Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by James Hollis (Part 2)

Aug 14, 2020 / The Twelve Mysteries / book reviews / james hollis / Joseph Campbell / spirituality / mythology

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There are two things that one should never talk about: politics and religion. I’m breaking that rule today.

As I “follow my bliss,” I’m grudgingly realizing that I need to explore spirituality in my art and writing. I really don’t want to. Because, well, of the first sentence of this article.

It was with great trepidation that I kept reading James Hollis’s book, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life (affiliate link). In his view, the two main tasks during the second half of life are recovering a personal authority and discovering a personal spirituality. I already wrote about personal authority in part 1, so this article will focus on spirituality.

Discovering a Personal Spirituality

In this article, I use spirituality, religion, and mythology interchangeably. All these terms refer to beliefs surrounding God or a deity. That is clear enough, but the curious thing in Hollis’s advice is the word “personal.” What does that mean?

“It is of paramount importance that our spirituality be validated or confirmed by fidelity to our personal experience. A spiritual tradition that is only received from history or from family makes no real difference in a person’s life, for he or she is living by conditioned reflexive response. Only what is experientially true is worth a mature spirituality.”

“So often spirituality, like the false self, is fear-driven, which is not to be judged, but a fear-driven spirituality will always diminish rather than enlarge. It has been said that religion is for those afraid to go to Hell, and spirituality is for those who have been there. Any spiritual perspective that seeks to finesse difficult questions of good and evil, that seeks to scapegoat others, or that defers authority to external sources is an infantilizing spirituality. Any spirituality that makes people feel guilty and judged is merely adding to the complexes they already have. Any spirituality that keeps people in bondage to fear, to tradition, to anything other than that which is validated by their personal experience is doing violence to the soul.”

“By these criteria, many if not most spiritual practices are affronts to the larger life to which we are summoned.”

─ James Hollis

Ouch, that is harsh! Any religion that uses fear and makes people feel guilty is harming them. If a religion is simply inherited from one’s parents, it’s unlikely that one would ever challenge it. We are dependent on family to survive in the first half of life, so why bite the hand that feeds you? You don’t. That’s why many never question their inherited religion. Threats of blasphemy, sin, ex-communication, social rejection, etc. also deter people. If we are to discover our personal spirituality, however, we have to keep going.

Why Religion is on a Decline

A recent National Geographic report concluded that the world’s newest religion is “No Religion.” There are many reasons why religions are dying, and three immediately come to mind:

  • First is the perceived hypocrisy of religious leaders who preach one thing and do another (Jerry Falwell Jr. Instagram post is a recent example).
  • Second is that science and technology have made us more materialistic. We only trust things that we can see and touch, and anything to do with the spirit is outdated and suspect.
  • The third and most important reason is that religions do not evolve. They are fixed in the world view of the century they were created in.

Consequently, religions are unable to fully speak to the spiritual needs of more and more human beings. This situation is an unfolding tragedy because those spiritual needs continue, even for people who answered, “No Religion.”To find out why, see Is there room for mythology in the 21st century and The Power of Myth: Why It’s More Important than Ever.

If we want to discover our personal spirituality, how do we do it? To begin, it’s useful to revisit the four functions of mythology according to Joseph Campbell. Since I grew up in the Christian tradition (my name is Jonah after all), I will use examples from Christianity but feel free to substitute your own.

The Four Functions of a Mythology

According to comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, all mythologies have four functions:

  1. Cosmological function: Explains how something came about, such as how the world was created in seven days or how human beings were created
  2. Sociological function: Defines right and wrong, such as the Ten Commandments
  3. Mystical function: Elicits a sense of awe and mystery, such as God appearing as a burning bush, Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus’ death and resurrection, etc.
  4. Psychological function: Supports human beings’ need to answer questions like:

“What does it mean that I was born?”

“Why am I here?”

“How should I live my life?”

“What happens after death?”

Mythologies had to include all of these functions in order to instill order and protect the tribe. Human beings had not invented better systems when the mythologies were created. But that has changed: science has taken over the cosmological function, and secular and government laws have taken over the sociological function.

In my opinion, to arrive at a personal spirituality, we need to discount, ignore, carve out (use whatever verb you want) the cosmological and sociological functions of a mythology. James Hollis does not actually say this in his book, so this is my view.

