Containing the Sacred: How Jung Led Me A̶w̶a̶y̶ ̶F̶r̶o̶m̶Toward Christianity | Kenneth Kovacs

Mike’s note: The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is upon us. During this momentous occasion – with much to celebrate, grieve, and be curious about –  it feels appropriate to share this excerpt from the Speakeasy book review selection, Out of the Depths. In these pages, Reformed pastor and scholar Kenneth Kovacs puts the ground-breaking psychological approach of Carl Gustav Jung in conversation with robust Christian theology without compromising either. The full book offers us a sustained conversation between the two in its collection of vignettes: drawing on Scripture, pastoral insight, and Jungian analysis with skill and verve. Experience this for yourself first-hand: Read on!  

[Dogma] … ritual … cultic practices … these artifacts of primal experience in time become institutions, and progressively more and more remote from the original encounter with the gods. We all know this is true. If these institutional forms really connected people with the gods, we could see the difference.
– James Hollis, Creating a Life: Finding Your Individual Path

I remember the exact moment I read these words ten years ago. It was an experience of resonance and recognition. With considerable excitement I wrote in the margin, in red ink, Yes! Yes!

These words have become a constant companion, informing my journey and vocation, and, at times, showing up in dreams. They mirrored back to me what I’ve been feeling for some time, but could not articulate. It was James Hollis who did this for me. I was unfamiliar with his work at that time. I remember wandering one day through Politics & Prose, one of my favorite bookstores in Washington, DC, when my eye was drawn to this title: Creating a Life: Finding Your Individual Path. I devoured the book (or, better, it devoured me). This was my first introduction to the searching insight and wisdom that one consistently finds in Hollis. Reading this text also signaled my return to the thought of C. G. Jung, which I first encountered as a religion and history major at Rutgers College.

Hollis is right. If religious institutions were doing a good job helping people connect with the gods, we would see the difference. This applies to all religions, of course. But as a life-long Presbyterian and a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) for more than twenty-four years, I read Hollis, through the filter of my own experience, as a veiled yet honest and accurate critique of the contemporary Church, particularly in Europe and North America. If the Church was really doing a good job helping individuals connect with God, the numinosum, we would be seeing the difference. It would be evident. But it’s not.

The Church is in trouble. Christianity is in trouble. These are overly generalized statements, to be sure. Of course there are many churches led by dedicated and gifted clergy who are passionately and imaginatively engaged in helping people connect with the Holy. It is happening and making a difference in those locations. And there are even some clergy who are optimistic about the current state of the Church. It’s obvious that the Church these days is undergoing a massive transition or reformation, the kind that seems to occur once every 500 years. (See Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.) I suspect, though, that something deeper is going on.

As I talk with colleagues and friends, especially those working in denominational offices, they are less than positive about the prospects of the Church. Congregations are struggling with massive membership decline, the financial burden of caring for aging buildings (many of which were built after World War II when it was “American” to go to church), sexual and financial scandals, eroding trust in authority (especially institutional authority), the polarizing liberal-conservative rhetoric infecting worshipping communities, all of which contribute to a crisis of identity for the Church.

People are moving away from Christianity because of what they see going on in the Church. This is not to say that people no longer have a desire for the Holy or no longer have religious experiences, because they do. People are moving away from the Church because very often (not always, but often) it fails to speak to the deep, human desire to connect with the Holy, to something numinous. These direct encounters with Mystery are occurring apart from the ministrations of religious institutions. “Is it not a paradox,” Hollis asks in his recent work, Hauntings, “that the chief practical function of so many religious organizations is to protect people from religious experience?”

People have left and continue to leave [institutional Christianity…] in droves. And many are being drawn to Jung precisely because they appreciate his “spiritual” or “mystical” vision and because he seems to stand outside conventional religious traditions, particularly Christianity. Some have even argued that Jung was trying to create a new religion as an alternative to Christianity and the teachings of the Church. There is much in Jung that could and does provide a sanctuary for disenchanted Church-goers, those who wish to be “spiritual” but not religious, apart from religious institutions.

