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Carl Jung: I was thrown back on experience alone


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Letters Volume II

To Pastor Walter Bernet

Dear Pastor Bernet, 13 June 1955

At last I have got down to reading and studying your book which you so kindly sent me.

Please put the slowness of this procedure down to my old age!

It was certainly not lack of interest that kept me reading so long, but rather a curiosity or-more accurately-a need to familiarize myself with and learn to understand the theological mode of thinking, which is so alien to me.

I have been able to assimilate this thinking only very fragmentarily, if at all, in spite or perhaps because of the fact that I come from a theological milieu on my mother’s side, and my father was himself a clergyman.

It was the tragedy of my youth to see my father cracking up before my eyes on the problem of his faith and dying an early death.

This was the objective outer event that opened my eyes to the importance of religion.

Subjective inner experiences prevented me from drawing negative conclusions about religion from my father’s fate, much as I was tempted to do so.

I grew up in the heyday of scientific materialism, studied natural science and medicine, and became a psychiatrist.

My education offered me nothing but arguments against religion on the one hand, and on the other the charisma of faith was denied me.

I was thrown back on experience alone.

Always Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus hovered before me, and I asked myself how his fate would have fallen out but for his vision.

Yet this experience came upon him while he was blindly pursuing his own way.

As a young man I drew the conclusion that you must obviously fulfill your destiny in order to get to the point where a donum gratiae might happen along.

But I was far from certain, and always kept the possibility in mind that on this road I might end up in a black hole.

I have remained true to this attitude all my life.

From this you can easily see the origin of my psychology: only by going my own way, integrating my capacities headlong (like Paul), and thus creating a foundation for myself, could something be vouchsafed to me or built upon it, no matter where it came from, and of which I could be reasonably sure that it was not merely one of my own neglected capacities.

The only way open to me was the experience of religious realities which I had to accept without regard to their truth.

In this matter I have no criterion except the fact that they seem meaningful to me and harmonize with man’s best utterances.

I don’t know whether the archetype is “true” or not.

I only know that it lives and that I have not made it.

Since the number of possibilities is limited, one soon comes to a frontier, or rather to frontiers which recede behind one another presumably up to the point of death.

The experience of these frontiers gradually brings the conviction that what is experienced is an endless approximation.

The goal of this approximation seems to be anticipated by archetypal symbols which represent something like the circumambulation of a centre.

With increasing approximation to the centre there is a corresponding depotentiation of the ego in favour of the influence of the “empty” centre, which is certainly not identical with the archetype but is the thing the archetype points to.

As the Chinese would say, the archetype is only the name of Tao, not Tao itself.

Just as the Jesuits translated Tao as “God,” so we can describe the “emptiness” of the centre as “God.”

Emptiness in this sense doesn’t mean “absence” or “vacancy,” but something unknowable which is endowed with the highest intensity.

If I call this unknowable the “self,” all that has happened is that the effects of the unknowable have been given an aggregate name, but its contents are not affected in any way.

An indeterminably large part of my own being is included in it, but because this part is the unconscious I cannot indicate its limits or its extent.

The self is therefore a borderline concept, not by any means filled out with the known psychic processes.

On the one hand it includes the phenomena of synchronicity, on the other its archetype is embedded in the brain structure and is physiologically verifiable: through electrical stimulation of a certain area of the brain-stem of an epileptic it is possible to produce mandala visions (quadratura circuli).

From synchronistic phenomena we learn that a peculiar feature of the psychoi background is Transgressive within space and time.

This brings us directly to the frontier of transcendence, beyond which human statements can only be mythological.

The whole course of individuation is dialectical, and the so-called “end” is the confrontation of the ego with the “emptiness” of the centre. Here the limit of possible experience is reached: the ego dissolves as the reference-point of cognition.

It cannot coincide with the centre, otherwise we would be insensible; that is to say, the extinction of the ego is at best an endless approximation.

But if the ego usurps the centre it loses its object (inflation!).

Even though you add to my “ultimate” an “absolute ultimate,” you will hardly maintain that my “ultimate” is not as good an “ultimate” as yours.

In any case all possibility of cognition and predication ceases for me at this frontier because of the extinction of the ego.

The ego can merely affirm that something vitally important is happening to it.

It may conjecture that it has come up against something greater, that it feels powerless against this greater power; that it can cognize nothing further; that in the course of the integration process it has become convinced of its finiteness, just as before it was compelled to take practical account of the existence of an ineluctable archetype.

The ego has to acknowledge many gods before it attains the centre where no god helps it any longer against another god.

It now occurs to me-and I hope I am not deceiving myself that from the point where you introduce the “absolute ultimate” which is meant to replace my descriptive concept of the self by an empty abstraction, the archetype is increasingly detached from its dynamic background and gradually turned into a purely intellectual formula.

