61 / 100
Carl Jung on the Buber-Jung controversy

Letters of C. G. Jung: Volume 2, 1951-1961

To Bernhard Lang

Dear Colleague, June 1957

Many thanks for your friendly letter, which shows that the Buber-Jung controversy is a serious matter for you.

And so indeed it is, for here that threshold which separates two epochs plays the principal role.

I mean by that threshold the theory of knowledge whose starting point is Kant.

On that threshold minds go their separate ways: those that have understood Kant, and the others that cannot follow him.

I will not enter here into the Critique of Pure Reason, but will try to make things clear to you from a different, more human standpoint.

Let us take as an example the believing person who has Buber’s attitude to belief.

He lives in the same world as me and appears to be a human being like me.

But when I express doubts about the absolute validity of his statements, he expostulates that he is the happy possessor of a “receiver,” an organ by means of which he can know or tune in the Transcendent.

This information obliges me to reflect on myself and ask myself whether I also possess a like receiver which can make the Transcendent, i.e., something that transcends consciousness and is by definition unknowable, knowable.

But I find in myself nothing of the sort.

I find I am incapable of knowing the infinite and eternal or paradoxical; it is beyond my powers.

I may say that I know what is infinite and eternal; I may even assert that I have experienced it; but that one could actually know it is impossible because man is neither an infinite nor an eternal being.

He can know only the part but not the whole, not the infinite and eternal.

So when the believer assures me that I do not possess the organ he possesses, he makes me aware of my humanity, of my limitation which he allegedly does not have.

He is the superior one, who regretfully points out my deformity or mutilation.

Therefore I speak of the beati possidentes of belief, and this is what I reproach them with: that they exalt themselves above our human stature and our human limitation and won’t admit to pluming themselves on a possession which distinguishes them from the ordinary mortal.

I start with the confession of not knowing and not being able to know; believers start with the assertion of knowing
and being able to know.

There is now only one truth, and when we ask the believers what this truth is they give us a number of very different answers with regard to which the one sure thing is that each believer announces his own particular truth.

Instead of saying: To me personally it seems so, he says: It is so, thus putting everybody else automatically in the

Now in my estimation it would be more human, more decent, and altogether more appropriate if we carefully inquired beforehand what other people think and if we expressed ourselves less categorically.

It would be more becoming to do this than to believe subjective opinions and to damn the opinions of others as fallacies.

If we do not do this, the inevitable consequence is that only my subjective opinion is valid, I alone possess the true receiver, and everyone else is deformed who lacks such an important organ as belief is considered to be.

Buber is unconscious of the fact that when he says “God” he is expressing his subjective belief and imagining by “God”
something other people could not sanction.

What, for instance, would a Buddhist say about Buber’s conception of God?

My human limitation does not permit me to assert that I know God, hence I cannot but regard all assertions about God as relative because subjectively conditioned-and this out of respect for my brothers, whose other conceptions and beliefs have as much to justify them as mine.

If I am a psychologist I shall try to take these differences seriously and to understand them.

But under no circumstances shall I assume that if the other person doesn’t share my opinion it is due to a deformity
or lack of an organ.

How could I have any communication at all with a person if I approached him with the absolutist claims of the believer?

Though I am sure of my subjective experience, I must impose on myself every conceivable restriction in interpreting it.

I must guard against identifying with my subjective experience.

I consider all such identifications as serious psychological mistakes indicative of total lack of criticism.

For what purpose am I endowed with a modicum of intelligence if I do not apply it in these decisive matters?

Instead of being delighted with the fact of my inner experience, I am then using it merely to exalt myself, through my subjective belief, above all those who do not accept my interpretation of the experience.

The experience itself is not in question, only the absolutizing interpretation of it.

If I have a vision of Christ, this is far from proving that it was Christ, as we know only too well from our
psychiatric practice.

I therefore treat all confessions of faith with extreme reserve.

I am ready at any time to confess to the inner experience but not to my metaphysical interpretation, otherwise
I am implicitly laying claim to universal recognition.

On the contrary, I must confess that I cannot interpret the inner experience in its metaphysical reality, since its
essential core is of a transcendental nature and beyond my human grasp.

Naturally I am free to believe something about it, but that is my subjective prejudice which I don’t want to thrust
on other people, nor can I ever prove that it is universally valid.

As a matter of fact we have every reason to suppose that it is not.

I am sorry to say that everything men assert about God is twaddle, for no man can know God.

