Carl Jung took religion very seriously, understanding that the spiritual side of life needed to be fully explored rather than denied or repressed. He was thinking and writing as a psychologist about Christianity throughout his life and as a result some of his ideas elicited hostility from theologians and analyst alike. However many have been fascinated by his thinking and comprehension of the deep symbolism in religion.
Writing about the cross and Christ in a letter to Father Victor White in April 1954 – before their relationship broke down over White’s belief in the all-good God – Jung again brings up his ideas on the holding of the tension of the opposites in the figure of Christ.
He wonders how absolute evil can be connected and identified with absolute good, as this initially seems impossible. Jung sees that when Christ withstood Satan’s temptation in the wilderness this was the moment when the shadow was cut off, but Jung’s reasoning is that this had to happen because if the moral opposites had been synthesised then there could be no morality and it was imperative that human beings became morally conscious. Rather the two apparently irreconcilable opposites have to be united by something neutral – a bridge or a symbol that can hold both sides in such a way that they can function together. Jung of course saw that one such uniting symbol or bridge that represents psychic totality is the self.
Jung also sees the cross as another such symbol: ‘the tree of life or simply as the tree to which Christ is inescapably affixed.’ Jung sees the function of the tree as compensatory:
‘The tree symbolizes that entity from which Christ had been separated and with which he ought to be connected again to make his life or his being complete… The Crucifixus is the symbol uniting the absolute moral opposites. Christ represents the light; the tree, the darkness; he the son, it the mother … the tree brings back all that has been lost through Christ’s extreme spiritualization, namely the elements of nature. Through its branches and leaves the tree gathers the power of light and air and through its roots those of the earth and the water. Christ was suffering as a result of his split and he recovers his perfect life at Easter, when he is buried again in the womb of the virginal mother.’
Jung goes on to explain how the symbolic history of Christ’s life shows how his union with the symbol of the tree is not just about the impossible reconciliation of Good and Evil, but also of a human being with his vegetative (and here Jung means unconscious) life. In the Christian symbol the tree is however dead and Jesus dies on the cross so through the resurrection we are given to understand that the solution of the problem of the reconciliation of the opposites takes place after death.