In this way it is neutralized, and you can then say “one can live with it quite well.”

But you overlook the fact that the self-constellating archetypes and the resultant situations steadily gain in numinosity, indeed are sometimes imbued with a positively eerie daemonism and bring the danger of psychosis threateningly close.

The up surging archetypal material is the stuff of which mental illnesses are made.

In the individuation process the ego is brought face to face with an unknown superior power which is likely to cut the ground from under its feet and blow consciousness to bits.

The archetype is not just the formal condition for mythological statements but an overwhelming force comparable to nothing I know.

In view of the terrors of this confrontation I would never dream of addressing this menacing and fascinating opponent familiarly as “Thou,” though paradoxically it also has this aspect.

All talk of this opponent is mythology.

All statements about and beyond the “ultimate” are anthropomorphisms and, if anyone should think that when he says “God” he has also predicated God, he is endowing his words with magical power.

Like a primitive, he is incapable of distinguishing the verbal image from reality.

In one breath he will endorse the statement Deus est ineffabilis without a thought, but in the next he will be speaking of God as though he could express him.

It seems to me-and I beg your pardon in advance if I am doing you an injustice-that something of the sort has happened to you.

You write, apparently without any misgivings, that I equate God with the self.

You seem not to have noticed that I speak of the God-image and not of God because it is quite beyond me to say anything about God at all.

It is more th an astonishing that you have failed to perceive this fundamental distinction, it is shattering.

I don’t know what you must take me for if you can impute such stupidities to me after you yourself have correctly presented my epistemological standpoint at the beginning of your book.

I have in all conscience never supposed that in discussing the psychic structure of the God-image I have taken God himself in hand.

I am not a word-magician or word-fetishist who thinks he can posit or call up a metaphysical reality with his incantations.

Don’t Protestant critics accuse the Catholic Mass of magic when it asserts that by pronouncing the words Hoc est corpus meum Christ is actually present?

In Job and elsewhere I am always explicitly speaking of the God-image.

If my theologian critics choose to overlook this, the fault lies with them and not with me.

They obviously think that the little word “God” conjures him up in reality, just as the Mass forces Christ to appear through the words of the Consecration.

(Naturally I am aware of the dissident Catholic explanation of this.)

I do not share your overvaluation of words, and have never regarded the equation Christ = Logos as anything else than an interesting symbol conditioned by its time.

This credulity and entrapment in words is becoming more and more striking nowadays.

Proof of this is the rise of such a comical philosophy as existentialism, which labours to help being become being through the magical power of the word.

People still believe that they can posit or replace reality by words, or that something has happened when a thing is given a different name.

If I call the “ultimate” the self and you call it the “absolute ultimate,” its ultimateness is not changed one whit.

The name means far less to me than the view associated with it.

You seem to think that I enjoy romping about in a circus of archetypal figures and that I take them for ultimate realities which block my view of the Ineffable.

They guide but they also mislead; how much I reserve my criticism for them you can see in Answer to Job, where I subject archetypal statements to what you call “blasphemous” criticism.

The very fact that you consider this critique of anthropomorphisms worthy of condemnation proves how strongly you are bound to these psychic products by word-magic.

If theologians think that whenever they say “God” then God is, they are deifying anthropomorphisms, psychic structures and myths.

This is exactly what I don’t do, for, I must repeat, I speak exclusively of the God-image in Job.

Who talks of divine knowledge and divine revelation? Certainly not me.

“Ultimately” I have really reached the ultimate with my presumptuous anthropomorphisms which feign knowledge and revelation!

I see many God-images of various kinds; I find myself compelled to make mythological statements, but I know that none of them expresses or captures the immeasurable Other, even if I were to assert it did.

However interesting or enthralling metaphysical statements may be, I must still criticize them as anthropomorphisms.

But here the theologian buttonholes me, asseverating that his anthropomorphism is God and damning anyone who criticizes any anthropomorphic weaknesses, defects, and contradictions in it as a blasphemer.

It is not God who is insulted by the worm but the theologian, who can’t or won’t admit that his concept is anthropomorphic.

With this he puts an end to the much needed discussion and understanding of religious statements.

Just as Bultmann’s demythologizing procedure stops at the point where the demagicking of words no longer seems advisable to him, so the theologian treats exactly the same concept as mythological, i.e., anthropomorphic at one moment and as an inviolable taboo at the next.

I have begged four distinguished (academic) theologians to tell me what exactly is the attitude of modern Protestantism to the question of the identity of the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New, between whom the layman thinks he can spot quite a number of differences.

The question is so harmless that it is like asking what the difference is between Freud’s view of the unconscious and mine.

Two didn’t answer at all despite repeated requests.

The third told me that there was no longer any talk of God in the theological literature of the last twenty years anyway.

