The Blessing of Spiritual Poverty

Metaphysical Nakedness before the Word


Sermon on the Mount

(Detail) Oil on Canvas
By Carl Bloch

However, one has to recognize a distinction between the ends and means of devotion and of science; and in relation to the latter there is no reason to fear a demonstration of the derivation of local [mythic figures] from more general [archetypal] forms [of myth]. It is simply a fact — deal with it how you will — that the mythology of the mother of the dead and resurrected god has been known for millenniums to the Neolithic and post-neolithic Levant.

(Joseph Campbell, Masks of God: Occidental Mythology 56-57)

Picking up to read the third volume of Masks of God: Occidental Mythology is a formidable endeavor, especially as it touches the mythic roots of our own historic consciousness. For this reason Campbell highlights the difference between a devotional attitude towards myth, the attitude of the believer, and a “scientific” or phenomenological approach. Drawing a line between being contained in myth and a genuine independent outlook, the project of a “New Science” of myth was always and everywhere at the heart of Campbell’s writings. This is most evident in the encyclopedic scope and historic depth of The Masks of God.

Campbell is absolutely right, “there is no reason to fear a demonstration of the derivation of local [mythic figures] from more general [archetypal] forms.” (56-57) But given Campbell’s own emphasis on the stuff of personal experience, neither should we fear the predominance of historic content over an empty generic form. For content is what matters to our individual soul, providing as it does the material ground of our ecstatic experience of being in the world.

In the same way, across the ages of our mythic history, the human experiment carries the hope of a possibility forward—through detours, regressions, sidesteppings and meanderings—moving towards an unknown destination with the vehemence of mortal calamity. Such is the journey through the eons taking us to the precipice of this very moment in time, the present state of our mythic history. Convinced as Campbell was “of the unity of the race of man, not only in its biology but also in its spiritual history…” (8), let us then raise the question of where we have come thus far. What is the spiritual situation and interpretive horizon of our own times?

Without giving way to harsh value judgements, we can say at least this much: the solution to all our present problems with the Judeo-Christian tradition must be worked out from within this tradition—that is, our tradition here in the West. On this point, I cannot but agree with C. G. Jung when he writes in Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious:

I am convinced that the growing impoverishment of symbols has a meaning. It is a development that has an inner consistency. Everything that we have not thought about, and that has therefore been deprived of a meaningful connection with our developing consciousness, has got lost. If we now try to cover our nakedness with the gorgeous trappings of the East, as the theosophists do, we would be playing our own history false. A man does not sink down to beggary only to pose afterwards as an Indian potentate. It seems to me that it would be far better stoutly to avow our spiritual poverty, our symbollessness, instead of feigning a legacy to which we are not the legitimate heirs at all. We are, surely, the rightful heirs of Christian symbolism, but somehow we have squandered this heritage. We have let the house our fathers built fall into decay, and now we try to break into Oriental palaces that our fathers never knew.


What Jung is trying to express here touches upon what is precisely unique and concretely historic about our own spiritual situation and times. Any way you slice it, the point to which we have arrived is unthinkable without the transformations and reiterations of the Judeo-Christian tradition. For it is precisely this tradition that has paved the way for the spiritual poverty which Jung finds so horrible and sad. But rather than wishing to sidestep or “go beyond” the Christian myth, Jung intimates the fact that our present “symbollessness” or spiritual poverty may be, on the contrary, the result of following the Christian myth to its logical end—a dying and resurrecting God unlike any other! For rather than adorning oneself with the riches of puffed spirit or material wealth, it bids us cast aside all pretense and “spiritual” ostentation, accepting our metaphysical nakedness in the face of the Divine. After all, we are all familiar with well-known adage by Christ our Savior:

The Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mathew 5:3) 

The spiritual revolution inaugurated by the Christian eon is the very thing that will not permit us to adorn ourselves with the false riches of borrowed pride. Rather than presenting a new myth, however, Christianity presents the usual mythic form in a kind of reversal of the direction of spiritual history which had been caught in mechanisms of victimization and sacrifice. With the Christian myth, breaking through the uroboric logic of the soul, the symbolic flesh of myth is allowed to eat itself in the execution of new historic forms. For this spirit is so rich as to lose itself, rubbing against the metaphysical nakedness of the Real at the heart of the world.

