Social Justice: Some Thoughts

I’m reading Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness. It is a summary of Carl Jung’s work, and Jung (who wrote the Foreword) sounds a bit jealous of just how well Neumann brought all of Jung’s disparate thoughts together into a single whole.

In the second part of the book Neumann explains the idea of “centroversion.” He mentioned it at the very beginning of the book also but not knowing its significance, I missed the reference completely. (Thank goodness for a good index.) On p. 37 he says centroversion is his term for “self-formation,” which, when I read it, was quite meaningless to me. In the same chapter, describing the psychological processes that occur in the transitions from childhood to adulthood, he says that fear of the all-encompassing embrace of childhood (with its dual sense of being cared for in such a manner that one has no responsibility but at the same time that all-embracing care being an act of smothering) “is the first sign of centroversion, self-formation, and ego stability” (p. 87).

Neumann’s primary argument is that what happens in societies as they move from primitive groups primarily interested primarily in the natural world (ie, hunter/gatherers) toward established, and then developed, cultures is the same process that occurs in individuals from birth to adulthood. He relies heavily on the work of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. (If you’re not acquainted with the name, he is arguably the most significant anthropologist of the 20th century.) As an aside, the technology to make neuropsychology possible had not yet been developed when Neumann wrote, but his marriage of Jung and Malinowski, of psychology, anthropology, and sociology has been vindicated by neuropsychology. It turns out that these “mythical structures” that guide all cultures (and all children!) through, as Neumann contends, “transpersonal process” are also physical and can be found and mapped in the brain. (This map is the homunculus that neurospychologists are so fond of going on about.)

And this brings us to Neumann’s exploration of the Hero myth and it’s relationship to culture. According to Neumann (and I assume Malinowski – I haven’t read him), both nature and culture can be nurturing and fruitful or destructive and oppressive. When either or both become destructive and oppressive a hero or heroes rise up to throw off the shackles of culture (for my purposes I will focus on culture rather than nature). The heroes can take one of three forms: the extrovert, the introvert, or the centrovert. The extrovert hero is the sort that overthrows an old oppressive culture by establishing a better alternative. The introvert hero (often a second generation hero) is the sort that thinks deeply and imbues the culture with meaning, importance, and significance. In American mythology, George Washington was the extrovert hero and Thomas Jefferson and the writers of the Declaration of Independence were the introvert heroes.

But dealing with culture by overthrowing it (extrovert) or redefining it (introvert) is almost always destructive (i.e., the Haitian, French, American, and Russian revolutions) because much or more is lost as is gained. Ultimately culture moves forward to a new phase but it takes the form of one or two steps backward and two or three steps forward (or in the case of the Haitian revolution, one step forward and two or three steps backward).

I have been hanging around with Protestants for the last year and more specifically, the sort of Protestants that are disparagingly referred to as Social Justice Warriors (SJWs). These are the flavor of Christians who believe their highest calling is to fix the world. They march, they have book groups designed to raise awareness, they hold symposia, they talk endlessly about poverty, racism, and other social injustice. I am intimately familiar with this flavor of Christian faithfulness because it was common, and arguably even normative in the Presbyterian Church, where I was a pastor for over two decades. So my recent experience with Protestants would be unremarkable except for the fact that the Orthodox are certainly not SJWs. They are anything but. And this has left me wondering, do the Orthodox have no social conscience? Are they lacking in some fundamental way in how they relate to the world?

This has been the big spiritual struggle for me in the last year.

And then I read Neumann on the role of the mythical hero, not as extrovert (SJWs), or introvert, but as centrovert. Centroverts neither try to overthrow societal structures nor do they try to redefine them. Rather than fix society, they fix themselves so that they can live authentically and faithfully in society as it exists leading ultimately to fundamental and sustainable changes in society and culture itself. Malinowski argues that whenever extroverted and introverted Heroes arise, society becomes unstable and the danger of destructive forces rise dramatically; but centroversion is a stable and far more sophisticated process. While change brought about by the centroverted hero is much slower and far more subtle, it is sustainable change.

To use the language of justice, of which the mainline Protestants are so fond, societal change brought about by an extroverted hero mentality (the SJW) may ultimately lead to justice, but the path it takes is inevitably through quite a lot of injustice, destruction, pain, and suffering. When an extroverted hero is the change agent there are as many losers as there are winners.

The centroverted hero, by focusing on improving him or herself rather than improving the world, also brings about change, but (according to the theory) without much of the injustice, alienation, and loss that inevitably comes at the hands of the extroverted hero.

Social justice (or we might call it the social component of salvation) is extroverted in mainline Protestantism. It is centroverted in Orthodoxy. I suspect this is precisely where my recent discomfort with the Protestants lies. Over the last decade I have unconsciously embraced centroverted social justice and now, as I rub shoulders once again with the Protestants, I am overwhelmed with the potential and actual injustice and destruction of extroverted social justice.

Let me be clear. This clarification in my thinking is a first step, and a baby step at that. I still despair at the lack of social conscience among the Orthodox. In my rational brain, extroverted social justice is necessary because I am not wise enough, I am not mature enough, (I am not Orthodox enough?) to understand how the centroverted hero myth actually works in real life and contemporary society.

But this is a first step toward integrating my Christian faith with a more authentic meaning of justice.