Some Thoughts on Christian Moralists

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members. Honesty, as well as professional courtesy require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.

 

 

Some Thoughts on Jung and Christian Moralists

 

 

“… nobody knows what is good and what is evil. It would all be terribly simple if we could go by the Decalogue or the penal code or any other moral codex, since all the sins catalogued there are obviously so pointless or morbid that no reasonable person could fail to see how fatuous they are….”                                                Jung (1949)[1]

 

“…. I do not regard it for a moment as particularly meritorious morally for a person to avoid everything that is customarily considered a sin. Ethical value attaches only to those decisions which are reached in situations of supreme doubt….”

Jung (1949)[2]

 

“Nor can I regret it if these so-called Christians are tormented a bit. They have richly deserved it. They are always gabbling about Christian morality and I would just like to see someone for once who really follows it. … I only wish the Christians of today could see for once that what they stand for is not Christianity at all but a god-awful legalistic religion from which the founder himself tried to free them by following his voice and his vocation to the bitter end. Had he not done so there would never have been a Christianity….”                                                                         Jung (1949)[3]

 

“Agnosticism maintains that it does not possess any knowledge of God or of anything metaphysical, overlooking the fact that one never possesses a metaphysical belief but is possessed by it.”                                                                        Jung (1952)[4]

 

 

 

In 1948 Jung’s student Erich Neumann published a book, Depth Psychology and a New Ethic,[5] which ventured to propose that the practice of depth psychology—the analytical psychology that Jung had developed—was offering the world both a practical and intellectual foundation for a new ethical system. The book was greeted with dismay, consternation, and lots of questions, some of which got directed to Jung.[6] Jung’s letters provide us with his thoughts on both Neumann’s book, as well as insights into his opinion of Christian moralists.

Jung much appreciated Depth Psychology and a New Ethic, for its provocative content and perhaps even more for the “potent impetus for future developments”[7] that it was likely to provide, because of all the rancor and debate that it was stirring up. Jung admitted to Neumann that he was “combative by nature,”[8] and enjoyed good intellectual controversies.

The response to Depth Psychology led Jung to write letters[9] which contain some of the clearest exposition of Jung’s opinion of Christian moralists. These “so-called Christians”[10] betray the essence of what Jesus was about. How so? Jung gives us some specific examples.

Christian moralists venerate the Decalogue, even going so far as to have the ten commandments carved in stone and erected on public property (in direct contravention of the United States Constitution).[11] Jung regarded this and other moral codices as “fatuous,”[12] i.e. “stupid but self-satisfied, foolish, silly.”[13] Jung recognized that, in the clutch—when we are facing an ethical dilemma—these codes will not help us make a decision as to what is right to do.

Christian moralists often put a premium on avoiding “everything that is customarily considered a sin.”[14] Such a focus on being “good” is perilous, Jung recognized, because it is an imbalance, and such imbalances usually lead to an enantiodromia, a turning to the opposite.[15] Moralists so concerned with being perfect, acting just so, conforming to a rigid code, so often lack compassion, fall into immorality, or project their huge dark shadow on to their children.[16] The sordid story of some American televangelists reflect this dangerous imbalance,[17] and Jung tells of occasions when he met self-satisfied people who prided themselves on their Christian morals, whose children were in prison for various crimes.[18] This is not to suggest that Jung would encourage people to sin. The key is not to put too much stress on being good or measuring up to society’s norms. Far more important it is to be true to oneself and to follow the promptings of the Self.[19]

A third problem Jung had with Christian moralists is their “god-awful legalistic religion.”[20] Legalism was the sin of the Pharisees, who put more emphasis on strict adherence to the law than on compassion and love of others. Jesus was constantly calling them on this,[21] as Jung noted. Jesus “followed his voice and his vocation,”[22] which led him to love, care for and heal the sick and the tormented, regardless of whether it was the Sabbath, or conformed to the various legalisms of orthodoxy. In modern terms, the Pharisees’ criticism is what theologian Charles Davis calls the “anger of morality.”[23] In its most extreme form it shows up as the abortion opponent who kills a doctor so as to save the lives of fetuses.

Jung also objected to a variant of legalism: literalism, the method of interpreting sacred Scripture in a literal, rather than a symbolic or allegorical way. Paul warned the Corinthians against this, when he said “the letter kills but the Spirit gives life.”[24] To savor this “life” given by the Spirit, we have to read the Bible in a figurative way, for the power and healing potential embodied in the myriad symbols in the texts.[25]

Another problem Jung had with Christian moralists, who “are always gabbling about Christian morality…”[26] is that he never saw someone who actually followed Jesus. Many “so-called Christians” worship Jesus, they don’t follow him. But the Gospels indicate that Jesus never asked anyone to worship him: he repeatedly asked people to follow him.[27] Jung here is calling Christian moralists on their hypocrisy: they don’t walk their talk.[28] Among many fundamentalists there is a lot more emphasis on persona: on presenting an appearance, rather than acting out of love and compassion for others.

Jung recognized that authentic living will lead us inevitably at some points in life to situations where we face “conflicts of duty.”[29] These are times when no law codes, moral systems or external guidelines will help us, when we stand in the interstices of doubt. And this is yet another place where Jung has trouble with fundamentalists: They lust for certitude.[30] “Believe!” they say. “Don’t doubt!” This was one of the big problems Jung had with his father. When Jung would question, seeking to understand concepts in Christianity (like the Trinity), his father would respond with the admonition to believe, take it on faith. This never satisfied Jung.[31] As he matured, Jung came to realize that doubt is as much a part of life as breathing, and to deny this is a form of repression. Jung never told people to believe.[32] Rather he suggested people work within, become conscious of the unconscious and, in so doing, come to experience the Divine personally.

