The Prophetic Tradition and the Battle for the Soul of the World

By Tom Cheetham

Argues for a renewed vision of the cosmos based on the centrality of the human encounter with the sacred. Green Man, Earth Angel explores the central role of imagination for understanding the place of humans in the cosmos. Tom Cheetham suggests that lives can only be completely whole if human beings come to recognize that the human and natural worlds are part of a vast living network and that the material and spiritual worlds are deeply interconnected. Central to this reimagining is an examination of the place of language in human life and art and in the worldview that the prophetic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—presuppose. 

If human language is experienced only as a subset of a vastly more-than-human whole, then it is not only humans who speak, but also God and the world with all its creatures. If humans' internal poetry and creative imaginations are part of a greater conversation, then language can have the vital power to transform the human soul, and the soul of the world itself. 

See: SUNY Press

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Chapter Three: Black Light

Hades, Lucifer, and the Secret of the Secret

"The dread and resistance which every natural human being experiences when it comes to delving too deeply into himself is at bottom, the fear of the journey to Hades."
—C. G.Jung

Darkness within
Perhaps no one can claim to know all the ways there are of going to Hell, or attempt a phenomenology of all the kinds of Hells there are. But we do descend, sometimes wracked with sufferings out of all proportion to any apparent external cause. We slide slowly into depressions, torn by a host of nameless demons, or plummet with sudden silent horror into the void. In these realms everything dissolves, emptied, unmade, withdrawn struggling into the abyss. Hillman says Hades is "the dissolver of the luminous world."

The realm of the dark "extinguishes the . .. colored world .. dissolves meaning and the hope for meaning ... [and] breakf[s] down the inner cohesion of any fixed state." This unmaking is required for all psychological change. The indispensable descent to Hades represents the alchemical Nigredo:

"[T]he operations must be dark and are called in alchemical language: mortificatio, putrefactio, calcinatio, iteratio, etc. That is, the modus operandi is slow, repetitive, difficult, desiccating, severe, astringent, effortful, coagulating and/or pulverizing. All the while the worker enters a nigredo state: depressed, confused, constricted, anguished, and subject to pessimistic even paranoid thoughts of sickness, failure, and death."

We can distinguish the processes of dissolution from the origin and cause that is the nothingness of the void itself, destroyer of worlds, annihilator of souls. For Jung it was represented by the archetype of the Terrible Mother.

Neumann writes:

"For the ego and the male, the female is synonymous with the unconsciousness and the non-ego, hence with darkness, nothingness, the void, the bottomless pit. In Jung's words:". . . it should be remarked that emptiness is the great feminine secret. It is something absolutely alien to man; the chasm, the unplumbed depths, the yin." Mother, womb, the pit and Hell are all identical."

The dual terrors of annihilation and meaninglessness lie at the root of the fear of turning inward. A physical origin for this fundamental angst has been sought in the "not good enough mother," in an estrangement from the physical world as represented by the mother's body. Morris Berman argues that the coupled experiences of the inner void and of the associated deadness of the outer world are based on a rupture, a "basic fault" between consciousness and the body that is fundamental to Western culture.5 On this view it is a fundamental estrangement from our bodies and from nature that provides the basis for our characteristic style of descent into the Hell of a soulless world and the anguish of nihilism.

Hillman has analyzed this as the phenomenon of "deperspnalization," in which not only is the individual's sense of self gone, but with it, the "sense of the world." In this pathology the depths of the soul are experienced in one mode only: as the void and the abyss. For Hillman the cause of the resulting psychic deadness is the loss of anima: both the soul of the person and the soul of the world. The inner void and the deadness of the world are symptoms of the loss of interiority:

"The "within" refers to that attitude given by the anima which perceives psychic life within natural life. Natural life itself becomes the vessel the moment we recognize its having an interior significance, the moment we see that it too carries psyche. Anima makes vessels everywhere, anywhere, by going within."

And, like Berman, Hillman regards this pathology as characteristic of our culture. "This loss is not merely a psychiatric condition; it is also a cosmology." Work on soul is at the same time work on the anima mundi, and is therefore a noble, cosmogonic task. In practice, this is a work of "revivifying images" which "must constellate . . . the sense of the utter reality of the personified image.'" The point of this psycho-cosmological labor is not to eliminate the need for the descent, but to reclaim its meaning and its efficacy, in part by learning the topographies of Hades, by differentiating among styles of descent and modes of darkness.

