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Jung on Miracles
Here we have a little miracle. I have no prejudice against these little miracles. Such peculiar things take place occasionally, but how they are connected with our psychology God knows, I don’t. Only fools think that everything can be explained. The true substance of the world is inexplicable….
One always is making the mistake of not counting on miracles. But there are miracles only we don’t believe in them.
A miracle is something that arouses man’s wonder precisely because it seems inexplicable….
Within the reach of my experience I have never encountered a miracle. Thus I don’t know whether such things you mention are possible.
Between 1928 and 1930 Jung gave a seminar on dream analysis in which he repeatedly noted the appearance of miracles.5 Twenty-two years later, in a letter to an American college professor, Jung stated that he had never encountered a miracle.6 How so? Was Jung being forgetful or had his views evolved over those decades? He was neither forgetful nor had his views changed. We can get to the bottom of this seeming contradiction by understanding Jung’s sense of “miracle” and why he replied to Professor Hilty’s question in the negative.
Definitions of “Miracle”
The dictionary defines “miracle” as “a wonderful happening that is contrary to or independent of the known laws of nature.”7 Our English word comes from a Latin root mirari, “to marvel at.”8 A “miracle” is something that causes us to wonder or marvel.
Jung was more explicit in his definitions: “… acausal phenomena [are] otherwise called miracles,…”,9 “A miracle is something that arouses man’s wonder precisely because it seems inexplicable…”10 and “A miracle is an archetypal situation which is accompanied by a corresponding emotion.”11 The emotion can range from wonder to surprise, fright, awe, relief12 and a host of other powerful affects. More than the ensuing emotions, we need to examine Jung’s references to “acausal” and “archetype,” since he regarded miracles in the context of his understanding of synchronicity and the archetypes that underlie synchronistic phenomena.
Jung’s Approach to Understanding Miracles
“Synchronicity” was Jung’s term for the “meaningful coincidences”13 that appear in life, “curiosities”14 that demonstrate “that space and time, and hence causality, are factors that can be eliminated,…”15 allowing us to experience situations that seem to defy natural law. One venue where such situations regularly occur are in ESP experiments. Jung appreciated the work of J.B. Rhine, the pioneering researcher at Duke University who developed a laboratory devoted to all sorts of psi experiments.16 Jung felt that, by their very nature,
The questions set by the ESP experiment have an emotional effect right from the start, since they postulate something unknowable as being potentially knowable and in that way take the possibility of a miracle seriously into account. This, regardless of the subject’s skepticism, immediately appeals to his unconscious readiness to witness a miracle, and to the hope, latent in all men, that such a thing may yet be possible….17
Jung recognized that all of us, consciously or unconsciously, anticipate miracles, “even the most toughminded individuals,…”.18
But Jung then provides words of caution: “These [seemingly miraculous results in ESP experiments] will be interpreted as ‘miracles’ only by persons insufficiently acquainted with the statistical character of natural law.”19 The “miraculous” outcome of an experiment “…is not ‘miraculous’ but merely ‘extraordinary’ and unexpected, and then only from our biased standpoint which takes causality as axiomatic.”20
Jung understood that activities like ESP experiments and other forms of psi phenomena call up the collective unconscious, and “Wherever and whenever the collective unconscious (the basis of our psyche) comes into play, the possibility arises that something will happen which contradicts our rationalistic prejudices….”21 In other words, many instances of what we might regard as “miracles” are simply a failure on our part to recognize synchronicity or to understand statistical probabilities.
Another venue beside psi phenomena that appears in Jung’s writing is the field of miracle cures. In a 1959 letter to Wilhelm Bitter, Jung noted that “… it is very difficult to lay down any general principles in regard to this strange material.”22 He felt that the only way to tackle the question in depth would be through case histories, an endeavor which he had neither the time nor the physical strength to undertake (he was then 84 years old, just two years away from his death).23 So he responded to Bitter with a few suggestions: first, distinguish between what seem like “miracle cures” to ordinary people from those that seem miraculous to trained physicians. Many of what lay people will regard as miracle cures doctors will know are the result of recognized physiological processes.
But then there are those instances where even highly experienced physicians confront inexplicable healing transformations. How to explain this? Jung offered the thought that such cures might be due to
… contact with the sphere of the archetypes [which] can produce the kind of constellation that underlies synchronicity. . Naturally in these circumstances anything that borders on the miraculous, or actually is miraculous, may be expected, because for the life of us we cannot discover exactly how a synchronistic result comes about… At whatever point we enter the sphere of the archetypal, synchronistic events may be expected with some degree of probability; and… they happen to believers and unbelievers alike….24
What does it mean to “enter the sphere of the archetypes”? Jung describes this in a letter to A.D. Cornell:
The situation may be indicative of illness or danger to life, for instance. Consciousness feels such a situation to be overwhelming in so far as it knows no way to meeting it effectively. In this predicament, even people who can boast of no particular religious belief find themselves compelled by fear to utter a fervent prayer: the archetype of a ‘helpful divine being’ is constellated by their submission and may eventually intervene with an unexpected influx of strength, or an unforeseen saving impulse, producing at the last moment a turn in the threatening situation which is felt to be miraculous. Such crises have occurred countless times in human history.25
It is in those times when we are hard pressed, perhaps even at the point of death or total overwhelment, when the ego mind is forced to admit defeat, when we surrender the ego will and ask for help, that “spiritual agencies…agents that do not coincide with the conscious psyche…”26 can come to our aid, producing a miracle. And Jung notes that this is true whether the individual believes in such spiritual realities or not.
