In modern English the word ‘behovely’ has fallen out of common usage. Certainly the spell-check on my MacBook does not recognise the word. Collins online Dictionary gives the definition as ‘useful’ and ‘in a useful manner.’ One of Mother Julian’s better known assertions, it is none-the-less somewhat surprising to the modern reader as at face value it appears to be the very antithesis of the Christian message. If the redemption offered by Christ is to save us from our sins, how on earth can sin be useful?
The American psychologist B. F. Skinner believed free will to be a myth. Rather, he concluded, human behaviour was dependent upon the consequences of previous actions, which he referred to as the principle of reinforcement. This principle stated that If the consequences of an action were bad, there would be a high probability the action would not be repeated; if the consequences were good, the probability of the action being repeated becomes stronger. The obvious contradiction to the argument is alcohol dependency, or any other form of addiction for that matter, where individuals continually repeat behaviour which is detrimental to them, in the case of alcoholism potentially fatal. That Skinner developed most of his theory by observing lab rats and not actual human beings in retrospect seems an oversight.
Jung, on the other hand, believed that such detrimental behaviour was driven by what he described as ‘splinter personalities’ that were the manifestation of unresolved complexes that held an energy all of their own. The splinters would largely reside dormant in the psyche but become activated by certain environmental triggers. So individuals would find themselves engaging in behaviour which ran contrary to their conscious beliefs and the moral expectations of the society in which they lived.
St Paul put it far more simply.
“I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh; for I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I keep on doing the evil I do not want to do. And if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me.”Romans 7:18-20
Each in their own way is attempting to articulate the very human experience that our behaviour can sometimes run contrary to our beliefs, and that this behaviour is often driven by forces of which we are unaware. The more I ponder such aspects of Christianity in the light of modern psychology the more I believe we are juggling with syntax. What Jung described as a ‘splinter personality’ St Paul describes as sin living within him. To me they are the same thing.
No surprise then that, in my experience, many of these unwanted behaviours are related to primitive impulses such as fight or flight, fear, anger, envy, food, and sex, to name just a few, what for millennia the Church has referred to as Sin. How then can Julian tell us that Sin is behovely? Let’s hear from Julian herself.
I saw that nothing hindered me but sin. And I saw that this was the same for all of us. And it seemed to me that, if sin had not been, we should all have been clean and like unto our Lord as he made us. And so, in my folly, before this time, I had often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented – for then, I thought, all should have been well. But Jesus, who in the Showing told me all that I needed, answered by this word and said: ‘Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 27
Jung believed that individuation* occurred as the individual drew shadow elements of their unconscious psyche, such as the splinter personalities, into conscious awareness and assimilated these into the Ego, or what Carl Rogers referred to as the Self Concept. The crux for me is that the individual cannot being to be aware of their shadow unless it is manifested in behaviour. Only when we observe ourselves engaging in behaviour contrary to our conscious beliefs and the moral expectations of the society in which we live can we being to question why we are behaving in this manner, and most importantly, begin to do something about changing that behaviour.
Now we see the wisdom in Mother Julian’s assertion that sin in behovely, for it is ONLY by sin that we can become aware of the unresolved complexes that linger in the shadows of our unconscious mind.
*In Jungian or analytical psychology, individuation is the process where the individual self develops out of an undifferentiated unconscious. It is seen as a developmental psychic process during which innate elements of personality, the components of the immature psyche, and the experiences of the person’s life become, if the process is more or less successful, integrated over time into a well-functioning whole. Other psychoanalytic theorists describe it as the stage where an individual transcends group attachment and narcissistic self-absorption.
#lentbookclub is a loose association of people who broadly fall under the spiritual umbrella of Christianity. During the reflective season of Lent, we are invited to read a specific book, chosen by group consent, and comment about this on social media. The group is open to everyone, those who identify as ‘Christian’ in whatever manner, and those who do not.