely inappropriate. Relationship to LIFE does not demand sexual fidelity which has been the common application since Origen. The celibacy it enjoined reinforced Plato’s denigration of sexuality as hostile to the human “spirit” and justified Augustine’s outrageous claim that sexual desire was a corruption of the human body and that sexual intercourse performed under its influence transmitted Adam’s sin from parent to offspring.
Not only does nuptial imagery falsify relationship to “God” but it reinforces a radical individualism that detaches the human being from family and its extensions in the local community, and through the fiction of a “marriage to God” leaves the individual psychologically isolated and vulnerable to the control of impersonal forces like despotic empires, exploitive masters and bosses, and totalitarian religious hierarchies. This individualism cultivated by Platonic Christianity impels the believer to reject natural solidarity and transfer loyalty to “God” and his Church-State agent. The power of religion to galvanize new artificially created conglomerates has been recognized and exploited by empire builders since before recorded history. Traditional Christianity is not alone in lending itself to these efforts.
Moreover, the dualist Platonism implied in the literal take on the traditional imagery is a primary obstacle preventing understanding between spiritual aspirants of Eastern and Western mystical traditions. But I emphasize literal. As with all religious imagery, the nuptial analogy is metaphor, and simply acknowledging that fact will go a long way in opening closed doors and beginning the journey to the universalism that I believe is the final result of sincere and authentic religious dialog.
Spiritual growth: growing up
The similarity of the imagery in the Song of Songs to an erotic fantasy is obvious. The appeal it could have for isolated, sexually frustrated individuals creates the suspicion that the claims of mystics like John of the Cross might be pathological projection. Along with the paternal imagery about “God” cited by Freud, it seems to be an added example of how religion can be used to maintain the childhood dependencies that result from (and contribute to) the failure to achieve adulthood. That such consequences correlate with the political effects of individualism makes the traditional imagery even more questionable.
This anomaly of traditional mysticism needs to be rectified. I would like to approach the issue by first bracketing all religious belief about the nature of “God” and the “soul,” and look at things strictly from the point of view of human experience. I want to start with what I think is the true state of affairs, i.e., that the first step in spiritual growth is growing up. Maturation is the response to what we call “the human condition,” something that is true for all people everywhere and does not depend on religious belief of any kind. By “human condition” I mean the endemic, universal, inescapable “problem” of human dissatisfaction with the parameters of life available to human organisms on the planet. It is an immaturity identified with childhood; in is grossest form it displays itself as selfishness ― a refusal to accept the responsibilities of the collective struggle for survival.
Humankind seems to be the only species on earth that is capable of not being happy with itself. We are restive and feel trapped by the limited capabilities of our organisms, the unavoidable material and social/psychological demands of survival (i.e., work and family), and the nature of the human life-cycle which is vulnerable to trauma and disease, and necessarily includes old-age and death. This general dissatisfaction with being human defines us as different from all other forms of organic life, plant and animal, who seem to embrace their evolutionary inheritances ― which have virtually the same limitations as ours ― without question, and live out their organic destinies which include the struggle for collective survival with unmitigated enthusiasm.
I contend that the overarching pursuit for human beings is the thorough understanding and appreciation of exactly what we are and the decision to accept it. This is admittedly an intellectual quest, but it is undertaken as the necessary precondition for emotional self-acceptance. It is unavoidable. For it is the uniquely human feature of being reflexively self-conscious that lies at the root of the very possibility of imagining ourselves to be other than what and where we are, and therefore dissatisfied. Unlike all other animals who, as far as we can see, cannot imagine themselves differently from what they experience at any given moment, we humans must consciously choose to embrace what we are, and what we are doing, and the necessary prerequisite for that choice is understanding.
