And Jesus answered saying, “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but God.”
We generally ignore this bizarre scripture. If Jesus isn’t good, then what does “good” even mean? For the sake of argument, let’s take Jesus’ statement at face value. What if Jesus wasn’t good? Rather, what if His goodness came exclusively from His Father? Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg had this to say about the inhabitants of the highest heaven:
“The angels of heaven acknowledge all good to be from the Lord, and no good from themselves. Angels refuse all thanks for the good they do, and are displeased and withdraw if any one attributes good to them. They wonder how any one can believe that he is wise from himself or does anything good from himself.”
LDS doctrine doesn’t sit comfortably with this idea. Individuals among us are “noble and great,” called to special missions before we were born “by virtue of their exceeding faith.” We trumpet “the greatest generation of youth” and patriarchs praise us for our pre-existent righteousness. While we do sometimes praise God for His goodness, we also sing “Praise to the Man.” I like the Mormon emphasis on our innate goodness and the superiority of certain noble and great spirits. It’s inspiring to be reminded of the beauty and potential of our souls. At the same time, I feel this paradigm is incomplete.
Psychologists tell us that the conscious ego, “the self” is only one dimension of our identity. There is also the subconscious, and according to Carl Jung, “collective conscious,” an identity we share with all of humanity. Our ego is so strong that it is nearly impossible for us to perceive that there are other dimensions of our being which we share collectively. But the Bible points us in this direction when Jesus prays that His disciples” may be one with Thee as I am one with Thee.” Elsewhere Jesus says “whoso shall find his life shall loose it, and whoso shall loose his life shall find it,” and “inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least, ye have done it unto me,” indicating, I believe, that He shares an identity with us, from the least of us to the greatest of us.
In most non-LDS religious traditions, spiritual experiences are almost always associated with transcending the ego. People describing these spiritual experiences say they feel “one with the universe” and “out of body.” But LDS spiritual experiences are more often focused on physical feelings, the “burning in the bosom” for example. Rather than feeling “one with the universe” an LDS testimony focuses more on God’s love for us as an individual, like a child in the arms of his father. In a typical LDS spiritual experience, the ego is always left intact.
Problems with the Ego
Problems arise when we identify too strongly with our own ego without giving due credit to the many forces which take part in our identity. We see ourselves as innately good and are proud of all sorts of things that we have no control over: our family, our body, our country, our culture. We take credit for our accomplishments as if they were done in a vacuum, without acknowledging that 99% of any accomplishment comes from a language, culture, and biology we did not create. We look with horror upon Nazi war criminals as if they were some kind of foreign species, unable to recognise that we ourselves would be in their place if we had been born into their toxic culture. On the opposite side of the coin, we may see might ourselves as evil, hopelessly trapped in cycles of failure and addiction. We refuse to believe the voices that might tell us we can change and our beliefs become self-fulfilling prophesies. But what if we aren’t good or evil? What if no man is evil, not even Hitler, and no man is good, not even Christ? What if the good and evil lie outside of ourselves, something we all share and tap into? What if, as Khalil Gibran suggests “the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest in each one of you, just as the wicked and weak cannot fall lower than the lowest with is in you also”?
“Things to act, or things to be acted upon?”
Lehi says God created “things to act, and things to be acted upon.” In the church we generally look negatively on “things acted upon.” That was Satan’s plan, to make us slaves, and we want to be a “thing to act.” But what if we are actually both? What if some of our actions are pre-programmed cultural and biological responses? What if some of our free-will is an illusion, not all of it, but some of it? And if we are “a thing to be acted upon” who is the Puppet Master controlling us? And if it is God, or some kind of collective consciousness, doesn’t that make God a part of us, part of our own identity? There is a beautiful hymn which expresses this truth:
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of thee.
Kahlil Ghibran said something similar: “God listens not to your words save when He Himself utters them through your lips.”
