religious perspectivesOverview

Poetry makes the world appear more intense, meaningful and significant. So does God to a believer. Depth psychology, a non-agnostic psychology, sees parallels between literature and religion, identifying spontaneous, self-organizing images that govern our perspectives and actions.


What has religion to say about poetry? Obliquely, a good deal. Poets need a vision of the world, and for long centuries the Christian church provided that, not only in doctrine but in revelation, experience and inspiration. A poet's religious affiliations were not merely reflected in the semantic core of his work, but conditioned the vocabulary, the structure of his arguments and patterning of his Christian outlook.

The great figures of Elizabethan art {1} were united in holding with passion and assurance to a medieval world modified by the Tudor regime. The poet was most original when most orthodox and of his age. And in that world, far from being a sign of modesty, innocence, or intuitive virtue, not to know oneself was to resemble the beasts, if not in coarseness at least in deficiency of education. Self-knowledge was not egoism but the gateway to all virtue. Of the heroes in Shakespeare's four tragic masterpieces two, Othello and Lear, are defective in self-understanding, and two, Macbeth and Hamlet, in will. The conflicts in mature Shakespearean tragedy are between the passions and reason. But Shakespeare animates these conflicts with unique intensity. Sir John Hayward:

Certainly, of all creatures under heaven which have received being from God, none degenerates, none forsake their natural dignity and being, but only man. Only man, abandoning the dignity of his proper nature, is changed like Proteus into divers forms. And this is occasioned by his liberty of will. And as every kind of beast is principally inclined to one sensuality more than another, so man transformeth himself into that beast whose sensuality he principally declines. Thus did the ancient wise men shadow forth by their fables of certain persons changed into such beasts whose cruelty or sottery or other brutish nature they did express.

Religious Experience

God for adherents is an experienced reality. The reality is personal and not repeatable for others' benefit. Nonetheless, despite recent attempts, it is not possible to prove traditional Christian beliefs are true or even probable. Nor, equally, is it possible to show them to be false or logically incoherent. Theism is rational within a given conceptual system, such systems being judged on a) their match with the evidence, b) their explanatory or transforming power, c) their consistency, coherence, simplicity, elegance and fertility, d) the rules which arise out of the system, not a priori.{2} Men become committed to religions which involve their whole personalities, and they will not readily them give up. Differences are to be expected if we accept that God reveals himself through men of different cultural practices and intellectual casts of thought.

Most adherents follow in the faith of their parents and community. Of those who change allegiance, not all undergo sudden conversation, many being persuaded by example and reflection. There comes a time in many lives when the truth becomes apparent and people believe they see realities that were previously hidden or existing merely as reports or faith. Considered carefully, such mystical experiences can be distinguished from numinous (awe-inspiring, indicating presence of a divinity), visionary and occult experiences, and from ordinary religious affections. Primarily they are noetic (intellectual). {3} Their recipients may be a consciousness of nothing, of an undifferentiated unity, or of an immediate and loving awareness of God. They may also be pantheistic: within and without seem as one; the world has a marvellous and extraordinary beauty; space and time are transcended. Though contradictory if put into words, common to all these is an experience of the world as alive and filled with joy and blessedness.

Religion is not reducible to social function, {4} though many seek faith because ultimately men are failures. Without sin, suffering and evil there cannot be free will. Guilt is our response to evil. We do not deduce evil from standards, but as a violation of the taboos which make possible our cultural and social life. Religion becomes meaningful in acts: ritual, prayer, mystical encounters. Meaningful is not equivalent to the empirical, to universally accessible acts of perceiving. The Eucharist is understandable to believers within the framework of an entire system of ritual symbols. Moral content is given in the very act of perceiving and understanding. As Plotinus remarked, "God is only a name if spoken about without true virtue".

The language of myth is closed and self-supporting, not easily translated or transferred from one culture to another. Meaning is formed by acts of communication, and has to be recreated in those acts time and again. It is always possible to reduce religion to anthropology or social science, but such explanations give no abiding satisfaction.

