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Carl Jung: Reason is, notoriously, not necessarily ethical


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Letters of C. G. Jung: Volume I, 1906-1950 (Vol 1)

To Pastor Tanner

Dear Pastor Tanner, 12 February 1959

Before going into the question you have asked me I would like to thank you for the sympathetic interest you have taken in my

As you rightly remark, it is difficult to discuss the question of “faith without religion” because we must first establish what exactly we mean by “religion.”

Naturally I can define this concept only in psychological terms, and this definition is fundamental to everything I say about religion.

I distinguish between “religion” and “creed”; the one is generic, the other specific.

The ancients derived religio from relegere or religere, to ponder, to take account of, to observe (e.g., in prayer).

Cicero: religiosus ex relegendo; religens = godfearing.

A conscientias scrupulus has religio.

Religio is iustitia erga deos4 (Cicero).

Divum religio i.e. religio erga deos (Lucretius).

Conficere sacra Cereris summa religione (Cicero).

The Church Fathers, among them St. Augustine, derive it from religare, to bind, to reconnect: Religio ex eo dicta est, quod nos religat Deo, and:Religio vera ea est, qua se uni Deo anima, unde se peccato velut abruperat, reconcilatione religat.

The latter interpretation derives on the one hand from the Jewish idea of marriage with God, to which man can be unfaithful, and on the other hand from the character of Yahweh, i.e., from his injustice, which in Hellenistic times led to the conception of an advocate, foreshadowed in the Book of Job, who represents man at the heavenly court, as in Daniel and especially in the Book of Enoch (1st cent.).

The distance between God and man is so great that Yahweh sees himself obliged to set up an embassy among men-the ambassador is his own son-and to deliver a missive to them (the gospel).

At the same time Christ is the mediator with the title of filius hominis, Son of Man, as in Daniel and Enoch, and, as such, also an advocate.

The Jewish conception of the religious relationship with God as a legal contract (covenant!) gives way in the Christian conception to a love relationship, which is equally an aspect of the marriage with

The bond of love can also be severed by estrangement and

As a contrast to this Judaeo-Christian conception we have the totally alien views current in pagan antiquity: the gods are exalted men and embodiments of ever-present powers whose will and whose moods must be complied with.

Their numina must be carefully studied, they must be propitiated by sacrifices just as the favour of archaic princes is won by gifts.

Here religion means a watchful, wary, thoughtful, careful, prudent, expedient, and calculating attitude towards the powers-that-be, with not a trace of that legal and emotional contract which can be broken like a marriage.

Obviously the idea of marriage with God is a later and special development, whereas the original form of religio is, without question, aptly characterized by the implications of relegere. I prefer this interpretation of religio because it is in better accord with the general psychological findings.

By “religion,” then, I mean a kind of attitude which takes careful and conscientious account of certain numinous feelings, ideas, and events and reflects upon them; and by “belief” or “creed” I mean an organized community which collectively professes a specific belief or a specific ethos and mode of behaviour.

“Faith without religion” could therefore be translated as “(non-denominational) religion without creed,” manifestly an unorganized, non-collective, entirely individual exercise of the “religious function.”

(By the latter I mean the allegiance, surrender, or submission to a
supraordinate factor or to a “con-vincing” [=overpowering!] principle: religio erga principium.)

This trend is characteristic of present-day humanity, especially the

The reason for this singular phenomenon, as I see it, is that people have grown rather tired of believing and are worn out by the effort of having to cling on to ideas which seem incomprehensible to them and are therefore quite literally unbelievable.

This doubt is only reinforced by contemporary events.

Things are going on in the world which make the public ask:

Is it possible that a world in which such things happen is ruled by a good God, by a Summum Bonum?

Our world is actually riven in two by an Iron Curtain, and in one half all religious activity is discouraged or suppressed, and the “Prince of Lies,” the devil, who in our half has lost all substance by evaporating into a mere privatio boni, has for reasons of state been elevated into the supreme principle of political action.

These facts have a highly suggestive effect on Christians who profess the collective belief.

