Friday 7 March 2014

Jungian spirituality and Joseph Campbell - Literalism versus Symbolism


Before I was a Christian I was deep into Jung and had a phase of intense reading of Joseph Campbell. It is interesting to revisit these authors after a gap.

What strikes me is how ultimately everything including belief and the life of faith, ritual, organizational structure - everything - is boiled-down to personal feelings - to my specific personal feelings as evoked by these things.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, considering its origin in psychiatry, the emphasis is therapeutic.


And I think a Jungian perspective does, in a limited way, deliver its therapeutic claims - that is it enables, allows, facilitates a reconnection of the individual with 'life' - for the alienated modern man it restores the animistic sense of being a part of things.

This is valuable, since alienation is the most subjectively obvious, pervasive, painful malaise of modernity - our sense of being a detached and isolated consciousness. And this is something which is often not-much-helped by some brands of Christianity - which have become demythologized, doctrinal, negative, obedience-focused.


But these soul-therapists of a Jungian stripe - including Campbell - find themselves in the paradoxical position of arguing that their explanations are true, while also arguing that truth does not matter but only how we feel about it.

They also find that they spend a lot of time analysing society, and giving advice on how society might be better conducted - in view of producing more more soul-full kind of life for more people. Yet their analysis boils down to 'well, this is how I personally feel about it, today, here and now' - which is no possible basis for any form of cooperation.


Jungianism is indeed intensely individualistic; to the point of a selfishness so extreme as to be off-the-map - for each Jungian, ultimately, the world exists primarily in order that he personally - in his here and now - feels connected with it and positive about it.

Everything else is, at root, a deceptive elaboration of this prime imperative: for each Jungian the world should be organized so that he personally feels as good about things as possible.


Since such radical individualism is impossible; in practice, this means that Jungians cohere and cooperate by defaulting to the usual, mainstream, Left-Liberalism, and have, like everybody else - pretty much, followed this into political correctness.

So the Jungian perspective as it has permeated the vast business of New Age healing, and Mind, Body and Spirit - is utterly politically correct, just like everybody else.

New Age leaders are always active in whatever happens to be the latest Leftist cause, and always vote for the Leftist party, and always have snide and hostile things to say against the somewhat-less-Leftist party; even though Leftist modernity is very obviously the dominant form of life, hence the main cause of alienation.

This proves the partiality, the incompleteness of Jungian New Age thinking - it utterly fails to generate an alternative political world view - it implicitly defers utterly to the fashionable taboos and nonsensical crazes of political correctness.

Jungianism is, in sum, utterly in thrall to the modern Mass Media - and those (many!) aspects of Jung the man which are unacceptable to the modern Mass Media PC (the fact that he was a neo-pagan fascist patriarch who ran a virtual harem, for example) have been long since discarded from mainstream New Age thinking.


Thus, even if we grant (as I generally do) that the Jungian brand of New Ageism can diminish alienation - its twin defects of lack of motivation and lack of meaning are what paralyse it.

Jungianism can do no more than advise about how to establish a frame of mind in which you are psychologically re-connected with 'life' - it does not tell you what this connection means (because feelings as such have no meaning), and it does not give any guidance as to purpose in life- since to seek such apparently meaningless moments is not any kind of purpose; any more than living to get intoxicated is a purpose.

The big danger of Jungian New Age-ism is that it is relativistic in its evaluations, hence may sabotage the process of moving on into a real all-round religion. If a person becomes convinced that there can be nothing more than symbolism, then they are stuck.


I would say that the core idea of Jungian/ New Age thinking is the contrast between Literalism and Symbolism.

They (accurately, on the whole) accuse both traditional Christianity and Mainstream Modern Culture of Literalism - that is of regarding things as detached, dead facts; to be obeyed, or to be manipulated in an instrumental - goal-orientated - fashion.

And this is contrasted with a Symbolic way of thinking in which meaning is not about facts, history, science - but instead about a world in which I am connected with everything and everything is connected with everything else: things are deep, glowing, resonant, and we have a personal relationship with things.

Indeed, there are no 'things' but everything is a sentient entity (at some level) with which we have a relationship. Thus things are not to be obeyed or manipulated but experienced.


