Placebos, Ideology and Collective Consciousness
. . . . we may say that groups of people, societies, and cultures have a collective mind, and therefore also possess a collective consciousness … As individuals we participate in these collective patterns, are influenced by them, and shape them in turn. In addition the concepts of a planetary mind and a cosmic mind may be associated with planetary and cosmic levels of consciousness. [Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point, Chapter 8].
Can the spiritual state of a society, its faith in a Divine Reality, produce conditions and events that later, from a modern, secular perspective, appear as superstition, deception, or folklore? The societies where the great religious founders walked evidenced intense emotional crises that we cannot recreate or even imagine.
In our own short history, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights Movement were periods whose spirit and passions cannot be adequately expressed. How distant then is our thought process from that of the disciples of Jesus, Moses, Muhammad or the Buddha?
Clearly, when we study Scriptures, we project into history certain contemporary views and conditions from our modern culture. However, great spiritual events reflect social psyches and conditions totally alien to our modern secular society.
As a beehive produces a queen under unique conditions, so can civilizations generate prophetic emanations to counter the collapsing socio-religious order. This also suggests that certain spiritual events associated with uniquely spiritual times would be noticeably absent in intensely secular surroundings.
At the same time we are convinced, that we are not sufficient of ourselves to help ourselves; that, without the Spirit of God, we can do nothing but add sin to sin; that it is He alone who worketh in us by his almighty power, either to will or do that which is good; it being as impossible for us even to think a good thought, without the supernatural assistance of his Spirit, as to create ourselves, or to renew our whole souls in righteousness and true holiness. [John Wesley].
Zeitgeist: A Cultural Placebo
The concept of a social psyche, or collective consciousness, is often used in psychology to explain ecstatic behavior or paranormal activity jointly experienced by large numbers of people, often sharing a common faith.
[A] dream will then have a collective meaning, a meaning which is the common property of mankind … Moreover, every individual problem is somehow connected with the problem of the age, so that practically every subjective difficulty has to be viewed from the standpoint of the human situation as a whole.[The Collected Works of C.G. Jung: Complete Digital Edition, C. G. Jung, ¶¶ 322-3].
The German word zeitgeist means “the spirit of the times” and refers to the idea that a social period or historical era can have a distinct climate, ambiance and spiritual mood. Are modern examples of spontaneous social fervor, such as the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, the Intifada in Palestine, or the Arab Spring products of collective consciousness to be, in the future, relegated to the status of mythic hagiography, or even cultural placebos?
Unbelief is infectious! The unbelief of one strengthens the unbelief of another, just as the faith of one strengthens the faith of another. [Arthur W. Pink].
One Mind at a Time
Science recognizes that human behavior and development is significantly influenced by faith and culture. Unique social and cultural forces can impair or improve health and produce positive or negative abnormalities. Some diseases prosper in certain cultures while being resisted or inhibited in others.
Our awareness and perception of reality can have varied dimensions depending upon our worldview, our faith and our disposition toward spiritual and transcendent affirmations. Similarly, a mass psychosis can be abnormal, producing conditions that foster health problems, physical as well as mental. It can also be ecstatic, producing great joy and piety.
The more we give ourselves to experience personally sanctification by faith, the more we shall also experience healing by faith. These two doctrines walk abreast. The more the Spirit of God lives and acts in the soul of believers, the more will the miracles multiply by which He works in the body. [Andrew Murray, Divine Healing, Ch. 2].
Anorexia: Nervosa or Spiritualis?
The highly secular societies of the modern West produced anorexia nervosa, a modern disease where the sufferer has an obsessive fear of gaining weight. By contrast, the highly spiritual society of Medieval Europe produced an ecstatic condition, anorexia spiritualis or holy anorexia, in which the sufferer had an obsessive fear of losing heaven.
Many sufferers of spiritual anorexia were considered great mystics and church reformers, gaining the admiration of the society and the audience of rulers and popes.
Quite obviously, the medieval passion for mystic union and divine awareness has waned. The faith of today’s adherents is vastly different in scope and intensity. However, extremely sensitive and compassionate individuals still manifest similar symptoms. They are now based on secular, often commercially induced, stimuli.
Anorexia nervosa sufferers are not consulted by popes nor are they candidates for sainthood. Instead, they are exposed to substantial medical and scientific uncertainty and intrusive social curiosity.
I am one of those who are most sensible of the power of imagination … It has a very piercing impression upon me; and I make it my business to avoid, wanting force to resist it. I could live by the sole help of healthful and jolly company: the very sight of another’s pain materially pains me, and I often usurp the sensations of another person. A perpetual cough in another tickles my lungs and throat. I more unwillingly visit the sick in whom by love and duty I am interested, than those I care not for, to whom I less look. I take possession of the disease I am concerned at, and take it to myself. I do not at all wonder that fancy should give fevers and sometimes kill such as to allow it too much scope, and are too willing to entertain it. [Michel de Montaigne, Of the Force of Imagination, XX].
Beacons of Society
During its early history, Christianity personified dedication and commitment. It redefined the meaning of renunciation and sacrifice by incorporating unique monastic and ascetic practices into its orthodoxy. As the need for actual martyrdom came to an end, passionate devotees often adopted asceticism and mortification of the flesh as substitutes.
Hermits, cenobites, desert anchorites, stylites, cloistered nuns and penitent monks became beacons of society, guiding it through the dark days of the waning Roman empire. Their abstention and self-mortification testified to the sincerity of their belief and earned respect and reverence for their faith.
Why doesn’t our contagious joy, enthusiasm, and gratitude infect others with a longing for Christ? Why are the fire and spirit of Peter and Paul so conspicuously absent from our pallid existence?
Perhaps because so few of us have taken the journey of faith across the chasm between knowledge and experience. We prefer to read the map rather than visit the place. The specter of our actual unbelief persuades us that it is not the experience that is real but our explanation of the experience. Our beliefs – which William Blake called “The mind-forged manacle” – distance us from the grip of personal experience. [Brennan Manning, The Signature of Jesus, pp. 19-20].
As a result of spiritual dedication, religion pervaded society as the dominant influence. The world was cloaked with a spiritual mantle maintained by clerical authorities. People had an inclusive relationship with religion that reached deep into their daily lives. The entire culture was steep in Divine awareness and apprehension.
This mantle gave the church far-reaching power very similar to that exerted by modern science. To some, this religious mantle flung over the society was at best a placebo and, at worst, a sinister opiate controlling and oppressing the masses.
However, it was this same spiritual mantle that inspired the founding fathers of modern science such as Newton, Kepler, Mendel and Galileo, believing scientists who dedicated their lives to serving God by striving to understand His creation, not by establishing institutional dogma. They persevered in their efforts to think “the thoughts of God after Him.”
And God endows those who avail themselves of [His] guidance with an ever-deeper consciousness of the right way; and good deeds, the fruit whereof endures forever, are, in thy Sustainer’s sight, of far greater merit [than any worldly goods], and yield far better returns. [Quran 19:76]