Whenever belief is stressed, demanded or expected, doubt infallibly increases and so does the vulnerability of belief in particular tenets.

In consequence, the tenets of belief have to be purified, or made easier, by being relieved of their principal encumbrances, which for the rationalist are their particularly obnoxious “mythological” components.

Bultmann’s endeavours are obviously intended to serve this

Where they should or could stop is highly questionable.

Christ as “Redeemer,” for instance, is a mythologem of the first order, and so too is the “Son of God,” the “Son of Man,” the “Son of the Virgin,” etc.

“Faith without religion” or “religion without creed” is simply a logical consequence which has got out of Bultmann’s control.

But if the believer without religion now thinks that he has got rid of mythology he is deceiving himself: he cannot get by without

Religio is by its very nature always an erga, a “towards,” no matter whether the following accusative be “God,” “Redeemer,” a philosophical idea or an ethical principle; it is always a “mythic” or transcendental statement.

This is naturally also the case when the ultimate principle is called “matter.”

Only the totally naive think this is the opposite of “myth.”

Materia is in the end simply a chthonic mother goddess, and the late Pope seems to have had an inkling of this.

(Cf. the second Encyclical to the dogma of the Assumption!)

Clearly the anti-mythological trend is due to the difficulties we havein clinging on to our previous mythological tenets of belief.

Nowadays they demand too much of the effort to believe.

This was not so in earlier centuries, with their very limited knowledge
of nature.

It needed no sacrificium intellectus to believe in miracles, and the report of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the Redeemer could still pass as biography.

All this has radically changed in recent times under the compelling influence of scientific rationalism, and the aversion of the younger generation for mythology seems the natural outcome of the premise: we are tired of the excessive effort of having to believe, because the object of belief is no longer inherently convincing.

The dogma of the Trinity, the divine nature of the Redeemer, the Incarnation through the Holy Ghost, Christ’s miraculous deeds and resurrection, are more conducive to doubt than to belief.

One dogma after another falls.

The “message of the Crucified and Risen Christ” is just not understood any more, but is, at most, felt as a well-meant object lesson in ethics that is conceded to have some practical utility.

From here it is but a short step to the view that certain ethical principles can be acquired without the mythological trimmings.
But for people with religious sensibilities this rationalism is not enough; they have a dim suspicion that ethics needs a different foundation from the one which Janus-faced reason grants it.

“Reason” is, notoriously, not necessarily ethical any more than intelligence is.

These people sense in religion an indispensable -Thou relationship which is not at hand in any rational decisions based on ego-conditioned judgments.

They therefore reserve for themselves a personal relationship to Christ, as can plainly be seen in the Christocentric trend of recent developments in Protestantism.

This conception of belief presupposes only one mythologem: the continuing, living presence of the Risen Christ.

For many religious people today even this concession to myth is dropped and they content themselves with a bashfully veiled theismwhich has a minimum of the traditional mythic encumbrances.

Beyond that there are only surrogates like exotic theosophical ideas or other regressive -isms, all of which culminate in materialism, where one succumbs to the illusion of having finally escaped each and every mythological bugbear.

With this radical “demythologization” religious communication comes to a dead end too.

Myth is pre-eminently a social phenomenon: it is told by the many and heard by the many.

It gives the ultimately unimaginable religious experience an image, a form in which to express itself, and thus makes community life possible, whereas a merely subjective religious experience lacking the traditional mythic imagery remains inarticulate and asocial, and, if it does anything at all, it fosters a spiritually anchoritic life.

Although the anchorite does not represent a model for living, the solitude of religious experience can be, and will be, an unavoidable and necessary transitional phase for everyone who seeks the essential experience, that is to say the primordial religious experience.

This alone forms the true and unshakable foundation of his inner life of belief.

But once he has attained this certitude, he will in the normal course of things be unable to remain alone with it.

His fulfilment spills over in communication, and communication requires language.

But what language shall he choose?

Obviously one that is generally understood.

