Jung at 50 – a helpful heretic?

Another piece on Jung and his legacy, following the 50th anniversary of his death on Monday, published today in the Church Times. A taster:

In Christianity, the central symbol in this process is the figure of Christ. The history of Christianity is, if you like, the story of how the followers of Jesus projected on to him all manner of associations, so that eventually the historical Jesus became the symbol Christ, “the completest expression of that fateful combination we call individuality”, Jung wrote. Or, as Michael Palmer, the author of Freud and Jung on Religion (Routledge, 1997), puts it: “What the individual identifies in Christ . . . is the archetypal expression his own need for wholeness and unity.”

That may be so. But it is also at this point that theological hackles are raised. Is it enough to say that Christ is a symbol of wholeness? Is Christ not also a historical saviour, the one who died and rose again?

This question goes to the heart of the theologian’s problem with Jung, and, in a way, it is one that he brings upon himself. On the one hand, he was often insistent that his inquiries were limited strictly to the psycho­logical. “I can confirm and prove the interrelationship of the God image with other parts of the psyche,” he wrote to the Dominican priest Fr Victor White, “but I cannot go further without committing the error of a metaphysical assertion which is far beyond my scope. I am not a theologian and I have nothing to say about the nature of God.”

On the other hand, he frequently overstepped the limits of these self-imposed boundaries, and made profoundly theological comments. Nowhere is this clearer than in his book Answer to Job. Jung argues that in the story of the sufferings of Job, sanctioned by Yahweh, Yahweh is confronted with his own careless cruelty. This makes Job look morally superior to Yahweh, as if the creature has surpassed the creator. In response, Yahweh has only one option: to become man in Christ himself. That is God’s final answer to Job.

It gets worse, from an orthodox point of view. Jung denied that evil is but the absence of good, as Augustine had explained. Rather, he argued that God, too, has a shadow; so evil has as much substance as goodness — both aspects being found within the divine. It is a Manichaean philosophy that has been strongly rejected.

“Jung fails to allow God to be more than the sum of human experience,” the Revd Jeremy Young, a priest and therapist, says. “Religious symbols are supposed to communicate something beyond our understanding. That means we can’t collapse them into symbolising aspects of the human mind alone.”