However, the more I read Jung—Jung, not necessarily Jungians—it’s difficult to subscribe to the notion that he was trying to form a new religion. Neither do I feel that his theories are always incompatible with orthodox Christianity, although it’s certainly easy to think so. Memories, Dreams, Reflections offers many examples of his disappointment with the faith of his father, a Reformed Church pastor. Jung’s blistering critique of the Church throughout his writings, his frustration with theologians who accuse him of “psychologizing” the Gospel, and his own “theological,” seemingly heretical writings over the last third of his life, could effortlessly lead one to conclude that Jung was against the Church and that he wasn’t a Christian.

Yet, it’s significant that Sonu Shamdasani firmly places Jung within the Christian tradition. In the 1930s, Jung said that he stood on the extreme left wing of Protestantism.4 And even though, as Shamdasani concedes, the Red Book (Liber Novus) “is a heretical text … it remains within a Christian framework.” (See Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book) In a conversation with James Hillman, Shamdasani makes this remarkable observation: “If there were an index [to the Red Book], it would show that the critical figure is Christ. In Jung’s later writings, [he claimed that] the development of the Christian tradition led to a suppression of what he calls individual symbol formation, so that it had blocked access to direct religious experience. This was what he saw his whole endeavor as recovering.” This was not only Jung’s “endeavor” in the Red Book, but throughout his life’s opus. “In Jung’s view,” Shamdasani suggests, “recovering the full depth and range of individual symbol formation is the way forward, paradoxically, to the revivification of Christianity.” As a Protestant, Jung knew what was lost in Protestantism: “individual symbol formation.” Indeed, in a striking comment, Shamdasani insists that Jung was not against the Church, but that, on the contrary, the “task [Jung] takes up [in the Red Book] is one of revivifying ecclesiastical Christianity.”

What I increasingly hear in Jung is the voice of a prophet seeking the reform of the Church. As a prophet Jung is severely critical of the Church; however, like all prophets, he sees things that others cannot see (or refuse to see): he sees its untapped potential. Jung has a vision for what the Church could be and the invaluable service it could provide, not only to Christians and Christianity, but also to a larger society, when a community of people (a real koinonia) risks serious intimacy with the wisdom of the psyche. Jung wrote that the “dogmatically formulated truths of the Christian Church express, almost perfectly, the nature of psychic experience. They are the repositories of the secrets of the soul, and this matchless knowledge is set forth in grand symbolical images. The unconscious thus possesses a natural affinity with the spiritual values of the Church, particularly in their dogmatic form, which owes its special character to centuries of theological controversy…and to the passionate efforts of many great men.” Jung continues, “The Church would be an ideal solution for anyone seeking a suitable receptacle for the chaos of the unconscious were it not that everything man-made, however refined, has its imperfections.” (See C. G. Jung, “The Psychology of Transference,” The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 16) It’s difficult for the Church to be a container for the psyche when it’s rent asunder by centuries of division and dissension.

The challenges facing the Church today are enormous, but I haven’t given up on it—thanks to Jung. Indeed, what if the Church really saw itself as a vas temenos—not a sacred container, but a container of the sacred, the “secrets of the soul”? Instead of the Church conflating itself with its contents, its sacred “secrets,” what if the Church really saw itself in service to the sacred and viewed itself as the conduit, the means, and the place where a connection with the Holy might actually occur, a community that helps individuals live into the transformation that inevitably occurs when one encounters the Holy? It would be a Church that values, celebrates, welcomes, and facilitates these kinds of connections, providing a “safe” place for individuals to have direct, primal religious experiences—a relatively safe place, that is. For what encounter with the Holy or numinosum is ever entirely safe? Just imagine: if more of the Church took this approach to its mission, we would definitely see the difference.

