How great Thou art

Reflections on the relationship between a word and its consequence

by Maxwell Steer ©1996

In my period as a conventional Christian I never found traditional religious language particularly helpful. We were exhorted to pray to an entity whom we addressed as 'thou', but tho I occasionally made contact with a 'thou-ness' of lightning clarity for the most part my endeavours were only intermittently rewarded with any sense of contact with a reality beyond the reach of language.

If you look on parts of speech not merely as grammar but as a metaphor of human awareness some interesting observations emerge. Today we have entirely dropped the distinction between the second person singular, thee or thou, and the second person plural, you. In other words we no longer make any conceptual distinction between the intimacy of a thee-relationship and broader social you-relationships.

This has been a long social evolution and the psychology it reveals forms an comment on the dynamics within protestant thought-forms. During the English Revolution Quakers' insistence on their right to address anyone as thee was a statement of radical egalitarianism. They were insisting that the right to create a personal relationship did not rest with a social superior (as remains the case in languages where the second person singular is still used). This assertion of the primacy of the individual is in line with protestant belief that all human relationships should reflect the unmediated communication which individuals sought with their 'maker'.

Tho the torch of libertarian democracy which illuminated the English Revolution was extinguished by the Restoration of the Monarchy, it accompanied the religious emigrants to North America where the puritan ethic of revolutionary egalitarianism eventually created a United States of (theoretical) equals. Ironically it was the very success of the revolutionary movement, in which the continuing radicalism of Quaker attitudes emanating from the State of Philadelphia were highly influential, that led to the increasing irrelevance of the social protest represented by Quakers' insistence on thee-forms and 'hat honour', an organised refusal to display deference to social superiors by removing headgear.


During the 19thC a very interesting ambivalence emerges towards thee/you. Except for the deliberate archaism of hymnody and some poetry thee-forms are conspicuous by their scarcity in 'modern' writers of the mid 19thC onwards particularly those, like Dickens, whose sympathies lay with radicalism. Altho I can produce no documentary evidence to support the idea that the progressive eclipse of the second person singular was accelerated by the demotic market of early (printed) mass communications I shall suggest in this disquisition that the psychology of mass marketing functions by emphasising the we-you dynamic at the expense of the I-thou. If I am right then it would be characteristic of the evolution of such a socio-economic phenomenon that its early manifestations would be somewhat fitful. Arguably the vogue for popular fiction in the 19thC arose because for the first time in the history of the world emerging technology and transportation systems enabled a mass-produced cultural 'product' to both create and satisfy its own demand without, initially, anyone really understanding how - exactly as cinema did some 60 years later.

The pop historian Ian Whitcomb identifies the 1892 song After The Ball Was Over as the first cultural artefact to become a true international hit in the sense that we understand it today as a result of the systematic application of mass-marketing techniques.

Now what is it that mass-marketing techniques seek to do except to manipulate popular awareness into perceiving a certain product or procedure or behaviour-pattern as a norm? Mass-market advertising is essentially 'style advertising'. It works by repeating a phrase or image until it is subconsciously 'norm-alised' by the public as 'a matter of fact' - Hoover, Barclaycard, Fridg(-idaire) and Guinness are just a few examples of proprietory products which have been mass marketed as generic descriptions. Such techniques are used by the financial industry, in conjunction with negative persuaders, to normalise the idea of investment, home ownership and the use of credit cards. To record companies consideration of potential artistes now centres as much on image (marketability in relation to a target social group) as on musical talent.

In advertising, the successful creation of a norm involves identifying both the lowest common (emotional) denominator and also highest common (need) factor. In her book Number & Time the psychoanalyst Marie-Louise von Franz draws attention to the philosophical incongruity of statistics, where what is statistically true remains 'true' despite often being literally true in significantly less than 100% of cases. Riding this volatile paradox lies at the heart of successful mass communications, whether advertising, television, pop or politics.

