Reflections on the Jung-White Letters
When after World War II Victor White, a Dominican priest, began to correspond with C.G. Jung, and Jung responded enthusiastically, the stage was set for the beginning of a genuine Jungian-Christian dialogue. Jung was about to begin a series of writings on Christianity, and welcomed the collaboration of a Catholic priest trained in the scholastic philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas. And White was deeply attracted to Jung’s psychology both personally and in regard to what it had to offer Christianity. Each was open to what the other had to say, and soon Jung was inviting White to stay with him at Bollingen, his country retreat, so that they could explore the possibility of such a dialogue. Eventually Jung was to write Answer to Job, and White was to criticize it, and these difficulties pointed to the problems a deep Jungian-Christian dialogue would have to face. The recent publication of White’s letters to Jung (The Jung-White Letters, edited by Ann Conrad Lammers and Adrian Cunningham, Routledge, 2007) allow us to see with a new clarity just what those difficulties were.
As soon as their correspondence began important epistemological issues surfaced. Jung was keenly aware that what he was doing rested on an empirical foundation, and was not a philosophy or theology. He makes it clear that it would be beyond the competence of scientific empiricism to talk about the divine entity. “I don’t preach, I try to establish psychological facts. I can confirm and prove the interrelationship of the God image with other parts of the psyche, but I cannot go further without commiting the error of a metaphysical assertion which is far beyond my scope. I am not a theologian and I have nothing to say about the nature of God.” (p. 9) And what does the interrelationship of the God image with other parts of the psyche mean? Jung responds: “My personal view of this matter is, that Man’s vital energy or libido is the divine pneuma… “ (p. 7) But the deeper question is whether such an equation is actually so, and whether philosophy and theology are simply speaking in alternative languages instead of distinctive languages where each of them would have a viewpoint of their own.
As much as White admired Jung, it did not stop him from severely criticizing him, as we can see in his review of Jung’s essay, “On the Self” (p. 140, note 26) where he accuses Jung of a quasi-Manichean dualism when he would have done better to follow St. Thomas on the question of evil. Jung, in turn, asserts that Christian doctrine is fundamentally irrational (p. 187), and consists of metaphysical truths grasped by archetypal motives. White, in turn, makes an important response. He feels that Jung’s empirical psychology is unnecessarily bound up with Kantian presuppositions, (p. 189) so that embracing Jung’s psychology demands giving up philosophical and theological convictions. White considered most of Jung’s remarks on evil and the goodness of the Godhead terribly unworthy of him, (p. 202) and it hurt him to see Jung talk in that manner. Jung, of course, was free to pursue his distinctive interpretation of Christianity. Psychologically his experience of God is “the perception of an overpowering impulse” (p. 218) coming from the unconscious. Christ at the time of the Incarnation had to split off his shadow and call it the devil.
While White and others dreamed of a coming together of “Jungian Catholics,” (p. 227) the name given to an association in England, deep epistemological challenges still overshadowed the whole possibility of a Jungian-Christian dialogue. Jung’s Answer to Job was officially published in English in late 1954, but even before that White had to deal with the impression it left on Jung’s readers from other editions. His own review in Black Friars in March, 1955, was a rather paradoxical piece of work. On one hand he was concerned about how Jung would take it. He feared he would take it badly, and he was right, but that didn’t make him initially soften what he had to say. Once the review was published, he regretted it, and later deleted some of its most cutting passages. It was as if he had come to the rational insight that Jung was wrong, but since Jung expressed himself in a highly emotional way, he, in turn, could not help phrasing his dissent in a negatively charged feeling way, as well. White also – perhaps under the pressure of his not completely examined feelings – felt that Jung had said that he never intended to publish Answer to Job. And later White acted as if he didn’t understand why Jung was upset. Yet over and over again he regretted the feeling tone of the review, but never reputiated its substance.
But what was critical in the whole matter was what Jung really had to say in Answer to Job and the substance of White’s response. As important as their personal feelings were, especially in regard to their own relationship, what they had to say was even more important. For Jung God is only partially conscious, and partially good. If one were to address him as if he were a human, one might say “For heaven’s sake, man, pull yourself together and stop being such a senseless savage!” (Answer, p. 9, (572)). It is men and women who possess “a somewhat keener consciousness based on self-reflection.” (p. 13 (579)) And this is an indication that man is in some ways superior to God. Indeed, the conclusion we would have to draw from this is that God needs man in order to become more fully conscious, and to deal with the evil in his nature which he is ignoring. What we are dealing with here, however, is not the Godhead himself, but Jung’s feelings about it. We can’t help but think about the powerful emotions that stirred up Jung’s earliest years, the stories of which he recounted in Memories, Dreams, Reflections. It is as if here he is allowing those feelings about God to come out. Victor White’s review makes it clear that he has been caught up in Jung’s emotions and is responding in kind. He asks us, “Is he (Jung), after the manner of his own “Yahweh,” duped by some satanic trickster into purposely torturing his friends and devotees?” (p. 352) For White, Jung is reading the Scriptures “through a pair of highly distorted spectacles.” (p. 353) So Answer to Job, while not about God, but God images, is not really about Job’s images of God, but Jung’s images. But as we just saw, Jung’s images of God in his childhood were associated with all sorts of powerful feelings that had little to do with the Scriptures or, if we can put it that way, with God’s nature. White was to go on and make comments about Jung’s Answer to Job – “the clear-sightedness and blindness of the typical paranoid system which rationalizes and conceals an even more unbearable grief and resentment” (p. 355) – that was to make it, in fact, impossible for them to pick up the earlier intimacy of their relationship.
Thus, the first and most promising attempt at a Jungian-Christian dialogue with Jung, himself, as one of the major players ended in failure. The epistemological gap that separated the two men was never bridged. White came the closest when he pointed out Jung’s Kantian presuppositions. Jung, in fact, was an empiricist, and was working out an empirical science of the psyche. But at the same time he did not actually believe that philosophy and theology could actually know something in their own distinctive ways.
For extensive background on the Jung-White relationship see Ann Conrad Lammers’ In God’s Shadow, the Collaboration of Victor White and C.G. Jung, 1994. This book also contains an appendix about the long process that led to the publication of White’s letters, which were first used in detail in In God’s Shadow. Lammers also talks about the epistemological problem between Jung and White, but arrives at no firm conclusion about how the impasse their relationship reached could have been resolved.