Religion is the sacralization of identity. {5} Whereas identity in animals is rank or territory, in humans it is more often symbolic: in terms of class, sex, attitudes to money, beauty, equality. Sacralization is an emotionally welding of an identity which, sudden or not, consolidates and stabilizes that identity: certain patterns of symbolic systems acquire a taken-for-granted, eternal quality. This identity is also crucial to societies: alienation and marginalization occur if changes in society stake out identities before the originals adapt sufficiently.

It is worth noting that :

  1. identity presupposes order and consistency in our views of reality.

  2. religion so outlined applies to all religions, to Humanism, scientific neutrality, indeed to all types of human commitment.

  3. commitment anchors the system of meaning in the emotions, and generates awe.

  4. ritual maximizes order, reinforcing the sense of place or identity in society, especially after the important events of marriage, birth and death.

  5. sacrifice is a form of commitment that clarifies priorities.

  6. morals are what guarantees order in a society.

  7. myth is the emotion-laden assertion of a man's place in a meaningful world. {6}

Gods as Archetypes

Depth psychology {7} is not a new concept: the same thoughts can be traced through Heraclitus, Plato, Plotinus, Ficino, Vico, Schelling, Coleridge, Dilthy to Jung and others. Nor is it an unusual activity: every day we are undertaking analysis and therapy of the soul, this being the psyche of the Greeks or anima of the Romans. The soul indeed:

  1. is a perspective rather than a substance, a perspective mediating and reflecting on the events we are immersed in all the time.

  2. forms a self-sustaining and imagining substrate to our lives.

  3. deepens events into experiences, making meaning possible, communicating with love and religious concern.

  4. derives significance from its association with death and psychoses.

  5. includes dream, image and fantasy in its operation, recognizing that all realities are primarily symbolic and metaphorical.

Depth psychology does not begin with brain physiology or with structures of language and society, but with images, these being the basic givens of psychic life: self-originating, inventive, spontaneous and complete, organized in archetypes. It is archetypes, the deepest patterns of our psychic functioning, that are the roots of our souls governing our perspective of ourselves and the world. Fundamentally, they are metaphors — God, life, health, art — which hold worlds together and which cannot be adequately circumscribed. Other examples can be found in literature, scientific thought, rituals and relationships. Archetypes are emotionally possessive. Organizing whole clusters of events in different areas of life, ascribing the individual his place in society, and controlling everything he sees, does and says, they naturally appear as gods. Plural, note. Depth psychology is polytheistic because in every one individual many different viewpoints are possible, making for a radical relativism.

Depth psychology is therefore neither a religion, nor a humanism, but a non-agnostic psychology. In religion Gods are taken literally, and approached with ritual, prayer, sacrifice and worship. In Humanism man is the measure of all things and Gods do not exist. In depth psychology the Gods are real but exist only as myths. Recall that it was Mersenne (1588-1648) who led the campaign against paganism (as against demonism, astrology, alchemy, allegorical painting and poetry) which the Enlightenment continued in Christianity's monotheism of consciousness. Multiple personalities were seen as possession, nowadays schizophrenia. Equally suspect today is eloquence, especially words whose power over us cannot be curtailed by philosophy and semantics. Yet in many ways the individual, the person who acts rationally and individually, is himself a mythical creation. The accompanying self-determination or free will, the central preoccupation of western theology, is likewise a product of the monotheist viewpoint. Though the later Greeks offered prayers to many gods (while imagining monotheistically the One), the moral codes of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are literalizations of the Hero image, the Ego, the subdivision into light and dark, producing a moralizing that infects psychology even now.

Never in Greek drama were human relationships an end in themselves, and even the best-regulated families were struck by tragedy. By denying the gods we commit many crimes. By thinking that we ourselves are a god is to become prey to ideologies and commit atrocities in their name. We look to other people for our salvation, and are continually disappointed. Psychologizing cannot be brought to rest in science or philosophy. It is satisfied only by its own movement of seeing through, during which it a) interiorizes, moving from data to personification, b) justifies itself, even hinting at a deeper hidden god, c) provides a narrative, told in metaphors, d) uses ideas as eyes of the soul. Literalism or monotheism of meaning is the greatest enemy today, and we should remember that definitions outside science, mathematics and logic are elusive things. Enigma provokes understanding. Myths make concrete particulars into universals. Vico remarked that metaphors 'give sense and passion to insensate things'. Archetypes are semantically metaphors and have a double existence, being a) full of internal opposites, b) unknowable and yet known through images, c) congenital but not inherited, d) instinctive and spiritual, e) purely formal structures and contents, f) psychic and extra-psychic. Every statement concerning an archetype is to be taken metaphorically, prefixed with 'as if'.