Jungian analyst Albert Kreinheder describes the “sphere of the archetypes” as “That ‘other world which we call the archetypal or the sacred dimension…” and he stresses that it is not
our personal ego self. It is not ‘part of me’ or ‘my unconscious.’ It is the unconscious. It is non-personal or supra-personal. When we confront it, when it touches us, we feel ourselves to be in the presence of the divine….27
Kreinheder felt that situations like this, when our human ego meets the divine, make miracle cures possible.
But not inevitable, because, as Jung repeatedly noted, “… for the life of us we cannot discover exactly how a synchronistic result comes about…”28 We cannot control the collective unconscious or the spirit. What we can do, Jung states, is seek to “perceive the meaning”29 in miraculous events. Things like miracles don’t just happen: they have a purpose or intention, and our task is to come to “an understanding of the spirit, which is the one essential thing.”30
So Jung recognized that there are events and experiences in life that we cannot explain logically. He reminds us that “Only fools think that everything can be explained. The true substance of the world is inexplicable….”31 Clearly, Jung had experienced such events, e.g. the instance with a patient who reported a dream of a scarab beetle just as the real beetle flew into Jung’s office.32 Why then did he write to Professor Hilty that he had never encountered a miracle?
Why Jung Stated He Had Never Encountered a Miracle
I think the answer lies in context. Hilty had written Jung with 24 questions about his religious faith.33 The ninth question was “Do you believe that miracles defined as events defying all laws of nature ever occurred? (E.g. A man ate fish and then went through a wood door, walked on water, and turned water into wine.)”
Jung replied as an empiricist: “Within the reach of my experience I have never encountered a miracle. Thus I don’t know whether such things you mention are possible.”34 Since Jung had never experienced anyone walking on water, passing through solid substances or turning water into wine, he was not prepared to state that he knew such miracles were possible.
Jung and Hilty were addressing the issue of miracles from very different perspectives, Hilty coming from a position of orthodox Christian faith, Jung from that of a scientific empiricist who understood that now “we are obliged to view the miraculous in a somewhat different light,… as… part of the scientific picture of the world… based not on philosophical assumptions but on empirical experience and experimentation.”35 Jung was prepared to speak to what he himself had experienced in his own life and in his work with patients. He would not go beyond admitting that much of our reality is inexplicable, particularly when we touch into the realm of the archetypes.
Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.
Jung, C.G. (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1984), Seminar on Dream Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kreinheder, Albert (1991), Body and Soul: The Other Side of Illness. Toronto: Inner City Press.
Lewis, Charlton & Charles Short (1969), A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
1 Jung (1984), 172.
2 Ibid., 559.
3 Collected Works 11, ¶379. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
4 “Letter to Palmer A. Hilty,” 25 October 1955, Letters, II, 275.
5 Compiled from students’ notes, this seminar was published as part of the Bollingen Series; Jung (1984).
6 “Letter to Palmer A. Hilty,” 25 October 1955, Letters, II, 275.
7 World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1236.
8 Lewis & Short (1969), 1149.
9 CW 8, ¶995.
10 CW 11, ¶379.
11 “Letter to A.D. Cornell,” 9 February 1960, Letters, II, 537.
12 Kreinheder (1991), 25.
13 CW 8, ¶995.
16 Jung corresponded with Rhine multiple times from 1934 to 1954; see Letters, I, 180-2, 190, 321-2, 378-9, 393-5, 495; Letters, II, 106-7, 126-7, 180-1.
17 CW 8, ¶848.
19 Ibid., ¶914.
20 “Letter to A.D. Cornell,” 9 February 1960,” Letters, II, 540.
22 “Letter to Wilhelm Bitter,” 17 April 1959,” Letters, II, 498.
23 He died on June 6th, 1961; Bair (2003), 623.
24 “Letter to Wilhelm Bitter,” 17 April 1959, Letters, II, 499.
25 “Letter to A.D. Cornell,” 9 February 1960, Letters, II, 541.
26 Ibid., 543.
27 Kreinheder (1991), 25.
28 “Letter to Wilhelm Bitter,” 17 April 1959, Letters, II, 499.
29 CW 11, ¶554.
31 Jung (1984), 172.
32 Jung described his experience with a patient who dreamt of such a beetle, only to have one appear the next day in her session with Jung; this experience shattered her rationalistic mind-set, thus allowing the analysis to begin; CW 8, ¶s 843 & 982.
33 “Letter to Palmer A. Hilty,” 25 October 1955, Letters, II. The full list of questions is given on p. 274.
34 Ibid., 275.
35 CW 8, ¶995.