The Illness That We Are: A Jungian Critique of Christianity

John Douley’s 1984 Inner City book is a short (100 pages), heavily endnoted (16 pages) text that successfully captures Jung’s complex perspective on religion and religious experience. The subtitle of this book is as important as the title: A Jungian Critique of Christianity.

Much has been written on this subject. This is such a big topic in Jungian studies that when I started to reread Dourley’s text for this review, I was sure I was going to be let down. A case could be made that all of the Collected Works are directly or indirectly about “the illness that we are,” and probably a third of them directly about Jung’s critique of Christianity. What could 100 more pages possibly add to this incredible contribution of Jung’s? Dourley, however, delivers the goods, and what he gives us is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago.

With that said, and to contradict myself entirely, I am going to sum up Jung’s position on religion and religious experience in two statements, inspired by my reading of Dourley: First, religions were the original therapies, and on that basis alone deserve our attention and respect. When religions were working, they mediated the energies from the unconscious and helped to organize the outer world in ways that would align individuals with the necessary mythology that provided a meaningful life in an otherwise hostile and meaningless universe. They did this mostly through story, ritual and living symbols that maintained the individual’s relationship to the archetypal realm, or in religious language, that secured the individual’s relationship to the sacred, the numinous, the divine. This is no small feat.

The second statement is almost the opposite to the first: religions tend to keep individuals from religious experience. As religions become institutionalized, the power always seems to shift from the numinous phenomena at their core to the institutions themselves, as “custodians” of the numinous. Given an institution’s needs for survival and growth, it and its members are often infected with a kind of missionary/evangelical zeal on behalf of their own existence, a power trip in effect that sets them into perpetual motion. This is how institutions and the individuals within them can fall victim to the abuse of power, specifically with power becoming an end unto itself.

A priest class often arises around a sacred text interpreted by the reigning authorities who now come to dictate to one degree or another what the individual is to believe, how he or she is to express those beliefs, and how everyone will in effect live their lives according to those beliefs. The individual (often gladly) cedes both intellectual and emotional authority to the outside: the church, the synagogue, or the mosque (to speak only of the reigning monotheisms). These psychological spaces become themselves powerful symbols for what stands mightily in the world as religion proper and in turn become the symbolic “structures” to which the individual’s psychology now belongs. Hence, something essentially so nourishing and amazing becomes “the illness that we are.”

Gnosis, inner knowing, and individual religious experience are taken off the table, discouraged, and sometimes punished by the religious institution or organization so charged with taking care of the relationship between the human and the divine, or as Edinger might say, between ego and archetype. With the best of intentions perhaps, organized or institutionalized religions then become sanctuaries for their and our own neuroses, our own one-sidedness, our own need to be right. The weight of the organization or institution in turn legitimizes the mandate to protect and pass on the truth as it is revealed and handed down to its members and in opposition to all other competing “truths” or revelations.

Religions now feed their members the feeling of being chosen, special, entitled (in contrast to outsiders who are not chosen, the ordinary and the ignorant and wrong, if not the downright sinful). Religions then answer the perennial problem of abandonment and the need to belong. We all become at best “children of God”…a good thing as far as it goes, but a condition that raises at the same time the question of whether this affiliation will help us to become mature adults facing a world with such a highly questionable future. This kind of divisive, repressive, or regressive take on religion or religious expression concerned Jung for his entire life. He was not one to rest content with parochial or narrow-minded answers while looming and profound questions besieged him and his times.

Maybe somewhat surprisingly, among the Western religious traditions, Jung had a great appreciation for Catholicism as a mythological system that had much to teach him about religion in general and the authority of religion in the lives of individuals in particular. Historically, there was so much happening in the Catholic church that fascinated Jung, as it busied itself with the task of connecting its members to the divine in stunningly creative and sensuous ways. Compared to a stark Calvinism that stripped most everything away from Catholic/Christian mythology (except perhaps a particular take on the Bible), Catholicism was an embarrassment of riches.

But, while Catholicism was compelling as a religious tradition, Jung himself could not abide the church’s need for dogma and control of its members. This was too big a trade off for Jung, a position that is perhaps a throw back to his own rebellious, Protestant roots and independent Swiss nature. For Jung, the individual always runs the risk of being swallowed up by one version or another of the collective unconscious, taking the form of an institutionalized religion, even one so richly disguised and represented to its members as the Catholic church or any of the post-Reformation denominations that came after.