Psychological insights have traditionally be obtained from souls in extremis, from patients no longer in control of themselves: the sick and suffering, given to fantasies and abnormal behaviour. Yet there is often very real doubt over the diagnoses. Indeed the label is generally the meeting of four sets of circumstances: nomenclature, milieu, doctor and patient. Sharp classification (medical approach) is one way to deny the soul. Another is to call the society sick (Foucault, Laing, Szasz) as this overlooks the ugliness and misery of its victims. A third is by transcendence (the pseudo-Oriental), the positive emphasis of Maslow, which is often too simplistic, innocent and romantic. But pathologies are authentic, and we do not need to reduce them to medical complaints or exaggerate them as spiritual suffering. In antiquity it was thought that the god constellated in the illness was the one who could take the illness away. Today that god is the professional analyst who 'creates' the illness by naming it, locking patient and therapist into endless power and erotic struggles in sadomasochistic therapy. Within each affliction is a complex, and within the complex is an archetype, which in turn refers to a god. Such gods, as in Greek tragedy, force themselves symptomatically into awareness as some force within ourselves. Pathology therefore is the single vision, the reduction of the polytheistic consciousness to a monotheistic one, to the identification with one and the suppression or ignorance of the others. But just as pathological experiences give us an indelible sense of the soul, so there is psychological acuity and richness of culture in periods of historical decay, as individually in neurosis and depression.


The elements of the classical world are resurrected in depth psychology, in the soul, divine possession, and so forth. What of Eros? The Greeks had many words for love and they didn't confuse Eros with maternal love or sexual pleasure. Today many aspects of Eros are debased or impoverished, especially in the commercialization of 'explicit' films and novels, where sex appears squalid, banal and vulgar. {8}

But man has constantly tried to find and understand the secret and essence of sex in divinity itself. Through sacred prostitution, possession by incubus and succubus, and by secret societies, the gods of sex were manifest on earth. The male appears as logos or principal or form, the female as the life force, each with different attitudes and objectives. And if the sex drive is not to be repressed, it must be asserted — in profane or sacred love — or transformed by tantric practices, by the Cabbala or Eleusinian mysteries. Eros is not an instinct for reproduction, nor a pursuit of pleasure, but a deep attraction that causes fundamental changes in the partners. Erotic experience transforms the habitual boundaries of the ego, a dis-individualizing exaltation by which one temporarily escapes the human condition. Indeed, worldwide, humanity has recognized:

  1. the overpowering nature of the sexual experience

  2. its possession and abandonment

  3. the ever-present danger of loss

  4. its heart as the seat of consciousness

  5. its roots in love, pain and death

  6. its pleasure and its suffering

  7. the ecstasy

  8. the incommunicable experience of coitus

  9. its modesty and associated fear of falling

  10. its cathartic and cleansing properties, often promoted by orgies

  11. its part in adulthood, initiation ceremonies and social behaviour.

Pagan Inheritance

Many of the ideas popular in the English Renaissance lingered on into the nineteenth century.{9} In the classical world, myths describe the behaviour of gods to each other, their treatment of human beings and their adventures on this earth and beyond. In spite of their immortality, the gods are anthropomorphic, exhibiting human passions and sometimes acting immorally by human standards. Overwhelmingly, man's place is insecure, and the universe is not ordered according to a morality he can easily accept.

