Introduction: Last winter I participated in a discussion seminar of the work of Carl Jung. As my contribution to that seminar I engaged in a study of the work of Jung pertaining to religion. This is the text of the culmination of that study.
How to begin this discussion has been a quandary for me. I have found that studying Jung and the role of “religion” in his writings has been very much like standing under a waterfall, attempting to catch, and briefly divert small portions of the deluge, in my hands for examination; then hoping that perhaps the portions I have managed to carve out through so random a process include some points which are at least of some significance. First, it seems to me that Jung’s scholarship is damned near universal. His academic work spans the fields of Eastern and Western philosophy, theology, alchemy, astrology, sociology, literature, and the arts, yet he continually protests in his writing, that he is a physician and a practicing clinician, not a theologian, philosopher, man of letters, etc. It is evident that this is false modesty. His work demonstrates he is erudite in all of these fields besides being a great genius of psychiatry. One is left with the feeling that perhaps he has perspectives of life which are vast and insightful, but that he is mercifully judicious dispensing them to us, in the interest of not overwhelming us, yet too, there is not evidence of his being arrogant, so much as of his exercising sensitivity to not raise hackles or defensive reactionary responses by presuming too much of us, and of our potential to understand him.
At the outset I want to state plainly, since so much of Jungian thought is not simple and direct, that my piece about it is not that either. Since my twenties I have been quite taken with a thought that is stimulated by some writings of H. L. Mencken, which purport that for great problems which are complex, dynamic, vexing, convoluted, difficult, and critically important, there are answers, which are simple, straight forward, direct, and WRONG! No, Jung is not simplistic. If one seeks this sort of intellectual “cushy-ness” they might perhaps prefer to study B. F. Skinner, and eschew the vagaries of Carl Jung. If one is interested in efficiently training rats to perform whatever sort of function is deemed useful or desirable, Skinnerian psychology is quite superior and very simple, direct, and tangible. It is equally effective in rendering humans “Beyond Freedom and Dignity.” If one is intrigued by human growth and development, the need to tolerate the intellectual ambiguity of Jung’s works and his complex thought, the vexing but stimulating imprecision of symbolic language, and abstract thought, are prerequisite. Having stated this plainly, I will likely not be so plain again in this piece. If you seek simplicity and directness, you might as well forgo all hope now, and resign yourself to texting on your smartphone. This topic and body of thought does not lend itself to that sort of simplicity.
Jung and religion is the topic. As always first we must define terms. “Jung” is Carl Gustav Jung, July 26, 1875 to June 6, 1961. He was Swiss, the son of a Pastor in the Swiss Reformed (Protestant) church. He founded one of the earlier schools of neo-freudian psychology, Analytical Psychology, which reacted to the seminal work of Sigmund Freud, in examining the workings of the human mind. Key to his work as has been repeated many times earlier in this discussion seminar are the unconscious and its relationship to the ego and consciousness, the collective unconscious, archetypes, individuation, and yes, certainly not least, Religion. Jung revolutionized psychology with his amazingly insightful thought, analysis, and reasoning which stretched empirical and metaphysical reality to cease to be artificially separated into fictitiously opposed camps, when reality is in fact wholly holy.
Religion in this discussion is Jung’s view of religion. Separating Jung’s concept of religion from Jungian thought would be like attempting to extract sexuality from marriage, or politics from governance. Yet his use of the term religion is not equivalent to the way it is generally used by most of us. This is not because he is a religious zealot in terms of radical obsessive belief, but rather because he relies on what “he knows.” Jung is an empiricist. He does not rely on belief. By way of delimitation in defining religion Jung states:
“I want to make clear that by the term “religion” I do not mean a creed. It is, however, true that every creed is originally based on the one hand upon the experience of the numinosum (the divine) and pistis (faith), that is to say, trust of loyalty, faith and confidence in a certain experience of a numinous nature and in the change of consciousness that ensues…….We might say, then, that the term “religion” designates the attitude peculiar to a consciousness which has been changed by experience of the numinosum.”
Experience is a crucial concept in this statement and in understanding Jung’s view of religion. When asked two years before his death if he believed in God, he first queried his interviewer “now?” When the interviewer answered essentially, yes, now, he said,: “I do not believe, I know….” Jung was an empiricist. His basis was not faith. It was knowledge based on experience of the numinous….that is the divine.
We have seen repeatedly that Jung relies on archetypes, i.e., symbols that interpret the subconscious into consciousness where they may be experienced. To Jung archetypes are numinous. Numinous is a term I have come to define for myself as meaning having the luminousness of the divine. Thus, the basis of religion in Jungian thought is experience of aspects of existence which are numinous, and not belief.
Jung’s theories are replete with a never-ending tension between paradoxically opposed seemingly mutually exclusive forces and concepts. In a tract on creativity, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of Kubla Kahn, reputed to be the greatest work in English literature, posits that (paraphrase) the essence of creativity is the reconciliation of opposites. As extensive as Jung’s scholarship is, I find myself imagining, certainly hoping, he read this. (I am not alone in thinking that Kubla Kahn is potentially a metaphorical road map to individuation)
Jung did not discuss religion as we most often do in contemporary thought. His use of “religion” was not code for Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Greek Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Scientology, Assembly of God, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, etc. Jung said, “A dogma is the very thing that precludes immediate experience...Dogma is like a dream, reflecting spontaneous and autonomous activity of the objective psyche, the unconscious. Such an expression of the unconscious is a much more immediate defense against further immediate experiences than any scientific theory.” With their rites and rituals, recitation of creeds and elaborate protocols, organized religions do very well in “defending” their followers from any sort of confrontation with the numen. This may make for docile easily-controlled parishioners, but also precludes any personal experience of the divine.
