“… nobody assumes that God is an immediate experience. In the Christian church they talk so much of the necessity of believing in God that one really becomes doubtful whether God can be an experience. You see, if we have the experience, we don’t need to believe. So the Greek word pistis, which means confidence, loyalty, is not at all what we understand by believing; it means the loyalty to the fact of the experience. … All the belief in the world doesn’t make it;… without an experience of God one has really no right to make the effort to believe—it leads nowhere;…”
Belief is no adequate substitute for inner experience, and where this is absent even a strong faith which came miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously. People call faith the true religious experience, but they do not stop to consider that actually it is a secondary phenomenon arising from the fact that something happened to us in the first place which instilled pistis into us—that is, trust and loyalty. …
“It is dangerous if these matters [religious symbols] are only objects of belief; for where there is belief there is doubt, and the fiercer and naïver the belief the more devastating the doubt once it begins to dawn….”
“… I for my part prefer the precious gift of doubt, for the reason that it does not violate the virginity of things beyond our ken.”
“Where there is faith, there is doubt; where there is doubt, there is credulity; where there is morality, there is temptation.”
“… We want to have certainties and no doubts—results and no experiments—without even seeing that certainties can arise only through doubt and results only through experiment. The artful denial of a problem will not produce conviction; on the contrary, a wider and higher consciousness is required to give us the certainty and clarity we need.”
As I noted in earlier essays, Jung had little use personally for organized religion. As a youth Jung had witnessed how theology had offered no support for his pastor father in his struggles with his faith. Later, as an adult, Jung and his family were not church-goers, and Jung objected to the way religious dogma served as a “defense” against the experience of God. To Jung, “religion” was all about individual encounters with the numinosum—encounters that precluded the need for belief.
The authors of the books of the New Testament support Jung in their choice of language, although this is not obvious unless you can read the Scripture in the original Greek. In this essay I will examine some of the references to belief, doubt and trust in the New Testament and then consider Jung’s thoughts on doubt and trust.
Insights from the New Testament
Over two dozen verses in the Gospels and epistles use the verb pisteuo, and the nouns pistis and apistia, which are usually translated as “believe,” “belief” and “doubt/unbelief.” For example, Mark 6:5-6 is usually rendered “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.” Matthew 8:10 & 13 in the New International Version says “… I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith…. Go! It will be done just as you believed it would….” And Mark 9:23-24: “Everything is possible for him who believes…. I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
But such translations are not true to the original Greek. The Greek verb, pisteuo, means “to trust,” “rely on” or “feel confident about” something. Pistis is a noun meaning “trust,” “trustworthiness,” “confidence” or “assurance.”—actions and states of mind based on one’s personal experience. Apistia is the negation of pistis, meaning “distrust,” or “mistrust.” Translations more faithful to the original meaning of the Greek would be:
Mark 6:5-6: “And he [Jesus] could not do there any act of power, except to lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he marveled at their lack of trust.”
Matt 8:10 & 13: “ … I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great trust… Go! “As you trust it will be so, so it is done to you.”
Mark 9:23-24: “All sorts of powerful abilities are possible for him who has trust….I do have trust; help me overcome my mistrust!”
What happened that the meanings of these words changed? In the context of the history of Christianity the evolution in meaning here might be due to the fact that as time passed few authors of the New Testament had personal experience of Jesus. The author of the Gospel of John, for example, notes how differently the Samaritans felt about what the Samaritan woman told them compared with their own experience of Jesus:
Many of the Samaritans from that town put their trust in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more came to put their trust in him. They said to the woman, “We no longer trust just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
The Greek verb for “know” in this passage is eido, “to see” (with one’s own eyes and therefore) “to know, based on personal experience.” It is one thing to take someone’s word for something and quite another to be able to draw on your own experience. We understand this in our colloquial expressions “Seeing is believing” and “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Jung recognized this distinction. Faith and belief are built on hearsay. As the quote opening this essay noted, Jung recognized how the church is always asking people to believe, to have faith, to turn away from doubt. This is because all the dogmas organized religions serve up make it less and less likely that “God can be an experience,” as Jung put it. Jung would prefer that people have direct, personal contact with the Divine, thus making belief unnecessary: “… if we have the experience, we don’t need to believe.”
Jung cited the apostle Paul as a classic example of an individual who had had a personal experience of the Divine, on the road to Damascus, and who thereafter manifested pistis—loyalty or fidelity to that fact. “… he stuck to that experience and didn’t go away from that fact.” Jung did likewise: He had many personal encounters with the Divine and stuck with them, so that, a year or two before he died, when asked if he believed in God, he could tell John Freeman that he did not, because he had come to know God.