For monotheistically or scientifically-inclined philosophers, the gods were a serious obstacle. Plato in his Republic attacked them outright. Socrates argued that they were not responsible for human evil. Epicureans removed them from human affairs altogether. The most popular way of dealing with them was by allegory, however, and of these there were three kinds. a. physical: to account for natural phenomena: Proserpina and the seasons: popular with stoics. b. historical euhemerism: gods were once earthly rulers deified in some distant past. c. moral: gods were personifications of human virtues and vices. Devout Greeks and Romans regarded the gods as the creations of poets, as rationalizations of the philosophers, and as poetic fictions necessary for civic functions and ceremonies.

Though the Roman world became officially Christian in AD 324, and pagan worship was banned in AD 390, the gods were too intimately part of the fabric of social life to be discarded. Four approaches suggested themselves: a. gods were demons: the orthodox Christian view, b. gods were the stars and planets of astrology: a physical view, c. gods were early kings and benefactors: the euhemeristic view, and d. gods were moral allegories of human conduct and therefore foreshadowings of Christian truth.

Renaissance poets used myths in five ways. a. as a story told for its own sake (Hero and Leander), b. to embellish and enrich the meaning (much Elizabethan work), c. as allegory (The Fairie Queen), d. as mock-heroic, to expose the subject to unfavourable comparisons (late sixteenth-century satire) and e. negatively: gods were fallen angels (Paradise Lost).


Poetry is made from words, but it also expresses an outlook or vision. The world through art appears sharper, fuller, more intense, real and significant. So it does to the religious believer. Poetry makes experiences out of events, and such experiences are also real to believers. Equally obvious are parallels of a less attractive kind: the single vision of current schools of literary theory, the zealotry of poetry movements, and intolerance, not to say, paranoia with which each group regards the literary productions of others. All human consciousness can be regarded as mythic, but myths vary widely in their compass and persuasiveness.

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. E.M. W. Tillyard's The Elizabethan World Picture (1979).
2. Basil Mitchell's The Justification of Religious Belief (1973).
3. William Wainwright's Mysticism (1981).
4. L. Kolakowski's Religion (1982).
5. Hans Mol's Identity and the Sacred. (1976).
6. Kolakowsky 1982.
7. James Hillman's Re-Visioning Psychology (1975).
8. Julius Evola's The Metaphysics of Sex .
9. Isobel Rivers's Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry.

Internet Resources

1. Essays and Articles on Sixteenth Century Renaissance English Literature. Good listings of articles (on most writers except Shakespeare).
2. Marx, Religion, and Sociology of Religion. David H. Kessel. Good article and short bibliography.
3. Depth Psychology. Selected articles on Jungian and depth psychology.
4. Thomas S. Szasz Cybercenter. Advances Szasz's ideas and their practical implications.
5. Educational Administration: An Interpretative Art. Paul R. Smith. 2001.
academically.speaking.PaulSmith.htm. Thoughtful paper drawing attention to Dilthy, Gadamer and others.
6. Philosophy of Religion. Introduction, with further links.
7. Philosophy of Religion. Simple expositions of the main themes.
8. Philosophy and Christian Theology. Michael Murray. May 2002. Philosophical implications of Christian doctrine.
9. Comparative Philosophy: Chinese and Western. David Wong. Jul. 2001. Value of different approaches.
10. Pantheism. Michael Levine. Dec. 2002. Extensive bibliography but nothing online.
11. Proceedings of the Friesian School. Several relevant (and free) articles.
12. The Problem of Evil. Michael Tooley. Sep. 2002. Usual detailed entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
13 Philosophy of Religion. Aug. 1998. Free papers in The Paideia Archive.
14 Philosophy in Cyberspace: Philosophy of Religion. Dey Alexander. Aug. 2000. NNA. Reasonable listing, more religious sites than philosophy of religion.
15. Philosophy of Religion. Peter King. phil_topics_religion.html. Excellent directory of links.
16. Philo. Occasional articles free, other by $35/year subscription.
17. General Sites for Sociological Resources. NNA. Hartford Institute's good listing.
18. British Sociology of Religion Study Group. Organizes conferences and publishes proceedings.
19. Association for the Sociology of Religion. International scholarly association.
20. Psychology of Religion Pages. Michael Nielsen. 2004. Listings grouped under various headings.

      C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    |     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.