Thoughts On The Jungian Perspective On Symbolism

Bruno BraccoSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023

Symbols are bridges

It is not original to say that, metaphorically speaking, symbols are bridges. That basically means they connect two realities that would otherwise remain isolated. The very etymology of the word makes it clear: symbol originates from the Greek word symballein, which means to unite, to put together, or to recollect.1 It is not difficult to realize the intimate etymological connection between the word symbol and a few others that point to the same idea of uniting or reuniting, such as religion (from the Latin re-ligare) or Yoga, that also means to join.

In the pure material world, that is exactly what bridges do: they connect two points which are at first separated. In doing so, such realities are put together, at least potentially, in the sense that there are no more empty spaces between them. In the non-material realm, on the other hand, symbols are bridges that connect us – that is to say, our consciousness, our subjectiveness, ourselves – to something else. While that might sound obvious, the main point of this text is to show that it is not so. There is a great deal of potential confusion in this matter, especially when we choose to take the Jungian path. It is a path which is filled with amazing treasures, but also beset with hidden dangers.

Transcendence and immanence

The key to understanding the dangers within the Jungian approach is to remember that, in every traditional system, there is a dancing duality between transcendence and immanence. By ‘dancing duality’ I mean that there is a continuous relation between transcendence and immanence. I also mean that, without immanence, transcendence would not be comprehensible – and not even tangible –, and without transcendence immanence would not have any meaning. In his book on the symbolic structures in Genesis, Matthieu Pageau talks about it in terms of the relation between Heaven and Earth: the role of Heaven is to provide Earth with meaning, whereas the role of Earth is to support Heaven, expressing “spirit by making it visible and tangible in the universe.”2

In theological terms, the same is expressed by the idea that man can never live the divine life by himself, but only by participation. As a mediator between Heaven and Earth, or between transcendence and immanence, man cannot find real meaning, or real life, if he chooses to live solely in the earthly or immanent realm. In doing so, man ceases to be a bridge, or a symbol, between meaning and matter, and therefore immanence ceases to support and to reflect transcendence. In such a scenario, instead of participating in the divine life, all man can do is to imitate the divine life, by forging a material world full of artificial lights, technology, and empty promises of immanent happiness. When man is not a bridge between Heaven and Earth, all that remains is matter without meaning, and all man can do is to cover himself up, in Biblical terms, with garments of skin.

Only transcendence

There is also the risk, although certainly much less common, of pursuing only transcendence, without reference to immanence. Surely, what comes to mind in this regard is an entire chain of Gnostic ideas, from the Manicheans to the Cathars. About the latter, it is said that, having their eyes solely in Heaven, and considering earthly life as a burden or a prison, they would see pregnancy as something absolutely undesirable: it would be better if human life on Earth could simply stop, so that our heavenly spirits would be finally free.

A delightful book by Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End, comes to mind here (major spoiler in the next lines). By the end of the story, every child on Earth, while aiming to be freed from earthly burdens and merged with the skies above, would cease to have a face! Of course, our faces represent, symbolically, our personalities; they are the feature par excellence that makes us truly human, or a true bridge between Heaven and Earth. In despising terrestrial life completely, Clarke’s human children simply stop being human: here we have a great image of this enormous danger which is not certainly restricted to heretical sects of the past, but still lives nowadays in strange new systems of non-traditional spirituality.

Only immanence: the Jungian approach?

In any case, the greater risk is surely that of focusing solely on immanence, despising transcendence. It is a risk that can be seen everywhere: from the Promethean myth highly represented in New York statues (not only that at Rockefeller Center, but also the Statue of Liberty seems to symbolize the same idea of man holding in his earthly hands the torch of the gods – and fire is an obvious symbol of the spiritual realm), to the Communist iconography, since the sickle that appears in the well-known Marxist sign can also be interpreted as a cutting instrument that breaks the connection between transcendence and immanence (indeed, Karl Marx’s philosophical approach is hugely based on Feuerbach, who notoriously claims for man that which the religion attributes to God).