Therefore, plainly, mass-marketing techniques are necessarily based on maximising the we-you axis, of drawing people into a (often spurious) common identity. In fact the more certain consumerist assumptions can be normalised (eg the possession of a car, domestic appliances, audio-visual equipment) the easier, if more competitive, advertising an individual product becomes.


In this cultural environment the response of minorities is irrelevant. We see this principle very clearly in such forms as mass marketed artefacts where the personal response, the I-thou-ness of a unique work of art, is statistically insignificant beside the emotional we-you-ness of collective participation in a mass(-marketed) experience. For instance Pavarotti regularly now performs to more people in a single telecast than Caruso did in his entire lifetime.

Because the process of mass-market manipulation occurs below the threshold of consciousness it is always unpredictable but when a connection is made can be tremendously powerful. The fact that the phenomenon, which in entertainment would be called a hit, is context-specific and emotionally transient masks its connections to the profounder levels of experience which constitute the emotional bedrock of aesthetics (ie what has been found over time to produce emotionally fulfilling cultural experiences).

This abandonment of thou-ness has had a devastating effect on the significance of the individual. The degree of submission to collective mores demanded by contemporary society is probably not greater than in previous ages but because it is now on an immense and impersonal scale its effect is to remove decision-making from all but a technocratic class. Any appearance of manipulation is cleverly minimised by the marketeers' anticipation of the viewpoints of that sector of the community (market) they are addressing - from the female teen's obsession with fashion to the 'mature' male's acquisition of technology he never fully understands! Ultimately elections are won or lost by the credibility with which parties or candidates can project themselves as embodying the anticipated viewpoint of the majority.

People submit to what they know to be manipulation partly because they feel they have no option - try not adding an extra 1 to your telephone dialling and see how many connections you get! Partly because of the power of the electronic priesthood, who understand very clearly what their masters require of them. And partly because the very decline of any personal identity other than as a socio-economic unit is eroding the emotional basis of common experience.

These factors, coupled with the increasingly clever packaging of unwanted information (info-tainment), produce in individuals a feeling of increasing bewilderment and personal disempowerment. It is this increasing alienation from any I-thou-ness in their emotional world that is leading people not only to turn their backs on all collective social activity, other than appetite-directed pursuits, but ultimately to the inability of large numbers of people to connect with each other even in intimate personal relationships, that is to identify the deeper thou in the person whom they've chosen to partner. And here the transatlantic 'special relationship' echoes with the cries of young lives blighted by burgeoning divorce rates.


The murderous history of the 20thC '-isms' has been a record of political adventurers wakening the Kraken-force of the populace for their own ends, and more often than not themselves ending up as its final victim. In 1938 Jung wrote 'If dull people lose the idea of God nothing happens ... But socially the masses begin to breed mental epidemics, of which we now have a fair number.'

As a child of the electronic age, organised religion has little attraction for me. I find formalised God-language intriguing as a living museum of psychological fossils, but of little relevance. To discuss the external projections of the ego in the language of feudalism is positively quaint when the psycho-analytic movement has so clearly demonstrated how the conflict between light and dark occurs principally within our own consciousness.

For instance to say that God is (or is not) dead is pure semantics - what may generally be perceived as being 'dead' or 'alive' is the speaker's own I connection to some sense of an ultimate thou, of an intimacy with -or estrangement from- hir own non-verbal or right-brain world. (In a recent Guardian article Myra Hindley mentioned that her murderous consort Ian Brady was quite certain God 'could not exist', ie, that he, Brady, had never had an experience of connectedness with his inner world - a factor which could be seen as related to his Sadean destruction of children who, of course, most closely embodied the quality he 'couldn't' experience.)

In the same passage of Jung I quoted earlier he says of Nietzsche 'For such a [powerful thinker] it seems to be dangerous to make the statement that God is dead. He becomes instantly a victim of [mental] 'inflation' since the idea of God represents [such] an important, even overwhelming psychical intensity [that] one single person could not carry the total amount of energy.' 'The result was that Nietzsche himself split and he felt himself forced to call the other self 'Zarathustra' or at other times 'Dyonisos'.'

