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The Sacred Psyche: C.G. Jung's Psychology of Religion

Religion and the Search for Meaning

Many consider ours the "age of anxiety" with near-constant threats of terror, fear, and ecological disaster at alarmingly global levels. Who has time to reflect upon or consider the deeper psychological and spiritual realities underlying these crises, much less the interest or courage or examine one's own role in these complicated and challenging world events? To Jung, religion, or a "religious attitude" was a means for examining the deeper mysteries of life, and offered a vision of wholeness and healing amidst challenging and difficult times.

Jung's own psychological and spiritual outlook was formed during World War I and only further strengthened through witnessing the atrocities of World War II. Jung knew the dark side of human nature through both the cultural and political events of his time, as well as through the personal lives of his many clients, who brought to his attention the growing sense of alienation, fragmentation, and inter-personal disconnect that continue to plague many of us today despite the myriad advances in technology and so-called "social" media. There is an emptiness in our culture that all of the social and economic security in the world could not cure. To Jung, it was the religious impulse - inherent in the sacred nature of the psyche (soul) - that has the potential to heal the restlessness and material craving so prevalent in our time, and provide us with living symbols, rituals, and rites of passage to meaning-make life's transitions and encounter a world ensouled.

The Numinous: Encountering the Sacred

Jung used religious scholar Rudolf Otto's term numinous (from the Latin, numen, or "divine presence") to describe the ineffable and mysterious presence of the Sacred. Otto defined this as a feeling of awe, of standing in the presence of a great mystery, a humbling power greater than one's own limited self. The felt presence of the numinous became a marker for Jung of authentic religious experience, which he favored over the rote repetition of ritual for obligation's sake. To Jung, it was the encounter with the Sacred that formed the center of a whole and fully human life, and was central to the process of healing and individuation as he understood it.

Scripture and the Sacred Psyche

Sacred Scriptures from across the world's religious traditions help us to appreciate and enter into a relationship with the numinous aspects of the psyche, or soul. The ancient practice and art of lectio divina, or sacred reading, serves as a tool to make oneself fully present to the living wisdom hidden within a text. For thousands of years people have ruminated (literally, "to chew") on passages of such sacred texts as the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras, Upanisads, Tao te Ching, and of course the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic Scriptures. When we live with texts, they become part of our sacred vocabularly, and provide a subtle yet profound entry point into a living relationship with the divine.

When we read and listen to Scripture - from all traditions - with the ear of the Soul, metaphor replaces literal interpretation, so the Exodus and desert experience of the ancient Israelites becomes our own arid separation and search for the presence of God, or "promised land." Pharoah becomes our own internalized voices of oppression, and Moses, our own personal and often reluctant hero and redeemer within. When we read Scripture with an ear towards Soul, the texts and traditions of our ancestors resonate and often reveal the living voice of our own deeply personal and unique journey to Self.

A Therapeutic Approach to Religion

Jung has a famous quote that of the many hundreds of patients he treated in the "second half of life" (which he defines as over the age of 35), "there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life" (Modern Man in Search of a Soul). What Jung meant by this, was that for many individuals, the loss of a living religious or spiritual belief system and practice has led to a wide-spread loss of soul. To Jung, religion is not defined through institutionalized practices, but as a personal need to invoke and invite the Sacred into our daily lives. Religion, and its counterpart, ritual, help us to meaning-make the moments and transitions of our lives, to find a deeper sense of purpose embedded in the mundane, and to connect with a power greater than our limited selves throughout our lives.

Jung understood the contemporary crisis of faith as stemming from an over-reliance on a reductionistic and scientifically materialistic worldview that has resulted in the wide-spread collapse of any meaningful religious mythology or culture. Even with all of the tremendous and valuable gains that a scientific outlook has offered, it simply cannot cure - nor does it even address - the deep and abiding ailments of the soul. Such soul wounds demand a deeper kind of healing that in my experience can only be fed through an encounter with the numinous, and maintained through a thorough re-envisioning of the world as Sacred.

Jung's approach to healing soul wounds was for individuals to look within - to seek guidance from an internal source of wisdom, intuitive knowledge, and understanding that he called the Self. It is from this encounter with the Self as voice of the Sacred that the living symbols and myths of religious cultures for millennia have arisen, and is no less available to us today as it was in previous generations - if only we seek to establish a relationship with its guidance from within.

Holy Wisdom (Sophia) personified as the feminine face of God. Saint John's Bible (detail).


From a Jungian perspective, the modern religious crisis and collapse of many mainstream religious organizations can be understood as a loss of relevant and meaningful "god-images." Jung used this term to define how we visualize and mythologize the Sacred. To Jung, many of our Western god-images are "incomplete," and not only need - but want - to undergo the profound transformative process that Jung believed was both a necessary and participatory process. He understood that the revitalization and re-birth of a sacred image needs to come from within, and is birthed from both the personal as well as collective unconscious. In order to continue to speak to the needs of modern individuals, these god-images demand a continual re-visioning and re-valuation in order to remain psychically and soulfully resonant.

This re-imaging of our sacred landscape functions as a profound and often mysterious dialogue between our personal egoic self and the numinous dimension of the transpersonal Self. Jung takes up this process at length in his late work Answer to Job, where he offers a therapeutic "treatment" of the Western god-image and outlines its transformations both as Yahweh and as Christ, each of which Jung describes as "incomplete," and in need of further evolution in order for the Sacred to more fully "incarnate" through each of us.

Jung understood our god-images as mirrors of our own unconscious desires for wholeness and integration, and yet the majority of our Sacred images today lack a depiction of the Self that includes a positive affirmation of the body, sexuality, and the feminine aspects of God. Additionally, the theological understanding of God as "all good" relegates qualities of evil to an other who then becomes "not god" - historically seen as Satan or a devil figure, but today is projected onto any culture or peoples that represent "the enemy."

Jung referred to these hidden or "unconscious" aspects of the deity as "God's shadow" with our role, as full participants in the Mystery, to continue the incarnation of the god-image through an active engagement with - and integration of - these shadow aspects of the deity; subsequently transforming our own. This creates a reciprocity between human and divine, and furthers the profound "heretical" notion offered by Meister Eckhart, the 13th-century preacher and mystic, that God not only desires us, but needs us, just as we need God, in order to continue the deep and on-going work of transformation. It is only then that the Sacred can most fully break into the dailyness of our lives, transform our restless hearts, and provide us with a deep and abiding sense of meaning and purpose that emerges through a palpable and lived relationship with the sacred psyche.

Further Resources

Lionel Corbett (1996). The Religious Function of the Psyche. Routledge.

James Hillman (1967). Insearch: Psychology and Religion. Spring Publications.

C.G. Jung (1933). Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Harvest/HBJ.

C.G. Jung (1942/1948). "A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity" in Psychology and Religion: West and East (CW, 11). Princeton.

C.G. Jung (1952). "Answer to Job" in Psychology and Religion: West and East (CW, 11). Princeton.

C.G. Jung (1959/1968). "Christ, a Symbol of the Self" in Aion (CW, 9, ii). Princeton.

C.G. Jung (2009). The Red Book: Liber Novus: Reader's Edition. Norton.

Rudolf Otto (1923). The Idea of the Holy. Oxford.

Murray Stein (1985). Jung's Treatment of Christianity: The Psychotherapy of a Religious Tradition. Chiron.

David Tacey (2013). The Darkening Spirit: Jung, Spirituality, Religion. Routledge.

Treatment for the Book of Revelation. Saint John's Bible (Rev. 11:7-19, detail).

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