Spirituality and Religion, By Margaret Clark

Our spiritual needs

Over the door at his house in Zurich, Jung had inscribed: ‘Whether summoned or not, God will be present’ (‘Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit’ ). This sums up Jung’s attitude to religion and spirituality, in his life and in his work. They are an ever present and hugely powerful, even if unacknowledged, factor.

Jung differentiates between religion and spirituality. He understood our spiritual needs as, ‘as real as hunger and the fear of death’ (Jung, 1928, Coll. Wks, para. 403) – as basic, as profound, as essential as these other deep guides, or archetypal patterns, which govern how we try to live.

We try to satisfy such spiritual longings in myriad ways. They are at root a longing to find meaning and purpose in our lives. So for some people it is the success of ‘their’ football team, for some the pursuit of the ‘perfect’ body or a ‘perfect’ relationship – a happy family or a satisfying sexual relationship – or a lot of money and possessions.

These aims can all go wrong, and become to our detriment rather than to our well being – being a  fan of ‘my’ team  can lead me to brawls and insults with fans of other teams, the search for a satisfying sexual relationship can lead to endless disappointments and endless, bitter searching, the attempt to achieve a ‘perfect’ body can lead to anorexia, the longing for money and possessions can lead to stealing, gambling and  corruption, and to seeing everything, including other people, in terms of their material worth.  Midas had to learn this lesson the hard way.


Jung came increasingly to think that the healthiest spiritual aim, that is, the one of most benefit to the individual, is that of individuation – of trying to become more and more fully and truly who we essentially are. This becoming conscious of more and more of our unconscious motivations, fears and longings, is a lifelong process and can be followed along many different paths, two of which are, Jung thought, analysis and religion. In 1928 (C.W.7, para. 266) he wrote:

‘Individuation means becoming an “in-dividual,” and, in so far as “individuality” embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one’s own self. We could therefore translate individuation as “coming to selfhood” or “self-realization.”’

We could also translate individuation as becoming un-divided – becoming more and more of our own full self, having less of it projected or repressed or split off and denied.

Religion as a spiritual path

Just as other spiritual paths can be perverted to a lesser good, so too can religion. A belief in God, belonging to a religious community of whatever creed and faith, and following the required practices of that community, are no guarantee that this is a life-enhancing path to pursue. It may be so – and particularly in the mystical tradition which shares major characteristics in all the main world religions, and in Buddhism. The emphasis in this tradition is on personal responsibility, on a direct experience of being with God, or being a part of God, or a vehicle through which God’s grace and gifts can be communicated to others. There is always an acknowledgement of how much the devotee does not and cannot know of God, of an appropriate humility before the unknown and the unknowable. In this of course it has much in common with some scientific approaches to attempts to understand the external world we live in. The danger in mysticism is of inflation, even of psychotic proportions – ‘I am  God’, rather than ‘I am one of the innumerable names of God, as is everyone else, and my task is to access and facilitate the expression of this particular aspect of God’ (c.f. Armstrong, A History of God, 1993, pp. 274-276). It is clear that this formulation is very similar in its purpose and its implementation, though not in its language, to Jung’s definition of individuation, given above.

The other danger of the religious path to spiritual fulfilment is fundamentalism. This is the opposite of individuation, in that it requires a belief in a static, once-and-for-all truth which is given by others, by authorities external to the individual, rather than being an evolving truth dependent on the psyche of the individual searcher. Nevertheless, Jung saw that for some people the structure of a church was an adequate psychic container, and he was content to end a therapy if the patient returned to, or joined, a religious community (c.f. Jung, 1946, The Psychology of the Transference, C.W. 16, paras 390-391; c.f. Clark, 2012, Understanding Religion and Spirituality in Clinical Practice, pp. 12-14). He has been accused of being elitist in saying that the path of individuation is not for everyone – but clinical experience suggests he was simply being realistic. To wean someone away from total reliance on the judgements of others, from reliance on a God who tells them what to do in every aspect of their life, from food to money to family to television to sexual relationships, with the promise of salvation if all rules are obeyed – such an undertaking is only possible if the person has sufficient ego-strength to sustain themselves, to comfort themselves if they break a ‘rule’ and not fear eternal punishment, to create their own psychic structures outside the religious community. For some this is not possible, and to attempt a more fulfilling spiritual path is likely to lead to severe breakdown of the present psychic structures, with nothing to put in their place.

Individuation as a spiritual path

To some extent, we all follow the spiritual path of individuation, usually unconsciously, when ‘it means no more than that the acorn becomes an oak, the calf a cow, and the child an adult’ (Jung, 1952, Answer to Job, C.W. 11, para. 755). But it is the conscious, chosen following of this path which Jung sees as the true spiritual achievement.

Jung himself separated from the church of his father (in which eight of his uncles were also ministers) in dramatic fashion, when he was twelve years old. He was entranced by the sight in ‘radiant sunshine’ of the roof of Basle cathedral glittering, and at the thought of God sitting above it, ‘far away in the blue sky on a golden throne and…’. For two days, Jung was unable, through terror, to complete his thought. Then, he wrote,

‘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’ (Jung, 1962, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Chapter  2).

We could think of this as Jung’s natural adolescent development – the acorn becoming an oak – though with extreme violence; but although in his vision Jung destroyed the religious structures (the church and its hierarchy) of his father, he left his father’s God intact – indeed, this God is doing the destructive deed Himself.

