in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Friday, 11 April 2014

Carl Jung and Christianity

This week I had the pleasure of giving a research paper to my colleagues at St Mary's: 'Carl Jung - Friend or Foe of Christianity'. I first gave this paper to a group of psychologists in Bangalore earlier in the year and after thinking about their comments changed it for St Mary's. As in India, it provoked an interesting discussion - not least scepticism about Jung's project of rediscovering the transcendent... as one colleague suggested - Jung replaced one sort of idolatry (secular materialism) with another (the ego bound psychology). I found myself in the uncommon position of defending Jung and the Jungians! Anyway, I include below the first and last sections of the paper. If you would like to read the whole paper it will be published in Vinayasadhana later this year and some of the material is also found towards the end of my Teresa of Avila - Doctor of the Soul. One thing is for sure, Jung still excites strong passions in academic circles!

Best wishes


Carl Jung: Friend or Foe of Christianity?


Dr Peter Tyler



In his famous 1959 television interview with John Freeman (the only one he gave), Carl Jung was asked if he believed in God. His response, ‘I don’t believe, I know’ has gone down in the annals of psychotherapy as one of the defining moments of analytical psychology’s relationship to religion in general and Christianity in particular. In this short paper I aim to pitch into the tumultuous sea surrounding the relationship between Jung’s analytical psychology and Christianity to see how far we can regard Jung as a ‘believer’ and if so, what sort. In deference to the ongoing nature of this dialogue I have drawn readily upon The Red Book, written by Jung at the height of his psychotic disturbances during the Great War and only recently published (Jung RB 2009)


Jung and the Christian Way

Jung once wrote:


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 to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook. (Jung CW: 11.509  published originally as Die Beziehungen der Psychotherapie zur Seelsorge, Zurich 1932)


In the same work he went so far as to suggest that  anyone he encountered at this stage of development who was experiencing mental crisis and who had had some previous religious formation should be encouraged to return to their religious roots if they were to stand a chance of being mentally healed. Thus, from its beginnings Jungian analytical psychology has preferenced the transcendent and the need for each individual psyche to make friends with the transcendent, for not doing so, warns Jung, will lead to severe psychological problems.

          There is no doubt that there is much in Jung’s writing that is inimical and downright erroneous for a straightforward Christian seeker trying to reconcile her faith with Jungian transpersonal analysis. Yet, despite some of the excesses that are to be found in his work, his map of the soul provides a corrective to the rising tide of materialism that has swamped early twenty-first century culture. As Dueck puts it in his perceptive short book on the relationship between Jung and Christianity,The Living God and Our Living Psyche: What Christians Can Learn from Carl Jung (2008):


Rising through the last several centuries, modernity had reached an apex of its power in the first half of the twentieth century, and its capitulation to science had drained away much of the healing power of Christian practices. Jung sought to recover this vitality. (Ulanov and Dueck 2008:5)


Thus, suggests Dueck, Jung attempted ‘a pastoral attempt to counter the personally debilitating effects of modernity’. His primary concern was healing. Not only the healing of the individual psyche but the healing of the collective psyche. Accordingly, his ‘epistemology is not positivist, but diverse enough to include narrative, dreams, fantasy, propositional truth and ethical pronouncements’ (Dueck 2008:9).


The Creation of the Symbol

As we have seen above many contemporary commentators have found much that is useful in Jung’s approach and he still finds many enthusiastic followers from within Christianity. As I have already stated, in my opinion, one of Jung’s primary concerns, certainly after the expression and style of the Red Book, was to recapture key elements of the style and process of medieval thinking for the (post-) modern reader/seeker. In this respect I feel the most important aspect of Jung presented from this perspective is his revival of the importance of the symbol as an entrĂ© into postmodern discourse.

