Thursday, February 03, 2011

A Short Jungian Interlude 6

Chapter five of Carl Gustave Jung's short book The Undiscovered Self is entitled "The Philosophical and the Psychological Approach to Life."  Once again, I must remind our readers that this book was written in 1957 at the height of The Cold War when our man was some 83 years of age.  To this extent it is a dated book by way of its references to Marxism and Communism.  These "-isms," as it were, sought to mould humankind in the image and likeness of the State, while Religions sought to mould our species into the image and likeness of the Godhead.  Hence, our basic convictions as human beings have become ever more rationalistic, Jung argues.  Our philosophy, in turn, has become an intellectual and academic affair rather than a way of life as it was in the old days.  In other words, philosophy had the heart knocked out of it to the advantage of giving its head the place of prominence.

Rupture between Faith and Knowledge:

St Peter's, Rome, the bastion of Roman Catholicism!
I have already outlined how Jung is stressing that a one-sided take on humanity (like the Marxist one), 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. 

He then gives some interesting insights into the purpose and nature of religious ceremonies.  These, he points out, caused absolutely no difficulty during the Middle Ages because the sciences were in their infancy then and psychological science did not exist at all.  Medieval man was a deeply religious species.  However, to the modern scientific mind, such religious ceremonies, with their symbols and symbolic actions, seem to be arrant nonsense.  Despite this suspicion, there is a paradox going on in the modern world, and that is, that somehow, despite all the advances in human knowledge, a deep instinct bids humankind hang on to these old ideas.  Why do we hang on to these old ideas despite obvious evidence to the contrary?  This is an important question that Jung asks here, a very important one indeed!

He goes on to answer the questions raised in the preceding paragraph clearly and succinctly thus: "The obvious purpose of this is to prevent him from falling into the abyss of nihilistic despair." (Op. cit., p. 52)  This point here strikes me deeply, and indeed in a serendipitous, if not synchronistic manner, in that this morning I chanced to listen to a wonderful interview on The John Murray Show on RTE 1 Radio Station which broadcast a wonderful illustration of exactly what Carl Gustave Jung's point is in the just quoted sentence.  It was an interview with author Neville Sexton on the life and death of his six-year old son Craig.  Indeed Mr Sexton has just written an obviously inspiring book on his late and wonderful son - really obvious from the passion and conviction with which he told his moving tale this morning.  Craig's story is a moving and inspiring tale of a young boy’s life, his death, and his family’s belief that he still lives on.  Mr. Sexton, a rational human being, who studied applied physics at university, informed his interviewer and listeners that if he were not to believe that somehow his brave and wonderful son was still living on at some other level of existence that he would have crumbled into hopelessness and despair.  He informed us also that it was impossible for him to go on with his life given a nihilism which denied an ultimate meaning to life.  In other words, here was a man, a human being, a husband and a father declaring for meaning, for belief in signs and symbols.  At one stage in the grieving process the young father broke down into a fit of uncontrollable weeping when he was alone after his son's death and in desperation he cried out into the emptiness around him:  "Craig, give me a sign you are still there!"  The father told us that his dead son has given them both several signs that he lives on since his death.  I won't relate them here as some of you may want to buy the book.  See these links here: Craig The Boy Who Lives for the book and Murray-Sexton Interview Podcast for the interview itself.

The Church of St John Lateran, Rome, May, 2008
However, Jung is quick to point out that he is against a complete literalism of signs and symbols which allows rationalists to excoriate religion as literalistic, narrow minded and obsolescent.  While such signs and symbols are not literal, they, nevertheless "possess a life of their own on account of their archetypal character."  I like this understanding of religion which Jung argues strongly for here, namely for its psychological import.  Religion and its symbols matter, not because they point to a life beyond this, but because they point to a deep life within us, the deep life of the psyche in all its dimensions.  Hence, we have the term depth psychology.  Rationalism would seek to deny this latter reality.  In other words it would literally throw the child out with the bathwater!

The contrast, Jung argues, between Faith and Knowledge has become so stark, so self-contradictory, so contrary that he can apply only one word to it, namely "incommensurable."  We cannot even compare them.  I remember learning many definitions of faith when I was a young theology student, e.g., "Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen." (St Paul)  "Faith is a knowledge born of love." (Bernard Lonergan, S.J.) and many others which do not come to mind at this moment.  They all possess a mystery and a depth, or, if you like, a quintessential paradoxical sense of what faith is - a deep belief in something despite the lack of obvious evidence.  Oftentimes in matters of the psyche we have to believe in certain things despite this lack of empirical evidence.  Faith uses indicators, signs and symbols.

Interestingly, Jung goes on to criticize the contemporary trends in theology, namely demythology and demythologization which were very popular in Protestant theology at that time and which were spearheaded by the Lutheran New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann.  This approach argued that all the layers of myth had to be painstakingly peeled away from the Gospels in an effort to get at the real facts of the life of Jesus.  Bultmann argued that, after such scholarship, the only fact needed for faith was essentially the historically verifiable fact that Jesus was crucified.  In this manner,  he succeeded in completely splitting faith from history.  Needless to say, such views caused consternation in some quarters.  After all history is not bare fact anyway - it's always interpretation, and whoever makes one or other interpretation is always important too.  Then, is not faith in its many forms different various interpretations of history as well?  However, it is the lessening or reduction, if not the implied outright rejection, of the inherent and native power of symbols that Jung takes offence at in Bultmann's view on demythology.  After all, and Jung argues this cogently, is not mythology "an integral component of all religions?"

Now, the split between Faith and Knowledge is itself a symptom of "the split consciousness which is so characteristic of the mental disorder of our day." (Ibid., p. 53)  There is an obvious "mental dissociation" or a "neurotic disturbance" in the psyche of modern humankind - pulled one way now and another way later.  There is no balance or equanimity to be found at all - all is disturbance.

(To be continued).

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