Laying out this premise in this way identifies the contours of the “human problem.” There is no solution that does not entail an accurate understanding of the boundaries and the possibilities of our situation ― what doors are closed and what doors are open ― and denying neither. No transcendent experience, no interpersonal relationship, no guarantee of survival or security here or hereafter, no accumulation of resources or of pleasurable, satisfying events, no accolade or recognition by others can substitute for knowing what we are as human organisms, acknowledging our limitations and responding to the demand of our potentials. The solution to the “human dilemma” is self-embrace; and it follows that unless we understand thoroughly, accurately, and without self-deception what we really are, what we can and can’t do, the possibility of choosing to-be something else, or wanting to be somewhere else ― some imaginary concoction ― is always there and bodes a continuance of the frustration. It is to fall right back into the problem, for that is exactly the nature of it. The human problem is that we are trying to be something that we are not and cannot be, in order to please and aggrandize ourselves at the expense of reality. Adulthood is the realistic acceptance of what we are ― and that includes both positive and negative ― bowing to what we cannot be or do, and obeying what our humanity demands of us.
The mystical quest
Being an adult is a basic condition of survival. But the total “end of sorrow” (words of the Bhagavad Gita) is the goal of the mystical quest and goes much further. It is not, as some believe, some kind of “end run” into an imaginary never-never land, an escape-fantasy chosen to avoid responsibility and struggle. The mystic begins with having achieved full responsible adulthood but goes far beyond simply tolerating our condition and reluctantly coping with the frustrations of life. The aim of mysticism is joy. There is no greater human achievement than to understand the full burden of our humanity and embrace it enthusiastically without disappointment, reserve, fear, reluctance or hesitation. All religious belief, all spiritual programs can be seen as attempts to reach such a state based on some set of beliefs thought to make it possible, and even mandatory.
In our case the beliefs begin with the discoveries of science. Science reverses ancient Platonic metaphysics which identified humanity with the individual relationship to “God” and “God’s” political agent, the state. Science identifies us as belonging to a universal community. Being human is a biological fact. Self-embrace, therefore, involves first of all, acknowledging that to be fully human is to have a human body, the result of the reproductive activity of male and female human beings. This applies to everyone. No one has to worry about becoming human through proper behavior, or “joining” the human family by some choice or another, like baptism. The human organism at birth is fully integrated into the evolving human community as it currently interacts with the material conditions of biological life on earth. Human Identity is biological in origin: clear, unambiguous and unchallengeable. This affects all of humankind. There are no distinctions, racial, ethnic, national, class, that make some more human and others less.
The second step, of course, is the details; it is the full elaboration of what being in a human community with this organism, evolved to this point of development from these people with this formation and on this earth, means. Unearthing the details is the work of meditation and mindfulness because it is a comprehensive self-conscious picture that must reflect reality. We are talking about understanding. If the end of sorrow is self-embrace ― accepting ourselves with the unmitigated enthusiasm that we see in all other forms of organic life ― it begins and ends with right thinking. We have to understand fully, without illusion, regret or rejection, exactly what we are where we belong and who belongs to us. The human community is universal. The responsibilities of mutually assisted survival bear on all of humankind. Those who do not see the egalitarian and universalist implications of this need to do some more meditating.
An integral part of this second step is the honest perception of the deformative influences on our “thinking who we are” made by parents, siblings, family and the local social environment; these are all time and place dependent and their self-aggrandizing inclinations must be acknowledged and corrected. We are born into the current of human history and we bear the marks (scars?) of our location in that flow. It determines, among other things, exactly how much knowledge about our evolutionary biological origins is available to us, and how aware we are of the universality of humankind. If knowing what we are is crucial to an effective self-embrace, when and where we were born and what deformities our local community has passed on to us enters decisively into the possibilities of accurate understanding. The discoveries of modern science are particularly relevant to this question, for the narrative that paints the picture of what we are has radically changed under its tutelage. We now know we are a universal family.
This leads into the third step in the process of growth ― if indeed it can be called a “step” because it is the point of it all ― the unreserved acquiescence to what we have come to understand ourselves to be in both our limitations and our potentials, talents and responsibilities. This step acknowledges that merely understanding what we are is no guarantee of success. There is always the possibility of resisting, rejecting, ignoring, avoiding, disdaining and even destroying ourselves. The social dimension, the global extent of our community of mutual support, is always the most vulnerable to selfishness ― individual or group. There is always the possibility of a regression back into childhood or pre-scientific myth; it is a prime example of the suppression of reality. Even after painting an accurate picture of what it means to belong to the global human community, the ultimate challenge remains: to embrace it lovingly, without disappointment, doubt, ambiguity or reserve. There are many who feel this is simply not possible. We are, they say, irremediably unreconciled to what we are; we would simply rather not be human the way humanness currently exists. Besides national, ethnic and religious conditioning accomplished so early in life that the individual cannot avoid being misshapen, they adduce the fact of universal death as proof of their claim. It’s difficult to undo childhood formation, and no one can accept death. An examination of this claim and the consequences of abandoning the quest for self-embrace because of it will be discussed in a later reflection.
