This week, when I stopped at the library, I checked out Psychology and Religion by C. G. Jung. It is a short volume based on 1937 Terry Lectures presented at Yale.
I am nearly at the end of the book, and I am compelled to write about my impressions. It has provided me one of the most profound religious epiphanies, since the day I recognized god was a metaphor.
Jung has offered me a new perspective on an old mystery. While I can see in my past observations on religion that I have touched on similar ideas, I believe that my own observations only rippled across the surface, while Jung has gone down to fathoms I never imagined.
If I had to sum up Psychology and Religion, I would say that it is a message of bridging the gap between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Jung’s observations and speculations in this text, to a large degree, have since been fleshed out in neuroscientific research in a way that left me feeling that Jung’s intuitions were nearly prophetic.
At a time when Jung had to honestly write, “the unconscious mind [was] a mere assumption for the sake of convenience,” he was still comfortable assuming its existence.
Jung was unable to understand “who” was producing dreams, if not an unconscious aspect of human psyche. Dreams flow from our heads in unconscious states, with stories and images that are sometimes incredibly foreign to our conscious life. Physics is defied. We are surprised by plot changes. Dreams appear to be consciously observed content from something in our heads that is not consciously controlled or initiated. Something that is “me”—but that cannot be “me,” if “I” am conscious ego.
Jung found it beneficial to differentiate the conscious “me” (ego) from the subconscious entity for the purposes not only of examination, but also in working with his patients on a practical level. He used the term “self” to described the bundled package of all mind—conscious or otherwise. He used “I,” and variants of “I,” to represent ego. The subconscious aspects, then, are not what I consider to be “me,” but are still part of my “self,” according to Jung.
He admitted openly he had no idea what the subconscious was, exactly why it existed, or how it worked. “In reality I am totally unconscious of—in other words, I do not know at all—where [a voice in a dream] originates. I am not only incapable of producing the phenomena at will but I am also unable to anticipate the mental contents of [the voice]. Under such conditions it would be presumptuous to call the factor which produces the voice my mind…the fact that you perceive the voice in your dream proves nothing at all, for you can also hear the noises in the street, which you would not explain as your own.
“There is only one condition under which you might legitimately call the voice your own, namely, when you assume your conscious personality to be a part of a whole or to be a smaller circle contained in a bigger one.”
Jung’s assumption then was “human personality consists of two things: first, of consciousness and whatever this covers, and second, of an indefinitely large hinterland of unconscious psyche.” The problem for Jung was that he had no method to define the second aspect—or even to support its existence beyond his interpretations of his indirect observations. In Jung’s mind, there were only two choices: Dreams come from some unconscious aspect of our own minds, or they are put into our heads from an external source (such as the car noise). Since the human brain is a known mechanism for producing conscious thoughts and images in our heads, Jung saw no reason to look further for a source of the unconscious messages. To Jung, it was a safe assumption that whether we were aware of it or not, part of our self seemed capable of generating mental function that was, in an abstract way, detectible to our conscious minds.
Jung also expresses a keen awareness of what was known and what was conjecture. “If asked I shall surely stand by my convictions which do not go further than what I consider to be my actual knowledge. I am convinced of what I know. Everything else is hypothesis and beyond that I can leave a lot of things to the Unknown. They do not bother me. But they would begin to bother me, I am sure, if I felt that I ought to know something about them.” The context of this quote is in a discussion about religion, and specifically this passage follows directly a note dealing with religiously minded patients.
How familiar is this? How often do online apologists express, “If god didn’t make the world—then how did it get here? You don’t know!” To grasp tightly to a myth, no matter how true or untrue, how verified or unverified—is better than not knowing to these individuals. Religion presses us, then, to be uncomfortable with not knowing—uncomfortable to the point of embracing any explanation, no matter how fantastic.
