Experiential theology

As is clear, spirituality is not the same as psychotherapy, and nor is faith the same as the project of individuation, but there is a mutual influence within the one psyche. There is a deep mystery attached to faith, and one that is rarely discussed in spiritual direction or in church group discussions. In those sorts of settings it is easier to look at what is ‘out there’ than what is ‘inside’.

One difficulty is that our sense of self and our sense of God shifts, and there’s a connection there. We are as is God full of paradox and it is hard to put our deep beliefs out in the public square for scrutiny – especially if it is in the presence of a secular psychotherapist. Our deepest beliefs may feel embarrassing or unsophisticated and childlike and so our vulnerability is on display.

What is clear is that faith is a mystery and yet we are contained within the mystery, and so inevitably part of the same. What can we say about our faith and if we do are we talking about ourselves or God? Or neither? Jung says that when God is discussed we don’t know who we are talking about. If God is unutterable, unknowable and incomprehensible the nearest we can get is hesitatingly uncovering ourselves as deeply as we can go. As the Sufi poet Rumi put it: ‘I searched for God and found only myself. I searched for myself and found only God.’

Thomas Merton realised that it was not proving the existence of God and deciding through rational reasoning on God’s nature and so on that mattered so much as the experiencing of God’s presence. It was not enough to find a God who answered his mind’s questions – or indeed anyone else’s questions. He thought, and here Jung would agree with him, that many people ‘believed’ in what he called ‘an apologetic hypothesis’. This might mean believing in a God we have been told about – from received doctrine and dogma and this means that this is a God who is kept at arm’s length. Both Jung and Merton write how if we are to talk about God we have to rely on experience and to trust that experience. The experience is about being present to God, and this God demands a personal response. This is not the silent God of reason, but rather the God revelation who speaks to people.

Jung writes how growing up in the heyday of scientific materialism, with an education where only arguments against religion were offered, and watching his own father a pastor ‘cracking up before my eyes on the problem of his faith’ led Jung to rely instead on subjective experience. ‘I was thrown back on experience alone … The only way open to me was the experience of religious realities … that seem meaningful to me.’