The fourth said the question was very easy to answer: Yahweh was simply a somewhat archaic God-concept in comparison with that of the New Testament.

Whereupon I replied: “Look, my dear Professor, this is just the kind of psychologism the theologians accuse me of. Suddenly the divine revelation in the OT is nothing but an archaic concept and the revelation in the NT is simply a modern one. But the next moment this same revelation is God himself and no concept at all.”

So you ride the hobby-horse of your choice.

In order to do away with such tricks, I stick to my proposal that we take all talk of God as mythological and discuss these mythologems honestly.

As soon as we open our mouths we speak in traditional verbal images, and even when we merely think we think in age-old psychic structures.

If God were to reveal himself to us we have nothing except our psychic organs to register his revelation and could not express it except in the images of our everyday speech.

Let the Protestant theologian therefore abandon his hieratic word magic and his alleged knowledge of God through faith and admit to the layman that he is mythologizing and is just as incapable as he is of expressing God himself.

Let him not vilify and condemn and twist the arguments of others who are struggling just as earnestly to understand the mysteries of religion, even if he finds these arguments personally disagreeable or wrong in themselves.

(I cannot exempt you, for one, from the obligation to give due regard to the epistemological premises of Answer to Job if you want to criticize it.)

So long as we are conscious of ourselves, we are supported by the psyche and its structures and at the same time imprisoned in them with no possibility of getting outside ourselves.

We would not feel and be aware of ourselves at all were we not always confronted with the unknown power.

Without this we would not be conscious of our separateness, just as there is no consciousness without an object.

We are not delivered from the “sin” of mythologizing by saying that we are “saved” or “redeemed” through the revelation of God in Christ, for this is simply another mythologem which does, however, contain a psychological truth.

Consequently we can understand the “feeling of redemption” which is bound up with this mythologem; but the statement “revelation in Christ” merely affirms that a myth of this kind exists which evidently belongs to the symbolism of the self.

What impresses me most profoundly in discussions with theologians of both camps is that metaphysical statements are made apparently without the slightest awareness that they are talking in mythic images which pass directly as the “word of God.”

For this reason it is so often thoughtlessly assumed that I do the same thing, whereas quite to the contrary I am trained by my daily professional work to distinguish scrupulously between idea and reality.

The recognition of projections is indeed one of the most important tasks of psychotherapy.

I have read your erudite book with great interest and profit and find it all the more regrettable
that in spite of your admirably objective presentation of my standpoint at the beginning you nevertheless go off the rails at the end.

You think I have deviated from my epistemological position in Job.

Had you read the introduction you could never have pronounced this false judgment.

I can understand very well that you are shocked by the book; I was too, and by the original Job into the bargain.

I feel that you have in general too poor an opinion of me when you charge me with the arrogance of wanting to write an exegesis of Job.

I don’t know a word of Hebrew.

As a layman, I have only tried to read the translated text with psychological common sense, on the assumption, certainly, that I am dealing with anthropomorphisms and not with magical words that conjure up God himself.

If in the Jewish commentaries the high priest takes the liberty of admonishing Adonai to remember his good rather than his bad qualities it is no longer so shocking if I avail myself of a similar criticism, especially as I am not even addressing Adonai, as the high priest did, but merely the anthropomorphic God-image, and expressly refrain from all metaphysical utterances, which the high priest did not.

You will scarcely suppose that, despite my assurance to the contrary, the mere pronouncing of God’s name conjures up God himself.

At all events Adonai took the high priest’s criticism and a number of other equally drastic observations without a murmur, thereby showing himself to b more tolerant than certain theologians.

The reason why mythic statements invariably lead to word-magic is that the
archetype possesses a numinous autonomy and has a psychic life of its own.

I have dealt with this particular difficulty at some length in Job.

Perhaps I may remark in conclusion that the theory of archetypes is more difficult, and I am not quite so stupid as you apparently think.

I cannot omit to thank you, all the same, for the great trouble you have taken in going into my proposition so thoroughly.

It is obvious that this cannot be done without difficulties and misunderstandings, especially in view of the fact that our age is still for the most part trapped in its belief in words.

Ancient Greece was on an even lower level, as the term phrenes with its psychic connotation shows.

The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico still think in the “heart” and not in the head.

Tantra Yoga gives the classic localizations of thought: anahata, thinking (or localization of consciousness) in the chest region (phrenes); visuddha (localized in the larynx), verbal thinking; and ajna, vision, symbolized by an eye in the forehead, which is attained only when verbal image and object are no longer identical, i.e., when their participation mystique is abolished.

I have this advance of human consciousness particularly at heart.

It is a difficult task to which I have devoted all my life’s work.

This is the reason why I venture to plague you with such a long letter.

Yours sincerely,

C.G. Jung ~Carl Jung, Letters Vol. II, Pages 257-264