“We should bend to the great task of reinterpreting all the Christian traditions…and since it is a question of truths which are anchored deep in the soul….the solution of this task must be possible.”
Om. I often get asked if I am a Christian, and- as if I were talking about a beloved woman I am in an undefined relationship with– I tend to say, “well…its complicated.” I was born into a Jewish family and converted unthinkingly to Christianity when I was around 8 years old. As I grew up I gradually lost all interest in religion until I encountered Zen Buddhism, lived for 6 months at a Zen monastery, and had experiences in meditation that convinced me beyond doubt that an eternal God exists.
These days I believe in the unity of all religions and of a single nameless Source they each symbolically express. Yet in spite of this I have pictures of Jesus in my car and next to my bed. I read and love the Bible perhaps more than any other book, frequently attend churches, often dream in Christian symbolism, and sometimes refer to God as Jesus when I pray. My friends can all attest to the fact that I annoyingly quote the New Testament all the time. So am I a Christian? Like I said, its complicated! But after much reflection I now say yes, but not exclusively. Christianity particularly moves me, but as a son of the One True God I may equally be considered a Muslim, a Hindu, or a Jew.
Three pivotal intellectual discoveries changed the way I understand Christianity and, in a sense, brought me back to it. These discoveries were the writings of Carl Jung, Zen Buddhism, and the writings of Yogananda. In this post I will talk about how Jungian psychology helped me consciously embrace the beautiful religion of my childhood – yet this time viewed with a new lens.
This new lens could benefit many people in our depressingly secular society. Many spiritual people have lost touch with God because they have rightly rejected the narrow-minded literalist dogmatism that has unfortunately perverted the Christian religion for the last 2000 years. My hope is that such people will not “throw out the baby with the bath water,” re-consider the symbolic value of Christianity, and learn to separate the timeless teachings of Jesus from the many ways they have been misinterpreted.
The Collective Unconscious and the Archetypes
The writings of Carl Jung profoundly altered the way I view Christianity and religion in general. His concepts would take many books to fully explain so I’ll only mention a couple basic Jungian principals as I currently understand them. Jung has very complex theological views and I do not claim to share all of them. In this post I simply want to show how his concepts have shaped my own subjective views about Christianity. Jung was a Swiss-born psychologist who was publicly active from the early 1900s until his death in the 1960s. Jung is perhaps most famous for two of his most monumental ideas: the Collective Unconscious and its archetypes.
Jung discovered that the dreams of both himself and his modern patients contained ancient themes that reoccur cross-culturally in the myriad myths and religions of humanity. He hypothesized that only a common psychological source could explain these mythological coincidences, a source that is the impersonal and timeless substratum of all psychological activity. This creative source, which includes and yet transcends the individual ego (“like an island on the vast ocean”), Jung called the Collective Unconscious.
Out of this source all the diverse human personalities, cultures, myths, dreams, and religions spring. These myths, like individual dreams, are spontaneous and purposeful communications directly from the Collective Unconscious to humanity. Yet, unlike the rational mind, the Collective Unconscious communicates primarily in symbols. It does this because it is fundamentally impossible to adequately communicate spiritual ideas with words, and it thus reveals its own nature through symbolic mediums. These symbols change according to the culture they are conceived in, yet the underlying ideas they express are universal, transcendent, and independent of human origin.
These mysterious and unchanging blueprints of cultural expression that exist within the Collective Unconscious Jung termed “archetypes.” The Collective Unconscious activates these archetypes in individuals through dreams and fantasy. Myths and religions, on the other hand, are like the dreams of whole societies, rich with symbolic meaning that applies to everyone.
Because of their universal significance, when the ego encounters an archetype it is always more emotionally powerful than merely being intellectually convinced of something. A Christian example of this is St. Paul’s vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, the dramatic scene of his historically significant conversion. The archetype that Jesus embodied was so powerful that Paul, a highly educated Jew, converted on the spot and dedicated the remainder of his life to spreading the message of Christ to the world. Literally billions of people around the world have similarly responded to the image of Jesus, testifying that something undoubtedly meaningful is expressed by it.
To Jung, these stirring reactions to the image of Christ are not indicative of Jesus the man’s supernatural power as an individual person; rather, it shows that Jesus is a (note: a, not the) manifestation of the archetype of the God image that exists within everyone. People who worship Jesus the historical man as “the only begotten Son of God” (to the exclusion of everyone else) are, in Jungian terms, projecting onto an archetypal image the Divine potential that exists within their own psyche. It is possible, however, to be deeply inspired by the life of Jesus while simultaneously realizing that it is a symbolic depiction of our own psychological life and of the invisible God within.
The cultural inheritance of Christian symbolism and their universal meanings
According to Jung the only way we can meaningfully approach an archetype is through symbols since they are by nature unseen. Jung also discovered that just as we inherit different biological traits based on our genetics, in the same way we psychologically inherit religious symbols that help make these abstract truths understandable to unique cultures. In my words, God creates religious symbolism to reveal to humanity what He is like.