At the opposite end of the spectrum, where 'the masses begin to breed mental epidemics', the crippling absence of an inner vision so characteristic of young city-dwellers is itself experienced as a deadness, and this self-alienation or moral vacuum is projected onto what had been thought of as (for want of a better word) God - from which relief is urgently sought in self-destructive or anti-social behaviour. This absence of moral depth to many people's lives is admirably expressed in the following metaphor: A phenomenon has been observed in retinas of pilots during flight in which, when no three-dimensional object is visible outside the cockpit the pilot has the impression that s/he can see to infinity. However, scientific observation of the retina has shown that the vision defaults to about 4 metres. This seems to me to match the psychology of a life lived without reference that 'overwhelming psychical intensity' which traditional langauge characterises as God.

Responding to the moral vacuum of conventional society many people simply drop out either by deliberate choice or they 'retire hurt' by force of economic circumstance. In the US the bewilderment felt by a proletariat unable to articulate or validate its individuality in opposition to corporate politics has led to the Una-bomber and the Oklahoma tragedy, symbolically at the very heart of the continent.

Ever since the emergence of the mass market religious preachers and radical politicians have, with intermittent success, sought to animate the populace to take control of their own destinies. But the underlying psychological analyses have tended to be shallow, and the solution most frequently offered involves the comforting but absurd idea of returning to some mythic past. In Britain a Government which claims 'Conservative' values has been at the forefront of their destruction.

It is this government too who have chosen to throw wide the Pandora's box of increased broadcasting. (It is apparently desirable to be at the mercy of markets which you claim not to be able to control!) During the prosperous post-war years Western politicians have employed the cynicism of a bread and circuses attitude to public morality, while the spectre of alien hordes from the East has been employed periodically to terrify the torpid populace. In realpolitik as in mass market communications it is not what is true that counts, it is what is believed to be true.


Herein lies the true source of corruption by which a Murdoch-led media colludes with governments. The average person knows this source of news to be polluted but because they have no means to challenge the picture it offers and because the hook is cleverly baited -the National Lottery being the latest- they swallow it hook, line and sinker.

Within the tabloidisation of the media the traditional distinction between I and thou of European manners, exemplified in the one-time BBC norm of addressing interviewees by their honorific (Mr X, Miss Y, Mrs Z) has completely gone. Today such formality is retained only in political interviewing - interestingly here, you will observe, any familiarities are generally initiated by the politician as a stratagem to deflect the interviewer from adversarial questioning by implying equality with -ie membership of- the electronic priesthood. Ironically the American practice (I nearly wrote practise) of using first names is now de rigeur in broadcasting not, I would suggest, because any intimacy exists but because of the marketing need to create the illusion of an us awareness as opposed to the I-thou formality of clearly demarcated individuals. (The BBC is every bit as preoccupied as the commercial stations with 'branding' its networks.)

Now what is remarkable about this absorption of the singular thou within the plural you is that it is a corruption of the apparent intention of protestantism, which is actually to emphasise the thou at the expense of the plural you. Namely that the subjectivity of my thou experience (my sense of 'salvation' or other) takes precedence of everything else.

When these two contradictory applications of the protestant spirit were directly linked, as they were by Mrs Thatcher, they create the conditions for exactly the kind of social schizophrenia we are now witnessing. The argument that there is 'no such thing as society, only families,' is an argument that fails on its own terms - for who can say where a family stops? All the consanguinity in the world is of no avail if individual members lose their 'sense of family'. I am seeking to argue that it is the morally destructive aspects of consumerism which are themselves the cause of a reduction of any sense of a collective family (AKA society) which in turn has placed such unnatural pressure on the nuclear family that even primal genetic instincts -the nurture of the young- can no longer withstand the disintegrative implications of New Right attitudes.

The emergence of a language of mass marketing and communications has blurred people's personal moral certainties because the individual no longer feels certain whether what s/he experiences as subjective truth will be validated as phenomenologically true in the 'collective-subjectivity' of others. Without that link which validation creates the thinker is imprisoned as-it-were in the air bubble of hir own thought.

