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Carl Jung is a controversial figure. This pioneer of psychoanalysis, though beloved by the pop psychology world, has a dark side: he experimented with occult spirit guides, his movement was both an esoteric mystery-cult and a personality cult,1 and his theology was heretical — his conception of God that of an amoral demiurge beyond good and evil.2 Jung made theological errors worthy of rejection but also stunning insights worthy of attention, especially because his psychoanalytic work with patients gave him an inside look into the weaknesses of modern-day Protestantism. He was picking up the church’s slack.
We must reckon with Jung’s flaws and his genius, for they hold up a mirror to our own mistakes. “There is no coming to consciousness without pain,” he wrote.3 Christian criticism of Jung is, in a sense, self-criticism, and while such acquaintance with ourselves is painful, it is also fruitful.
THE UNCONSCIOUS AND THE UNION OF OPPOSITES
Unlike Freud, Jung believed that the human unconscious was not a hotbed of deception and suppressed desires but was a neutral companion who speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently it sees us from the way we see ourselves. Part of Jung’s work involved “walking around” the meaning of his clients’ dreams with them. Their dream symbols often united opposing forces into one image, helping his clients transcend their distress, “stuckness,” and ambivalence.
In Jung’s understanding, the unconscious compensates for the ego’s arrogance — poking us in our settled axioms and attitudes, reminding us we don’t actually have everything under control, and we are not who we think we are. Such grace and cooperation is built into our very psychic structure. We are not only individuals of today but also instantiations of an ancient human nature, recent flowers on a perennial rhizome, Jung thought.4 We carry the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors within us at the implicit level of reflexes, nerves, habits, feelings, and intuitions. Jung christened this ancient, evolved, embodied, pre-articulate human nature “the collective unconscious.”
This means that each person is not one simple, static thing but is run by committee. Jung believed that the human psyche functions through opponent processing, similar to the way our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems calibrate between two poles (activation and rest). To the psyche, as to the body, cooperative opposites are not a problem but a necessity. Jung described these inner opposites in various ways, including “the shadow” (the repository of everything consciously rejected, whether good or bad) and the “anima” or “animus” (the contrasexual inner attitude: the feminine side of a man, or the masculine side of a woman).
Jung encouraged people to engage the unconscious with hospitality and curiosity. Fail to do so and we forfeit our own agency. That cooperative friend, when faced head on, becomes a troublemaking saboteur when we turn away. The unconscious is not synonymous with “the flesh” or “the sinful nature” to Jung, for it contains as much potential for good as for evil. But if we refuse to negotiate with our “inner other” when the stakes are low, we may find ourselves living at cross-purposes — consumed with self-sabotage and hypocrisy — as the unconscious turns our lives into that dumpster fire otherwise known as “the midlife crisis.”
Refusing to integrate the opposites within ourselves invites the pendulum to swing hard in the other direction, a form of self-destruction Jung frequently witnessed. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus called this enantiodromia — a running contrariwise. Sooner or later everything runs into its opposite: as an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life, an equally powerful counterposition builds up as compensation. Jung wrote, “It is often tragic to see how blatantly a man bungles his own life and the lives of others yet remains totally incapable of seeing how much the whole tragedy originates in himself, and how he continually feeds it and keeps it going.”5 The microcosm of the personal psyche is fractally reflected in the macrocosm of society. The tragic bungling that comes from ignoring the unconscious happens not only in individuals but can grip a culture, a time period, even a religious movement.
FROM MEDIEVAL NOMINALISM TO MODERN NEUROSES
In the eleventh century, Christians began quarreling over the Eucharist, whether it was the “real presence” of Christ or was “only symbolic,” presupposing (wrongly) that reality and symbols are exclusive opposites. The medieval Platonic–Christian synthesis, which, according to C. S. Lewis, involved the “organization of their theology, science and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental model of the universe,”6 degraded into a series of dialectical antitheses. Christians began to frame the Eucharist in oppositional terms (symbol versus reality), rather than seeing that symbols participate in and mediate reality which overflows their banks.