When our attention goes entirely to the immanent world, the empty space that should be filled by vertical aspirations remains empty. It is natural, in this situation, that we try to fill it with a different type of aspiration – obviously horizontal. Eric Voegelin is an important author who has written extensively about the relation between modern revolutionary thought and this movement of bringing down to immanence those divine aspirations that could only be fulfilled in the vertical dimension. In another example, we can also interpret the advance of technology, especially in the V.R. field, as a human attempt of living a pseudo-transcendent, pseudo-supernatural life through purely horizontal means: an extension, one could say, of the garments of skin mentioned in Genesis 3.

One could think that the Jungian system of thought has little to do with the pseudo-transcendence of a V.R. game or of the Metaverse. The reason is clear: there is a well-known spiritual tone in Jung’s words. In opposition to Freud’s psychoanalysis, whose materialism is undisputed, Jung is often seen as a gnostic, or even as a spiritual guide. Indeed, despite his strong attempts, in much of his works, to give fully materialistic explanation for psychic phenomena – in stating, for instance, that the collective unconscious is ‘genetically inherited’, or a recollection of mankind’s past experiences –, it became increasingly clear, especially after publications such as his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections or (much more strongly) the Red Book, that there has always been something else, and not only materialism, in Jung’s thought.

In times when the force of the Christian tradition had already declined to a great extent, Jung appeared as a bright possibility for those unable to fill the ‘interior gap’ with any sort of materialism. By not only focusing on the possible achievements of a new level of consciousness by his psychotherapeutic methods, but also by interpreting symbols from different cultures and far-East religions, his influence has become understandably huge among hippies, new-age seekers, and the modern, non-traditional man who still aspired for higher things. His merits are undeniable, and I am certainly included among those who consider Jung one of the greatest thinkers of the last centuries. However, it is legitimate to pose a question: was Jung really building bridges to the transcendent realm, or was he only aiming – consciously or not – at the immanent world?

The spiritual and the psychic

The psyche cannot leap beyond itself. It cannot set up any absolute truths, for its own polarity determines the relativity of its statements”, Jung wrote in his Memories. “All comprehension and all that is comprehended is in itself psychic, and to that extent we are hopelessly cooped up in an exclusively psychic world.”3 This is an important quote to fully understand the Jungian worldview, since it makes clear that: (i) Jung tends to believe in a limitation of the human psyche, unable to reach absolute truths; and (ii) he also believes that we are hopelessly doomed to live exclusively in this psychic world. Surely, his perspective – as we can already notice – was different from a truly spiritual one, that would state the exactly opposite: for traditional Christianity, for instance, there is no doubt about the possibility of reaching another world, where absolute truths not only exist, but are accessible to us, as many Saints have attested.

It is true that Jung has written quite different lines here and there, suggesting that there are true metaphysical components in his theories, not reducible, then, to the psyche. It is also true that, especially in the foreword to Answer to Job, titled Lectori Benevoli, Jung claims not to be engaging in theological considerations, but only dealing with the reflections of the metaphysical realm on the human psyche – in other words, he claims to be concerned with the ‘God-images’, rather than with God Himself, for He is ultimately unknowable. “If… I concern myself with these ‘metaphysical’ objects, I am quite conscious that I am moving in a world of images and that none of my reflections touches the essence of the Unknowable,” as he writes. “I do not write as a biblical scholar (which I am not), but as a layman and physician who has been privileged to see deeply into the psychic life of many people.”4

Although Jung admits that there are metaphysical realities which transcend our capacity of knowledge, he is ultimately concerned with that which we are capable of knowing: the psychic world and the images (including the ‘God-images’) that dwell in it. In a way, then, it is possible to say that Jung, totally conscious of the “the risk of being suspected of psychologism,”5 ends up proving such a suspicion to be well-founded. Surely, he admits there is a metaphysical world we cannot grasp; at the same time, however, by denying the possibility of a direct connection to those realities, Jungian ideas tend to trap man in the psyche, closing off the bridge between immanence and transcendence.

