Carl Jung, part 8: Religion and the search for meaning

The last of my posts on Jung has just gone up at the Guardian’s Cif. A taster:

Theologians, for instance, will often feel more comfortable speaking of religious matters in the worldly language of the social sciences. Christians will tell you that when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God he was really conveying a practical political vision. Or they might reduce the symbols of faith to historical events: it is as if someone with a camera outside Jerusalem, on that Sunday in 33AD, could have caught the resurrection on film.

It’s a process that empties faith of significance because it turns symbols into signs: symbols transmit an immediate experience that addresses the soul, whereas signs just point to facts. “We simply do not understand any more what is meant by the paradoxes contained in dogma; and the more external our understanding of them becomes the more we are affronted by their irrationality.”

It is perhaps this craving for immediate experience that drives the highly emotional forms of religion growing so fast in the contemporary world, though Jung would have discerned a sentimentality in them that again simplifies humankind’s moral ambiguities and spiritual paradoxes. He did not believe that authentic religiosity was expressed in these peak experiences. Rather he advised people to turn towards their fears, much as the mystics welcomed the dark night of the soul. This shadow is experienced as a foe, but it is really a friend because it contains clues as to what the individual lacks, rejects and distrusts.

“What our age thinks of as the ‘shadow’ and inferior part of the psyche contains more than something merely negative,” he writes in The Undiscovered Self, an essay published in 1957. “They are potentialities of the greatest dynamism.” That dynamism works by way of compensation. It aims to rebalance what has become lopsided. Hence, if at a conscious level the scientific has eclipsed the theological, the material the valuable, the emotive the spiritual, then the forces that hide in the unconscious will ineluctably make themselves felt once more. It will seem chaotic and quite possibly be destructive. But the passion also contains a prophetic voice calling humanity back to life in all its fullness.