Saturday, 31 July 2010

All Things are Possible

"All Things are Possible"

I used to discuss this with Annie Parmeter and she often threw it at me for my opinions! In the therapeutic co-counseling context, in which she placed it, it is a therapeutic means of "obtaining emotional discharge" by the disparity between the actual and potential, by setting up a contradiction.

I knew the phrase rang a large bell in a religious context, and sure enough, its origin is in the King James translation of the Bible, from which it no doubt has percolated through English culture like so many phrases. I don't particularly like that translation, but that is clearly where it enters the mainstream as an aphorism.

It occurs in three places in the New Testament; and I approach them asking the following kind of question: why was this story "kept alive" in the early community, what function or purpose did it serve? So I'll cite the texts, and give my brief comment.

"And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. "(Matt 19:24-26)

This story is an "inversion of values" one; the "natural order" was the presumption that the rich would rank more highly that the poor in the "kingdom of God", as in earthly Kingdoms; and this teaches that this is contradictory; within the early community, as the early Christians were mostly poor folk, rather than rich ones, this story is a lesson in the contradiction of the way in which society measured things, and an affirmation that poverty is no barrier here (as it was in general in society at the time).

"And one of the multitude answered and said, Master, I have brought unto thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit; And wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not. He answereth him, and saith, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him unto me. And they brought him unto him: and when he saw him, straightway the spirit tare him; and he fell on the ground, and wallowed foaming. And he asked his father, How long is it ago since this came unto him? And he said, Of a child. And oft times it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him: but if thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us. Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. (Mark 9:17-24)

This story is one about healing, but also about the difficulty in belief, and in believing "all things are possible". The last sentence is about the kind of contradiction; the man who brings his son (who appears to be epileptic) is the person who is the model of the contradiction between belief and unbelief, and the difficulty in believing "all things are possible".

Unfortunately, it is often misused by some who use it as a lesson in triumphalism ("if I believe, all things are possible, so if they are not, I can't be believing enough", or as an American radio jingle puts it: "Only believe, Only believe, All things are possible, only believe; Only believe, Only believe, All things are possible --only believe"). That seems to me to be the religious counterpart to the secular use of it in psychotherapy, and just as potentially damaging.

And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt. (Mark 14:36 )

This last story is the most important, because it is completely non-triumphalistic. The message the story tells is to give courage to Christians who were being persecuted by Nero: while all things are possible, there is no magical intervention that will prevent suffering; that is not the way God works. Again, there is contradiction, but this time upon the nature of God. The use of the same phrase that we have heard twice before, but this time in a context where there is no miraculous intervention, is again a contradiction of accepted ideas of God, that he would intervene because it is possible, and we should expect that intervention because that is the way we wish it.

The phrase itself returns in existentialism, and appears in Lev Shestov's compendium of philosophical aphorisms, "All Things Are Possible" (1905). He was a Russian Christian proto-existentialist philosopher based in France who waged a war for the lived human life against necessity, against thought, against evidence and against the objective while advocating a faith in God that makes 'all things are possible.' He placed emphasis on the salutary effects of tragedy and how the temptation to knowledge led to the restrictions of the spirit of man by reason, science and morality.

D.H. Lawrence was influenced by Shestov, and wrote of him (in his forward to "All Things are Possible") :

"'Everything is possible' - this is his really central cry. It is not nihilism. It is only a shaking free of the human psyche from old bonds. The positive central idea is that the human psyche, or soul, really believes in itself, and in nothing else. Dress this up in a little comely language, and we have a real new ideal, that will last us for a new, long epoch. The human soul itself is the source and well-head of creative activity. In the unconscious human soul the creative prompting issues first into the universe. Open the consciousness to this prompting away with all your old sluice gates, locks, dams, channels. No ideal on earth is anything more than an obstruction, in the end, to the creative issue of the spontaneous soul. Away with all ideals. Let each individual act spontaneously from the forever-incalculable prompting of the creative well-head within him. There is no universal law. Each being is, at his purest, a law unto himself, single, unique, a Godhead, a fountain from the unknown"

Lawrence is probably where it enters into the mainstream of secular thinking, as he gives the idea a psychological twist. And what I find most interesting about his approach is that

(a) it is part of a rejection of all ideas of limitation - the anti-science part of existentialism
(b) it is so parochial, so much what might be termed "bourgeois" (to grab a phrase from socialism)

In Lawrence, it becomes a philosophy of the comfortably well off, not the peasant, or the factory worker, or people starving in famines, or peoples in nations riven by war; I cannot imagine their reaction to someone telling them about "the creative issue of the spontaneous soul", but I suspect that feeling patronised and probably very angry would feature quite strongly! "

All things are possible" is more a matter of hope to those people, which brings us back to the "contradiction" that we began with, but as a political stimulus, rather than a therapeutic one.

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