Jung and Christianity
The relationship of Jungian psychology to Christianity is rather curious. On the one hand much of Jung’s work could be understood as implying the validity of Christian tradition and practices as singularly helpful means of promoting psychological integration and self-actualization. Yet, on the other, Jung himself, while remaining to some extent rather ambiguous on the subject, seemed nonetheless to lean in the direction of dismissing Christianity. (Reading his works, one gets the impression that he considered himself superior to it.) But in any case, certainly a large number of later writers who identify themselves as ‘Jungians’ denigrate Christianity. Some (Edward Edinger, for example), make rather plain their belief that Jungianism constitutes a new form of spirituality which is destined to replace Christianity and other ‘antiquated’ traditional religions.
I wish to make clear that I do not have an axe to grind against Jung. It bothers me when Christian writers take a figure like Jung and, rather than engage with the issues in a fair-minded and intelligent way, engage in character assassination and specious arguments. That, to my mind, illustrates the very lack of intellectual charity that Christian writers so frequently accuse others of. So I can say that I have found much of interest in Jung’s work. Jung himself is also somewhat of an attractive, or at least interesting figure, precisely because he is a free-thinker. The problem isn’t so much with Jung himself perhaps, but with Jungians who have, as noted, tried to turn his theories into a religion and elevate him to the status of prophet. (Jung himself once said words to the effect of , “fortunately I am only Jung and not a Jungian.”)
This much said, what I would like to do here is two things: (1) to point out how Jung’s theories, taken to their logical conclusions, imply the validity of Christian practice; and (2) to show how Jung himself had to take extreme theoretical measures to avoid coming to this conclusion himself.
To keep this post brief, we can make roughly outline first point as follows:
- Jung believed that there is something called a Christian mythos. This mythos includes all the traditions and writings of the events of Jesus Christ; all Christian art; all liturgies, prayers, practices; all Christian traditions of any kind.
- This mythos is an expression of a collective unconscious, which is vitally concerned, among other things, with promoting the psychological health and self-actualization of individuals.
- This mythos is also a group effort; that is, the collective unconscious manifests itself in the collective, accumulated effort of individual human beings over many centuries or millennia; for that reason it is extremely rich and effective.
- The result is that, at the level of mythos (as opposed to literal historicity of the biblical narrative and to legalistic doctrines) Christianity is extraordinarily effective as a way of promoting psychological health, individuation, and self-actualization.
- Thus, just as human culture, broadly, has evolved as a positive force to promote the welfare and development of human beings in various indispensable way, so too does religious culture; and in the West, by ‘religious culture’ we effectively mean (at least judged in a statistically normative sense) Christianity.
It would be logical from all this for Jung to infer that one of the best things a modern person could do to promote psychological well being and self-actualization is to deeply involve oneself in this Christian tradition; in that way one would benefit from all the ways in which collective intuition of the race – something deeper and wiser than personal rational abstraction and modern science – promotes well-being. He might qualify this by suggesting that this does not mean that all rationalistic doctrines of Christianity should be accepted (as these were developed by different processes and do not necessarily reflect of the collective wisdom of the species); but, rather, that Christianity would be something one accepts at a intuitive, perhaps something like an aesthetic, level.
This would be the logical conclusion based on Jung’s theories. Indeed, once in a while one finds a Jungian writer who does draw this conclusion. Nevertheless, Jung did not do so, nor do most Jungians.
This brings us to the second point. How did Jung avoid reaching this conclusion himself? The answer is found in one of his major works on religion, Aion (subtitled Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, Collected Works, Vol. 9, Part 2). There he raises two extremely dubious arguments to show that, even though the figure of Jesus Christ is an extremely deep and powerful symbol (or, more accurately, a reflection of a Archetype) corresponding to self-actualization, this symbol is no longer appropriate to humanity’s current stage of development.
One of these arguments relates to Jung’s ongoing diatribe against what he takes as the Christian doctrinal belief that evil is not ‘real.’ This issue is too complex to pursue here; perhaps I’ll discuss it another time. It will suffice at present to say that Jung’s argument is pretty weak when scrutinized carefully; it shows his characteristic lack of disciplined analysis (after all is said and done, Jung is a German Romantic, much influenced by Nietzsche) and his basic unfamiliarity with classical philosophy (despite the fact that he loves to impress readers with a superficial display of classical sources, often presenting extended quotes in Greek – but taken completely out of context and without any genuine grasp of the author’s meaning or purpose).
Jung’s second argument, however, is much stranger. He attempts to show, based on astrology, that the mythic figure of Jesus Christ is no longer, to paraphrase his words, “a suitable vehicle for representing the Archetype of self-actualization.”
What is the evidence? It’s that, by the astronomical principle known as precession of the equinoxes, we are, in modern times, moving from the previous 2000-year old Age (Aion) of Pisces, to the new Age of Aquarius. The Age of Pisces, Jung ‘reasons’ (and expects his readers to believe), obviously corresponded with Christianity, since the early Christians symbolized their religion with a fish, and because fishes swim through the ocean (which is obviously a symbol of consciousness swimming in a sea of unconsciousness). But now we’re in the Age of Aquarius, so clearly we’ll need some new religion that conforms better to this astrological symbol.
It’s simply hard to take this argument seriously. It certainly cannot be considered a scientific argument (despite the fact that Jung so often takes pains to present himself as a scientist).
Now I am not personally in a position to say uncategorically that astrology is untrue. I take the attitude of a pure skeptic on the matter: I see no evidence either way to prove or disprove its validity. But in his argument here Jung accepts astrology unquestioningly. The odd thing is that many modern Jungians – here I mean not only writers, but those psychologists and readers who orient their thinking along Jungian lines – take as a given that Jung somehow demonstrated beyond any doubt that Christianity is obsolete, and that we need a new spirituality based on Jungian theory. This view is taken as a received opinion only; those who hold it have not actually examined Jung’s argument. Were they to do so, they might be more circumspect in accepting his conclusions.