If a patient had deep religious beliefs, Jung indicated he would not challenge them. He would work as a professional psychologist within the world constructed by the patient’s mind. In fact, he expresses that it is futile to attempt to do otherwise. “As long as such a defense works I shall not break it down, since I know that there must be powerful reasons why the patient has to think in such a narrow circle.”
I have admired the work inspired by Jung for some time. But I have also heard on many occasions that he was involved in a lot of woo. In reading this book, I find myself pleasantly surprised, then, by passages like this, “It would be a regrettable mistake if anybody should understand my observations to be a kind of proof of the existence of God. They prove only the existence of an archetypal image of the Deity, which to my mind is the most we can assert psychologically about God.” In other words, as far as Jung can tell, god exists as an idea.
Jung spends a considerable amount of real estate in the book to cover symbolic aspects of the number four in religious contexts. This ties into a particular case study he uses to illustrate many of his points. At first, I was completely dubious of this discussion. His client dreams of religious imagery that ties into the number four quite often. Jung provides examples of how the number four is used in the religion of the patient, who was raised Catholic, but who would have no more knowledge of ancient church writings than any layperson. Why would some Christian script from a millennia ago, talking about four, be significant? But, after reading further, I began to recognize that Jung is only looking to see if symbols, similar to those his patient is producing, subconsciously in a religious context, have been recorded by others with a similar religious context.
This ties into Jung’s idea of a Collective Unconscious, also known as the Objective Psyche. Jung differentiated between a personal unconscious and a collective unconscious. There are some experiences that impact us that are directly connected to the greater human experience. There are other experiences that impact us that are unique to us as individuals. When it comes to people, part of us is uniquely individual, and part of us is common to all humans. This is as true of human beings physically as it is mentally. Collective unconscious is that part of the unconscious mind that results from simply being a human animal, and not from individual, subjective experience or interpretation. There have been misguided attempts to promote this idea as some sort of “woo.” But it does not, for example, embody the idea that I can “remember” experiences of my great-great-grandmother. It means only that certain psychological aspects of my being are the result of my inescapable human aspects. And I necessarily share those aspects with other humans.
This is why Jung felt a need to examine antiquity to see if other Catholics shared the religious symbolism his patient’s subconscious mind was repeatedly thrusting into his dreams. Because Catholics share the same symbolic history in the context of similar religious upbringing, perhaps deciphering these symbols in the context of the patient’s familiar religion would help to flesh out whatever the subconscious was trying to relate to the conscious mind in the patient’s dreams.
Like Freud, Jung agreed that repression results in neurotic manifestations in the patient’s conscious existence. But he also felt that the unconscious/conscious divide exists for a reason. He held to a very evolutionary standpoint that because the divide exists, it must serve a purpose. And if there is benefit to evolving with an unconscious mind, then it would be “normal for a man to resist…the unconscious with all those tendencies and contents hitherto excluded from conscious life. They were excluded for a number of real and apparent reasons. Some are suppressed and some are repressed.” In other words, if the unconscious mind serves us, it makes sense that we would have an intuitive aversion to bringing it to our conscious awareness.
To Jung, our unconscious impulses, if left unchecked by the conscious ego, yield unhappy results. He uses mob mentality as an example of unsuppressed impulsive action and why it can be dangerous. All of us, he points out, to some degree suppress unconscious impulses that arise. This ties in with neuroscience (especially Crick and Koch), which has since illustrated that at least one function of conscious mind is to evaluate an act upon (or refuse to act upon) unconscious impulses that arise in a very mysterious fashion.
Suppression, Jung defines as a healthy, conscious inhibitor—a choice to not express an impulse. Repression, on the other hand is an unconscious or semi-conscious inhibition of an impulse. Jung expressed that from what he could tell, the conscious mind was a smaller and subordinate part of the greater mind, which again aligns with modern neuroscience. The unconscious mind initiates action, the conscious mind evaluates action. It is the gateway, the checkpoint, where impulses are either allowed to manifest or are suppressed. To Jung, a repressed impulse cannot be understood on a conscious level, because it is not impeded on any fully conscious level.
