Sunday, June 12, 2011

Carl Jung: The Conflict Between Faith, Experience and Knowledge

Over fifty years ago, one of the twentieth-century's greatest thinkers, the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung made the observation that both science and our modern religious views in the West lack the experiential force that would make them effective vehicles for shaping a sustainable and viable worldview. His comments now, as then, continue to cut to the heart of what is humanity's greatest existential question - how to find deep meaning in a seemingly superficial and surface life that is increasingly defined by a purely scientific worldview in conflict with fanatical and fundamentalist 'religiosity'.

Writing in his classic work, "The Undiscovered Self," Jung observes:
"The West has unfortunately not yet awakened to the fact that our appeal to idealism and reason and other desirable virtues, delivered with so much enthusiasm, is mere sound and fury. It is a puff of wind swept away in the storm of religious faith, however twisted this faith may appear to us."

"We are faced," he observes, "not with a situation that can be overcome by rational or moral arguments, but with an unleashing of emotional forces and ideas engendered by the spirit of the times, and these, as we know from experience, are not much influenced by rational reflection and still less by moral exhortation. It has been correctly realized in many quarters that the alexipharmic, the antidote, should in this case be an equally potent faith of a different and nonmaterialistic kind, and that the religious attitude grounded upon it would be the only effective defense against the danger of psychic infection."

"Unhappily," Jung notes, "the little word 'should,' which never fails to appear in this connection, points to a certain weakness, if not the absence, of this desideratum. Not only does the West lack a uniform faith that could block the progress of a fanatical ideology, but, as the father of Marxist philosophy, it makes use of exactly the same spiritual assumptions, the same arguments and aims."
In a durable commentary that is at least as applicable in the non-Christian East as it is in the West, Jung points out that churches (and one might add mosques, temples and synagogues) "stand for traditional and collective convictions which in the case of many of their adherents are no longer based on their own inner experience but on unreflecting belief which notoriously apt to disappear as soon as one begins thinking about it." Then, he notes, "(t)he content of belief . . . comes into collision with knowledge, and it often turns out that the irrationality of the former is no match for the ratiocinations of the latter."
"Belief," Jung notes, "is no adequate substitute for inner experience, and where this is absent even a strong faith which came miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously."

"People call faith the true religious experience," he observes, "but they do not stop to think that actually it is a secondary phenomenon arising from the fact that something happened to us in the first place which instilled 'nous' into us - that is, trust and loyalty."

"This experience has a definite content that can be interpreted in terms of one or other of the denominational creeds," he points out. "But the more this is so, the more the possibilities of these conflicts with knowledge mount up, which in themselves are quite pointless."

"That is to say," he concludes, "the standpoints of the creeds is archaic; they are full of impressive mythological symbolism which, if taken literally, comes into insufferable conflict with knowledge."
[Carl Jung, "The Undiscovered Self." pp. 46-48.]
What is apparent from Jung's analysis, it seems, is the need that both individuals and societies have for a meaningful and experiential belief system which is compatible, and not antithetical, to the collective knowledge that the world has garnered - both through science and through real religious insight. Such an insight, to be meaningful, must take into account what science has disclosed about the outer, material world and what experiential religious practice has disclosed about the inner, spiritual world of the individual and collective consciousness and psyche.

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