This false dichotomy facilitated Western Christianity’s fragmentation, as the “symbolic” (σῠμβάλλω: to join or unite) gave way to the “diabolic” (διαβάλλω: to put asunder). We lost the symbolic synthesis between heaven and earth, law and grace, mind and body, faith and works, natural and supernatural, subject and object, philosophy and theology, the authority of Scripture and the authority of the church — picturing these as polarized opposites pushing us to choose a side rather than fruitful unions of participation.7
The de-incarnation of Eucharistic theology is no minor blip in our history but is in some sense the origin story of the modern world. The “real presence” of Christ in communion, formerly the means of transforming the whole person through union with God and the church, was diminished by many to a memorial, situating it solely in the realm of consciousness. God and man contracted: the place where heaven and earth had incarnationally overlapped became an ever-widening breach between spirit and matter.
The attitude that split symbol from reality was uncontainable, dividing everything it touched. Its technical name is nominalism, a philosophy in which universal patterns and essences don’t exist in the “real world,” but only in our minds as abstractions. The nominalist imposes names upon whatever it is he thinks he sees. Each object becomes an isolated sliver of reality, without an essential connection to anything else (except in the mind).
As nominalism worked its way through European thought, the medieval world died, along with the assumed meaningfulness of man’s life. “The Church as an effective force has disappeared too, and what is left?” Jung wondered. “The mob, the State…a mere ant heap of individuals.”8 This was enantiodromia writ large: the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and Romanticism, Darwinism and Fundamentalism, Capitalism and Communism, Modernism and Postmodernism — round and round we go, with ever-new “-isms” added to the merry-go-round.
Carl Jung was a secular prophet announcing the depth of this “de-incarnational” crisis, this rupture between meaning and matter. The psychologically wounded lined up outside Jung’s door like lost sheep, seeking wholeness and purpose. Many were post-Protestants who had drifted away from the church and found themselves on the analyst’s couch. Therapy stepped in where sacramental liturgy waned. “They ought to have hung on to the community of the Church,” Jung wrote, “but they were shed like dry leaves from the great tree and now find themselves ‘hanging on’ to the treatment. Something in them clings, often with the strength of despair, as if they or the thing they cling to would drop off into the void the moment they relaxed their hold. They are seeking firm ground on which to stand. Since no outward support is of any use to them they must finally discover it in themselves.”9
Why could they find no “outward support” or “firm ground” in the church? Why did their faith die on the vine? Why were they dangling over the void with nothing between themselves and despair but a paid therapist? “Man is in need of a symbolic life,” Jung said. “And because people have no such thing, they can never step out of this mill — this awful, grinding, banal life in which they are ‘nothing but,’” he lamented. “No wonder people get neurotic. Life is too rational, there is no symbolic existence in which I am…one of the actors in the divine drama of life.”10
Although most of Jung’s patients had lost their faith, the healthiest were church-goers still immersed in liturgies thick with participatory symbols and rituals: their sacramental experiences nudged them toward wholeness. “Even in this day and age,” Jung wrote, “the believer has the opportunity, in his church, to live the ‘symbolic life.’”11 Most people “look to therapy rather than to religious tradition for their soul development,” ethicist Timothy Patitsas writes, but “the great hospital for the soul is liturgy because in liturgy we are invited to fall in love with what is most Beautiful.”12
When much of the American church, however, has been reduced to “four bare walls and a sermon,” there is plenty for the conscious mind to think about, but little for the body to do, or for the unconscious to experience. Jung thought every religion has two feet — faith and ritual — but Protestantism hops on one foot more often than not. Jung’s ability to alleviate psychological suffering should intrigue iconoclasts: he gave people another leg to stand on.
