Religion, the Undiscovered Self, and the Future

Author: Bonnie McCarson
Published on: November 1, 2001

"What will the future bring? From time immemorial this question has occupied men's minds, though not always to the same degree. Historically, it is chiefly in times of physical, political, economic, and spiritual distress that men's eyes turn with anxious hope to the future, and when anticipations, utopias, and apocalyptic visions multiply." - Carl Jung, "The Undiscovered Self"

In the wake of recent events we are seeing people flocking to churches, mosques, and synagogues, picking up and dusting off religious practices that in less stressful times had been laid aside. This is quite normal and natural. Mankind since the earliest beginnings has been religious by nature. The search for meaning and purpose is inherent in our being, and perhaps, so is the drive to understand whatever outside forces threaten our being. Prayers and offerings, even to the point of human sacrifice, testify over the centuries to man's attempts to appease threatening forces and produce kinder, gentler conditions for himself. Other animals survive at an instinctual level. Man seeks to understand the factors that affect his survival.

As the human race marched forward through time, modern civilization demythologized much that lay in the realm of religion to our predecessors. In the Twentieth Century the demythologizing reached its apogee in the "God is dead" movement. Afterward, in the U.S., and perhaps other parts of the world, compensation occurred with charismatic movements and a return to fundamentalism in many belief systems. But do we sometimes move collectively in the name of religion without consciousness of what we are doing? Jung dealt at length with the topic. His work can be found in Psychology and Religion, one volume of the Collected Works, as well as in parts of other works and in the essay, "The Undiscovered Self."

The spiritual element, which is a part of our psyche, urges us to seek out the unknown and unknowable, but our concern and attention to the here-and-now of the world often subverts that part of us. In our modern lives we may have let it become "dead" to us in a sense, until we are faced with a situation beyond our understanding. Thus, it is natural to return to what we consider our religious faith in a time of crisis. Yet, there is danger in returning blindly, for the spiritual element is expressed in symbols, and religious experience too easily becomes practiced and perpetuated as creed or dogma, even mass movements, that have failed to recognize the meanings of the symbols.

Jung himself considered "religion" the relationship of the individual to the numinous. The collective practices of so-called religions he called "creeds." In order for a person truly to exercise the religious function, he must be open to becoming more aware of himself and his relationship with the unknowable. The experience, the inner transcendence, provides the individual a ground that prevents his being swept up in a mass. Without the individual quest and experience, one is vulnerable to troubling doubts. Those secret, perhaps even semiconscious, doubts in turn may be overcompensated for by practicing a creed blindly, without true examination at an experiential level of the validity of the creed for oneself. Taken to its extreme, this is fanaticism. Fanaticism is often so far removed from its origin as to bear little resemblance to the experience which birthed it. Therein lies its great danger. Driven by an innate spiritual urge, the fanatic may have great zeal but attaches it blindly to whatever is available to fill the void. He has subverted his quest for true spirituality by taking the quick, easy answer - the one that requires little true knowledge of self and the great unknowing. Perhaps fundamentalism, which can move to fanaticism, is easy to adopt, also, because it deals in the concrete, rather than vague symbols which challenge us to much self-searching in order to decipher their meanings.

Some of Jung's writing on religion and psychology came at another great time of crisis in the world, the period leading up to World War II. Setting an example for all of us, Jung stepped back from the dogma, the propaganda of the collective masses and sought to understand the workings of the human psyche. Each of us, like Jung, can best serve humanity by following our spiritual impulses to more consciousness of who we are and then by relating to each other not with creed and doctrine, but as one enlightened human to another.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading:

Jung, C.G., Collected Works

Singer, June, Boundries of the Soul. Rev. Ed. 1994; New York, NY: Anchor Books, Doubleday

Storr, Anthony, The Essential Jung. 1983, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; pp. 238-250; 349-363