Understanding the symbolism of the Virgin birth
Whatever one’s views about the conception of Jesus Christ, it is worth thinking about the psychological implications of what is presented in the gospel accounts. It seems on the whole that most of the Anglican Church tends to pass over what the Virgin Birth might mean. I can’t think of a time when it has been a topic for a sermon. The only time I remember it discussed was at a conference on psychotherapy and spirituality at St Marylebone Centre for Healing and Counselling when there was discussion of what it might mean to be pregnant with Christ. This fits with Jung’s view.
In E. A. Bennet’s published conversations with Carl Jung he writes that William Temple (Archbishop of Canterbury 1942 to 1944), had said to Jung that the Anglican Church tended to be apologetic about the Virgin birth and that he himself hadn’t ‘got it’. In contrast Jung wrote very positively, seeing that Mary brought in a feminine dynamic to the overly male Trinity and he believed that the Virgin birth had to be understood psychologically rather than literally. He saw the virgin as the archetypal figure of the soul of humans and that it could only be in the soul that God could be born – where else could it be? He saw that only the Catholic Church understood this and that it was a huge psychological truth represented and symbolised by the figure of Mary.
Jung wrote that the Roman Catholic Church tended not to bother about people ‘believing’, which is a bit of an obsession in Protestantism; rather the people are ‘in the Church’. Jung was writing this before Vatican II when the mass was said in Latin. He noticed that often people were not even following the liturgy and possibly even talking to one another but when the bell rang, the sanctus bell, they belonged and crossed themselves. He thought that the experience of grace was somehow ‘in the vicinity’ and that it accumulated as it were in the physical space of the church over centuries and so people ‘got it’. In contrast he thought that the Protestant church lost this at the Reformation. The Reformation then became about rationality – one must understand, not feel, and Jung thought that this was bad. Instead of experience the reliance was on the literal text of the Bible and faith in what was written down there. However often this was not enough. Jung emphasised the numinosity of the Roman Catholic Mass because it gave expression to a psychic reality and then people ‘got it’- in other words they experienced something.