Jung’s experience in this Basle vision led, after many years of doubt and struggle, and the loneliness of such total repudiation of his family and cultural tradition, to his knowing that he lived, not ‘in the Christian myth’ but by ‘[his] personal myth … I understood that the self is the principle and archetype of orientation and meaning’ (Jung, MDR, Ch. 6). This involved the internalisation of his father’s external God  – or at least the realisation that since God and the self are both unknowable, they could be the same, and one a projection of the other – more often, he refers to God as being a projection of the self (Jung, Ans. To Job, C.W. 11, para. 757). To call Christianity a ‘myth’ took great courage – it was only when he found parallels to his own ‘myth’ of individuation in mediaeval alchemical texts and in ancient Chinese writings that he could think he was not mad and that he could dare to write Aion (1951) and Answer to Job (1952). He did not add the definition of the self to the ‘Definitions’ at the end of Psychological Types (published in 1921) until 1960 – it seems he feared the reaction.

The symbolism of the Christian story

Jung continued to find in the Christian story vital, archetypal, living symbols of the individuation process. His papers on Psychology and Religion (1940), the Mass (1941/42) and the Trinity (1942), together with Aion (1951) and Answer to Job (1952), explore in detail the current relevance of much of the Christian story, and throughout his writing he uses the concepts of God, Mary, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and Satan, and makes reference to the great themes of Christianity – sin, judgement, forgiveness, redemption, death, resurrection, evil – to illustrate his psychological arguments. In a lengthy correspondence with Victor White, a Dominican monk, he argued tenaciously for the existence of evil in its own right, and not just as the absence of good; he was living through the Second World War, saw the effects of Nazism in Vienna on Freud and his circle, and then, after 1945 and the bombing of Hiroshima, was living in the nuclear age. Jung was a realist.

Jung understood the relevance of the Christian story in its ever-living symbolic power and truth. He thought of the life and death of Christ as happening now, always, in a dimension to our ordinary life which we might think of as ‘eternal life’ or ‘the objective psyche’ – a dimension in which time, and the split between our conscious and our unconscious awareness of events, do not exist, ‘as if a window or a door had been opened upon that which lies beyond space and time’ (Jung, 1940/41, Transformation Symbolism in the Mass, C.W. 11, paras 307, 323). So the self-sacrifice of Jesus in his death is eternally present in this timeless dimension of our lives, and so is always powerfully available as a symbol with immediate and current relevance – the death of the ego and the resurrection of a new ‘I’ (which no-one recognises at first, as none of the disciples immediately recognised the risen Christ), the death in seeming failure and the resurrection in new hope and a new way of life, the ending of all familiar security and then the coming, after a descent into Hell / despair, of something recognisably the same yet amazingly new and different – we have all had such experiences on a smaller or a larger scale, and Jung saw the story of Christ’s death and resurrection as symbolising this common, yet often traumatic, experience (c.f. Jung, 1940, Psychology and Religion, C.W. 11, paras 147-149).

Similarly, every phase of Jesus’ life, and each of the parables, can be understood as symbols of our psychic development. Edinger, an American Jungian analyst, has expounded some of these in his book The Christian Archetype (1987) – such as the way the story of Herod, so terrified at the threat to his reign of the birth of the new ‘king’ that he kills all the baby boys under two, symbolises the terror of the ego at the birth, the beginning, of some new movement in the psyche which threatens the supremacy of the ego-as-it-now-is, and which can lead to a violent repression of the new hope / way of life – a refusal to hold a conversation with a new possibility.  Edinger’s book makes explicit more of the Christian symbolism, in ways which it seems Jung would have approved of  – in 1946 Jung wrote:

‘Their [the Christian churches’] truth may, with more right than we realize, call itself “eternal”, but its temporal garment must pay tribute to the evanescence of all earthly things, and should take account of psychic changes. Eternal truth needs a human language which alters with the spirit of the times. The primordial images [the archetypes themselves] undergo ceaseless transformation and yet remain ever the same, but only in new form can they be understood anew. Always they require a new interpretation if, as each formulation becomes obsolete, they are not to lose their spellbinding power … What is that about “new wine in old bottles”?’ (Jung, 1946, The Psych. of the Tr., C.W. 16, para. 396).

Jung saw that, following the spiritual path of individuation, we are all now ‘no more than the stable in which the Lord is born’, and he hoped that more people would consciously choose this path and that this would bring about ‘a Christification of many’ (Jung, 1942, ‘A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity’, C.W. 11, para. 267; Ans. to Job, C.W. 11, para. 758).

Conclusion – Carl Jung on Religion

For Jung, it is the internal life of the psyche not external events which are of paramount importance (MDR, Prologue). We may think this is too one-sided, and that our external life has its own equal importance. But for Jung, the external forms of religion are one means to follow our true spiritual path, which he saw as individuation, and in this quest all external events can be understood symbolically.

Further suggested reading:

Jung, C.G.: Memories, Dreams, Reflections, various paperback editions

Jung, C.G.: Collected Works, Vol. 11

Edinger, E.: 1987: The Christian Archetype

Clark, M.:2012: Understanding Religion and Spirituality in Clinical Practice


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