Protestants rejected veneration of the holy departed and the hierarchy of angels and saints whose prayerful assistance built up the Body. Jung compensated with darker principalities — spirit guides and inner gurus. Protestants abandoned confession to a priest and penance for the soul’s repair. Jung compensated with the confessional therapist’s office. Protestants repudiated iconography and pilgrimages. Jung gave them dream symbolism and archetypes, an inward journey replacing the outward. Protestants exchanged God’s “real presence” in the Mass for a memorial. Jung showed them “the Numinous” within, mingling the archetypal Christ with the Self. Protestants exchanged synergistic theosis for passively imputed righteousness. Jung gave them an arduous process of “individuation” that resonated like a call to adventure.
What the Reformers amputated re-emerged as a phantom limb in the form of depth psychology. Therapeutic “priests” now provide us with the healing and self-transcendence that was once the province of church sacraments, spiritual practices, and the heavenly hierarchy. The body and the unconscious (which are so deeply connected) must play their part in the faith. Exclude them, and who knows what will rush in to meet the ineradicable needs of human nature? Icons, rituals, liturgies, hymns, chanting, sacred spaces, fasts and feasts, pilgrimages, and sacraments — these are symbolic (“joining/uniting”) modes of participation indigenous to Christianity that psychology can only imitate, and they function fractally, healing not only the individual (psychotherapy’s aim) but also facilitating a broader communion of persons. Because Christ joins together all the opposites (Col. 1:17, 21), Eucharistic communion creates communion. In Him, all things hold together; without Him, things fall apart.
JUNG POINTS TO THE MODERN WORLD’S WOUND
Jung is less of an innovator than an archaeologist: his seeming discovery of the unconscious is as old as the patristics’ “way of the heart,” his archetypes are as old as Plato. Jung recognized his work was needed because the symbolic life of the church was in hospice. He tried to restore what Protestants (through iconoclasm and nominalism) had rejected: the critical role of the unconscious, and the necessity of a fruitful union between conscious and unconscious. We cannot renounce Jung wholesale, for he was catching the souls who slipped through the cracks we created. We must answer him with practices and symbols that knit body and soul together. We must answer him with incarnation.
Jung saw a gaping wound in the modern human soul, and he addressed it with psychoanalysis, perhaps making things worse, perhaps better (that’s arguable). But what isn’t arguable is the wound itself. Jung’s project reveals that desacramentalized religion cannot make humans whole: the unconscious doesn’t disappear just because churches cease to tend to it. I don’t trust Jung to lead me to the depths, but to the depths we Christians must go. Jung started me on a path of looking for an orthodox Christian tradition that still remembers the way.13
Alisa Ruddell is a staff writer and associate editor for the website Christ and Pop Culture and has previously published at Salt and Iron.
- Elliot Miller, “The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement,” Christian Research Journal, June 10, 2009, https://www.equip.org/articles/the-jung-cult-origins-of-a-charismatic-movement/.
- J. Budziszewski, “C.G. Jung’s War on the Christian Faith,” Christian Research Journal vol. 21, no. 3 (1999), https://www.equip.org/articles/c-g-jungs-war-on-the-christian-faith/.
- C. G. Jung, Contributions to Analytical Psychology (United Kingdom: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner and Company Limited, 1928), 193.
- C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Symbols of Transformation Vol. 5 (United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2014).
- C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self Vol. 9.2 (Princeton University Press, 1969), 10.
- C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1964), 11.
- Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).
- C. G. Jung, Modern Psychology: October 1938 — March 1940 (Switzerland: K. Schippert and Company, 1959), 195–6.
- C. G. Jung, The Essential Jung (Princeton University Press, 2013), 277.
- C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings Vol. 18 (Princeton University Press, 2014), 274.
- C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (United Kingdom: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011), 140.
- Timothy Patitsas, The Ethics of Beauty (Maysville, MO: St. Nicholas Press, 2020), 189, 201.
- Adapted from a series written for Salt and Iron, “From Carl Jung to Jesus Christ,” by Alisa Ruddell, http://seasonedwriting.com/from-carl-jung-to-jesus-christ-part-one/.