Phobia was one example that came to my own mind immediately. I have seen people both paralyzed with fear and white knuckled with fear of the most mundane situations and objects. When I’ve asked what exactly they are afraid of, the responses I get are not rational. I’m sure they honestly express their immediate feelings; but they do not adequately explain the reaction I am witnessing. The person, himself or herself, does not consciously understand why they have been overtaken with ridiculous levels of fear due only to their proximity to an extremely mundane situation or object. And yet, their unconscious mind is generating in their conscious mind overwhelming fear. Because it is not understood, it becomes difficult for the individual to rationalize the situation. So, there is no means to control the reaction. Their sense, literally, breaks down, and they become a mere vessel of full-bore fear in the face of what most of us consider to be nothing at all.
So, it does make sense that the less we understand our subjugation of our unconscious impulses, the worse their impact—the rebellion of the subconscious impulse, if I can personify it—will be to our conscious experience.
In Jung’s opinion, the Catholic religion, despite it’s reputation with Hell, was good at alleviating unconscious tension. The church was a supreme authority between man and god—which symbolizes the unconscious mind. As a Catholic, I could alleviate my plagued conscience at any time, merely by going to my local church and engaging in the ritual of confession. The church, as the ultimate authority on all things spiritual, reliably assured me that whatever I had done, I was now forgiven and all was absolved. With the rise of Protestantism, Jung was concerned that removing that authority would leave people with a doubt regarding their absolution—and a subsequent rise in neurotic manifestations. As a Protestant, there is no symbol (no priest) to tell me that I have been cured of my sin. Jung points out that with the fall of the church authority, we should expect that Protestants would be left foundering on their own—accounting for the myriad Protestant denominations. Since god is a symbol, a metaphor, of the human mind, spawned from the collective unconscious, filtered through the personal unconscious and then submitted to the conscious mind for interpretation, how could humans produce an unfractured model, without a strong central authority, such as the Catholic Church had provided from potentially as far back as the birth of the Christian religion?
Christianity, itself, Jung asserted, had broken out of a traditional religious symbolism that relied heavily on the number four. Whether there is any merit to his evaluation of the trinity as an incomplete symbol for what should be a four-part god, I cannot say. But his conclusions, whether his methods were valid in this regard or not, were astonishingly on target.
After leaving the church, I recall reading Eastern religious philosophy where the concept of god as being representative of a complete whole contrasted sharply with my Christian upbringing. In the East, there is a concept of a unity, a one complete symbol that encompasses everything. “All things are one thing” would be perhaps a good way to put it. In some Asian languages, there is the idea of “the Universe of 10,000 things,” but also the universe as a single, whole, complete unit. In Christianity, we see a divide of opposing natures. Heaven and Earth, Good and Evil, Spirit and Flesh, Male and Female. According to the Eastern views, this is unnecessarily divisive and not generally a healthy perspective. For a thing to be complete, it must encompass Heaven AND Earth, Good AND Evil, Spirit AND Flesh, Male AND Female.
In Christianity, god is the god of good. And evil is the domain outside of god’s context. Likewise, god appears to lack a feminine presence. Christianity is replete with concepts of an incomplete, and according to Jung, therefore inadequate, god symbol. Jung believed this was significant because god is a symbol meant to represent the human being’s concept of self. And clearly there are some key elements of self expunged from the Christian god symbol. If my conscious model violates my unconscious model, then I am, in effect, denying aspects of my self in a repressive, rather than suppressive way. And, Jung observed, this will create consciously manifesting problems for individuals.
