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Middle Way Philosophy, Psychology, Religion

Jung and the meaning of God

The writings of Jung have been an inspiration to me for a long time. One of my strongest memories of intellectual excitement in my early twenties is of sitting in an olive grove in Crete reading Jung’s essay ‘On Psychic Energy’. Much more recently I have been re-reading Jung’s semi-autobiography ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’. This is an extraordinarily rich and inspiring book, providing in parallel the stories of Jung’s philosophical development and his exploration of the unconscious: both intellectually and imaginatively stimulating at the same time.

I have been especially struck this time round by the penultimate chapter, Late Thoughts, which in many ways is a kind of old man’s manifesto of Middle Way Philosophy. He is no longer bothered which categories or traditions of thought he does or does not fit into here: he just tells us the insights he has gained in his life in a direct way. Here he makes clear some of the massive implications of recognising that the self is not essentially unified, and recognises the basis of ethics as arising from the reconciliation of the conflicting inner forces projected as ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Jung was haunted by the question of evil throughout his life, but it becomes clear here that by the end he had a perspective in which to place evil.

The individual who wishes to have an answer to the problem of evil…has need… of the utmost possible knowledge of his own wholeness. He must know relentlessly how much good he can do, and what crimes he is capable of, and must beware of regarding the one as real and the other as an illusion. Both are elements within his nature, and both are bound to come to light in him, should he wish – as he ought – to live without self-deception or self-illusion.  (p.362)

The wholeness of which Jung speaks here, integrating what we might superficially regard as good or evil, is also the basis of his understanding of God: “a manifestation of the ground of the psyche”. For a long time I was wary of Jung’s account of God, even whilst being inspired by other Jungian ideas. Perhaps I suspected it of being another theological wriggle: yet another attempt to sneak in traditional theism by the back door. Perhaps I was not yet ready to understand it. Now, however, I see it as successfully avoiding the dualisms of theology, and as liberating God into meaningfulness for those who, like me, do not believe in him.

The key to understanding Jung’s account of God is the distinction between supernatural (or indeed natural) claims on the one hand and the unconscious on the other; this is also the distinction that Karen Armstrong discussed as that between logos and mythos. In Middle Way Philosophy, I talk of it in terms of the distinction between belief and meaning, each of which offers distinct but inter-related aspects of integration. Critical Thinking and Scepticism offer us the potential to integrate our beliefs: that is, to commit ourselves to representations of the world that are increasingly adequate because they are both coherent and aware of their own limitations. However, it is the arts and all kinds of imaginative work that primarily offer us the potential to integrate meaning: that is, both to gain more adequate understanding of and a more adequate emotional relationship with symbols of all kinds. Belief deals with propositions, but meaning deals with symbols, whether verbal, visual, or auditory. Belief involves painting a representation of the world, however, provisionally, on our mental canvas: but meaning involves mixing the colours, preparing the brushes and developing the artistic technique which gives us the capacity to represent in that way.

Jung’s insight is that God is a matter of meaning, not of belief. When asked whether he believed in God, Jung always replied that he did not believe in God, but he knew God. However, the way that Jung uses “know” (as in the quote above), does not mean “possess a justified true belief” – rather it means to directly experience with the entirety of one’s faculties. For Jung, God (or the God-image) was an intuition (in the sense of a holistic experience) of the integrated psyche: not an integrated psyche he claimed to have wholly achieved, but one that was meaningful.

It is a fact that symbols, by their very nature, can so unite the opposites that these no longer diverge or clash, but mutually supplement one another and give meaningful shape to life. Once that has been experienced, the ambivalence in the image of a nature-god or Creator-god ceases to present difficulties.  (p.370)

In the world of symbol, we can dream as we wish. We can master the universe, unify all opposites, and reach any fulfilment we can conceive. There is no doubt for me, just as there evidently was for Jung, that God is a “reality” in that sphere of meaningful symbol. All the dry truth-conditional literalness of theologians and analytic philosophers and scientific naturalists cannot take that away from us. The “reality” of God in the mythos must not be underestimated, because it is the fount of all that is significant to us. It is not that God is “just” meaningful in the imagination – there is no “just” about it. This is the most real and significant God could ever get in anyone’s experience.