          In the recovery of the symbolic Jung was not alone. Whilst his own researches into the nature of the symbol were to prove so important, other mid 20th Century ressourcement writers such as Marie-Dominique Chenu (1895 – 1990) had also begun to appreciate the significance of the symbolic for interpreting the medieval mindset. In his perceptive essay on Victorine spirituality Nature, Man and Society in the Twelfth Century (Chenu 1997), Chenu alludes to the role of the symbolic for the medievals as being largely anagogical, i.e. the symbol is the means whereby the heavenly order is reflected in the earthly order:


          Creation was a theophany, a manifestation of God, and symbolism was         the means appropriate to that manifestation; even granting a           dialectical tension between the power of creation to manifest God and     its complete inferiority to God, symbolism revealed nothing less than    God’s transcendence (Chenu 1997:128)


As well as this anagogical element, the symbolic for the medievals was another mode of thought, in contradistinction to, for example, the dialectics of the schools. In this respect, the symbolic for the medievals was not considered another form of logic but a different way of ‘showing’ truth. As Chenu states:


          To bring symbolism into play was not to extend or supplement a         previous act of the reason; it was to give primary expression to a         reality which reason could not attain and which reason, even           afterwards, could not conceptualize. (Chenu 1997:103)[1]


It is therefore apparent how this ‘alternative to logic’ would appeal to the medievalist (or at least contra-modern) Jung. For him the symbol will become the means whereby the ‘meta-rational’ components of the greater ‘Self’/Selbst, will become accessible to the more circumscribed ‘I’/Ich. The symbol, in Jung’s hands will become the linking point between the known ‘I’ and the unknown ‘Self’, thus performing a crucial function in his psychology:


          In practice, opposites can be united only in the form of a compromise,          or irrationally, some new thing arising between them which, although         different from both, yet has the power to take up their energies in     equal measure as an expression of both and of neither. Such an          expression cannot be contrived by reason, it can only be created          through living. (Jung CW: 6.169)


The mediating axis for this process is the symbol:


          The mediating position, between the opposites can be reached only by          the symbol (Jung CW: 6.162)


This symbol will therefore represent ‘something that is not wholly understandable, and that it hints only intuitively at its possible meaning’ (Jung CW6: 171). This function will also be a ‘playful’ function:


Schiller calls the symbol-creating function a third instinct, the play instinct; it bears no resemblance to the two opposing functions, but stands between them and does justice to both natures. (Jung CW: 6.171)


So, the symbolic function is, for Jung:


  • Neither rational or irrational.
  • Playful and creative.
  • Allowing the conscious to grasp the unconscious.
  • A gateway to the Gnostic/Dionysian Jungian god.


Therefore religion, for Jung, becomes the acceptance of the reality of the symbol (Jung CW: 6.202). For him, the symbolic and the religious (whether that is represented by Christianity, Hinduism or Taoism is irrelevant) are coterminous:


The solution of the problem in Faust, in Wagner’s Parsifal, in Schopenhauer, and even in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, is religious (Jung CW: 6.324)


Conclusion: Carl Jung – Friend or Foe of Christianity?

To conclude this paper I know return to my original question: ‘Is Carl Jung a friend or foe of Christianity?’ Well, if we understand Christianity in terms of the doctrines or creeds of Orthodoxy then he is no foe, but rather someone who fails to understand the implications of Orthodox Christianity for an interpretation of the nature of Christ and ultimately of Christian life. If we follow the version of Christianity presented by Jung we are no longer following Orthodoxy but rather a late Gnostic version of Christianity.

Is that such a bad thing?

          In a world almost swallowed up in reductive materialism Jung saw his fundamental task as preserving the spiritual from the ravages of reductive empirical materialism. This he termed the ‘religious outlook to life’ which he felt was fundamental in preserving good mental health (See Jung CW: 11.509). His spiritual life was as much for ‘unbelievers’ as ‘believers’ to the former of which he explicitly claimed to be addressing his writing:


          I am not… addressing myself to the happy possessors of faith, but to those many people for whom the light has gone out, the mystery has     faded, and God is dead. For most of them there is no going back, and     one does not know either whether going back is always the better way.         To gain an understanding of religious matters, probably all that is left         us today is the psychological approach. (Jung CW: 11.148)


In this respect, for Jung all religions are equal. None has the monopoly on the ‘cure of souls’:


          Yes, I agree, the Buddha may be just as right as Jesus. Sin is only       relative and it is difficult to see how we can feel ourselves in any way       redeemed by the death of Christ. (Jung CW: 11.518)


