Sarx and the ego

I recently got a copy of Adventures in Soulmaking by Troy Caldwell. I got a free review copy from (no one paid me for this review). It’s a book that tries to reconcile Christian spirituality and depth psychology. So I really wanted to like this book.

It was a mess.

Dr. Caldwell’s flavor of Christianity is evangelical, literalist Protestantism, which does not mix well with Jungian depth psychology. Dr. Caldwell developed a really elaborate system, wherein he tries to connect the notions of sarx and nous to the unconscious mind. For those unfamiliar with these terms, nous is the spirit, the higher, “holier” part of us, whereas sarx is “the flesh,” the lower, “sinful” part of ourselves. Dr. Caldwell equates nous to the “higher unconscious” as he terms it (the collective unconscious, where the archetypes live), and sarx to the personal unconscious, where (he so asserts) all the nasty, sinful bits of us live. He then offers several tools “to clear out the sarx/Shadow debris” (p 218).

Now, the tools he offers are mostly pretty useful, particularly his approach to working with dream material. This is pretty much straight-up Jungian depth psychology, though he brings his faith into the center of this process. He also acknowledges a wide variety of tools, such as centering prayer, lectio divina, etc., and talks about the purgative, illuminative and unitive approaches to spirituality.

But his whole system is deeply flawed, resting on a profound error. This is a fairly common error, especially among evengelical Protestants, and many people make the same error. To Dr. Caldwell, the personal unconscious and the Shadow are identified with sarx — with the sinful, naughty bits of us that need to be overcome, fixed, purged. But that’s not what sarx is at all.

Sarx is the ego.

It is the ego that represses, hides and denies our sexuality, our violence, our brokenness. Any spiritual path that is predicated on such denial and repression is doomed to failure. Because it’s the ego that pushes away the “bad” stuff, the Shadow that contains the bits of us that we don’t want to acknowledge. But acknowledging our shadow, accepting and embracing all the unwanted bits of ourselves, is the only true path to healing and growth.

I realize that there are many approaches to, and definitions of, Christianity — or any religion, for that matter. For me, what makes Christianity appealing is that God doesn’t need me to be perfect. God loves me just as I am, in my brokenness, with all my nasty bits included. Opening up to God allows me to embrace my nasty bits, to heal them, to accept them and integrate them. Pushing them away just leads to enemy formation, to projecting what I don’t like in myself on the “other” — the black, the female, the gay, the Muslim, the Republican, whatever.

Dr. Caldwell’s approach is about justification, glorification, sanctification. It is doomed to failure, because we can’t be justified. We can’t be sanctified.

We can only be loved.

I wrestle with this every day, not only with my own brokenness, but the brokenness of the sex offenders I treat. In my experience, the only healing, the only redemption, comes from embracing the brokenness. All bad human actions are unskillful attempts to accomplish some fundamentally healthy goal — to be safe, to be heard, to be connected, to be powerful, to feel relief. If we only try to punish bad behavior — in ourselves or others — we will only increase the bad behavior.

Love is the answer. The only answer. Jesus knew that.

To be fair, I think, on some level, Dr. Caldwell also knows that. But he appears to be struggling to integrate his own shadow material here. He recounts a dream where he approaches an island fortress, riding on a battleship. Then, suddenly, he’s sinking into the ocean in a downed PT boat. Then a giant squid from the depths is harnessed to propel the boat by a native boy. His conscious interpretation of this reinforces his “battleship” self, but what I see in this dream is that he only is able to access the power in his depths until he surrenders that power and sinks.

It’s a lesson I need to learn over and over again. I want to be in control. But surrender is the path.

Sarx and the ego

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