I am using the word “embrace” in an effort to incorporate as much affectivity as possible into this final step. This is the defining mark of the mystical quest which is not satisfied with merely accepting life; it wants to love it. I am aware that the word can be taken in less than the sense of intense self-abandon and enthusiasm that I mean it to include. I want the word “embrace” to bear the emotional weight of the word “love” plus the sense of active personal engagement that makes love more than a passive self-pleasing experience and converts it into passionate commitment. Self-embrace is really intended to mean “falling in love with your life.”
Hence, the nuptial imagery of western mysticism. As a poetic metaphor for the loving self-embrace of the mystics, it is quite appropriate. Betrothal and marriage evoke the affective dimension that is the proper component of authentic self-embrace. But notice, it is metaphorical. I am not talking about being “married to God” but rather loving myself and the humankind into which I was born and through which I survive. But I not only love myself as I am programmed to do by the conatus of my organism, for if I am to achieve anything like the enthusiastic self-acceptance that I see in the in the myriads of organisms ― plant, animal, insect, fish ― that surround me on this planet, who all live in a state of total joy, I have to do more than just passively “accept” myself or tolerate my life. I must fall in love with myself as I have been made and, as is so poignantly expressed in the marriage vow, “abandon all other” imaginary ways of being. I have to fall madly in love with being human as I am with all the moral and social burden that comes with it. This is the goal of mysticism: not a mental escape but a total joy that puts me in sync with all the other forms of living organism evolved by matter’s energy.
This “fidelity” which requires “forsaking” anything other than what I really am, means “letting go” of any and all imaginary constructs ― selfish fantasies of escape ― that do not correspond to what is possible to and demanded by my humanity. My body bears forward in me the direction and intensity of the extroverted existential energy released at the birth of our universe. Matter’s energy comes to me in a highly evolved form. Material energy that comprises my organism is not a tabula rasa. It is already spoken for. It is an unquenchable energy focused on being-here that, in the pursuit of ever greater expansion has molted first into living and then into reflexive self-conscious form. That is not a revealed truth but an undeniable fact drawn from 14 billion years of observed behavior and demonstrated direction. Material energy is committed to universal availability ― the work of limitless abundance. My body is composed of this existentially committed energy.
This introduces another perspective that reinforces the validity of the nuptial imagery. This existential commitment to an ever-expanding abundance on the part of matter gives me a sense of the “otherness” of the living energy that resides in the components of my organism. My self-embrace is ultimately grounded in the prior presence of this energy that is undeniably independent of me and present in everything else in the material universe. It suggests that I am not only myself; LIFE transcends me. The LIFE that I enjoy and that energizes my every thought and desire is 14 billion years old and was not my creation either in design or production. This “outside” source of my “inside” energy puts me in the presence of a mysterious wellspring that I call LIFE. It suggests a unique immanent relationship between myself and that source that I did not initially suspect was there, and it reboots my relationship to all other things constituted of this selfsame living material energy: it makes all other things made of this universal matter, in some sense, “me.” This train has been running for 14 billion years and shows no sign of changing course or slowing down. We’re already on board when we awaken to its reality. Once we understand that WE ARE THAT, everything falls into place. We are at home in the universe.
I and my source are one and the same thing. My ancient pre-scientific tradition may not have completely anticipated that my unity with my source and creator had such a concrete ground and was so total, but it seems to have at least suspected that it was more than met the eye because since ancient times it characterized the relationship as “nuptial.” The implication was that the two were one flesh.
Being “married to God” is a poetic symbol that can be used to evoke our relationship to that in which we live and move and have our being. Like all poetry it becomes grotesque and meaningless if it is taken literally. Alongside of other poetic symbols that come down to us from our pre-scientific ancestors, it can remind us who we are, and what we are doing here. These are things, for some reason, we all find easy to forget.