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June 23, 2024

Jacob and Jiyū Shūkyō – A thought for the day by Celia James, 23 June 2024

One of my A Level subjects at school was what was then called Religious Studies; the study was at a level which suited a layman in biblical studies, which is what I have remained, not a scholar, a curious, cherry-picking, idiosyncratically extrapolating layperson.  One of the veins of the course was the Pentateuch and in the first lesson we went through Genesis marking with different coloured pencils the various verses by its different writers and this documentary study fascinated me: separate colours for J, E, D and P, whose emphases and ideas of God were different, across centuries. I love knowing this so will quote Wikipedia, “J was produced during the 9th century BC in the southern Kingdom of Judah and was believed to be the earliest source. E was written in the Northern kingdom of Israel during the 8th century BC. D was written in Judah in the 7th century BC and associated with the religious reforms of King Josiah c. 625 BC. The latest source was P, which was written during the 5th century in Babylon. Based on these dates, Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch did not reach its final, present-day form until after the Babylonian Exile…” there’s more, but it was this which fascinated me: I exulted in the different truths, the different ways, across centuries, of looking to express the Meaning of Life in, for instance, the J and P Creation narratives in Genesis. I was particularly fascinated and moved by the story of Jacob; another of my A Level subjects was Art and I painted episodes from his life. Obviously, these were compositions from imagination but it’s exactly that which I want to explore here; what is it that has the power to grip our imaginations and what is the link between Imagination and Self? 

The impact of the story of Jacob has never left me; his life story shows how he was certainly no Mr Good-guy, how he tricked and was tricked, how he loved and yearned, how he was both manipulative and faithful, how he laboured and succeeded, and, crucially, how he came to suffer a sense that his achievements were ‘not enough’; he is for me one of the representations of Everyman: the personification of what it entails to experience being alive, owning one’s singularity, needing to relate to others and to construct a sociable identity: to search for personal meaning and to enter a lifelong quest for Meaning. I find other Myths tell the same story of what it means to be Human; for me, first to become conscious as self and then to undertake to take responsibility for Consciousness as Self; I find their metaphors are available to my imagination too, because of what I see as the universality of being alive, sentient. On the day my son was born, I gave him the middle name Jacob, to be my gift to him for his whole life-long: my message to accompany him of the quest for Meaning. 

So it was because of all this that my first woodcarving was of the Story of Jacob. The two figures at the top represent Jacob wrestling with the Angel, as the struggle to find one’s ‘name’, one’s sense of self, one’s Self. This IS a struggle and it leaves its mark; we forever have our own ‘limp’ from the effort to be ourselves in our particular setting. This is the pivot of the whole carving, as the quest to love oneself, be able to love oneself; below it are facets of the struggle, the momentum of a life lived. 

The reason I title this piece of writing Jacob and Jiyū Shukyō [a creative, enquiring, free and liberative religion or spirituality] is because I thought of Jacob when Andrew gave his address last week and was describing the elements of Imaoka Shin’ichirō’s principles of Living. In the Future Directions Group [of this church] Andrew has encouraged us to think how we might describe our own versions of the Principles. Imaoka uses the verb “I have faith” and, later, “I affirm”, Frank uses the verb “I am..”, Jacqui uses several verbs, “nurturing …we seek…: supporting….we remember…: building ….being intertwined: finding strength..: drawing insights…”. I thought I could say, “I hold to…” because that is how the story of Jacob has looped in the background of my life, how its capacity to engage personal imagination has looped down the centuries before it’s been looping into my understanding across my decades. 

The first panel I carved was of Rachel and Joseph, as representing Jacob’s capacity for love (as well as my own love for my son); ‘I affirm others’. It was this panel that came to mind as Andrew was talking last week.

The second panel I carved was of the sheep, to represent Jacob’s occupation in Society. I had drawn these sheep from an altarpiece in the Victoria and Albert Museum, as being a link with a representation beyond my personal imagination. Once my mind was linking Jacob with Jiyū Shūkyō I paired this one with, “I affirm the corporate society’.

The third panel I carved was of Jacob at Bethel, when he withdrew to an isolated holy place, to a barren place, when he was also in an inner ‘desert’ of knowing he needed personally to change, when he placed himself in the discomforting process of being open to Change. Whereas the wrestling figures are the archetype of Individuation, Jacob at Bethel is for me his struggle to admit his nature and its connection with, what I call, Overarch. This for me translates to  Imaoka’s 1. “I affirm (ta-sha) myself: …Subjectivity, creativity and sociability can also be referred to as personality, divinity and Buddha-nature, respectively.”

For the fourth panel, I wanted to express Jacob’s relationship with the wider World, which for Jacob was his travel to Egypt, where he was reunited with Joseph, whom he thought he had lost. For me, the nuances of this panel incorporate the whole gamut of experiences that we incur in life, and it refers to our relationship with The World, how we move in it, what we expect of it, what we exact from it: how we treat it. For this, my son and I went to the British Museum and we each drew from the frescos in the Egyptian Galleries.

Although this carving is my most primitive in terms of Form, for 54 years it has represented a deep statement of my personal affirmation of what it means to be alive; to find that it links now with Jiyū  Shūkyō is profound for me, connecting me across Centuries and Cultures with another way of experiencing and expressing Meaning.