More than his personal experience led Jung to stress experience over belief. He understood how times have changed and how modern people “… no longer feel redeemed by the death of Christ; they cannot believe—…” and “… it is not possible to compel belief….” Making belief even less likely is our culture’s deep engagement with science:
… to believe has become such a difficult art today that it is beyond the capacity of most people, particularly the educated part of humanity. They have become too accustomed to the thought that, with regard to immortality and such questions, there are innumerable contradictory opinions and no convincing proofs. And since ‘science’ is the catchword that seems to carry the weight of absolute conviction in the temporary world, we ask for ‘scientific’ proofs. But educated people who can think know very well that proof of this kind is a philosophical impossibility. We simply cannot know anything whatever about such things. [e.g. what happens after death].
So belief becomes tenuous and “… notoriously apt to disappear as soon as one begins thinking about it. … Belief is no adequate substitute for inner experience, and where this is absent even a strong faith which came miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously….” To Jung the “true religious experience” was not faith but an event—some sort of personal encounter with something greater “… which instilled pistis into us…” With trust or loyalty to one’s own experience, an individual had a solid base on which to build a life. Absent such experience, forced to rely on belief and faith, a person was liable to doubt, credulity and fear.
Jung on Doubt
Charles Davis, the papal legate from Britain to the Second Vatican Council, wrote a short book, Temptations of Religion, in which he identified four “temptations” that religions often fall into: cosmic vanity (thinking that your belief system is right and everyone else’s is wrong), pride in history (which thwarts change and adaptation to new realities—like women’s equality), the anger of morality (which shows up in its most extreme form in anti-abortion foes killing doctors) and the lust for certitude. This last is relevant here.
It is very common for religions to fall into the temptation of lusting for certitude. Congregants are urged to “have faith!” “Don’t doubt!” “Believe in Jesus” etc.—all of this pressed upon the flock with passion and intensity. Priests, pastors, rabbis and imams clearly don’t want their followers to fall away in succumbing to doubt.
To Jung, their very passion and intensity are signs of doubt (perhaps buried deep in the unconscious), for Jung recognized that
“Where there is faith, there is doubt; where there is doubt, there is credulity;…” “wherever doubt holds sway there is uncertainty and the possibility of divergent ways. And where several ways seem possible, there we … are handed over to fear.”
Part of the fanaticism found in fundamentalists (of whatever ilk) lies in their inner, repressed doubt and the fear that accompanies it: “For every one-sided conviction is accompanied by the voice of doubt, and certainties that are mere beliefs turn into uncertainties…”. Rather than harangue followers and demonize doubt, Jung regarded doubt as a “precious gift,” and he suggested resolving doubt by experiment: test hypotheses/beliefs by living them out. He quotes one of his favorite authors, the 16th century alchemist Gerhard Dorn, on this point:
“Knowledge is the sure and undoubted resolution [resolutio] by experiment of all opinions concerning the truth…. Experiment is manifest demonstration of the truth, and resolution the putting away of doubt. We cannot be resolved of any doubt save by experiment, and there is no better way to make it than on ourselves.”
Making an experiment on ourselves—subjecting our own beliefs to testing—leads to pistis, that trust that is borne of personal experience. Ever the empiricist, in this Jung put his confidence.
Jung on Trust
One of the qualities I like most about Carl Jung was his honesty: He lived his words. He “walked his talk,” as the modern idiom has it. Like Paul who was “thrown down” by his experience of God, Jung was buffeted and challenged repeatedly in his life in his encounters with the Divine. The result? A firm trust in God that allowed Jung to deal with his own shadow and the shadows of his patients with confidence.
With this trust Jung could stay loyal to his own experience, even when it meant going it alone, breaking with his father-figure mentor, enduring isolation, opprobrium, being misunderstood and ignored for many years. This trust allowed Jung to give voice to a wealth of ideas—like the collective unconscious, archetype, anima/animus, shadow, Self—that enrich our understanding of human nature and likely will carry the discipline of psychology in new, more meaningful directions in the future. By noting the Scriptural mistranslations of “trust” as “belief,” Jung helps us to develop a more reliable inner locus of security rooted in our personal experience of the Self.
Davis, Charles (1973), Temptations of Religion. New York: Harper & Row.