At the same time, I think we need to preserve a warm openness to God as meaning whilst firmly rejecting God as belief. God does not “exist”; nor does he offer “truth” – nor does he “not exist”, and nor is he “untrue”. To speak of God in this way would be to completely misunderstand the significance of God in the experiences of those who speak of him from experience. Yet this is what all the theistic religions routinely do. Even those who experience God and have some sense of the limitations of belief-claims about God can easily slip into belief mode – for example, by attributing a religious experience to God and thus seeing it as a source of revelation. But the God Jung offers to us does not provide revelations. Nor is he perfect, or wholly good, or omnipotent, or personal, or any of the other traditional theological descriptions. “He” is “just” a symbolisation of ultimate meaning and the synthesis of all opposed desires, meanings and beliefs: a truth that can be symbolised on the edge of our experience but not asserted. Anything else we must recognise as projection.

As someone from a Christian background where God is culturally ingrained into the background, I find this view of God profoundly liberating. It carries almost limitless scope for misuse, granted – and anyone who draws theological conclusions from it will in my view be misusing it. However, when I encounter the God-image in art, or in music, or in the Bible or the Qur’an, or in the experiences of ordinary people, it provides me with a positive relationship to what they are talking about or symbolising, which can be held at the same time as a decisive rejection of the revelatory conclusions that may be associated with it. It has not – at least yet – allowed me to worship God. I am not sure that I have ever sincerely worshipped God, even in early childhood, and the worship of God is indelibly associated for me with boredom and alienation: but perhaps that is my failing rather than that of the God-image.

Related links on main site

The Middle Way and God

Sources of Middle Way Philosophy – diagram

Psychology of the Middle Way

Meaning – definition article





About Robert M Ellis

I am an independent philosopher, with a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and a distance tutor in Critical Thinking, Philosophy and Politics. I also have experience of Buddhist practice. I developed Middle Way Philosophy to apply what I see as the central insights of Buddhism in an entirely Western context.


3 thoughts on “Jung and the meaning of God

  1. Robert, how do you construe ‘worship’ (of God)? I am wondering if ‘preserving a warm openness to God as meaning’ comes anywhere near worship, or is it something wholly different?

    Your experience of excitedly reading Jung spoke to my own experience of some writers, but I can’t be sure that it was my intellect that was stirred. Some writers (I include yourself) have the knack of integrating two facets of my experience, the imaginal/intuitive and the intellectual conceptual in a way that brings about a subtle change in consciousness. Things seem to find an unmistakable fit. It’s hard to describe. It’s an experience that I have while i am actually reading, but I lose it when I put the book down or try to work out or recollect what is actually being communicated.

    One writer in particular who has this effect is John Heron, who has written several idiosyncratic and densely written books including “Confessions of a Janus Brain” (Endymion Press). I’m currently reading Master and Emissary which has some parallels with Heron’s works. Heron also ran workshops and longer courses in the 1980s that I attended and pointed me to meditation and Buddhism. Heron has written critiques of Buddhism. You can find him by Googling him.

    Altogether your blog on Jung and the meaning of God is very worthwhile and supportive of where I am currently and experientially. I am feeling remote from Buddhism and from Buddhist meditation, but then I’ve never been close to either.

    Posted by bagmanhattan | September 24, 2012, 11:51 pm
    • Hi Bagmanhattan, Thanks. I have not heard of John Heron before so I will look him up.
      By ‘worship’, I was thinking of a more formal event, like participating in a church service or praying. What I find difficult about this area is that I feel I have access via Jung to a sense of what God might mean – not just an abstract idea but one I can experience more fully in relation to art – but I still can’t use this to feel much community of interest with Christians or others when they are formally worshipping God. I could blame the amount of revelatory talk that surrounds such worship, but I also think that my own experience and personal conditioning are partly to blame for this. You are right that ‘worship’ could be interpreted in a much looser way, but that’s not what I meant above. I’d say very much the same about Buddhist ‘worship’. I can put a similar gloss on worshipping the Buddha as on worshipping God, but that won’t overcome the deeper reactions to groups, revelation and metaphysics that arise for me in response to formal Buddhism, as with theistic religions.

      Posted by Robert M Ellis | September 25, 2012, 11:57 am

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