So for practical reasons he will not invent a new idiom, which would merely do him a bad service by branding him as an unintelligible eccentric, but will be bound to make use of the immemorial myth, in this case the Christian myth, even at the risk of being accused of pouring new wine into old bottles.

If his individual experience is a living thing, it will share the quality of all life, which does not stagnate but, being in continual flux, brings ever new aspects to light.

The old myth, which always holds within it something yet older and more aboriginal, remains the same, this being an essentialquality of all forms of religion; it only undergoes a new interpretation.

Thus the Reformation was no more a repristination of the early Church than the Renaissance was a mere revival of antiquity, but a new exposition which could not throw off its own historical evolution.

The imageless and unbiased experience modern man strives for will -unless he aspires to the role of the prophet-lead to the modest conclusion that notwithstanding its numinosity it was after all only his own subjective experience.

If he has the necessary knowledge at his disposal, he will also come to see that it was not unique in its substance but has been observed in many other cases as well.

Furthermore, he will have no difficulty in understanding that experiences of this kind are inherent in the nature of the psyche at all times, no matter to what causative God they may be attributed.

We can in imagination and belief go beyond the psyche, just as in fantasy we can go beyond the three-dimensional world.

But we can have immediate knowledge only of the psychic, even though we may be sure that our imageless experience was an “objective” fact-a fact, however, that can never be proved.

Nowadays one very often hears people asserting that something or other is “only” psychic, as though there were anything that is not psychic.

When we assert that something is present, we must necessarily have “re-presentation,” i .e., an image of it.

If we had none, it would at the very least be unconscious to us.

But then we would not be able to assert, let alone prove, anything about it either.

The presence of objects is entirely dependent on our powers of representation, and “representation” is a psychic act.

But these days “only psychic” simply means “nothing.”

Outside psychology only modern physics has had to acknowledge that no science can be carried on without the psyche.

For more than a hundred years the world has been confronted with the concept of an unconscious, and for more than fifty years with the empirical investigation of it, but only a very few people have drawn the necessary conclusions.

Nobody seems to have noticed that without a reflecting psyche the world might as well not exist, and that, in consequence, consciousness is a second world-creator, and also that the cosmogonic myths do not describe the absolute beginning of the world but rather the dawning of consciousness as the second Creation.

Myths are descriptions of psychic processes and developments, therefore.

Since these, so long and so far as they are still in the unconscious state, prove to be inaccessible to any arbitrary alteration, they exert a compelling influence on consciousness as pre-existent conditioning factors.

This influence is neither abolished nor corrected by any environmental conditions.

From ancient times, therefore, it has been deemed a daemonium.

No amount of reason can conjure this empirical fact out of existence.

Now whether these archetypes, as I have called these pre-existent and pre-forming psychic factors, are regarded as “mere” instincts or as daemons and gods makes no difference at all to their dynamic effect.

But it often makes a mighty difference whether they are undervalued as “mere” instincts or overvalued as gods.

These new insights enable us to gain a new understanding of mythology and of its importance as an expression of intrapsychic processes.

And from this in turn we gain a new understanding of the Christian myth, and more particularly of its apparently obnoxious statements that are contrary to all reason.

If the Christian myth is not to become obsolete-which would be a sell-out with quite unpredictable consequences-the need for a more psychologically oriented interpretation that would salvage its meaning and guarantee its continuance forces itself upon us.

The danger of its final destruction is considerable when even the theologians start to demolish the classic world of mythological ideas without putting a new medium of expression in its place.

I must apologize, my dear Pastor, for the unusual prolixity of my letter.

Considering the importance of your question my exertions are small enough .

At the age of 84 I am somewhat tired, but I am concerned about our culture, which would be in danger of losing its roots if the continuity of tradition were broken.

For close on sixty years I have felt the pulse of modern man from all continents of the earth, and have experienced far too much of the woes of our time not to take the gravity of your question profoundly to heart.

Yours sincerely,

C.G. Jung ~Carl Jung, Letters Vol. II, Pages 482-488