The church, according to Jung’s model, has made open attempts to plug the holes in the incompleteness of their god symbol. “The Devil” has been incorporated as the embodiment of that which is not accounted for by the Christian god—those aspects of the self that are negatively interpreted by the religion. And Mary was at once held up to produce a symbol to embody the feminine aspect. Likewise, the Holy Spirit has been related to a feminine presence in the Gnostic texts. What is missing in the model should be assumed to be accounted for somewhere in the context of the greater set of symbols, according to Jung. And, whether via accuracy or accident, the model works.
According to Jung, it is dangerous for a person to reject a natural part of his or her own being. It is one thing to apply appropriate suppression of inappropriate impulses. But to foster self-loathing of those impulses is to encourage unhealthy repression and denial. Where religion encourages this, it necessarily causes harm to the self, or even the “soul” as Jung also referred to it (due to the religious context of this work).
The unconscious impulses that arise consciously in all of us contain some unflattering data about ourselves on occasion. The more comfortable with and aware of this we are, the better for our mental health. The more we torture ourselves for being what and who were are, the worse off we become. “Freud has discovered repression as one of the main mechanisms in the making of neurosis…Suppression may cause worry, conflict and suffering, but never causes a neurosis of one of the usual patterns.” Jung explains why. “If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is steadily subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. It is, moreover, liable to burst forth in a moment of unawareness. At all events, it forms an unconscious snag, blocking the most well-meaning attempts.” Further in talking about the unconscious negatively held personality aspects (“the shadow”), Jung says, “…if such a case wants to be cured it is necessary to find a way in which man’s conscious personality and his shadow can live together.”
In other words, only by understanding and accepting the things I dislike about myself, can I hope to incorporate them into my life in an adequately controlled fashion.
Because the subconscious mind relates to the conscious mind in a highly symbolic and indirect fashion (mysteriously generated impulses we may or may not understand and surreal dreams that speak to us in our sleep), it is natural for people to be mystified, fearful and in awe. God as a symbol for the mental self, then, makes perfect sense. Ideas come to us, as if from some external source. “We,” the ego, did not generate them—and yet, there they are—as if from some other personage. In fact, Jung actually suggests that at times it might be useful to model the subconscious as a separate personality, in order to examine it as separate from the ego. Is it any wonder so many people would become confused and project it into their conscious reality as a separate personality?
Perhaps the most interesting assessment Jung offers is the idea of religion as a purified form of the unconscious symbols of the self, where myriad people over great spans of time have added to the menagerie of symbols to produce a set of current symbols that relate to the individual’s unconscious model of self in a far more powerful way than any one human’s subconscious imagery ever could. In other words, it makes sense that religion will “speak to us” and ring true, the more it accurately models the self. Think about humanity on the whole, and consider the impact this system of symbols will have on the psyche of the average Joe on the street. It has become so convincing an expression of “truth” to such a great number of average citizens, purely because it has grown into such a perfect set of symbols that model the self. It confuses many into accepting that it represents a reality that can be, or even should be, consciously understood using the rules of conscious logic. (And anyone who has dialogued with a fundamentalist Christian apologist will understand how badly that endeavor must fail.)
Bridging the gap, attempting to allow the conscious and unconscious mind to meet halfway and come to some amicable understanding, is an understandable endeavor. Meditation, employed in many cultures, is an attempt to bring the conscious mind “down” to subconscious levels. Lucid Dreaming attempts the same, as, historically, has mystic and religious hallucinogenic drug use. Fasting, going without sleep, stressing the body in order to bring the unconscious impulses to light during a conscious context, is familiar to many cultures—the religious experience or the mystic vision. Modern religion, like art, is an attempt to bring the subconscious to the realm of the conscious.
The problem is that the conscious mind has not completely cracked the code of subconscious language. We recognize many of the symbols, but we can’t seem to agree on exactly what they mean or represent. They appear to be, to some degree, open to subjective interpretation. Certainly that is the nature of symbols in general. But where we have an utterly amorphous symbol, like “god”—totally without a referent in reality—that represents a practically unknown mechanism, like the subconscious mind—how can we hope to apply any objective interpretation? All interpretations would spawn from the individual’s understanding of his or her own subconscious impulses—some of which would be collective, others of which must be personal. Endowed with broad appeal and left to subjective interpretation—it has what it takes to endure for as long as the subconscious mind remains shrouded in mystery. If Jung’s interpretations and predictions apply, I would wager that if the human unconscious is ever fully understood and explained, the Christian god will go the way of the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods.
