Carl Jung — Are His Ideas Psychology or Religion?
This follows on from the previous article where I discussed Carl Jung’s two faces, psychologist/scientist, and religious Gnostic. Here I’ll focus on the latter and ask the question, do his ideas constitute a new religion?
There are two especially fascinating incidents in his life. He tells them both in his (sort of) autobiography Memories, Dreams and Reflections. Readers familiar with Jung and his life will be aware of both of them already, so I describe them here merely to maintain continuity in the series, or for the benefit of those unfamiliar with them.
Here the first one is summarised — there is much more detail in the original. He says that one day, having come out of school, he went to look at the local cathedral, and he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the sight. Suddenly, however, he felt a choking sensation. An inner voice was telling him “Don’t go on thinking now!” He felt that something terrible was about to emerge into his consciousness, something appalling and blasphemous, that he did not want to allow.
He tormented himself for three days, then felt his resistance weakening, although he was still wondering why he was being forced to think something inconceivably wicked. After more internal arguments, he says that eventually “I gathered all my courage, as though I were about to leap forthwith into hell-fire, and let the thought come. I saw before me the cathedral, the blue sky. God sits on His golden throne, high above the world, and from under the throne an enormous turd falls upon the sparkling new roof, shatters it, and breaks the walls of the cathedral asunder”. He says that allowing this was a great relief, “it was as though I had experienced an illumination”.
Why was it specifically Jung and no one else having this vision? My assumption is that it was because it was his life’s mission to revive the Church, to come up with a religion satisfactory to God who, according to the vision, considered the cathedral, no matter how glorious and beautiful it seemed, to be something of a waste product.
This is the second, somewhat spooky, incident. It is Jung’s account of how his short book Septem Sermones ad Mortuos (Seven Sermons to the Dead) came into being. (I said that I would be discussing this now in the previous article.) It occurred during a period which Jung called his confrontation with the unconscious. He had been having conversations with what we might call an adult version of a child’s imaginary friend, therefore a psychic figure, but who was nevertheless very real for him, whom he called Philemon. Jung says that he received many important psychological insights from him. Philemon was therefore a teacher figure.
Jung then says that “in 1916 I felt an urge to give shape to something. I was compelled from within, as it were, to formulate and express what might have been said by Philemon. It began with a restlessness, but I did not know what it meant or what ‘they’ wanted of me”.
Then things started to become really weird. “There was an ominous atmosphere all around me. I had the strange feeling that the air was filled with ghostly entities. Then it was as if my house began to be haunted. My eldest daughter saw a white figure passing through the room. My second daughter, independently of her elder sister, related that twice in the night her blanket had been snatched away; and that same night my nine-year-old son had an anxiety dream (which included the devil and an angel)…
“Around five o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday the front doorbell began ringing frantically. It was a bright summer day; the two maids were in the kitchen, from which the open square outside the front door could be seen. Everyone immediately looked to see who was there, but there was no one in sight. I was sitting near the doorbell, and not only heard it but saw it moving. We all simply stared at one another. The atmosphere was thick, believe me. Then I knew that something had to happen. The whole house was filled as if there were a crowd present, crammed full of spirits. They were packed deep right up to the door, and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe. As for myself, I was all a-quiver with the question: ‘For God’s sake, what in the world is this?’ Then they cried out in chorus, ‘We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought’ ”, which is the opening line of the Seven Sermons.
“Then it began to flow out of me, and in the course of three evenings the thing was written. As soon as I took up the pen, the whole ghostly assemblage evaporated. The room quieted and the atmosphere cleared. The haunting was over”.
We have the same theme as in the first incident. There is a need for a true religion, one which cannot be found in Jerusalem, which presumably refers to the Judaeo-Christian tradition. In that context, the full title of the book is very important. It is The Seven Sermons to the Dead Written by Basilides in Alexandria the City Where the East Toucheth the West. Jung appears to be saying that he is not the true author, that in effect he is channeling the spirit of an ancient gnostic teacher, from a city famous as a centre of ancient wisdom. Or perhaps he is just being fanciful, and merely pouring out his own thoughts? Whichever is the case, he was presumably writing what the spirits were demanding, since the haunting stopped.
As I explained in the previous article, Jung was careful in his Collected Works to publish only on subject matter that he considered observable and real, if not provable in a strict scientific sense, and resisted metaphysical speculation. In this book, however, he lets himself off the leash, and allows himself to write a short but complex metaphysical outpouring. For this reason he never wanted it to be made available to anyone outside his close circle during his lifetime, and regretted it when this happened without his permission. However, according to his leading disciple Marie-Louise von Franz, he never regretted the content, (despite what he may have said publicly when Martin Buber accused him of being a Gnostic, as noted in the previous article).
I am not going to explore its contents here; for those interested, in addition to the original¹, there is a brilliant edition of the book — translation plus commentaries — by the gnostic scholar and bishop Stephan Hoeller². (You can read his translation free here.) I’ll simply repeat the words of the chorus of spirits: “We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought”. This expresses a profound disappointment with the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which is perceived to be devoid of true knowledge, true spirituality, and is put into the mouth of an ancient gnostic teacher from Alexandria who would have been considered a heretic by the Roman Church.
These two incidents, even though one is of a psychological nature — a subjective vision — and the other is distinctly paranormal, which makes them easy to dismiss by sceptical ‘scientists’, are strong indications that Jung was onto something special. In addition to his being given the task of elucidating a religion satisfactory to God, this religion might well have close affinities with ancient Gnosticism, perhaps one branch of what Christianity might have become if it had been allowed to survive. Actually it has survived, no thanks to the Catholic Church of course. The ancient Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi have attracted much interest in modern times, and still have much to teach us.
One can of course debate whether this is a new religion, or whether it is merely the renaissance of an old one for modern times. I don’t think it really matters, provided that we now take notice of Jung’s ideas and take them on board.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.
1. VII Sermones ad Mortuos, Watkins Books, 1967
2. The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead, Quest Books, 1982