Planets Orbiting a Star
I’ve been reading a book about Jungian archetypes called King, Warrior, Magician, Lover by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette. Archetypes are instinctual patterns of behaviour. They are the “collective consciousness” part of our identity, separate from our ego. We see basic archetypal patterns all around us: the hero, the prodigal, the divine child, the king, the mother, the artist, etc. Our lives amount to nothing more than these same instinctual patterns played out over and over in our different personal environments. We are not individuals creating our own destiny. We are individuals playing universal roles which transcend our own individuality.
Robert Moore warns us not to identify ourselves too closely with our archetypes. The archetype exists as a truth outside ourselves. We are not “a father.” Rather we are a person experiencing the universal father archetype. We are not “the rebel.” We are a person experiencing the rebel archetype. We draw energy and inspiration from the archetype, but we are not the embodiment of the archetype. Like planets orbiting a star, to draw power from it, we must not be too close, nor too distant. He gives the example of Icarus, who wanted to BE his father, and blinded by his pride, he flew too close to the sun. Satan also desired to replace God, orbiting too close God, the ultimate King archetype. A king who identifies too closely with the King archetype becomes a tyrant, a planet which is pretending to be a star. A king who orbits too distantly becomes a weakling, a planet so far away it cannot receive any warmth or strength from the star.
“I am the Vine, Ye are the Branches”
When I was a young piano student, my LDS piano teacher told me something that impressed me: “God is the greatest concert pianist, greater than any other who ever lived.” Looking back at it, the statement sounds a bit pop-Mormon. But she was right. God is the source of all artistic inspiration and technical proficiency. Every human accomplishment exists already, in the omniscience and infinitude of a timeless God.
Other cultures have sometimes understood this concept better than we do. Ancient Romans used the word “genius” to refer, not to a person, but to a divine muse or guardian angel who inspires men. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote on each of his manuscripts: “to the glory of God.” Yet later in the Romantic Era, composers and poets demanded full credit for their works as the source of their inspiration and “the genius” was born. The poet William Henley wrote: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
“Ye are not your own.”
But it’s not just great geniuses that suffer from inflated egos. We all identify ourselves too closely with our own ego and archetypes. My parents developed Saviour Archetypes, as most parents do. They did all they could to protect us from the evils of the world and keep us strong in the gospel. Indeed, this became their entire identity. My parents are still mourning the fact that about half of their children have fallen away from the church. But they have since come to the realisation that neither their children, nor their very lives are their own. They are not to blame for the children who have fallen away. Nor are they to take credit for the children who have stayed. “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”
These days, my mother and father speak about overcoming their former co-dependancy as if it were any other addiction. Their identities had became so wrapped up in saving their children that they were unable to let them go without enormous personal trauma. In my view, they were finally able to separate their egos from the Saviour Archetype, letting Christ be the Saviour of their children, and finding contentment only in what God has given them. Alma said it this way: “Oh that I were an angel and could declare the gospel with the sound of a trumpet…but I do sin in my wish, and ought to be content with the things God has given me.” We circle the Saviour like a planet orbiting a star. We draw power from the star, but we don’t have to be the star.
- What do you make of Christ’s phrase: “There is none good but God.”
- Is there more to our identity than our ego, “the self?” If so, does the gospel help you transcend the ego?
- What do you make of the difference between non-LDS spiritual experiences (one with the universe), and LDS spiritual experiences (tender mercies of God to individuals)?
- Do you agree that we were created as a “thing to be acted upon” just as much as we are a “thing to act?”
- Do you believe in archetypes? Do our lives conform to universal forces which sometimes transcend our own free-will?
 When Henry Heimlich (of the Heimlich manoeuvre) was 21 years old, he saved a man from drowning. This was such a transformative experience for Heimlich that he dedicated his life to finding solutions to save more people. After he became famous for the Heimlich manoeuvre, and saving many thousands of lives, he used his fame to relentlessly advocate a number of dangerous and crackpot techniques to save people, but that did more harm than good, such as infecting people with malaria as a treatment for cancer and AIDS. Heimlich had identified so strongly with the Saviour Archetype that he was unable to recognise the limitations of his power.