Imagine a man who has been imprisoned in a cave all his life. Facing the back wall of the cave, he is chained in such a way that he is unable to turn sideways to see the other men who share his confinement, let alone turn around to see what is behind him. What is behind him is a fire and between him and the fire people walk carrying figures of humans and animals so that the fire casts the shadows of the cut-out animals onto the wall he is facing. The prisoner, seeing only the shadows and having seen only the shadows all his life, would understand them to be the sum total of all that there is. For him, the shadows don’t represent anything; they are reality itself.
Now imagine that this man is suddenly released from his chains. His first act will be to to follow the lead of his curiosity and turn around. When he does this he will see the fire and will recognise that what he had understood to be reality had only ever been shadows. But the brightness of the fire will be too great for eyes that have only ever seen the varying shades of darkness of the cave and will burn them. The man, feeling the pain of the brightness of the fire, will turn back to the familiar, safe and painless wall.
But what if someone were to take hold of this now unshackled prisoner and drag him beyond the fire, out of the cave and into the light of the sun? At first the man would be beside himself with rage, feeling the pain of the sunlight on his feeble eyes and blaming his liberator for his discomfort. With time, however, the man’s eyes will adjust to the sunlight and he will see the beauty of the world he has missed all his life and gaze at the brilliance of the sun itself.
This man’s thoughts will then return to the cave and the prisoners he left behind. When he re-enters the cave, however, his eyes, now adjusted to the brightness of sunlight will be blinded by the darkness of his former prison. The men he had returned to rescue will take his blindness as evidence that nothing good can ever come of turning away from the shadows that dance across the cave’s deepest wall. In fact, should anyone be foolish enough to try and forcibly rescue them from their plight they would in all probability use what little freedom of movement their chains allow to attack them.
Plato’s allegory of the cave has been retold many times over the twenty-three centuries since it was written. It’s purpose is to illustrate the importance of gaining an understanding of the Good, which is represented in the story by the sun. The Good is a hugely important idea in Plato’s world-view where it is the reality behind the world as we see and experience it. The implication of the allegory is that without knowledge of the Good a person will exist in the darkness of ignorance and self-deception, but that the journey towards this understanding of reality is by no means easy.
Many commentators have tried to shed light on the ideas that lie obscured behind the images of Plato’s allegory and others have have been inspired to take it to places that Plato could never have envisaged. As with all acts of creation, once it was produced this story was no longer confined in its meaning by the limits of Plato’s imagination. The one retelling that has caught my eye is that of the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch in her book, The Sovereignty of the Good. Murdoch’s contribution to the life of this famous story is to understand the fire in the cave as the self. The person who turns away from the shadows and sees the fire is turning away from the myths they believe about themselves and the personas they present to the world and is gaining insight into their true selves. As anyone who has decided to explore who they are and why they choose to be who they are can confirm, this is a difficult experience, requiring a great deal of courage. It is a process which everyone who attempts will turn from at many stages, preferring the safety of an inauthentic life to the harsh realities of a truthful existence. And so Murdoch’s interpretation of the fire sits well within the narrative of the original allegory.
For Murdoch, as for Plato, however, the focus of the story is not the fire, but the sun. The prisoner who learns that the dark and dancing figures he once took to be reality were mere shadows cast by the fire has certainly improved his life no end by gaining this understanding. But he is still a prisoner stuck in a cave! Just as true freedom for the person living in darkness is not to see a fire, but to see the sun, so true liberty of the soul is gained not by understanding ourselves, but in knowing the truth that lay behind all things. Murdoch’s ultimate purpose is to show that it is only by pursuing the knowledge of the Good that we can ultimately become virtuous people and that those who content themselves with self-understanding alone remain imprisoned by the smallness of the horizons they have chosen for themselves.
Plato was a pagan and Murdoch an atheist, but I want to muscle in on their territory and claim their cave fable for the Kingdom of God. The Gospel of Christ is the ultimate emancipatory force and the fable gives us an aspect onto the freedom it brings: the freedom to know ourselves. Without a knowledge of ourselves we are prisoners living a limited existence, with a distorted perception of the world and unable to fully experience, explore and expand the boundaries of our own humanity. It is the purpose of the Gospel to reveal to us the true nature of our condition.