This shift in the mythic history of the soul reflects the “mythless” status of modern consciousness, its loss of Meaning in the capital sense, which has emerged from the womb of myth, born naked and fragile, utterly dependent on others, into the metaphysical nakedness of the world.

This metaphysical nakedness expresses the meaning of spiritual poverty. It is the acceptance of the death of Gods and Symbols. Jung himself had a notion of the death of symbols which expresses a key insight into the dialectical nature of the mytho-historic process:

“So long as a symbol is a living thing, it is an expression for something that cannot be characterized in any other or better way. The symbol is alive only so long as it is pregnant with meaning. But once its meaning has been born out of it, once that expression is found which formulates the thing sought, expected, or divined even better than the hitherto accepted symbol, then the symbol is dead, i.e., it possesses only an historical significance. We may still go on speaking of it as a symbol, on the tacit assumption that we are speaking of it as it was before the better expression was born out of it. […] For every esoteric interpretation the symbol is dead, because esotericism has already given it (at least ostensibly) a better expression, whereupon it becomes merely a conventional sign for associations that are more completely and better known elsewhere. Only from the exoteric standpoint is the symbol a living thing.” (CW6 §816 )

This is a passage above was quoted by Wolfgang Giegerich in his essay the End of Meaning and the Birth of Man into which Giegerich elaborates his own thesis:

“Here, concerning the meaning of a symbol, Jung operates with the images of pregnancy and birth, and concerning the interpretation of a symbol, with the ideas of exoteric and esoteric standpoints. The symbol is only the unfinished embryonic form of a given meaning. As long as the symbol is alive its meaning is still unborn, has not fully seen the light of day. The birth of the meaning at once means the death of its former embryonic form, i.e., the death of the form of symbol, and it means that this meaning has received a better expression. The death of a symbol, inasmuch as it amounts to the birth of the better formulation of what it is about, is thus by no means to be viewed as an intolerable catastrophe. It is a transformation that, to be sure, goes along with a loss, but ultimately is a gain, a progress, just as in the case of the transition from biological pregnancy to birth. It thus is precisely the meaning’s destination to be born out of its initial enveloped form of mere pregnancy (implicitness, Ansichsein).”

(The End of Meaning and the Birth of Man, p 11)

Of course, what Giegerich has in mind is the totality of the symbolic order conceived as the womb of myth:

“For the “symbol” that we are talking about now is meaning as such, Meaning with a capital M; it is myth, the symbolic life, the imaginal, religion, the grand narratives—not this myth or religion or grand narrative nor this meaning, but myth or religion pure and simple, Meaning altogether. And the “meaning” (lowercase) that has been born out of this “symbol” (i.e., out of Meaning capitalized) is Man himself or consciousness as such, human existence at large. Because consciousness has been born out of them, myth as such, religion altogether, higher meaning at large now possess only historical significance; they still exist, but in the plural, and shrunk into the reduced status of commodities—dead meanings. If they are nevertheless still used today to hold consciousness in their sway and thus to create a new secondary mystique or aura, a new sense of in-ness, then they can function this way because they now have the status of (spiritual) drugs used to benumb consciousness or to give it its highs.”

(The End of Meaning and the Birth of Man, p 12)

Norland Téllez is an artist and teacher with over two decades of experience in the entertainment industry. As a scholar of myth and history, he remains committed to critical thinking through the power of the mythic image.

The Blessing of Spiritual Poverty


Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God. 4 Vols. New York: Penguin Compass, 1976.

Giegerich, Wolfgang. The End of Meaning and the Birth of Man.

Jung, Carl Gustav. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. 19 Vols. New York: Princeton UP, 1953.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God. 4 Vols. New York: Penguin Compass, 1976.

Giegerich, Wolfgang. The End of Meaning and the Birth of Man.

Jung, Carl Gustav. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. 19 Vols. New York: Princeton UP, 1953.