Spending time reading and thinking about Carl Jung’s approach to religion and the difficulties that he had with his understanding and relationship with Victor White and other theologians has left me with a number of conclusions. One is how much our early experiences in infancy and childhood affect later religious belief. This is easy to see and to trace particularly in someone like Carl Jung but also in work with people who find it so difficult to trust and to believe in a loving God – after all if you have a deeply ingrained expectation of criticism or punishment or conditional love, how can you possibly believe in something different.
The only time we can receive unconditional love is when we are tiny babies and if that doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen enough, then the effects last long and through into adult life and beliefs. Freud put it so well when he wrote about the shadow of the object falling into adulthood… here the word ‘object’ is being used to refer to an early relationship with a significant other person. And as it has been pointed out often institutional religion of whatever kind can play into this, so we are left feeling miserable wretches and sinners, a scenario that fits neatly into the psyches of those who have been subject to much criticism in the past. At the start of one recent book a young woman says: ‘why would I go to church, I feel bad enough about myself anyway!’
When Thomas Merton wrote that ‘solitaries are born of severe mothers’ he was of course speaking personally, but in a way in which others could identify. Why would you seek out company if you’re only expecting to be told off? In one of my early books called Journeying Home I wrote about getting stuck at the first stage of love – this was looking at the first stage of St Bernard’s four stages of love which he puts as: ‘we love ourselves for ourselves’ but I suggested that for some people it was more about hating yourself for being yourself and how hard it was to dis-identify from early messages, from early ingrained messages, so as to look at oneself in terms of love.
When I was a Quaker which I was for about 20 years I particularly loved the section in what was then called Christian Faith and Practice which was about the spiritual experiences friends. One of these was George Lloyd Hodgkin (1880 to 1918). In the light of our contemporary confusion his longing ‘just to live the highest life we know and leave everything else’ seems so straightforward, but I particularly like something he wrote in 1912 which I’m going to quote. In the extract he talks of realising that all that matters are what he calls the simple longings – one of which is to be by God’s side whatever happens. ‘We must give up trying to hold his hand, and just stretch out our hands – even if they are just fists – for God to hold. There is all the difference… between holding and being held.’