History contains numerous examples of parallel realities coexisting peacefully when neither is aware of the other. (Eg, religions or musical idioms separated by geography.) Sadly however whenever these parallel realities are brought into juxtaposition, proponents frequently come into conflict because the monotheism of post-Judaic culture encourages the belief that there can only be a single reality. Moreover since to date language is still based on a two-dimensional subject-object perception it discourages us from accepting that there can be parallel realities &/or exploring how they can be made to interact.

Accordingly individuals who cannot communicate their inner reality find the validity of their experience placed in opposition to collective experience. In extreme cases this challenge to the individual's sense of self-worth is, quite literally, fatal.


At the top of this piece I spoke of the evolution of my own views. I have spent much of my working life within broadcasting where I have had ample opportunity to observe the processes of which I speak, altho it has taken me a long time to analyse them to my own satisfaction.

Ironically this whole disquisition started as a simple introduction to a reworking of The Lord's Prayer in psychologically-aware language which follows at the end. The wide range of the issues I've raised may alienate those who would prefer they be kept separate: but it's precisely by keeping them separate that the (political) trick is turned, and the conformist mass of individuals is kept from connecting together thought-forms which might empower their individuality.

The most profound alteration to my own consciousness occurred not through the speech and thoughts of others but within silence. In 1983, on an impulse, I attended a Quaker Meeting For Worship. Since then I have come find within that compassionate silence a communion which embraces both beliefs and non-beliefs since it evaluates meaning without language and thereby transcends both time and the limits of (rational) consciousness.

It is at those limits -which each act of meditation by no means always reaches- that one encounters an experience whom one cognises initially merely as an otherness, a not-I, but which with persistence ultimately assumes the distinct characteristics of a thou - paradoxically, that has the effect of mirroring back I to me in a way that clarifies and distinguishes that I from the larger we.

Often I meditate on The Lord's Prayer which like the greatest poetry transcends the shackles of language, time or place. As countless millions have found the thoughts it embodies have a mantra-like power to expand our moral vision. Now when I hear it gabbled through in a religious service I reflect that it must have taken a particularly malign genius to evolve a situation where some of the sublimest thoughts ever recorded are repeated in a way that guarantees that the inner consciousness cannot absorb them, and indeed which positively innoculates the gabblers against ever engaging with their true meaning.

Turning each phrase in my mind I have found it increasingly possible to detach the ancient husk of language from what I take to be the ear of meaning as it might be expressed in contemporary language. I therefore offer these thoughts not in any sense as a replacement for the traditional words, but as a commentary on them. I've tried to minimise the psycho-speak but I unashamedly repudiate the dualistic notion that the I who worships and the thou who is worshipped are at some fundamental level separate. It seems to me that all we can know of knowledge is our perception of it. Therefore that perception is always valuable if it is authentic (ie thought-through and tested experientially) but where that perception actually acquires force is in the degree to which it synchronises with the archetypes of a perennial wisdom expressed in the essence of each religion.


If there is, outside our awareness of collective thought, any ontological reality to the existence of an animating spirit then by its nature we can never have an adequate or single vocabulary for it. However within our own psychology we can reconcile the idea that what lies at the centre of our own being might in reality be the very qualities which we call God-like. For in that union of I -'the kingdom', integrity- with thou -'the power', creative potency- is formed the third person, the s/he, as teacher/healer - 'the glory' or (holy) spirit.

Our deepest self-knowledge
which is within us 'all that is holy' -
teach us to respect this our true nature.

May this awareness grow within us
and become as clear in our daily life
as it is in times of exceptional revelation.

Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our offences as we forgive those who offend us.

Let our inner-life-dynamic be released from the need to suffer
and deliver us from our own and others' unresolved compulsions.

For by integrating the many levels of consciousness we achieve true self-awareness, the power to manifest, and personal fulfilment
in ways that exceed the limitations of physical existence.

So I affirm.

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