So far, so good; there is nothing particularly new about any of this. But the question must be asked, what does it mean for the Gospel to reveal our true self? Traditionally in evangelical circles we would content ourselves with an answer that focussed on sin, so that the Gospel is the message of Christ the Saviour of sinners that reveals to us the truth about our sinfulness – its guilt and its consequences. The purpose of the Gospel, however, cannot be limited to the task of bringing a person into the forgiveness of their sins, or indeed to encouraging a particular kind of devotional life beyond that. The Gospel is surely about the renewal of creation and, as such, its goal as far as our lives are concerned is nothing less than the renewal of our humanity. It does not supplement our lives with faith and accessorise our experience with a relationship with God; it’s purpose is the complete transformation of our identity and being.
Central to the Gospel’s manifesto for renewal is the task of leading us towards ever greater self-understanding. We cannot change ourselves unless we know what it is about us that needs to be changed, why it is there and how it can be changed. The Gospel reveals the whole of our self to us: what makes us tick and what hinders our ticking. This it achieves because it is both the message about the ultimate human being and the message that brings us into union with the ultimate human being: Jesus Christ.
The whole of our humanity then comes under the purview of the Gospel. To put it another way, Christianity answers the question, What does it mean to be human? In doing so it takes into itself all truth on this subject, because Christ is the truth about being and becoming for all humanity.
This is why I am a preacher, but this is also why I am a psychotherapist. In this process of renewal and transformation psychotherapy is not at odds with the Gospel, as though it were competing with it to be the true agent of growth and transformation, neither is it a partner with the Gospel, rather it is a part of the Gospel. Psychotherapy can be a means whereby our unhelpful beliefs about ourselves, others and world are brought to the surface where they can be exposed to the true humanity of Christ and the promises of Scripture. By it our hidden motives and concealed meanings are uncovered so that we might see them ourselves for the very first time, and feelings that have always been blocked and which in turn block our ability to experience and grow can be allowed within the safe environment of a therapeutic conversation. Old, habitual and unhelpful patterns of relating can be highlighted and renewed through the experience of a relationship that is therapeutic.
All of this is not only in agreement with the Gospel, but is an expression of its transforming power, because at the heart of any psychotherapeutic process is a relationship in which one person – the therapist – seeks to be present for the other. This is by no means an ideal pattern of relating where there aught to be a mutual effort at being present for one another. But this peculiar relationship provides the space and the environment for a person to explore depths of his/her being which other relationships do not offer. This being-for quality of the therapeutic relationship is love. Ultimately, it is not some secret knowledge that the therapist possesses over the client that brings transformation, but love.
None of this, however, does full justice either to the fable of the cave or to the Biblical image of human flourishing. We have, so far, only turned around from the shadowy figures and seen the fire; it still remains for us to escape the cave and to gaze at the sun. Self-understanding is not the goal of therapy any more than it is the goal of the Gospel. To say otherwise would be to place the individual at the centre of the universe, with stars and galaxies paying homage to the gravitational pull of their ego. A human becomes truly human when they turn away from themselves towards others. We are the most communal of creatures, created to exist, like God, in community. Our very selves are constituted through interaction with others. To be liberated then, we must be set free to live with, among and towards others. Precious though all insights about ourselves are they leave us languishing in the cave; fasciated by the colours and movements of the fire’s flames, but prisoners all the same.
For Plato, seeing the sun represented the knowledge of the Good, for Murdoch it stood for the ethical life. Let’s agree with them both. Let’s take it to mean a life lived in communion with God, a communion that is expressed in a love for others. This is where the Gospel takes us, towards the humanity of Christ which was brought to its completion in his self-giving sacrifice, a humanity that is defined in its being-for others. And this must surely be the ultimate goal of any process of self-exploration, whether you want to call it therapeutic or pastoral.
To love God and to love others as an expression of love for God is true freedom, this is what it means to be human. But we are wrong if we think that this love can be nurtured without a self-understanding that extends beyond the Puritan mortification of sin, it must encompass the whole of our being, since to love God is to love him with the whole of our being.