Kenneth E. Kovacs, Ph.D., is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Kenneth studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. The author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Kenneth is also an avid traveler and has led pilgrimages/tours to Scotland, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Switzerland and France. He blogs here.

Praise for Out of the Depths:

“Ken Kovacs’ Out of the Depths is a brilliant set of reflections on the journey of the soul in post-modern times. Drawing upon the wisdom of our ancestors, the insights of depth psychology, and his own thoughtful interpretations, he presents the reader with much to ponder, whatever his or her religious history might be. These essays transcend doctrinal apologetics and get at what the ancient word means to this fugitive world, how it can illumine our days, and guide our ways. Always respectful of the views of others, Kovacs revivifies the tradition and brings its timeless wisdom to each of us.”
— James Hollis, Ph. D., Jungian analyst, and author

“Kovacs has drawn out of the depths in writings that are grounded in thorough biblical knowledge and Reformed theology and illuminated by the breadth of his intellectual curiosity and, in particular, his study of Jungian psychology. Kovacs points out that C. G. Jung’s unique spiritual perspective on the human journey as a psychiatrist raised in the Reformed tradition enabled him to shed light on the struggles and failures of the contemporary Protestant Church and create imaginative symbols in the often-arid Calvinist domain. Yet what truly makes Kovacs’ sermons stand above the rest is how every time he reaches down into the riches of Scripture, searching for its original contextual meaning to explain such challenges as predestination, Revelation or Job, he articulates his exegetical discoveries and makes historical and literary connections with well-informed passion. Without arrogance or superficiality, but with honest vulnerability, Kovacs plumbs his own life of faith as well.”
— Susan WhiteFaith in Books: Essential Reading for Spiritual Vitality

“Kenneth Kovacs is a seasoned pastor and a theologian who writes like a poet. What he offers in this collection of sermons and essays is prophetic, in the finest sense of that word. Since his days studying with practical theologian James Loder, Kovacs has dared to explore the importance of authentic experience in the Christian life. He has done this while understanding the suspicion of human experience prevalent in the Reformed tradition.”
— Roy HowardThe Presbyterian Outlook

One Response to Containing the Sacred: How Jung Led Me A̶w̶a̶y̶ ̶F̶r̶o̶m̶Toward Christianity | Kenneth Kovacs

  1. David George October 31, 2017 at 2:31 pm #

    I live in New Zealand. Born 1951. Our local church was derived from Scotland. Then in the 1970’s our church culture became derived from the United States. The King James version of the bible, which the Scots Irish had brought with them across the wilderness, was said to be the only authentic version of the bible.

    There was a big blitz on cults. And yet a lot of the new beliefs introduced seemed to be more cultural than spiritual. When i was young some people still reviled the Catholics. Now the Freemasons were the bad guys.

    CG Jung came through the maelstrom of the 20th century talking about and practising a personal relationship with the divine. Coming from a church based family in Switzerland he was liberal and humanistic. In his lifetime example he was assuredly a worldly person.

    In my walk I learned from the east and other cultures that the divine was present in everything. That is was impossible to separate spirit and matter.

    i needed to worship and praise in an open was that created a sense of culture and identity. Family and community too. The numbers of the chosen too were diminished, even decimated. We were living in a secular materialistic world.

    The reformation gave us freedom of a sort. To consider our personal conscience- to explore different modes of worship. For me today there is the opportunity to compare and share our faith across the continents and the nations.

    The basics of faith are both radical and fundamental. From my time as a kid I was taught about the threshing floor. The image might be lost to many people today living generations away from farming roots- but we had the land at our back door.

    The image of tossing the threshed grain in the air and letting the chaff float away in the breeze… a way of letting go and finding value at what falls at our feet.

    The rise of the United States after World War Two made the religion practised attractive. Now is a time of reflection and a restating of essential truths. These truths were carried forward in the harvest. A time to reap and a time to sow… yes…

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