Knowing means seeing a thing in such a way that all can know it, and for me it means absolutely nothing if
I profess a knowledge which I alone possess.

Such people are found in the lunatic asylum.

I therefore regard the proposition that belief is knowledge as absolutely misleading.

“What has really happened to these people is that they have been overpowered by an inner experience.

They then make an interpretation which is as subjective as possible and believe it, instead of remaining true to the original

Take as an example our national saint Nicholas von der Flue: he sees an overwhelmingly terrifying face
which he involuntarily interprets as God and then twiddles it around until it turns into the image of the Trinity, which still hangs today in the church at Sachseln.

This image has nothing to do with the original experience, but represents the Summum Bonum and divine love, which are miles away from God’s Yahwistic terrors or the “wrath fire” of Boehme.

Actually after this vision Nicholas should have preached: “God is terrible.”

But he believed his own interpretation instead of the immediate experience.

This is a typical phenomenon of belief and one sees from it how such confessions of faith come about.

Because this so-called knowledge is illegitimate, inner uncertainty makes it fanatical and generates missionary zeal, so that through the concurrence of the multitude the subjective interpretation, precarious enough as it is, may not be shaken still further.

But the certitude of inner experience generates greater certainty than the interpretation we have imposed
upon it.

Buber fails to see that when he says “My experience is God” he is interpreting it in such a way as to force everyone into believing his opinion-because he himself is uncertain; for confronted with the great mystery no mortal man can aver that he has given a reliable interpretation, otherwise it would no longer be a mystery.

It is only too plain to see that such people have no mysteries any more, like those Oxfordites who think they
can call up God on the telephone.

Then you ask me if I am a believer I must answer “no.”

I am loyal to my inner experience and have pistis in the Pauline sense, but I do not presume to believe in my subjective interpretation, which would seem to me highly obnoxious when I consider my human brothers.

I “abhor” the belief that I or anybody else could be in possession of an absolute truth.

As I have said, I regard this unseemliness as a psychological mistake, a hidden inflation.

If you have inner experiences you are always in danger of identifying with them and imagining that you are specially favoured, or are a special species of man who possesses one organ more than others.

I know only too well how difficult it is for people to stand off from their own experience far enough to see the difference between the authentic experience and what they have made of it.

For if they stood by it, they would reach very weighty conclusions which could severely shake their interpretation.

Obviously they want to avoid these consequences, and my critical psychology is therefore a thorn in their flesh.

I can also confirm that I regard all declarations of faith, which Buber for instance has in mind, as an object of psychological research, since they are subjective human statements about actual experiences whose real nature cannot be fathomed by man in any case.

These experiences contain a real mystery, but the statements made about them don’t.

Thus it remained a real mystery to Brother Klaus what that terrifying countenance of God actually meant.

Incidentally, I would like to remark that the concept “transcendent” is relative.

Transcendence is simply that which is unconscious to us, and it cannot be established whether this is permanently inaccessible
or only at present.

In the past many things were transcendent that are now the subject-matter of science.

This should make one cautious-especially when dealing with ultimate things man cannot know about.

We cannot, after all, assert that belief enables us to attain godlike knowledge.

We merely believe we can become godlike, but we must modestly accept the fact that we cannot thrust this belief on anybody else.

We could never prove that this would not be an unbelievable presumption.

I for one am convinced that it is.

All that I have written you is Kantian epistemology expressed in everyday psychological language.

I hope by this means to have gained your ear.

In case my idea of interpretation should seem unintelligible to you, I would like to add a few words more.

Interpretation by faith seeks to represent the experienced content of a vision, for instance, as the visible manifestation of a transcendental Being, and it invariably does so in terms of a traditional system and then asserts that this representation is the absolute truth.

Opposed to this is my view, which also interprets, in a sense.

It interprets by comparing all traditional assumptions and does not assert that Transcendence itself has been perceived; it insists only on the reality of the fact that an experience has taken place, and that this is exactly the form it took.

I compare this experience with all other experiences of the kind and conclude that a process is going on in the unconscious which expresses itself in various forms.

I am aware that this process is actually going on, but I do not know what its nature is, whether it is psychic, whether it comes from an angel or from God himself.

We must leave these questions open, and no belief will help us over the hurdle, for we do not know and can never know.

With collegial regards,

Yours sincerely,

C.G. Jung ~Carl Jung, Letters Vol. II, Pages 375-379.