The God Ideal
Recently, I learned that Pope Francis declared (in a 2016 decree) that Mary Magdalene will be honored by having her own major feast day, June 22. In doing this, he acknowledges the woman who in the New Testament is the first to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus. For centuries only the male apostles, whom she told of her vision, have been identified in Catholic doctrine as proclaiming the resurrection. But now, this has been interpreted by some Catholic theologians as establishing the absolute equality of Mary Magdalene with the apostles.
In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great had identified Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman mentioned in Luke 7:36-50. She was said to be a prostitute who was forgiven of her sins by Jesus. But this woman is not named, and there is no evidence that she is Mary Magdalene. It was only in 1969 that the Roman Catholic Church stated that Mary Magdalene was distinct from the “sinful woman.” The Eastern Orthodox Church had never identified the two.
Learning that Mary Magdalene has her own feast day, and is no longer falsely labeled as a prostitute, reminded me of the interpretation that Carl Jung made in the Answer to Job when he learned that Pope Pius XII, in 1950, proclaimed the Assumption of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, into heaven (see picture below). He wrote:
One could have known for a long time that there was a deep longing in the masses for an intercessor and mediatrix who would at last take her place alongside the Holy Trinity and be received as the ‘Queen of heaven and Bride at the heavenly court.’ For more than a thousand years it has been taken for granted that the Mother of God dwelt there. I consider it to be the most important religious event since the Reformation.
Why is this important, particularly to people who are not religious Catholics?
Carl Jung, in his Analytic Depth Psychology, spoke not only of the Collective Unconscious, but also of the Collective Consciousness. The Collective Consciousness in the West has been dominated by masculine symbols of God, as well as dominated socially and politically by men (not generic). This has meant that feminine symbols of God have been forbidden, devalued, ridiculed, and repressed. So they live in the unconscious, excluded from consciousness. We could not even think of God-She. It was always God-He (which was claimed to be a generic ‘he’). In some Western theological circles, this assumption has been challenged and discussed for the last thirty years or so. And slowly, women have gained the possibility of serving as ministers, priests, and rabbis, in many Christian and Jewish sects. Though not in the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches.
From a symbolic perspective, the acknowledgement of Mary Magdalene as an important disciple of Jesus — who was the first to see the risen Christ, and rushed to tell the other disciples, who did not believe her until they too ran to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty – is very important. With the acknowledgement that there is no Biblical scripture which identifies her as a prostitute, she can emerge from the unconscious degradation that has shaped her image. And with the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who joins the Trinity in heaven, bringing the feminine symbol alongside the masculine symbols of Father and Son, and the neutral symbol of Spirit – there is more balance in the Christian symbol of the Divine. Jung found this to be an important development of consciousness.
Why is this important for Sufis?
Pir-o-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan often asks us at look our image or concept of God. He calls this the God Ideal. He gives the greatest importance to the God Ideal, saying that it is the stepping stone to greater knowledge of God. He says:
The God-Ideal is so enormous that man can never comprehend it fully. And therefore the best method which the wise have adopted is to allow every man to make his own God. By this he only makes a conception which he is capable of making. He makes Him the King of the heavens and of the earth; he make Him, Judge, greater than all judges; he makes Almighty, Who has all power; he makes Him the Possessor of all the grace and glory there is; he makes Him Beloved God, merciful and compassionate; and he recognizes in Him all perfection. This ideal becomes as a stepping-stone to the higher knowledge of God. The man who has no imagination to make a God, and the one who is not open to the picture of God that the other man presents to him, he remains without one, for he finds no stepping-stone to reach that knowledge which his soul longs for but his doubts deny.
Now we can see in this text that Murshid is a person of his time, the early 20th century, and he writes with masculine pronouns. He did not speak with what we now call “inclusive language.” Human persons are referred to as ‘man’ and God is God-He. And still Murshid points to the importance of imagination in forming one’s own picture of a God Ideal. In order for a God Ideal to be living within my heart, capable of being a stepping-stone to a higher knowledge, I must use my imagination to discover that which is really ‘higher’ to me. For many people today, the highest image of the Ideal is not solely masculine. For some people, of course, it is. So, while being “open to the picture of God that the other man presents”, it is important to find the God Ideal which is real and alive to you. As Anselm of Canterbury said, in 1078, “God is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived…” (Prosologion, ontological argument for the existence of God) When one feels that a greater image of God includes masculine and feminine symbols, then we must imagine this.
Murshid goes on to speak of the importance of imagination, a mental function that many materialists reject and devalue. He says:
Many would ask if it would not be deceiving oneself by making a God of one’s imagination. Some one who is not seen in the objective world. The answer is that we are the germs of imagination, our whole life is based and constructed on imagination; and all that is in this objective world, if it were put together, – there is one thing which is more lasting in life, which is imagination. The one incapable, who has no value for imagination, is void of art and poetry, of music, manner, and culture. He can very well be compared to a rock, which never troubles to imagine.
Imagination, for Murshid, is a necessary function on the spiritual path. We do imagine all the time; sometimes we imagine that our perception is a ‘fact’ or that it is ‘real’ or ‘true’. We imagine who we are, even though we are constantly changing in both material substance and mental thought patterns. And as we imagine who we are, we imagine who or what the Divine Reality is (or is not – for this too is another imagination). Murshid goes on to say:
Man is not capable of picturing God other than a person, a person with all the best qualities, the ideal person. This does not mean that all that is ugly and evil does not belong to the universe of God, or, in other words, is not in God Himself. But the water of the ocean is ever pure in spite of all the things that may be thrown into it. The Pure One consumes all impurities, and turns them all into purity. Evil and ugliness is to man’s limited conception; in God’s great Being these have no existence. Therefore he is not wrong who makes God in his imagination the God of all beauty, free from ugliness; the God of all the best qualities, free from all evil. For by that imagination he is drawn nearer and nearer every moment of his life to that Divine Ideal which is the seeking of his soul. And once he has touched divine perfection, in it he will find the fulfillment of his life.
Religious Gatheka number 51
The Divine Ideal that Murshid points us toward, is not limited by the pairs of opposites, that our judging minds identify. Good and evil, beautiful and ugly, pleasure and pain, masculine and feminine, male and female, divine and human. All these opposites are contained in the highest Ideal of God Herself or Himself, Being Itself. He says it is like the ocean receives all that is thrown into it, but it remains ever pure. So it is very important that we envision, in imagination, the highest Ideal that we can. And we can remember, and be encouraged by the idea that in the Collective Consciousness, Mary is assumed into heaven, and Mary Magdalene is an honored disciple.