The relevance of Christ to depth psychotherapy 3

In this blog I continue reflections on Carl Jung’s ideas on the self and on Christ and the connection with Buddhism and Taoism.

Jung saw that it was not possible to experience and so recognise the difference between a symbol of the self and a God-image so the ideas appear blended together:

‘…so that the self appears synonymous with the inner Christ of the Johannine and Pauline writings, and Christ with God (“of one substance with the Father”), just as the atman appears as the individualised self and at the same time as the animating principle of the cosmos, and Tao as a condition of mind and at the same time as the correct behaviour of cosmic events.’

Jung saw the goal of psychological development as self-realization or individuation – hence his interest in Christ as a symbol of the self. Incidentally Jung also saw the self – the total personality with its unknown heights and depths that sometimes addresses the individual in tones of absolute authority as also a symbol of God himself.

Christopher Bryant explains: ‘It is because in Christian experience Christ speaks with absolute authority that Jung can call him a symbol of the self. He is using the language of psychology which is concerned with how reality is experienced rather than what it is. Speaking as a psychologist Jung is affirming that Christ is experienced as divine.’

However it is worth pointing out that Jung did not see Christ as a completely satisfactory symbol of the self because he saw Christ as a figure wholly light, containing no darkness so therefore not standing for the darker aspects of human nature. He thought that Christ was idealised through Christian devotion therefore repressing the darker side of human nature and hindering each one of us from accepting and living out who we truly are. In other words an emphasis on being good/or Christ-like rather than integrating the shadow and being real.

As has been pointed out there is much truth in this in that we tend to dwell on the qualities that we find attractive and inspiring and ignore the rest. Here there is an interesting connection between Christ and psychotherapy because we may use Christ or our image of Christ to keep negative feelings at bay. So there is emphasis on his gentle qualities, his compassion for the sick and the sinful and his love for children whilst forgetting the sterner characteristics – his anger overturning the tables in the temple and his regular denouncement of hypocrisy. This is then too narrow an image of Christ for ultimately Christ shares in the unfathomable reality of the Godhead. He is the unknown and the best pictures we conform of him are no more than pointers to one vastly greater than we can imagine.

So we might say that Jung’s criticism is a salutary warning of the effects of a narrow or sentimental devotion to Christ; but it is not valid against a deeper, indeed a more traditional, understanding of Christ as the divine Word through whom the universe came into being.