Book Review: Beyond Literal Belief (David Tacey). Reviewed by Brian Coman.

Brian Coman


by David Tacey, Garratt Publishing, 2015. ISBN 978192500979. Rec Price $34.95.

Reviewed by Brian Coman

The author of this new book on religious belief is Emeritus Professor David Tacey from La Trobe University, Melbourne. He is a prolific author, with more than a dozen books published.

Perhaps the best known of these earlier publications is Edge of the Sacred (1995), which was both popular and provocative, and brought the author widespread public recognition.

The general tone of the book is set quite early in the piece.

Indeed, the dedication in the front matter announces the general flavour: “Dedicated to future generations: may you make more sense of religion than the generations before you”.

What an extraordinary thing to say! Can it be that the next few generations will be in a better position to understand the nature of religious belief than say, Socrates, St Augustine, St Aquinas, or John Henry Newman, to mention but a few of the giant intellects from the past?

On the contrary, I would have thought that the average 16th-century ploughboy or unschooled maidservant would have had a far better grasp of the nature of religious belief than the average high school leaver today.

But, perhaps when Tacey speaks of “making sense” he is actually referring to the modern notion of empirical knowledge as it pertains in the various sciences.

In which case, “making sense” of religion is an absurdity since part of the definition of religion involves faith. If we “made sense” of it in this particular understanding, it would cease to be called faith.

Tacey would, of course, vigorously deny that he opposes the notion of faith. Indeed, on his telling, Christians (he seems to ignore other religions) need more faith and less belief.

That is to say, we Christian believers must stop regarding the Old and New Testaments as stating any literal truths. Instead, we should have faith in his particular notion of religion.

He tells us that Biblical stories were metaphors, appropriate for their time, and we should not take any of them as describing an actual state of affairs. So, we should abandon those silly notions of the Virgin Birth, the bodily Resurrection of Christ, Heaven, Hell, etc, etc.

They may have served a purpose once, but we have now “grown up” as it were, and cannot take such ideas seriously as “facts”. We need to see religion as metaphor.

In this way, Tacey hopes to forge a sort of “third way” between traditional religious belief and atheism. So, what, precisely, is this new “faith” that Tacey extolls?

It turns out, once you have trawled through all his arguments and examples, that Tacey’s idea as to what constitutes religious faith is no more than Jungian psychology with a side-serve of John Spong, Dominic Crossan, and sundry other religious dissidents.

Indeed, Tacey acknowledges his debt to Jung in the book and quotes him extensively. As Philip Rieff says (The Triumph of the Therapeutic): “Jung’s is a religious doctrine in which God is rendered completely interior.” God, in fact, is simply a collective noun for the Jungian Archetypes.

Tacey explains his God this way: “God is a metaphor for what is purposive in creation.” I have to say that I do not find this “explanation” of God in any way illuminating! On my reading of it, it is simply Bergson’s élan vital in another guise.

Tacey is very big on the word myth, too. Myth, as a concept, has had an interesting history. As Rieff says: “Historically, the modern idea of myth experienced a gradual change from a pejorative to a meliorative sense.”

He is here drawing our attention first to the Enlightenment rationalists for whom the word myth meant something like “lie” or “deception”, then to the psychologisers of our own day, for whom the term represents the foundations of the creative process.

Tacey belongs to the latter group. “From our point of view”, he says, “myths can be interpreted as an ancient form of psychology.”

Here, he is referring to “depth psychology” – the psychology of the unconscious. On this matter of myth as now popularly understood by Jungians, it is instructive once again to refer back to Rieff, who critically examined the whole psychoanalytical movement from “within the fold” as it were.

Rieff was a sociologist with a particular interest in psychology. He was, as far as I can ascertain, a non-practising Jew and had little personal reason to defend the earlier traditions of the West. He wrote:

“The personal myths of Jungian psychology have little enough in common with the classical language of faith, and nothing whatever to do with the language of modern science.

“Because it offers no criteria of validity, other than the therapeutic experience of conviction, Jungian theory amounts at once to a private religion and an anti-science. For this reason … Jung’s theory has held out some comfort for contemporary literary humanists [Tacey fits here, surely! BC] who, bored by the bread-making miracles of modern science, need to be reassured that man cannot live by bread alone.

“Jung developed a fresh rhetoric of spirituality, without the bother of churches or the imposition of consequential ethics. His therapy was a theogonic process: the gods remade to populate a charming cosmos … in which no ego need feel lonely.”

The appeal of this sort of approach to religious matters lies in the modern contempt for intellectualism.

I am not talking here of any sort of learned snobbishness but, rather, of the simple, traditional idea of the intellect as that organ by which and through which we can glimpse the Eternal and know the Real.

The traditional motto was credo ut intelligam – I believe in order to understand. It was accepted that there was a compatibility between the intellect and things. It could be argued that this was a type of psychological understanding as was Jung’s, but the traditional approach emphasised the transcendence of God – His existence above and beyond the human mind.

Tacey and the Jungians in general would banish this and replace it with interior “feeling” and “experience”.

In this modern world, where the subjectivity of the individual reigns supreme, how convenient to bring down a fully transcendent God from His heaven and posit Him comfortably in the unconscious human mind.

How convenient, too, to dismiss those traditional constraints on human behaviour and the demands of faith, informed as they are by a belief in the veracity of Scripture.

Tacey’s metaphorical God is yet another in that long line of attempts to refashion God into man’s image, and not the opposite. But, ultimately, this approach cannot satisfy the intellect’s native hunger for Truth.

God is either truly Real and Transcendent, or a figment of human imagination. There is no middle position. Tacey tells us that “religious metaphors are meaningful”, but we want to know whether they are True.

Finally, we must consider the inevitable fate of this interiorisation of the Divine. Anytime soon you may expect a media announcement concerning a breakthrough in the area of cognitive science.

Some young researcher, anxious to secure funding in the next round of grants, will inform us that he or she has successfully mapped that part of the brain responsible for housing the Jungian Archetypes! The Christian God, having already lost some of his traditional jurisdiction to the Higgs Boson (the “God particle”, according to the media), will finally be rendered fully amenable to science – and, of course, to various forms of remedial therapy.

Perhaps there is even the prospect of an anti-God vaccine as a specific cure for metaphysical anxiety.

To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, Tacey’s new book is not one to be cast aside lightly: it should be hurled with great force!

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