So, Jungian/ New Agers are scathing about the Literalist bureaucratic thinking (which they regard as a Right Wing phenomenon, to do with a 'business' model of society), and also about the Literalism of 'fundamentalist' Christians, or traditionalist Catholics who are 'hung-up' on things like the actual historical existence of Jesus and his life and death. Christians are accused of 'missing the point' and treating their faith as facts and rules - and who is interested in a bunch more facts and rules?

For New Agers it is not the facts that matter, but whether we respond to symbols, whether the symbolism is alive and effective.

Christian symbolism seems to them dead, dry, detached, outmoded - we need to seek wider among world religions and myths in search of something, anything, to which we can respond in a large and glowing fashion - which stimulates feelings of connectedness, depth, relationship...


As an objective - all this? - yes, fine, good...

But the dichotomy of Literal and Symbolic is false and fatal; what we want, need and must have is both at the same time.

We need symbols that are factually true, we need facts that are actively symbolic.

We need that Jesus really lived, died, ascended to Heaven - and the other facts of Christian belief; and we need that these facts have the connectedness and rootedness and glowing quality of symbols.

Because if a symbol is not a fact, then it is just a feeling.

Feelings are personal, they come and they go, and they lead nowhere.  


Jungian New Ageism was, and perhaps is, a response to the disenchantment, the de-magic-ing, the pure dull dry literal partialism of so much Christianity.

A proper Christian life, faith, practice would give Jungian New Ageism no toehold, no advantage; because it would include all that is good, wholesome, desirable and enchanting about Jungian symbolism.

But it would be true - and not just whatever happens to strike me personally (but about anyone else, who knows?), here-and-now (but in five minutes - who knows?), as making me feel better (in some way or another) about my current situation.

True, factual symbolism is the only symbolism that really matters - any other kind is a snare, a blind-alley, a prelude to nihilism.



David said...

Great post Bruce! You have a knack of clarifying the salient features of why these approaches to spiritual life have their values and failings. I can remember being similarly enamoured by Jung and Cambell's work whilst a Psychology student - searching for the symbolic, deeper or perhaps mystical, hidden spiritual life - the literal, anthropomorphic explanations of Christianity did really seem too much like a 'wishful thinking' or 'child-like' fairy tale at that time in my life. Well not any more. Now that I am a Christian I can see the symbolic and factual aspects of Christ's life and teachings go together so wonderfully they strengthen my 'case for faith' almost daily, whenever I discover some new knowledge or information about the Gospels or biblical times, including archaeological evidence. I watched a documentary recently about the birth of Jesus and it was one of those 'tingle-down-the-spine' with a broad smile moments when I heard of the coins baring the mark of one of the three magi was discovered. I felt a sudden inner conviction Iwas baring witness to the truth "See didn't I tell you it was a true story Mr Doubter?!" a voice inside chided me gently. Following the 'symbols' of the stars they found the birth of our lord Jesus and millenia later the 'facts' are resonating with the symbolisms to allow seekers to find again in the modern era should they decide to investigate.

Thursday said...

We often disagree sharply, but then you write a post like this.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Th - Very gracious - thanks.

Nicholas Fulford said...

Jung is a mystic and a magician. He knows that symbol can be imbued with value, and that it can be used as a key to the unconscious - talismans.

Campbell was able to distill from religious traditions the common narratives that are meaningful, to show the reader that his affinity for the narrative is common. This alludes to a psychology, but its greatest importance, (to me at least), is with respect to literature. I can recognize the common narratives in different texts arising out of different traditions, and this points to the varieties of artistic human expression around these common themes. In visual arts this is also possible, as witnessed by such works as Michelangelo's "Pieta", or Rodin's "Fallen Caryatid". (There are implicit narratives which engage our sympathies, and emotions.)

Jung and Campbell both contributed significantly to our understanding, and their observations are relevant and worthy of reflection.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

"True, factual symbolism is the only symbolism that really matters."

Thanks for that post. I agree heartily with all of it.

Imnobody said...

It could be said that Literalism belongs to the left hemisphere, Symbolism belongs to the right hemisphere (see "The Master and its Emissary").

Symbolism without Literalism is fake. Literalism without symbolism is meaningless (like our modern culture).

I guess Fr. Seraphim Rose said something like that in "Nihilism". Literalism without Symbolism was called "Realism". Symbolism without Literalism was called "Vitalism" in this work.

Christianity combines both hemispheres, that is, Literalism and Symbolism. This is why the human spirit can only rest in Christianity and Literalism and Symbolism alone are not enough.