Reviewed by Melinda Weinstein 
Green Man, Earth Angel is a passionate cry for the reclamation of the imaginal realm denied by the dualistic cosmologies of the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
We have lost a sense of participation in the world, or “gnosis,” direct connection with the transcendent world of symbols and symbolic knowledge” claims Cheetham (47). The myth of the Incarnation of Christ, especially, maintains a strict division between matter and spirit by figuring the incarnation of Christ as man as “kenosis,” or abasement (84). In Incarnationist theory, matter is corrupt, held in strict separation from spirit. These dualistic ideas provide the ground for Cartesian dualism, the prevailing episteme today, where Spirit becomes increasingly remote and abstract, associated with reason, while matter is viewed as demonic and subject to doubt. The result is the very “loss of the soul,” Cheetham writes. By denying the imaginal realm he argues, “we are left with a poisonous dualism of matter and spirit. ‘Stuff’ is severed from Intellect, and both are incomplete or disoriented because the ground of their contact is gone” (3).

Cheetham finds an imaginal metaphysics, a way of restoring soul to body, in the cosmology of Ibn ’Arabi.  Sufiism, an esoteric movement within Islam, maintains a vertical understanding of the relationship between spirit and matter, with matter as the extension of infinite subtle realms. In this tri-partite structure, the imaginal realm is a “form of intellection” that mediates between matter and more subtle perceptual realities. “The realm of being to which this intellection gives access is the place of vision and symbol, what depth psychology calls the world of the psyche and of the imagination” (3).  Here, Cheetham presents highly rarified aspects of Sufi cosmology: the “luminous darkness of divine night,” that which underlies all things and from which emerges color and light, as well as the active principle that keeps things hidden, and Khidr, the Green man, imagined by the Sufis as the force mediating between the imaginal and the more embodied realms. Cheetham draws his analysis of the imaginal realm from Henri Corbin’s groundbreaking analyses of Ibn ’Arabi, and other Sufi authors: “He calls it the mundus imaginalis,” writes Cheetham, “the imaginal world, to underscore the fact that it is not imaginary or unreal. Through the agency of the active imagination we have access to an intermediate realm of subtle bodies, of real presences, situated between the sensible world and the intelligible.  This is the realm of the anima mundi” (3).

Green Man, Earth Angel calls us to grow the “resurrection body of the man of light that is hidden in the physical body,” and to perceive the “theophanic nature of all beings”: “that all beings are mirrors, places of theophany” (59).  It urges us to recognize that instead of psyche existing in us, we exist in psyche, “the present moment is pregnant with creation (7). To recover the soul, he writes, is to recover the participative sense of things, the state of being one with the other.  Cheetham in Green Man, Earth Angel presents an alternative mode of consciousness, an imaginal metaphysics where “The soul of this world we experience through a sense of interiority, as the availability of the world to the imagination, [is] a kind of reciprocal imaginative interaction, a sympathy between self and world” (7). When we establish a relationship with the symbolic, imaginal realm, when we learn to read nature as “Primordial Revelation,” (64) argues Cheetham, “We move…in a different space. This is not the universe of matter; it is more nearly a cosmos of qualities, presences and harmonies. The present is not transitory. It is not going anywhere. We are close to the origin here, close to the primordial distinctions. Space itself is substantial, qualitative, generative” (7). Cheetham finds also in Islamic thought a way of redeeming technology. In esoteric Islamic thought, all matter, including technology, is not fallen, but rather “a living part of the psyche of the world” (108).

Green Man, Earth Angel is a very engaging read. Cheetham, however, presumes a royal we, and sometimes he is a bit bombastic and preachy.  He makes claims regarding the presence of “presences” that might appear outrageous to an empirically-tempered scholarly audience—for example, “We can only know who we are if we know who we are not, if we experience our boundaries by experiencing where they touch those of the Others” (29). He brings, nevertheless, much-needed attention to the ground-breaking work of Henri Corbin in the field of Sufism and provides throughout Green Man, Earth Angel a learned and cogent exposition of Islamic esoteric thought in the work of Ibn ’Arabi.