As with his views on god/God, Jung betrays his theological naivety. He does not seem to understand that, for example, Christianity and Buddhism have fundamentally mutually exclusive views on the metaphysics of human salvation. Be that as it may, if we see reductive materialism as the enemy of Christianity then on the theory that an enemy’s enemy is a friend, Jung therefore belongs on the side of the angels and a guardian of Christianity in a world that has rapidly become a stranger to the spiritual – or at least the ability to express that spiritual life in a comprehensible language. In Seelsorge, for example, he is quite bullish about the rights of the clergy to trespass on to the realm of the materialist psychologist:


          I therefore hold that psychological interest on the part of the     Protestant clergy is entirely legitimate and even necessary. Their   possible encroachment upon medical territory is more than balanced by           medical incursions into religion and philosophy, to which doctors          naively believe themselves entitled (witness the explanation of religious         processes in terms of sexual symptoms or infantile wish-fantasies).     (Jung CW: 11.548)[2]


There is no doubt that Jung’s transpersonal psychological language has given a means for a whole generation to communicate its unease with the astringent materialism of our time. For this, perhaps, Christianity owes him a debt. Although we might want to baulk at awarding him the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ he certainly deserves the title ‘Defender of Faith’. White recognised this when he saw that Jung was a prophet warning against a collapse of the Western psyche brought about by one-sided materialism. In the opening of his ‘God and the Unconscious’ he quotes with approval Jung’s words from ‘Psychological Types’:


          Our age has a blindness without parallel. We think we have only to      declare an acknowledged form of faith to be incorrect or invalid, to          become psychologically free of all the traditional effects of the Christian        or Judaic religion. We believe in enlightenment, as if an intellectual        change of opinion had somehow a deeper influence on emotional          processes or indeed upon the unconscious! We entirely forget that the         religion of the last two thousand years is a psychological attitude,        definite form of adaptation to inner and outer experience, which   moulds a definite form of civilization; it has therefore created an      atmosphere that remains wholly uninfluenced by any intellectual           disavowal. (Jung CW: 6.313)


Jung’s critique was as much a critique of Christian culture and mindset as it was of Christianity itself. For him, the ‘Christian mindset’ still continued to mould and shape our everyday realities, even in the 21st century, perhaps more than we would care to admit:


Everything we think is the fruit of the Middle Ages and indeed of the Christian Middle Ages. Our whole science, everything that passes through our head, has inevitably gone through this history. The latter lives in us and has left its stamp upon us for all time and will always form a vital layer of our psyche, just like any phylogenetic traces in our body… The Christian Weltanschauung is therefore a psychological fact which does not allow of any further rationalization; it is something which has happened, which is present. (White 1960:67 quoting an address by Jung given in 1934)


Jung’s analysis of the individual, of religions such as Christianity and ultimately of Western Cultural Patterns emphasises the need for a correction. Or as he calls it an ‘enantiodromia’ – a new openness to the transcendental and a balance to the hard ossification that has clearly happened on both sides of the religion/materialist divide over the past century. His psychology, with all its ambiguity and slipperiness, does offer an alternative for the psyche to breathe and rearrange itself in a time of change and realignment of priorities. Jung seems to say that religion may choose to stay on the sidelines of that realignment, but no-one, least of all the psychologists, will in the long term thank it for its self-immolation.[3]




[1] See, for example, Hugh of St Victor: ‘Symbolum, collatio videlicet, id est coaptatio visibilium formarum ad demonstrationem rei invisiblis propositarum’ /‘A symbol is a juxtaposition, that is a gathering together of visible forms in order to demonstrate invisible things’
Hugh of St Victor ‘On the Celestial Hierarchy’iii. PL CLXXV 960D.
[2] We can also perhaps hear here a gentle criticism of Freud’s ‘explanation’ of religion.
[3] As he says in Jung CW: 12.17: ‘Psychology thus does just the opposite of what it is accused of: it provides possible approaches to a better understanding of these things, it opens people’s eyes to the real meaning of dogmas, and , far from destroying , it throws open an empty house to new inhabitants.’



  1. Thank you for a necessary discussion. . . I am seeking a quote from Jung to the effect that "Christianity is an adult religion, with themes not meant for children." Any leads?

  2. Dear Neall, I'm afraid it doesn't ring any bells but I will ask around my Jungian friends and get back to you.

    best wishes