Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Short Jungian Interlude 2

The Place of Religion in the Discovery of Self

Il Duomo, Catania, August, 2006
I have always found Carl Gustave Jung extremely insightful on the question of Religion.  Given his background - his father was a Pastor in the Swiss reformed Church, as were many of his in-laws - and the times during which he lived, this is not surprising.  I have also long believed that Jung used the word "religion" in a totally different sense than many adherents to such creeds would.  To my mind, for our learned psychiatrist Religion meant more a Spiritual Apprehension than a set of defined beliefs.  At times I have felt in reading his many writings that for him God was more a psychological (and in that sense spiritual) phenomenon than a theological or religious one.  When I was around 19 and studying Theology and English literature I heard a theologian over dinner dismissing Jung's insights into Religion as heretical, and immediately, like any good obedient young man, I began to read his writings! 

The second chapter literally does what it says on the tin.  Its title is its summary: "Religion as the Counterbalance to Mass-mindedness."  Bearing in mind once again that this book was written during The Cold War, the spectre of communism loomed large on the European horizon.  Such totalitarian movements had, of necessity, to cut the ground from under the religions so that every individual was merely a function of the State and nothing more.  In other words, totalitarian movements work by controlling their adherents and they will use every means, including the death sentence, to bring this about.  In this light I love Jung's definition of religion here:

But religion means dependence on and submission to the irrational facts of experience.  These do not refer directly to social and physical conditions; they concern far more the individual's psychic attitude.  (The Undiscovered Self, p. 13)
This short definition would support my contentions about Jung's take on religion, with which I agree profoundly as an erstwhile theologian.  Totalitarian régimes live very much in the external physical world while religions on the other hand live primarily in the internal spiritual world.  As well as that, one could add that the main monotheistic religions live by taking a transcendent world or the world beyond - whatever that may mean - as a focal point.  Anyway, Jung is stressing that a one-sided take on humanity, which reduces it to a mere physical or material reality, is very reductionist.  Religion, then, in the Jungian take on things adds the balance, because it takes humankind's psychic reality into consideration.

Jung says that when Religions compromise with the State they then surrender much of their power and become consequently mere Creeds or sets of tenets or lists of beliefs.  Let us hear his own words on this distinction which is a good one:

A creed gives expression to a definite collective belief, whereas the word religion expresses a subjective relationship to certain metaphysical, extramundane factors.  A creed is a confession of faith intended chiefly for the world at large and is thus an intramundane affair, while the meaning and purpose of religion lie in the relationship of the individual to God (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) or to the path of of salvation and liberation (Buddhism). (Ibid., p 14)
He goes on to say that these Creeds as they began developing their doctrines and dogmas compromised their essential religious (we would say spiritual today, I believe) element in their make-up.  In other words Jung is pointing up Religion as a saving factor in the psychological/spiritual sense, as being a balancing force to the State which seeks to enslave the individual by reducing him/her to a mere unit in society, a mere cog in the machine of the State.  He underscores religion's importance by saying that the life of the individual is not determined solely by the ego and its opinions or by social factors but by a transcendent authority as well.  Now, Jung goes on to express the psychological necessity of religion thus:

The Pantheon, Easter 2007: Linking Pagan and R. Catholic
It is not ethical principles, however lofty, or creeds, however orthodox, that lay the foundations for the freedom and autonomy of the individual, but simply and solely the empirical awareness, the incontrovertible experience of an intensely personal, reciprocal relationship between man and the extramundane authority which acts as a counterpoise to the "world" and its "reason."  (Ibid., pp 15-16)
It is also interesting for me as an erstwhile theologian that Jung equates transcendent with inner, and this fact again supports my contention that Religion for him is more a Spiritual reality in the sense of its being a Psychic reality which essentially saves the individual from being engulfed by the State with his/her identity being obliterated in the sheer mass of numbers.

On the one hand we have the individual reduced to anonymity in the masses - s/he is an intellectual, a rational, even a moral unit of the State.  On the other we have the important counterbalance of the Religious Principle which, to use a metaphor, hitches our mundane wagon to an extramundane star.  Religion balances humankind by adding in the irrational element (Jung), or as I would put it the non-rational element.

Our psychiatrist points out that in totalitarian régimes the party rule book becomes the creed, and Communism or Fascism the religion and the Dictator becomes the demigod, beyond good and evil, "and the votaries are honoured as heroes, martyrs, apostles, missionaries."  (Ibid., p. 17)

Jung goes on to state that religion is "an instinctive attitude" peculiar to humankind.  (Ibid., p. 18)  This is instinctive because humankind knows that there is much more hidden knowledge available to him in the unconscious realm of his psyche.  Religion with its cultic element, that is its liturgical rites (I remember when I learnt theology all those years ago that Religion was inseparably CODE, CREED and CULT, a wonderfully precise definition of what the Churches mean by Religion.)  However, Jung is here arguing that the various rites of the religions are in fact an external acting out of these instinctive, almost unconscious motivations and desires.  They are, as it were, a symbolic or metaphorical representation of the unconscious.  Jung mentions phrases that ring beautiful to my ears like the necessity we have for "rites d'entrée et de sortie" with their "magical efficacy" (read psychic for magical here!)  One feels here that "miraculous", "mystical" as well as "magical" are all synonyms for psychic!  (Jung contends, and he is so right, that all totalitarian régimes have their "religious" ceremonies in mass rallies, processions, parades etc.  Then, the "fear of God" is often replaced by "terror of the dictator."!

In this sense, Jung is also correct when he emphasises the fact that the Religious Sense or Instinct will always be with us because it is essentially an instinctive attitude which rushes in to counterbalance the onesidedness of mere uncoupled rationality in humankind's make-up.  Religion serves this balancing function by its "conscientious regard for the irrational factors of the psyche and individual fate."  (Ibid., p. 19)  Being a lover of classical allusions, our dear and learned psychiatrist uses a beautiful Latin phrase with respect to the persistence of religion or the persistence of the instinctual with which I will finish this post: Naturam expellas furca tamen usque recurret (You can throw out nature with a pitchfork, but she'll always turn up again).

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