Monthly Archives: January 2019

The coincidence of opposites in Carl Jung’s The Red Book (4)

In this final post on The Red Book I shall try to put down some of the ideas found in the later part.

Some of the opposites that Jung uses for God are familiar from Eastern contemplatives and Western mystics. So God is described as ‘eternal emptiness and the eternal fullness … eternal darkness and eternal brightness … meaning in absurdity … freedom in bondage … yes in no.’ This is the way of contradiction and the experience of paradox.

The importance of appreciating that God contains such opposites is that otherwise when the powerful, productive, good and reasonable aspects of the self have been projected into (a created) all-powerful and all-good God, one is left only with the opposites of these virtues; perhaps this explains why so many atrocities and absurdities are committed by the devoutly religious. Jung was adamant that we recognise the evil both in God and in Self for if God is conceived of as balancing good and evil, the Self can retain such a balance as well. God’s completeness and the fact that the divine is the template for the human personality necessitate the existence of the divine shadow and also necessitates coming to terms with our personal and collective shadow.

Jung believed that if we struggle with the darkness by accepting it as a part of ourselves and part of the world then one gains access to a new ‘room’ in one’s psyche, and enter into a gate leading to salvation: ‘only s/he who knows the darkest error knows what light is’. In this context Jung talks of what he calls ‘the transcendent function’ which unconsciously and imaginatively produces symbols that unite opposites and reconciles conflicts that cannot be resolved through conscious thought. He writes that ‘good and bad must first be united if the symbol is to be created’. The symbol ‘becomes’ as it is ‘neither thought nor found’, and God is one such symbol.

Jung speaks of a divine image or archetype which is accessible to all who make the requisite interior journey ‘he who accepts what approaches him because it is also in him, quarrels and wrangles no more, but looks into himself and keeps silent. He sees the Tree of Life, whose roots reach into Hell and whose top touches Heaven.’

Finally Jung warns against merely trying to imitate Christ and seeking redemption in him; the way of wisdom is instead to follow the way Christ led his own life:  ‘we must make our experiment. We must make mistakes. We must live out our own vision of life … When we live like this we know Christ as a brother and God indeed becomes man.’

Jung, as Stanford Drob explains, is working in ‘the chaotic forest’ that lies beyond the clearing of conventional meaning and we too need to be shaken out of our routinized ways of thinking and living so that we can attain ‘knowledge of the heart’ with the recognition that the other is also within oneself. Such suffering Jung sees is for the sake of God for by accepting the lowest within oneself and in the world, one lowers an invisibly small ‘seed into the ground of Hell’ from which one grows one’s life, thereby conjoining the Above with the Below: for  the highest is only realized when one plants one’s seed in the lowest.


The coincidence of opposites in Carl Jung’s The Red Book (3)

So how do we explore these opposites?

Carl Jung writes how if we travel far down one path of a given perspective eventually the opposite emerges. He puts this rather poetically as reaching ‘the rim of the world, where its mirror image begins’. We can only know our self so we need experiences or as Jung calls them adventures, so, if one has no adventures (presumably in the ‘everyday world’) one becomes hemmed in by the limits of one’s own imagination and the expectations of others … he says that we need a balance here between these two opposites of inner and outer and that only a fool lives in one or the other. Another balance is between the uncommon and the ordinary, if things become too challenging or exciting one craves for the everyday and ordinary routine.

In terms of searching for God: Jung writes how if God is the unknowable, ineffable ground of cosmos and consciousness, our approach to God must not involve a dogmatic claim to knowledge, but rather a continuing expansion of psyche and culture into hitherto unknown, uncharted and chaotic realms. God in this view is associated with openness and one becomes open to God when one begins to realise this within oneself so transformation includes expansion; in searching for God the psyche is transformed in order to expand its horizons to include aspects of conscious and unconscious experience that have hitherto been unknown, rejected, suppressed, or ignored.

For Jung this involves a recognition and acceptance of the opposites within oneself such as the masculine and feminine aspects, and the contrast between the ‘heights’ – unique to each individual, and the lowest points; as he writes hitting rock bottom puts one in touch with one’s fellow human beings in a way that success and achievements can never do. Jung thinks that none of this is determined by our own will or decision making – that’s an illusion but rather we are actually being directed by the ‘great wind of the world’. This wind sinks us into ‘black depths’ but also grants us a glimpse of ‘golden light’. It is the very process of being cast into the depths that allows us to grasp our heights and experience what he calls the ‘bath of rebirth’. In the same way the acceptance of death is the condition for the full life: ‘If I accept death my tree greens’ and ‘without death life would be meaningless … limitation enables you to fulfill your being.’

For Jung the way to individuation is clear: One finds one’s soul, and becomes a fully individuated self, through an imaginative and/or life process in which one confronts, embraces, differentiates from, and ultimately alters one’s personal “devil”, i.e. the rejected, “other” aspects of one’s psyche.’

While for Jung the experience of God similarly emerges from ‘the terrible ambiguity’ of what is hateful and beautiful, good and evil etc. and refuses to be followed as a hero … the Self emerges from the same ambiguity … so accepting the darkness alongside the light. In uniting the opposites we discover God within our soul.




