The Cloven Pine Syndrome

Prospero Releases Ariel by Cate Simmons Flicker 2


In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ariel is a sprite, a free spirit, imprisoned in a cloven pine by the “blue-eyed hag” Sycorax for disobeying her.  He was confined a “dozen years” until another magician-master, Prospero, opened the pine and set Ariel free.  What Ariel didn’t realize is that he was always free, whether or not he exercised that freedom.

Psychology and spirituality make good partners.  I have studied the work of Eric Fromm and compared his theories about authority with the experience of mystics.  Strange bedfellows, atheists and mystics, but bear with me for a moment.   Fromm‘s experience of the Holocaust enlightened him on the human tendency to relinquish personal authority to the highest bidder.  His theory is not unlike Kohlberg’s stages of moral authority.  He says that most people are stuck in level four where behavior is dictated by external authority.  Like Fromm, Kohlberg sees the highest stage of moral authority as acting out of intrinsic principles, rather than external laws which may or may not be morally right.  The path of the mystics is similar.  One lets go of ego-entrapment to get to the core of his being.  She meets the Other in that place and this relationship grounds her in the moral authority to do justice in the world.

Some chapters of my life story have been characterized by idolizing external authority.  It crippled me with guilt and encased me in a mail of fear, protecting me from my own freedom.  Like Ariel imprisoned in the cloven pine, I longed to be free, to return to the blithe spirit of my childhood when God was real and I was real.  I have come to realize that we return to this state by returning to the womb of our souls.  But how to return?  A Dominican theologian, John Caputo, says that, “When the soul unites with the divine Godhead it returns to its own womb….”  God calls us to live this radical self-acceptance  with the divine.  Life in the Godhead is not life in a cloven pine.  Rather, it is a life which frees us to exercise all of our human potential.  Life in the Godhead  opens us to understand the many facets of being human, and teaches us how to do justice with compassion.  It is a life which empowers us with the authority to call others to conversion with conviction and empathy, fully aware that we have a share in all of humanity’s injustices

My journey to live moral authority has long been inspired by this paraphrase from Leonard Bernstein’s theatre piece, Mass:

You can lock up the bold ones
Go and lock up the bold ones
and hold them in tow,
you can stifle all adventure
for a century or so.
Smother hope before it’s risen,
Watch it wizen like a gourd,
But you cannot imprison
the word of the Lord.



Photo Credit:  “Prospero Releases Ariel” by Cate Simmons I invite you to visit this link to Cate’s drawing.  Her story of its creation is lovely and moving.

Here you will find a snapshot of Eric Fromm’s theories and a bibliography:

Here you will find an explanation of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development:’s_stages_of_moral_development

For a thorough and thought-provoking treatment of how a dearth of moral authority has created an empire out of church, see the books of my friend, Wes Howard-Brook:


God Is Not a “Magic Helper”

I pray God that he may quit me of god
Scripture abounds with crippling images of God as warrior, power-grabbing king, and patronizing parent who would not let anything bad happen to us. The God of Exodus 20.5 says, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generations.” These images created by the authors of scripture, rob us of any personal authority we have as human beings and they have had such a hold on us, that we relinquish the freedom given to us by the real God who is beyond all images. No wonder Meister Eckhart pleads, “I pray God that he may quit me of god.”

Eric Fromm, the human potential psychologist, escaped the Holocaust and thereafter recognized the evils of manipulating God as a way to legitimate genocide. He chose atheism as his path. He has left us with a passionate analysis of the self-annihilation that results when we totally immerse ourselves in an image of God as a “magic helper.” Fromm reminds us t hat we lose ourselves in this image-making. Human beings “…project the best [they] have onto God, and thus impoverish themselves.” (Psychoanalysis and Religion pg. 49) Fromm’s atheism is different from Eckhart’s, which is a death to negative images, not to the God beyond the images; however, Fromm’s analysis wakes us up, and invites us to rid ourselves of debilitating images of God.

Fromm’s analysis and Eckhart’s plea came together for me as I watched a 60 Minutes presentation May 18, entitled, “Three Generations of Punishment.” It was about Shin Dong-Hyuk, who escaped from Camp 14 in North Korea, after 23 yrs. He was born in the prison. His parents were imprisoned because their parents had advocated against the government. The guards behave like gods; warlike and vengeful on one hand, and patronizing “magic helpers” on the other hand. Until he befriended a new prisoner, Shin dong-Hyuk had no knowledge of the outside world. He thought that the rules of the camp were right and he was happy to obey, to the point of turning in his parents for disobeying, and feeling no remorse at their execution. His experience was very much like the experiences of those suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. A survivor of the TWA Flight 847 terrorist hijacking said of her captors, “They weren’t bad people; they let me eat, they let me sleep, they gave me my life.”

I believe that many of us today suffer from a kind of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome, constructed with the false god-images we have made and worshipped. We stay safe within these images rather than accept the freedom and responsibility of living as fully human persons. I pray for myself and all of us each day, that we may have the courage to let God be God in and through us. I pray that we may rid ourselves of god.