Carl Jung’s forbidden thought

As has been described in the earlier posts Jung’s interest in religion had its roots in his early childhood. The complexity of his later thinking has clear roots in the past experiences and perhaps none more so than what happened when he was about 12. It’s a famous account that still remains at the heart of his later understanding of what he saw as God. In brief, the account describes how he was walking home from school on a lovely sunny day and passed the Cathedral of Basle; looking up into the sky he saw God sitting on his throne and the spire of the cathedral sparkling in the sun. He thought how beautiful it all was but at the same time a forbidden thought came to mind which led to him feeling numb with a choking sensation knowing only that he must not continue thinking because the thought that was trying to emerge would be a dreadful sin. Unable to tell his parents about it because they would be too upset he spent three days and nights in agony with the forbidden thought trying to break through. On the third night Jung describes how the crisis came with the realisation that if God was omnipotent and omniscient it must be he who put the thoughts there. In other words it was God’s intention that humans sinned – such as Adam and Eve – and thus God’s intention that the forbidden thought had come into Jung’s mind.
Jung’s thought was that perhaps God was testing his obedience by putting in place a task which incurred doing something against the teachings of religion and apparently even against God’s own commandment – it was a moral test of obedience. So finally Jung allowed the terrible thought to come which was that God was sitting on his golden throne, high above the world, and from under the throne an enormous turd fell upon the sparkling new roof of the cathedral, shattering it and breaking the walls of the cathedral. Allowing the thought to become conscious led Jung to a feeling of indescribable relief and overwhelming grace – even unutterable bliss such as he had never known. Following this experience Jung deliberated long about what God’s will might be, and why on earth he would attack his own cathedral.

It’s from this strange experience as a 12-year-old that Jung’s early understanding of what he described as a terrible dark secret that ‘God could be terrible’ emerged. He felt that having this secret was shaming and sinister yet above all he felt he needed to know and to experience what it might mean. It also led him to question his father – who was a pastor and other family relatives who seemed, he thought, to shut themselves off from what might be a more complex understanding about God. Profound doubts about what had been told him about God had thus been established.
Plenty has been written about how these early experiences led to Jung’s later understanding of the collective unconscious. However what seems odd is that whilst acknowledging his experience Jung did not later analyse such an experience in the way that for example Freud might have looked at it – an attack on the father and a rubbishing of his father’s conformity. Clearly religious beliefs are framed often by early transferences, traumas and experiences with parents and so on; the task is to become aware of these and to try to move beyond the limits of what has been so firmly ingrained. This is about then opening up to grace and to something beyond our expectations and imaginations. It is about allowing a movement beyond the limitations of what has been known.