The coincidence of opposites in Carl Jung’s The Red Book (2)

A piece of advice that Carl Jung offers is to turn ‘away from outer things’ if one wants to reach the soul; it is through living life (presumably he means here living life to the full and not accepting other people’s propaganda) that we find the way to what he calls the unfathomable and which we call divine. The search for God leads us to the ‘other’ and the unexpected place… ‘The God is where you are not…’ (This seems similar to Gerard Hughes’ the God of surprises). It is about experiential knowing or as Jung refers to it as ‘knowledge of the heart’.

Returning to the idea of allowing an awareness of the opposites Jung holds that this leads to an understanding that each opposite is indeed intertwined with and dependent upon its presumed contrary – this insight creates a tolerance for ambiguity and difference and thereby opens new modes of thought and experience. So one example he gives is that meaninglessness and chaos is ‘the other half of the world’ and no one can be complete or have a full understanding of the world without embracing its chaotic and meaningless elements. For Jung order and meaning are as an entity lacking in that they are in a state of having already become, while chaos and meaninglessness are in a process of becoming.

So what happens if we accept and appreciate these apparent opposites of order and chaos, meaning and meaninglessness? Jung says from struggling with this (perhaps like a Zen koan) we can reach a place ‘beyond meaning and meaninglessness’ – for Jung this is what he calls the wedding of the opposites and from this a third is produced which he says is the divine child. Chaos brings a form of freedom and creativity which can lead to our development both psychologically and spiritually.

For Jung there is supreme meaning through the coincidence or meeting of absurdity and meaning and meaning reaches its greatest significance in the context of a world that appears to be devoid of all sense. A rebirth takes place from a mixture of depth and surface; it does not come from events in the external world but is rather a change that occurs within the individual. For Jung it is God that makes an arbitrary and inherently meaningless cosmos meaningful and so meaning arises out of an interaction between the psyche and the world.

In this part of The Red Book Jung also says that one should not be a Christian, but should rather see Christ within oneself, and actually become Christ, otherwise one ‘will be of no use to the coming God’. This he sees as the call to find Christ within oneself which he also sees as a call to individuation. Jung sees the task as to seek a numinous experience which will lift each of us from the despair of the everyday and allow one to experience self and world as bathed in the darkness of terror and/or the light of wonder, awe, and spiritual affirmation. The reality of the ruling discourse must be set aside in favour of an experience that initially appears to be fantastic, mad, and nonsensical but that includes divine reality. Then we have a sense of both – holding the coincidence or meeting of the opposites.


The coincidence of opposites in Carl Jung’s ‘The Red Book’

Carl Jung’s The Red Book is both enriching and maddening, complicated and extremely strange but within it there are truths worth teasing out and exploring. The Reading of the Red Book by Stanford L. Drob has been my guide and so from that I’ve tried to make some sense of Jung’s discoveries – discoveries that cross between psychology and religion and provide the foundation for some of his most enduring theories.

Throughout Jung emphasises the importance of the apparent paradox of holding the balance of the tension of the meeting or as he calls it the coincidence of the opposites and from that unwieldy and uncomfortable, and often highly conflictual balance he believes there can emerge a unity or wholeness. This is a unity that in some contexts is symbolised by both God and the Self.

One of the first sorts of opposites that struck me was Jung’s holding the awareness of what he calls ‘the spirit of the times’ and ‘the spirit of the depths’. The spirit of this time promotes use and value (Jung saw this as exemplified by science and below the rational discourse) while the spirit of the depths is beyond justification, use and meaning (he saw this as spiritual understanding). A very rough definition might link these more universal ‘spirits’ to the ego, the part of us that is rational and functional and the opposite the irrational and at times unconscious aspects coming from deep within ourselves.

Jung writes, ‘The spirit of the depths took my understanding and all my knowledge and placed them in the service of the inexplicable and the paradoxical.’ The ‘spirit of the depths’ challenges our assumptions and complacency so messages from the unconscious prompt us to question the value and direction of our current modes of thinking, feeling, and living. This is both psychologically and spiritually.

Similarly there are things that happen with no great meaning and other processes that become highly meaningful, some things are nonsense and some contain great wisdom … without both these processes we are incomplete. It’s not that one is good and the other bad but rather that both contain both; so the depths include the great and the mundane, the beautiful and the ugly, the sick and the well.  One of the messages from The Red Book is that everything, all, is ‘the one essence of God’. One cannot arbitrarily judge that one aspect of the world is more spiritual, godly, or valid than any other. All is part of the ‘sum of life’ … and in the course of Jung’s journey into the depths his soul will implore him to accept everything…

Jung thought that each of us must find their own way and each must live their own life ‘the way is within us, but not in gods, nor in teachings nor in laws’. Rather than an eagerness to ‘gobble up the fruits of foreign fields’ the realisation is that one is oneself ‘the fertile acre.’ In other words, ‘there is only one way and that is your way’ and it is only by standing apart, and by each finding their own path and dignity through the chaos and destruction that we find true fellowship, love, and community.