WHILE TWENTIETH CENTURY behavioural psychology denies the existence of spirituality, soul and even consciousness, in line with scientific positivism,[i] there is a long historical tradition of locating spirituality or ‘God’ within the individual, in both psychology and religion – hence Jungian depth and archetypal psychology, world mythology, Gnosticism, Buddhism, Western and Eastern mysticism and the ancient primal and polytheistic religions of the world.
Depth and archetypal psychology maintain the idea of spirituality as being inner, inherent in the mind, or intrinsic to the psyche or soul. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961), one of the greatest explorers of the human mind and a life-long student of world religions, both historical and cultural – is more than any other Western thinker in recent times associated with the search for inner spirituality. His thinking spans both modernism and postmodernism. English writer and broadcaster J.B Priestly (1894-1984), wrote of Jung in the Sunday Telegraph:
“He was on a giant scale…he was a master physician of the soul in his insights, a profound sage in his conclusions. He is also one of Western Man’s great liberators.” [ii]
Perceiving ‘spirituality as intrinsic to the psyche’ is both a recent phenomenon as well as having its roots in antiquity. However it has never been a mainstream focus of religion in the monotheistic West – and it is outside the orthodox religious establishments that it is again being seriously considered. Donald Broadribb argues that ‘God’ is increasingly being seen in terms of inner experience and process.
“In line with the more introverted religious philosophies of the East to which many Westerners are turning, “God” has come to be understood more and more as an inner experience and less and less as an identifiable “object” existing apart from the individual.”[iii]
Both Jung and the Gnostics of the early Christian period saw spirituality as an intrinsic property of the psyche. Self-exploration at the deepest levels, both believed, leads to spiritual wakening. In fact, “a true spiritual experience may be one of the most basic drives in the psyche, and may even be an essential psychological need.”[iv] Curtis Smith summarises Jung’s view that “the human position is supreme, with the psyche and its realization serving as the basis of religious meaning.”[v] To realise the psyche is to realise one’s interconnectedness with all things:
“At the farthest reaches of the self-realization process the boundary between psyche and world blurs to the point of extinction, so that rather than an impenetrable wall separating psyche and world, psyche and world appear as points on a continuum, forming an indivisible whole. For Jung, therefore human existence is simultaneously universal and particular… to realize the self is to realize one’s interconnectedness with all things.”[vi]
For Jung all religious experience is psychic in origin. While he is arguably the twentieth century’s greatest thinker on religion and spirituality as grounded in the psyche, and hence of depth or imaginative psychology, he is not the only thinker to link spirituality with the psyche. Even Freud (1856-1939), who made a devastating critique of religion on the “manifest” level as illusion, was on the “latent” level preoccupied with religion as mystery deep within the psyche.[vii]
THE INTERIOR JOURNEY into the depths of the psyche in search for the ground of all being, is inherent to both mysticism and depth psychology. Even within the Western monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which were not originally mystical, there are schools of thought and prominent individuals who have emphasised the subjective experience. ‘God’ and the Pleroma (representing a map of the soul) were not external realities ‘out there’ but were to be found within. Karen Armstrong, for example, points out that the Gnostics “showed that many of the new converts to Christianity were not satisfied with the traditional idea of God which they had inherited from Judaism.”[viii] Hippolytus in the Heresies admonishes:
“Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you makes everything his own and says, My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body. Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate. Learn how it happens that one watches without willing, loves without willing. If you carefully investigate these matters, you will find him in yourself.” [ix]
By concentrating on the divine energy within, rather than the nature of an external God outside, the mystic was better able to ‘untie the knots’ within the psyche and take ownership of personal ‘evil’, or the unrealised shadowside which conflicts with the ego, as Jung defined it. This was rather similar to the psychoanalytic attempt to unlock complexes which impede mental health and fulfilled living. Karen Armstrong, theologian and a former nun, argues:
“One of the problems of ethical monotheism is that it isolates evil. Because we cannot accept the idea that there is evil in our God, there is a danger that we will not be able to endure it within ourselves. It can then be pushed away and made monstrous and inhuman. The terrifying image of Satan in Western Christendom was such a distorted projection.” [x]
It is not hard to see that the mystic was often at odds with the certainties of mainstream and more dogmatic forms of religion. Since each individual had “had a unique experience of God, it followed that no one religion could express the whole of the divine mystery”.[xi] Donald Broadribb makes the point that:
“Judaism, Christianity and Islam in their main streams have at times during their history persecuted union mystics as heretics who deny the essential division between humanity and God, reserving the possible full union of human and divine for only one person (Jesus, in Christianity) or denying it altogether (as in Judaism and Islam).” [xii]
MYTHOLOGY which is a feature of primal religions, the pagan and the early matriarchal religions, has often been an attempt to explain the inner world of the psyche. However as Armstrong points out, the Gods and Goddesses of the myths were regarded as heathen, inferior and a challenge to the supremacy of the monotheistic God of the prophets of Israel:
“The prophets had declared war on mythology: their God was active in history and in current political events rather than in the primordial sacred time of myth.” [xiii]
Mythology was reasserted however when some monotheists turned to mysticism. Inadvertently or not, the mystics reissued the challenge to the supremacy of a monotheistic God idealised in dogmatic and politically orientated religious traditions. The mystical experience of “God” has characteristics common to all faiths and hence it tends to pull down the barriers separating religions. Armstrong further describes the mystical experience as being subjective, involving an interior journey.
“[It is] not a perception of an objective fact outside the self: it is undertaken through the image-making part of the mind – often called the imagination – rather than through the more cerebral, logical faculty. Finally, it is something that the mystic creates in himself or herself deliberately: certain physical or mental exercises yield the final vision; it does not always come upon them unawares.” [xiv]
Both Freud and Jung turned to the myths of the ancients to explain the inner world of the psyche and the unconscious.
The American Joseph Campbell’s (1904-1987) work in the study of world comparative mythology and comparative religion, also has strong affinities with Jung and depth psychology. As Armstrong points out, the current enthusiasm for psychoanalysis in the West can be seen as a desire for some kind of mysticism because there are arresting similarities between the two disciplines.[xv]
[i] Behaviourism is a school of psychology that regards objective observable aspects of the behaviour of organisms as the only valid subject of study; cf. Collins English Dictionary, eds., Hanks, P., Long, T.H., Urdang, L. (London: Collins, 1977),132. See also; A Dictionary of Philosophy, eds., Speake, J., Isaacs, A. (London: Pan Books, 1979), 37; The Oxford Companion to the Mind, ed., Richard L. Gregory (Oxford University Press, 1987), 71-74 ; The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed., Ted Honderich (Oxford University Press, 1995), 81-2.
[xv] Ibid, 245.