Follow-up: A bit more on Carl Jung’s perspective

carl-jung2In the previous post I quoted Carl Jung as follows:

The churches stand for traditional and collective convictions which in the case of many of their adherents are no longer based on their inner experience but on unreflecting belief, which is notoriously apt to disappear as soon as one begins thinking about it.  The content of belief then comes into collision with knowledge, and it often turns out that the irrationality of the former is no match for the ratiocinations of the latter.  Belief is no adequate subsitute for inner experience, and where this is absent even a strong faith which came miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously.

At the end I concluded, hopefully after building a halfway decent case, that:

…once the relationship between you and Spirit begins to solidify and expand the initial belief, that belief is transformed into inner experience where it transcends belief to become knowledge.

One of Jung’s major themes was the power of symbolism in the human psyche.  A symbolic system provides a structure for belief.  The mind automatically tries to interprete events to see whether or how they might affect the self, and this automatic evaluation is done even when the event happens to others.  For this reason stories about events that happen to others (or even stories that are fictional) are evaluated by the mind almost as carefully as are incidents that you experience directly.

The part of the mind that does all this is the “schema”, first described in depth by Piaget and which was discussed briefly in Spirit of Consciousness part 2.

Within the schema are bedrock beliefs about oneself.   It is from these “core beliefs” that our self image is generated.  From within this structure, using Piaget’s terminology, events (or reports of events) are automatically examined to see whether we assimilate the news into our existing schema, or accomodate our schema to include events we weren’t prepared for or else had little information about.  Or we could dismiss them entirely as either untrue or else as being meaningless to us.

Something feels meaningingful if it resonates with our personal schema; events that we do not regard as having anything to do with us will be acknolwedged as being part of the reality we live in, but not things that reflect in any way upon our selves.

Stories resonate with us when the events fit into our cognitive-emotional framework, i.e. we understand them both on a cognitive level and on an emotional level, and that is true regardless of whether the stories are news accounts or works of literature and fiction.

Emotion plays a dominant role in our schema.  Emotions are our prime motivaters, so they are part and parcel of every thought we have and every major decision that we make.  Stories whose events generate emotions that resonate with our core beliefs register as true regardless of whether the story is fact or fiction.

Understanding this was a big part of Jung’s interest in classical mythology.  In realizing the symbolic value of mythological stories that have resonated with the human psyche throughout history, Jung realized that by understanding the psychological structure of these tales he could better understand the individual mind.  He reasoned, rightfully I believe, that if a story written several thousand years ago in ancient Greece can still resonate with our modern minds, then there is something deep and fundamental going on with them that would be worthwhile for us to understand.

Such stories either follow or create logical and emotional pathways through the mind’s schema.  If they don’t then our particular schema doesn’t particularly identify with that story.  A case in point would be the children’s stories I read my grandson at bedtime.  He loves them, but for me they’re just mildly interesting.  He and I are at entirely different levels of cognitive and emotional development.

Where religion is concerned, an insightful genius like Jung might be able to grasp spiritual truths in purely conceptual, purely symbolic terms, but for the rest of us who aren’t so gifted, we need something a little more solid.  The bridge between evolved-senses perception of the physical world and the mind-only perception of the spiritual realm needs a more concrete foundation than just symbolism.  We need to feel that connection to the Spirit, and we need to be able to look back year over year of our lives and see the transformations that have resulted from that relationship.

The symbolic value is important, but as Jung himself implies in his writings, there must be substantive benefit else the initial belief we started with will eventually evaporate.

Jung’s fascinating insights and speculations put him at odds with both psychology and religion.  With psychology because he placed so much emphasis on the spiritual at a time when psychology was trying to establish itself as a hard science like physics and chemistry, and with religion because he thought that its primary value was in its mythology, and questioned the literal veracity of its sacred history.  In his book “The Undiscovered Self” he states:

The standpoint of the creeds is archaic; they are full of impressive mythological symbolism which, if taken literally, comes into insufferable conflict with knowledge.  But if, for instance, the statement that Christ rose from the dead is to be understaood not literally but symbolically, then it is capable of various interpretations that do not collide with knowledge and do not impair the meaning of the statement.

If a particular teaching leads a person to connection to Spirit, and if it leads a person to a deep, inner spiritual experience, why would someone like Jung care if that person also believes that these 2000 year old written accounts of the resurrection referred to events that actually happened?  The important thing, the only thing, is that person’s bond with Spirit and their subsequent inner spiritual experience.

Most religions understand the resurrection both literally and symbolically.  Christian churches worldwide have always ascribed mythological significance to what they also generally regard as literal events.  So that quote is a small example of Jung tying himself into a bit of a knot, and in so doing alienating religion with the same impulsiveness by which he edged himself out of mainstream psychology.

Jung was one of the earliest founders of modern psychology, and so the advances put forward by Piaget and others decades later were not available to him.  As a result Jung’s ideas did not result in demonstrably therapeautic clinical techniques like those that would later result from Piaget’s work.  But Jung’s insights nevertheless remain valuable and influential to modern psychology, and rightly so.

One thought on “Follow-up: A bit more on Carl Jung’s perspective

  1. supersteveprice

    The common definition of myth which equates it with a fancy falsehood is the diametric opposite of the sense in which Jung understood it. Myth as the means of penetrating into a deeper truth that literally cannot be put into words, but which can be experienced and to some degree reflected by the symbols of myth and archetype is what one begins to discover when childish literalisms can no longer satisfy either mind nor heart. I should say one discovers myth if one does not lurch from childish simplicity to utter despair and cynicism.


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