This process of inheriting religious imagery is independent of human choice. In his book “Psychology and Religion,” Jung documented the dreams of an outspokenly agnostic professor who was seeing him for analysis. Night after night this professor reluctantly dreamed of things like the catholic mass, the cross, the resurrection, and numerous other themes that his conscious mind viewed as archaic trash. Yet his unconscious mind obviously found meaning in these images. Like the professor, Jung hypothesized that people born into Christian societies do not choose to have a spiritual affinity with Christian symbols, just as we do not choose to have blue eyes or brown hair.
If this is the case, what does the rich symbolism of Christianity reveal to us about the archetype of God? What was God trying to say to the world by instigating the baffling series of images and metaphysical notions we call Christianity? Ironically, if these numinous images had concrete “meaning” they would be mere scientific facts and emptied of their spiritual power; yet to deny them any interpretive meaning is to ignore their value as symbols! To even attempt to comment on the variety of Christian imagery would be a futile and time-consuming enterprise, so I’ll give just a few well-known examples.
The death and resurrection of Christ, for instance, could symbolize the natural cycles of death and re-birth that occur in nature. Spiritually speaking they also reassure us that in “dying” to our limited ego we can “resurrect” as God in this very life, “born again” as Divine Being temporarily incarnate in a human body. The Eucharist can also be viewed as a symbol for communing with (or becoming one with) the “body and blood” ( the Life) of the Eternal Spirit that has no name, no form, no gender, no beginning, and no end. These symbolic themes, like virtually all other Christian symbols, have been shown to arise in cultures far removed from Christianity, thus confirming their archetypal status.
More significantly, the very fact that the Jewish God has incarnated as a person has major psychological implications: God is revealing to us in Christianity that, like Christ, we are ALL one with God. “Christ is the first among many brothers,” said Paul, the prototype for a new kind of human being that is perpetually conscious of their own immortality. This God is not to be sought in a heaven above, for to use Jesus’s own language, the Kingdom of Heaven is this very life if we but realized it! (He says in Luke, “The Kingdom of God with within you.”)
And if Jesus truly is the manifestation of God (or, in Jungian terms, the symbolic expression of the archetype of God that exists within the psyche), this should be a cause for celebration! If God=Christ, than the true nature of God is something like love, gentleness, perpetual forgiveness, grace, etc.- how utterly wonderful! While no image can ever capture the incomprehensibly majestic love of God, I believe that in Jesus the character of God (as pure and unconditional love!) is displayed in a way that perhaps has never been equaled in its accuracy or potency.
So, in conclusion, in Jung’s perspective the life of Jesus expresses an archetype that exists within the collective unconscious. To me, Jesus symbolizes both my own highest spiritual potential and represents the glorious unconditional love of the unseen God. Yet to believe that Jesus the historical man is somehow more important than everyone else, or that he is the sole vehicle of salvation is, in Jungian terms, the ignorance of equating a timeless archetype with one of its temporary manifestations. The Spirit within Jesus is the same Spirit that right now exists within us all. The only difference is that Jesus was more aware of this than others, and that he was chosen to archetypally demonstrate God to the masses.
Unfortunately this symbolic idea is taken literally by many Christians as the final word from God about God. Yet, if one is to maintain their capacity for objective reflection, Christian symbolism is but one way to express the same eternal themes that occur in mythologies around the world. The life of Krishna, for example, corresponds to Christ’s in a way that, to me, is beyond mere coincidence. The theory of the collective subconscious helps unite these seemingly disparate religions because according to Jung an archetype can be expressed in potentially infinite ways.
And, if this is the case, how much greater is the ignorance of limiting the Eternal God to a single image that is somehow superior to all others? Just as a single tree has many branches, so the one God has many names, many aspects, and creates many paths that all lead back to Him.
In conclusion, through the lens of Jungian psychology it is possible to be a Christian without limiting God to Christianity by seeing it as a symbolic revelation from God to humanity through the medium of the Collective Unconscious.
And so… am I a Christian? Well, it’s complicated. I find great meaning in Christianity, yet I have learned to do so without compromising my own rational mind by taking its symbolism literally or dogmatically denying the value of other equally legitimate faiths. This new paradigm of relating to God through one’s own religion while simultaneously understanding the shared Source of all religions is, indeed, the “riddle of the sphinx” for modern religious people everywhere, a riddle that Carl Jung has done a great deal to articulate and to solve.
All praise to the Eternal God, the creator of all things, to whom praise is due! To Him be the glory forever! Thank you for reading. Om.
-Carl Jung being a boss, as usual.
p.s. The significance of Jung’s theories extend far beyond the realm of religion, the only subject explored here. If you are interested in Jung I recommend reading his stunning and intimate autobiography, “Memories, Dreams, and Reflections.” While Jung was brilliant his formal writings are very abstruse and frequently hard to follow. For this reason I recommend reading his autobiography that re-tells his fascinating life and is also a good introduction to his basic thought.
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