As Jung declares, “Why have the antique gods lost their prestige and their effect upon human souls? It was because the Olympic gods had served their time and a new mystery began: God became man.”
But, what can we do if we are in the middle of a larger culture that subscribes to a religious model that fails to adequately and fully represent the “self” and that is accepted as literal truth rather than understood as symbol? Speaking of addressing any social dilemma, Jung points out “collectives are mere accumulations of individuals, their problems are also accumulations of individual problems…they are only solved by a general change of attitude. And the change does not begin with propaganda and mass meetings, or with violence. It begins with a change in individuals. It will continue as a transformation of their personal likes and dislikes, of their outlook on life and of their values, and only the accumulation of such individual changes will produce a collective solution.” The best way I know to accomplish this is to let people know you are an atheist. It’s hard to be prejudiced against atheists when your friend, son, wife, mother, coworker, is an atheist, and someone you know and like. As far as I know this is the best way to affect individual assessments.
I still have a few more pages yet to read. But I’ll wrap up for now with the quote that spawned this article. The context is in relating the experience of a patient finding resolution to a neurotic situation. Jung describes this as a “religious experience” or “conversion”—but means only positively life-altering, not “religious” in the sense of supernatural beliefs:
“If you sum up what people tell you about their experience, you can formulate it about in this way: They came to themselves, they could accept themselves, they were able to become reconciled to themselves and by this they were also reconciled to adverse circumstances and events. This is much like what was formerly expressed by saying: He has made his peace with God, he has sacrificed his own will, he has submitted himself to the will of God.”
If god is the modern symbol of the whole of man—the self, in the language of the subconscious—making peace with god and subjecting oneself to god’s will translates directly into making peace with oneself and coming to regard oneself as whole by accepting all aspects of one’s personality without self-loathing, repression, or denial.
At this point, I’m seriously considering rereading the New Testament replacing “god” with “self” to see what sorts of new meanings the text takes on. Just in Jung’s small example of the use of “god’s will,” I see entirely new, and even useful insight.
Addendum: Of course, as I wrapped the final pages, I found a provocative quote: “The philosophy of the Upanishads corresponds to a psychology that long ago recognized the relativity of the gods. This is not to be confounded with such a stupid error as atheism.” I reminded myself this was written in the 1930s, and that I have to consider the political climate and the meaning of “atheist” at the time Jung was presenting. In reading further, I was somewhat confounded because it is obvious to me that, judging solely from the context of this book, Jung is as much an atheist as any atheist I’ve ever met. He no more puts forward a literal god being than I would. And his statement appears to be aimed at a despiritualization that he fears will have negative effects on society. That while some individuals can do well without religious imagery, many will not stand as well on their own merits. I have no idea whether or not that prediction would bear up.
I must recognize, however, that in Jung’s view, when a patient is faced with a choice of the “devil and the deep sea,” (his religion or his neurosis), “the devil is at least somewhat heroic, but the sea is spiritual death. The well-meaning rationalist will point out that…I replace an honest neurosis by the cheat of a religious belief…I must point out that there is no question of belief, but of experience…Is there, as a matter of fact, any better truth about ultimate things than the one that helps you to live?...The thing that cures the neurosis must be as convincing as the neurosis…It must be a very real illusion…But what is the difference between a real illusion and a healing religious experience? It is merely a difference in words.”
Whatever brand of atheism Jung considered as “stupid error,” he is clearly espousing what today, to any literalist or fundamentalist Christian, would be clear, inarguably atheistic views.