Carl Jung: The Unconscious & The Function of Religion

Sea of Faith was a six-part documentary television series, produced by the BBC and first screened in 1984.  Presented by English philosopher and theologian Don Cupitt, the series explored the interface between the history of Christianity and critical thought through the lens of scientific advances, political atheism and societal secularisation.

Of all the Sea of Faith productions, Cupitt’s short documentary on Carl Jung is particularly noteworthy in that it describes the Swiss Psychiatrist’s understanding of science and religion with alacrity and insight.

Jung’s understanding of religion departed sharply from that of his one-time mentor Freud; Jung understood that the religious question is inescapable in the life of the psyche, and that a marriage of the conscious and unconscious is critical to fully understand the centrality of the religious quest.  He therefore grasped, at quite an early stage, the place of myth and symbolism in facilitating spiritual health, and possessed a more optimistic view of the unconscious than did Freud.

Professor Jung also clarified his thinking on intuition and reason.  Indeed he once wrote that “intuition does not denote something contrary to reason, but something outside of the province of reason.” Further, he postulated that natural science gives us our only understanding of the external world, but the inner world of the psyche expresses itself in the language of myth – religion is about that inner world.

Interestingly, location was important when it came to Jung.  Cupitt, in his film, explores the importance of Jung’s beautiful, but simple and symbolic retreat house at Bollingen for the propagation of his ideas – ‘thoughts rise to the surface which reach back into the centuries’.

Perhaps problematically for some, Jung concluded that all religious ideas are equally valid in terms of human psychic life and referred often to the ‘God Image’ in the human psyche.  This understanding naturally lead to Jung’s eclecticism, exemplified by his interest in Gnosticism, alchemy and many other mystical outlets.  But what Jung was really getting at, was that regardless of the route taken, a rediscovery of the life of the psyche was a necessity. It is perhaps not surprising then, that he saw the Christian message as being of central importance in Western circles – although he argued strongly that it needed to be seen in a new light and applied in a new way.

Jung’s religious naturalism, exemplified in his view that knowledge of God is harmony and is intrinsically linked to the knowledge of self, is where Cupitt leaves his exploration of Jung.

You can watch the documentary here:

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