Jung’s mature psychological model speaks to those individuals who likewise have become disaffected with religious institutions that require conformity of thought and feeling in order to be taken as a member in good faith against the “unconverted” out there, or to those who are unable to take the Bible in a literal or punitive sense, like many fundamentalist and evangelical denominations currently do. In these ways, much of organized or institutionalized religion proved to him to be dangerous to one degree or another. It was this that drove his overarching challenge to Christianity.

Dourley, as a Catholic priest and Jungian analyst, focuses specifically on his own Catholic tradition in this work, but he carries Jung’s specific critique of Christianity all the way through his book as well. Basically the question becomes for Dourley and Jung “how does one acknowledge and participate in the sacred that for all times has existed and will exist when most all the religions in town require that you do it their way, i.e., the “right” way. Can they all really be right? And, am I willing to buy in at that level to any one of them?”

While all religions need not be this way, many experience organized religions to be profoundly and deleteriously coercive and righteous in this sense. The historical record certainly is harsh testimony against many of the religious traditions for both what they have done and equally for what they have not done while exercising their power on the planet. Here is how Dourley explains Jung’s solution to this dilemma, something we could call the problem of the “yes and no” that Jung takes to religions and religious experience:

“Jung goes to great lengths to show how the major Christian motifs–the Trinity, creation, the fall, the meaning of sacrifice (especially as contained in the Catholic rite of the Mass), death, resurrection, and eschatological unities–are all expressions of the deepest vitalities of the psyche seeking historical fulfillment in patterns of individual wholeness and communion. As such, these motifs are as deeply grounded in humanity’s experience of itself as are the capacity of its spirit to produce poetry and its sweat glands sweat.” (italics mine)

I love that paragraph…for its boldness, insight, grittiness, and the clarity it brings to Jungian studies, specifically to Jung’s work on religion and religious experience. It is a full out testimony to homo religiosus. Dourley goes on to say that one can take Jung’s perspective on religion and religious experience as “either abrasive or liberating.” But, he quickly adds, we rather need to take his writings as BOTH, abrasive and liberating; for there is precisely where Jung’s genius lies. Here are some reflections on the abrasive side. We will get to the liberating side shortly.

Jung would accuse Christians and Christian theologians of a “systematic blindness,” a “prejudice that God is outside of man.” He means here to put the source of God and religion self-consciously back into the psyche, where it always has been and will always be. Jung even goes so far to encourage the believer in any tradition to “become aware of the inner origin and power of his or her reigning divinity” (p. 24).

Given this awareness, Jung would invite the individual to have intrapsychic dialogues with what comes from this “turning in” process, a process of increasing self-knowledge and knowledge of the Self, the God-image within. This is the way that the individual moves to “greater personal wholeness in interplay with wider empathies” (Ibid). It is most assuredly not by repeating the catechism or citing chapter and verse from the Bible against the “unconverted.” This turning in is the Jungian pathway to both greater self-knowledge and knowledge of the Self that is otherwise known as “the way of individuation.”
We have moved here into Jung liberating religion and religious experience from institutions and delivering it to everyone on the planet, regardless of what tradition you may or may not have grown up in or currently belong to, or even if you have no exposure to a religious tradition at all. This certainly ups the stakes. Jung puts much greater responsibility on the individual to root his or her own authority into something deeper, something greater, with that something greater now continuously experienced from within. Jung would say that the “greater than” is the center and circumference of the psyche as a whole, the archetypal Self acting within and without.

In a passage cited by Dourley, Jung literally puts the fear of God in us with a quote that mandates taking up the religious quest for self-knowledge and knowledge of the Self. “If one refuses,” Jung declares, “the negative attitude may end in real death…The unconscious has a thousand ways of snuffing out a meaningless existence” (CW 14, par. 675).

Turning in becomes an expression of the religious instinct itself which will establish meaning for the individual in the cosmos in conjunction with the individual’s acceptance of the mandate for true self-knowledge. If this mandate is refused, Jung tells us, one risks being left with a meaningless life and hence one not worth living.

It is an amazing wonder of an idea for a psychologist to advocate: that self-knowledge and the religious instinct are so bound together that they set the stage for all religious experience and even what lies at the origins of all religious traditions. This declaration of the primacy of the psyche, and commitment to turning in, where it all is actually happening, is a strong if not unprecedented statement in the history of religions and religious experience that indeed is both “abrasive and liberating.” The psyche becomes the “place” where one encounters the holy, the divine, the sacred as well as the origins of the quest for self-knowledge and knowledge of the Self. Is this an attack on religion? Yes and No. Is it abrasive and liberating? Most certainly. The notion, however, can be summed up elegantly in the title of another one of Dourley’s books: Psyche as Sacrament. But, that volume will have to await a review by one of our Library’s future readers.

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