Finally Jung had little patience with those who claimed they had the Truth, that their religion was the Truth, and everyone who did not believe as they did would go to Hell. Jung reminds us that we are never in possession of the Truth. If we feel like we are, in actually we are possessed by a metaphysical belief.[33] No one has a monopoly on truth, Truth or the Divine. Claiming a monopoly on Truth is what Charles Davis calls “cosmic vanity,”[34] and it is responsible for most of the religious wars over the last 4,000 years, including our own time, as the Sunnis and Shi’ites go at each other, the Buddhists in Myanmar persecute the Muslim Rohingyas,[35] and demagogues in the U.S. wax on about the dangers of Islam.[36]

Much as he was a physician, concerned to heal and remedy others’ suffering, Jung did not have much truck with “so-called Christians.” If they “are tormented a bit”[37] because of Neumann’s challenge to their attitudes around morality and ethics, Jung felt “they have richly deserved it.”[38] Jung knew that, as the Piscean Age gives way to the Age of Aquarius, the world would evolve a new form of religion,[39] and along with it a new ethic, and he applauded Erich Neumann’s courage and independence of mind in attempting to articulate what such a new ethic would look like.[40] In our Jungian Center course “Esoteric Ethics,” we examine Neumann ideas in depth. If you find the ideas in this short essay interesting, you might want to take this course, which is available in a Distance Learning format through our Web site.

 

Bibliography

 

Allenby, A.I. (1977), “Four Contacts with Jung,” Jung Speaking, ed.William McGuire and R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Davis, Charles (1973), Temptations of Religion. New York: Harper & Row.

Edinger, Edward (1996), The New God Image. Wilmette IL: Chiron Publications.

Editorial Board (2014), “The Persecution of the Rohingya,” The New York Times (October 29, 2014).

Jaffe, Lawrence (1999), Celebrating Soul: Preparing for the New Religion. Toronto: Inner City Press.

Jung, C.G. (1961), “Freud and Psychoanalysis,” Collected Works, 4. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (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.

________ (1977), C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, ed. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.

Neumann, Erich (1990), Depth Psychology and a New Ethic. Boston: Shambhala.

 

[1] “Letter to Jürg Fierz,” 13 January 1949; Letters I, 519.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Collected Works 11, ¶735. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[5] Neumann published the work in 1948; my paperback edition was published in 1990.

[6] E.g. Jürg Fierz who wrote to Jung in late 1948 or early 1949; Jung replied to him on 13 January 1949; Letters I, 518-22.

[7] “Letter to Erich Neumann,” December 1948; Letters I, 515.

[8] Ibid.

[9] E.g. Jürg Fierz’s letter, which Jung replied to on 13 January 1949; see note 6.

[10] Ibid.

[11] In 2001 Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore had a 2.6 ton granite monument engraved with the Ten Commandments erected at the court house; U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thomson in 2003 held this violated the U.S. Constitution’s principle of the separation of religion and government; for more, see www.cnn.com/2003/LAW/08/27/ten.commandments

[12] “Letter to Jürg Fierz,” 13 January 1949; Letters I, 519.

[13] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary I, 719.

[14] “Letter to Jürg Fierz,” 13 January 1949; Letters I, 521.

[15] Jung (1965), 91. For more on the enantiodromia¸ including definitions, see “Jung on the Enantiodromia,” a three-part essay archived on this blog site.

[16] “Letter to Jürg Fierz,” 13 January 1949; Letters I, 519.

[17] E.g. televangelist Jim Bakker, who was involved in scandals around both sex and money. For the latter he was convicted of fraud and served 5 years in jail.; Jimmy Swaggart, who consorted with a prostitute; and the Roman Catholic priests who molested young people; see www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/wayoflife/06/24/mf.virtuous.figures.cheat

[18] Allenby (1977), 158. In Jung’s interview with Allenby, he noted how the son became a thief and the daughter a prostitute.

[19] “Letter to Jürg Fierz,” 13 January 1949; Letters I, 521.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Cf. Matt 9:9-13; 12:1-8; 16:1-4,6; and 22:15-22.

[22] “Letter to Jürg Fierz,” 13 January 1949; Letters I, 521.

[23] Davis (1973), 72-89.

[24]II Cor. 3:6.

[25] CW 4, ¶674; for more on the power of symbols, see the blog essay “A Way into Mystery, A Way Out of Catastrophe: Jung on Symbols,” archived on this blog site.

[26] “Letter to Jürg Fierz,” 13 January 1949; Letters I, 521.

[27] Matt. 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; 16:24; 19:21; Luke 9:59; John i:43; 12:26; 21:22.

[28] By “follow” Jung did not mean people should try to imitiate Jesus, but rather should emulate Jesus in living their lives in alignment with the Self, in service to others, doing so in their own unique ways.

[29] “Letter to Jürg Fierze,” 13 January 1949; Letters I, 519.

[30] This is one of the four “temptations of religion” that Charles Davis identifies; Davis (1973), 1-27. Besides this and the anger of morality, the others are cosmic vanity (28-48) and pride in history (49-71).

[31] Jung (1965), 92-3.

[32] CW 8, ¶804.

[33] CW 11, ¶735.

[34] Davis (1973), 28-48.

[35] Editorial Board of The New York Times (2014).

[36] E.g. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, Republican contenders for the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination.

[37] “Letter to Jürg Fierz,” 13 January 1949; Letters I, 521.

[38] Ibid.

[39] For what this new form of religion might look like, cf. Edinger (1996) and Jaffe (1999).

[40] “Letter to Erich Neumann,” December 1948; Letters I, 515.