Hannah, Barbara (1976), Jung: His Life and Work, A Biographical Memoir. New York: G.P. Putnam.
Jung, C.G. (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.
________ (1977), C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, ed. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1998), Jung’s Seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, ed. James Jarrett. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Layton, Bentley, The Gnostic Scriptures. Garden City: Doubleday Books, 1987.
Liddell & Scott (1978), An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
 Jung (1998), 231-2.
 Collected Works 10, ¶521. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 CW 11, ¶294.
 CW 12, ¶8.
 CW 11, ¶791
 CW 8, ¶751.
 Cf. “Jung the Man,” and “The Religious Impulse in the Human Being,” archived on this blog site.
 Jung (1965), 93.
 Hannah (1976), 51.
 CW 11, ¶81.
 E.g. Matthew 9:22; 13:58; 21:32; 27:42; Mark 1:15; 5:36; 6:5-6; 9:23-24; 11:22-24; 16:14-16; Luke 8:12; John 1:12; 4:42; 5:44; 5:47; 6:29; 7:5; 12:36; 14:12; 16:30-31; Hebrews 3:19.
 Liddell & Scott (1978), 641.
 Ibid., 93.
 Note the powerful consequence of mistrust: An enlightened figure as powerful as Jesus could not work miracles in the midst of a community that lacked trust. This indicates how important it is for those working to develop trust to be careful in their choice of associates.
 It is important to remember that few of the books of the New Testament were written by the people whose names got associated with them. With the exception of Luke, Acts and 7 of the Pauline epistles, the Gospels and other books are examples of “pseudepigraphy,” the practice (common in the ancient and medieval worlds) of attaching a prestigious name to a work so as to give it more authority. Layton (1987), 303.
 John 4:39-42.
 Liddell & Scott (1978), 226.
 Jung (1998), 231.
 Jung (1977), 428.
 CW 11, ¶516.
 CW 8, ¶790.
 CW 10, ¶521.
 Davis (1973), 1-25.
 CW 11, ¶791.
 CW 14, ¶314.
 CW 12, ¶8.
 CW 14, ¶362.
 Jung (1998), 231.
 CW 12, ¶37.
 I.e. Sigmund Freud.
 For more on developing an inner locus of security, see the essay “Components of Individuation,” archived in 4 parts on this blog site.
I did find that Jung’s interpretation was difficult to share with people who gravitated to organized Religion, (creeds) Jung’s idea of an evolving God was not often received well.
One of my favorite Jung reference is found in the forward of his basic writings. “Myth, says a Church Father, is what is believed always, everywhere, by everybody”; hence the man who thinks he can live without myth, or outside it is an exception. He is like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or yet with contemporary human society. He does not live in a house like other men, does not eat and drink like other men, but lives a life of his own sunk in a subjective mania of his own devising, which he believes to be the newly discovered truth. This plaything of his reason never grips his vitals.
For me Jung makes the case of the importance of history whether God, fact, or myth. To ignore it is to ignore one’s own life and its connection with history.
posting. The subject of Jung on doubt got me to wondering if you’ve read
Joseph Atwill’s Caesar’s Messiah? His thesis is that the Flavian’s created
Christianity to force the Jews to accept Roman rule and Caesar as Lord.
Speaking of doubt this raises some for me too but seems plausible. Have you
read this and do you have any opinions about it? Especially as to how
Gnosticism, the other doubters, may have contributed to Christianity’s
It’s great to hear from you–I hope all’s well with you. I haven’t read Atwill’s “Caesar’s Messiah,” but it sounds like a book I should read. Thanks for calling it to my attention. I have heard of his thesis, however, and I think to a degree it is historical, i.e. the persecution some of the emperors ordered sparked evolution of the faith, and I could believe that, as a way to undermine the Jewish kings, the Romans would have instigated dissension and uprisings like those occasioned by Paul, Peter and the other evangelists. These instances of civil unrest gave the Romans the excuse to move in, the ultimate example being the forced diaspora in 70AD. As for the Gnostics, they were quite influential in the formation of Christianity, as Elaine Pagels explains in her recent books. Paul was much influenced by Gnostic ideas, which is pretty obvious for those who can read his letters in the original Greek: many of the words and phrases Paul uses are clearly Gnostic, and his terms for his closest followers are Gnostic terms. Jung’s response to religious doubt, of course, is to have personal experience of the Divine. A personal confrontation with the “mysterium tremendun” leaves no room for doubt! Thanks so much for taking the time to post your comment.