How Extremes Can Turn into their Shadow Opposite, or Reveal Transcendent Unity

In a truly stunning paradox, extremes can flip around into their shadow opposites. They can also reveal a transcendent unity, or greater Whole.

Any ideology that becomes extremely dogmatic or fundamentalist can become a mirror image of itself, becoming the very thing it thinks it is against. To further the paradox even further, such an extreme can also reveal the unity of the opposites, or a “middle way,” which can also be the Transcendent.

Extremes Flip into their Opposite

As Richard Rohr has noted,

Anything uncritiqued becomes demonic.

-Richard Rohr

So in the case of a church that thinks it is above criticism, that it has “the absolute truth, no questions asked,” it may itself become the very thing they think they are fighting. They will become the demon. The Christians in the medieval Crusades thought they were protecting the Good, protecting Jesus, the God of Love, and the “true way” of salvation, but they ended up slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, which is a horror and not Love at all.

To give another more recent example, I recently shared some thoughts on Facebook from LDS president Ezra Taft Benson (president 1985-1994) who shared disturbing thoughts about Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, that he thought he was a “Communist tool,” and that was the “kindest thing” that could be said about him. And I just learned from Shane Peterson during the Sunstone Digital Symposium that Benson thought that Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and a climate activist who is considered one of the pioneers of the global environmental movement, was also a tool of “the Communists.”

So in other words, a revered civil rights activist who tried to bring more equality and justice to the oppressed and marginalized among us, and a pioneer climate activist, who tried to bring awareness to our collective destruction of nature and whose actions tried to help save the Earth, both of these people were demonized by Benson. He stoned these prophets. He saw their Good as pure evil (Isa. 5:20). Thus he became the demon, the very evil he thought he was fighting against.

This could be related to the principle that Carl Jung called enantiodromia,

…the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time. This characteristic phenomenon practically always occurs when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life.

This can be seen in nature too,

…any extreme is opposed by the system in order to restore balance. When things get to their extreme, they turn into their opposite… in Jungian terms, a thing psychically transmogrifies into its shadow opposite…

The Tao Te Ching notes this about the Tao returns balance:

As it acts in the world, the Tao
is like the bending of a bow.
The top is bent downward;
the bottom is bent up.
It adjusts excess and deficiency
so that there is perfect balance.
It takes from what is too much
and give to what isn’t enough.
Those who try to control,
who use force to protect their power,
go against the direction of the Tao.
They take from those who don’t have enough
and give to those who have far too much

-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell,

It seems that Benson became so extremely against communism, and any form of communitarianism or democratic socialism whatsoever, any political theory or form that strives to unite society as One cohesive system, that he paradoxically and ironically himself became his shadow opposite. He turned into the opposite of what he thought he was, a prophet of God seeking Zion (a people of “one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:18)), and rather he became a demon fighting Zion, fighting any holistic healing of society and our place in the world. As Mormon scripture itself says, he fell to “kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God” (D&C 121:38).

But this can also happen within people who altogether reject Mormonism or other spiritual ideas, in absolutely rejecting a tradition or philosophy. Some people who leave Mormonism can think that in rejecting the LDS Church and Mormonism that they are returning to a better way, a more true, divine, good spirituality, and that Mormonism must be totally evil. But going against it too strongly, too dogmatically rejecting it all, they may end up at the opposite extreme, which is also problematic. They can become demonic anti-Mormons. They think they are going against something evil, and are themselves good, but their extreme antagonism towards it is also not good. As Richard Rohr has noted, “Oppositional energy only creates more of the same.” Martin Luther King Jr. also noted, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” So the demonic can be reached through either extreme.

Extremes Reveal Unity of Opposites

There is another phenomenon that seems related to all of this, which is that going to the extremes can actually reveal or unveil the unity between the two poles or opposites, a coincidentia oppositorum.

This perhaps can be seen in the “left-hand path” of spirituality, which seems extremely hedonistic and deeply narcissistic, and seeks to break all traditional religious, spiritual, and cultural taboos. For most people, this probably seems completely opposite to the typical spiritual route, which is usually through selflessness and ascetic strict obedience to religious laws. But it is perhaps a mirror reflection of itself, that paradoxically can also lead to awakening.

The historical Siddhartha Gautama (traditionally known as the Buddha) is perhaps a prime example of this tendency to go to extremes, which then revealed the unity between them or behind them, a “middle way.” He began as a royal prince, having everything he needed, and then became an ascetic, where he had nothing and was starving. Neither extreme brought awakening, but going to these poles eventually brought enlightenment. How did that happen? Perhaps by seeing life at both extremes, he realized Life as a whole, how positives lead to negatives, and how negatives lead to positives, and how both are part of the same singular spectrum which is a whole that we call Life.

Alan Watts once commented on this left-hand approach as well,

For, contradictory as it may sound, it seems to me that the deepest spiritual experience can arise only in moments of a selfishness so complete that it transcends itself, by ‘the way down and out,’ which is perhaps why Jesus found the companionship of publicans and sinners preferable to that of the righteous and respectable. It is a sort of first step to accept one’s own selfishness without the deception of trying to wish it were otherwise, for a man who is not all one piece is perpetually paralyzed by trying to go in two directions at once. As a Turkish proverb puts it, ‘He who sleeps on the floor will not fall out of bed.’ And so, when the sinner realizes that even his repentance is sinful, he may perhaps for the first time ‘come to himself’ and be whole. Spiritual awakening is the difficult process whereby the increasing realization that everything is as wrong as it can be flips suddenly into the realization that everything is as right as it can be. Or better, everything is as It as it can be.

-Alan Watts, This is It

Unless we know our dual-nature, both the light and darkness within us, perhaps we won’t find the One, perhaps we won’t be able to integrate both polarities into a cohesive Life.

There is a middle Way, what Rohr calls a “third way,” and other traditions have called simply the “Way,” and few there be that find it. The extreme opposites, these polarities, can paradoxically flip into their mirror opposites, both demonic, or can be a doorway into finding the transcendent unity between them, the One.

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