What would be the benefit of doing this? Well, for starters, it would remove justifications and conscious and unconscious beliefs like

And the list goes on. Religions have been used to justify what is right and wrong, and what is “correct.” 

How many “-isms” and “-phobias” would diminish if the cosmological and sociological functions of religions were excised? We have a more just system in secular and government laws (in most countries) already. There is no point in subscribing to a cosmological and sociological world view of over 2,000 years ago.

Not everyone in the world would be willing to do this, but you can. If you’re a frequent reader of this blog, you already know I’m a believer in starting with oneself. By saving yourself, you save the entire world.

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The Principle of Resonance

So after removing the cosmological and sociological functions of mythology, what’s next? We’re left with traditions, images, stories, and themes that serve the mystical and psychological functions of mythology. We then take up James Hollis’s advice from that starting point:

“So as we sort through the rubble of historically charged images, by what standard do we gather them to our heart? It cannot be their institutional authority alone. It cannot be because our family or ethnic tradition embraced them. It can only be if they move us, that is set off a resonance within us. If such resonance occurs, the activation of like to like in some hidden harmony, then we know that that image has some meaning for us. We feel it. No amount of willpower or faith can, as such, arouse such resonance for us. When the spirit has departed, we cannot will it back. Though we may not understand why, when the spirit is present, we will be moved.” (p171)

“When the principle of resonance, that is, inner confirmation as opposed to external authority, is accepted as the surest guide to the conduct of a life responsive to the soul, then we are forced to become psychological. We experience metanoia, a transformation of consciousness–the recognition that we are in fact spiritual beings who are cast into a material form in a material age.” (p172)

“To thoughtfully examine our culturally induced religious life is in no way to denigrate the great world religious traditions. Remember, we are to search them all with serious intent to find what pieces speak to us. Those great images still have enormous linking and healing power; however, each of us has to make that discovery on our own.” (p173)

I like the simplicity of Hollis’s test of resonance. If you tear up, feel awe, or experience the numinous, then something in that religious tradition, image, iconography, or story is meaningful to you. You can then build on that foundation. You are not limited by the religious tradition you were born in. For example, if an element in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or any other historical or current mythology speaks to you, then use it! Hollis’s approach is both freeing and full of personal responsibility.

But Where is God in All of This?

That depends on you. God is in the mystical and psychological functions of mythology. Thus, in my work of discovering a personal spirituality, God (in all variations found in mythologies) will have to go through the tests of resonance.

The Ritual of Saying Grace - An Example

Yesterday, I came across an article that made me think about the act of saying grace before a meal.

Growing up, I would have said something like, “Dear Lord, thank you for the food that we’re about to receive from your bounty. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.” Reading these words now, they don’t move me. As mentioned above, the test of resonance is a personal one: if you tear up, feel awe, or experience the numinous, then there is something there for you.

In the 1970s and 1980s, psychologist Jonathan Young PhD assisted Joseph Campbell when he delivered workshops at Pacifica Graduate Institute in California. He recounted an exchange with Campbell:

“One conversation with him that first weekend had been especially significant for me. We were sitting down to dinner together and I mentioned that I missed the ritual of saying grace before meals. I said that it just wasn’t clear to me at that time what I should give thanks to. Campbell gently suggested that I say my thanks to the animals and plants that had given their lives so that my life would continue. In a few words, he captured the essence of an old ritual and gave it fuller meaning. It was typical of his way of showing the significance of familiar details of everyday situations.”

The act of praying in this way–giving thanks to “the animals and plants that had given their lives so that my life would continue” is so humbling that I tear up, feel awe, and experience the numinous at the same time. This is the mystical function of myth at work. It made me think of the essential workers who are risking their lives during the pandemic so that other people’s lives can continue. Saying grace in this way passes the test of resonance.

You may, of course, be unmoved and say that the original way of saying grace is fine. As long as it passess the resonance test for you, then that’s great!

The Work Ahead

The journey ahead will not be easy. But if in the process, we find a life of meaning that comes from within, then it will be worth it.

Where do you go from here? If you want to read more, I highly recommend Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life (affiliate link) and don’t forget to subscribe as I think spirituality will come up more and more in my art and writing. Subscribe here.

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