Probably one of the most classic Jungian quotations is, “Among all my patients in the second half of life--that is to say, over thirty-five--there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.” This of course has nothing whatever to do with a particular creed or membership in a church.
Religion was obviously seminal to Jung’s view of psychology. Jung’s divergence from Freud was in major part about this issue. Freud was an atheist who viewed religion as an illusion and inherently neurotic. Jung believed that the religious impulse was inherently human and rooted in our DNA as was God, and that God, or the numinous, is made realizable and experiential, when it is communicated to the ego through appreciating the symbolization of archetypes.
Jung had great concerns for the state of modern humanity. He felt we lived in an environment which had “....stripped all things of their mystery and numinosity; nothing is holy any longer.” (Clift) Jung’s solution to the emptiness of modern life is spiritual. Jung’s solution to the emptiness of modern life is not money or stuff, or beauty. It is religion as he defines it. That is why it is so crucial to understand Jung’s use of the term “religion” and its contrast from accepted colloquial connotations of that word.
Jung had great concern for our culture’s religion, the religion of sects, and creeds, and churches, and religious institutions, relying on the belief of their faithful. In the final paragraph of his book Jung and Christianity: The challenge of Reconciliation by Wallace Clift, Clift recounts Jung’s saying “We are still looking back to the pentecostal events in a dazed way instead of looking forward to the goal the Spirit is leading us to.” Clift then goes on to explain, “That was his vision, his hope. The future of Christianity, as he saw it, lies in the realization of the Christ within each person…..The Christ experience is in his psychological language, the encounter with the self. Christ and God in his view are not omnipotent beings who have created and run everything. Nor is his thought that each of us is making of ourselves a god, but realizing that within each person lies the potential of responding to God by bringing that encounter into consciousness. The challenge for Christianity lies in its opportunity to provide us with the framework of symbolic meaning within which we can carry out our task. It was Jung’s (almost despairing) hope that the Christian community would take up this challenge.”
Jung took the position that as a psychologist he would speak only about matters affecting the psyche. He found that some of his patients, when they pursued the path of individuation encountered a symbol of totality that could only be compared to the religious experiences of mankind the world over and throughout history. Jung spoke of this as the “God-image” in man. It was like an imprint on the psyche, but as to the nature of the imprinter Jung felt he could “only respond as Job did and place his hand over his mouth.” Moreover he posited, “It is uncommonly difficult for our consciousness to construct intellectual models which would give graphic models of the description of reality we have perceived.” Thus we need symbols, universal timeless symbols, archetypes to do this for us. In the conscious appreciation of archetypes (which are inherently numinous) we convert information from our unconscious and our collective unconscious to consciousness in terms our conscious mind and our ego can manage and grasp…...religion in Jungian terms.
There is so much of the waterfall of Jungian religious thought that has rushed by me and parts that I have wanted to emphasize in this discussion that I am now not succeeding in bringing to my own egoic conscious efforts to contrive what to say about this. I do find that often conceptualizing Jung in these areas is energy taxing….literally tiring.
I was particularly impressed with a relatively minor side light of Jung’s perspective of whether there is an afterlife by which the soul might survive death. Head and Cranston in their book Reincarnation, The Phoenix Fire Mystery share a letter between Jung and a friend of his named Miguel Serrano “After presenting evidence to suggest that the mind could act independently of the brain, he said, ‘There are other phenomena which can support this hypothesis. You know, of course, that a small child has no clearly defined sense of the Ego….Nevertheless, it has been proven that small children have dreams in which the Ego is clearly defined, just as it is in mature people. In these dreams the child has a clear sense of the persona. If the child has no Ego, what is it in the child which produces these dreams, dreams which, I may add, affect him for the rest of his life? If the Ego disappears at death, does that other Ego also disappear, that other which has sent him dreams as a child?”
For me I am definitely in the passage of the afternoon of my life. I have been on a life long spiritual quest which has been far reaching and at times turbulent, has involved many twists which have been traditional and others quite beyond the norm. It has come to involve a good bit of study of religious history which has convinced me that much of what I have been taught of Christian scripture,creed, and dogma is what historians and theologians politely refer to as extra-historicitous, i. e., they are made up, myths, or jf valenced with a negative spin, lies. I have responded with a great deal of disillusionment that is not unlike that of a child who learns that his most beloved Santa Claus is not tangibly real and mourns that loss. I too, as does Jung, am very taken with Aristotelian logical, scientific, empirical reasoning. It is the greatest tool for manipulating our environment that man has come to. Too I have come to believe that with all its benefits science comes to us with the curse of what some have called the tyranny of the prefrontal cortex: that only the things we can see, and quantify, and prove, and measure, and feel with a physical sense matter and all else is simply delusion. It does leave one bereft of much joy and purpose…..or at least it has me. That God or whatever it is we want to call this aspect of us can in fact be an imprint on our psyche that is”hard wired” into us from the start whenever it is that start may be, perhaps not even limited to the beginning of our physical existence has given me new life and perspective. I am very glad to have pursued this study and I feel certain it is only the beginning for me of something I will pursue enthusiastically into the future. I have adopted the phrase ego hereticus sum to summarize to myself my new perspective arising from this thought process.
One of these last seemingly confusing Jung quotations that I have encountered in this study is something that is going to be an area of learning I am going to try to bring to fruition in my own life.
“The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life. That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ -- all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself -- that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness -- that I myself am the enemy who must be loved -- what then? As a rule, the Christian's attitude is then reversed; there is no longer any question of love or long-suffering; we say to the brother within us "Raca," and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide it from the world; we refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves.”
The greatest challenge for me in having graphically encountered my shadow, is to extend myself some of the compassion I am able to lavish on others.
Thank you for your attention. I hope I have been able to provide at least some superficial sense of Jung and Religion.