Psychologism attempts to explain the greater in terms of the lesser and excludes all that goes beyond its own limits”, in the words of Sotillos. “These can be summarized as follows: the confusion of the Absolute with the relative, the Spirit with the psyche, the Intellect or Intellectus with reason or ratio…, and the Personality with individuality. Modern psychology and the subject of the human psyche are by definition circumscribed by the relative or horizontal domain.”6 Upton describes the main differences between both realms, the spiritual and the psychic, in the following lines:

The psychic or intermediary plane is the world of subjectivity; the spiritual plane is objectivity itself. As the psychic world is higher than the material world and encompasses it, so the Spirit is higher than both psyche and matter, and encompasses them. The psychic world is made up of beliefs, perceptions, impressions, experiences […]. The spiritual plane, on the other hand, is purely objective. It is not composed of our impressions, but of things we have impressions of—of noumena that transcend sense experience and do not depend for their existence upon our awareness of them… The spiritual plane is the realm of the first intelligible manifestations or “names” of God—of metaphysical principles that are not simply abstract ideas, but living realities that have the power, under the proper conditions, to dominate, guide, purify, and conform our psyches to them—to “save our souls.”7

As said before, it is surely not possible to compare Jung to those who totally dismiss the existence of transcendence, aiming to explain everything in terms of the psyche or the immanence. Freud would never have stated, as Jung did, that he did not believe in God, but knew God existed.8 My point here, however, is that the fact that there is undoubtedly a strong psychologism – that of Freud, for instance – does not mean there is not a softer type of psychologism. I would say that different degrees of psychologism can be observed in theories according to which there is nothing above the psyche as well as in theories according to which there is indeed a reality above the purely psychic one, but such a supra-psychic realm, ungraspable as it is, cannot be focused on. In any case, in order to investigate Jung’s theories further, a good way is to check what he says in two books: Transformation Symbolism in Mass, which deals specifically with Christian themes, and that which Jung himself considers to be his best work: Answer to Job.

God as a psychic phenomenon

C. G. Jung has written very powerful words, some of great theological value. Talking about the sacrifice in Mass, for example, he says: “What I sacrifice is my own selfish claim, and by doing this I give up myself. Every sacrifice is therefore, to a greater or lesser degree, a self-sacrifice.”9 We can easily see, from this very brief passage, that Jung stresses central – and often overlooked – themes of Christian theology. How unfortunate are the celebrations in which one can barely realize that a sacrifice is happening, and how little often do we hear that, through Jesus’ sacrifice, our own egotistic aspirations are transformed! And that is only one example among many others. The book quoted here, Transformation Symbolism in the Mass, has plenty of passages of similar value.

As we read through the book, it becomes increasingly clear that Jung’s view on the symbolism in Mass could enlighten many Christians – even part of the clergy – who partially or totally ignore the eminently sacrificial character of liturgy: it is not only a renewal of Christ’s sacrifice, but the main point is that, through Christ’s sacrifice, we sacrifice ourselves, our own self-centered, distant from God existence. It is therefore inevitable that, by facing such ideas, a sense of wonder strikes us, to the point of questioning why it seems sometimes easier to find in Jung’s writings, rather than in properly religious texts or sermons, such pearls of true wisdom.

However, where exactly do Jung’s words lead us? Far away from the protective walls of the Church, such words rapidly oscillate from the deeply symbolic to the genuinely heretical. Soon we find out that, according to his worldview, it is not God – the personal Christian God – who reigns, but the impersonal archetype that he calls Self: the impersonal psychological totality, mainly unconscious, is the real Jungian divinity, and man’s central task in life is to fully integrate it. We must bear that in mind in order to comprehend why Jung, after saying that in Mass we sacrifice our own selfish claim (which is a strictly orthodox position) and we gain ourselves, or the Self, also questions:

But what does the self gain? We see it entering into manifestation, freeing itself from unconscious projection, and, as it grips us, entering into our lives and so passing from unconsciousness into consciousness, from potentiality into actuality. What it is in the diffuse unconscious state we do not know; we only know that in becoming ourself it has become man.10

Now, Jung’s words start pointing to a path that deviates from a traditional Christian one. Much of what he says – let me emphasize this point once again – is of enormous richness and depth: the need for self-sacrifice, and for an ever-increasing development of consciousness, is undoubtedly part of God’s plan for his creatures. However, absolutely fascinated by the wondrous process by which man becomes aware of himself (or of the Self), finding God in his own heart (which is, by the way, also a common idea among Christian saints and mystics), Jung starts questioning God’s absolute supremacy: for Jung, to put it very clearly, God appears to need man so that He can become aware of Himself.

A little ahead, Jung admits “the almost blasphemous nature” of his view, but he adds: “I am in no way concerned with the Church’s explanation, but only wish to reconstruct the underlying psychic process” hidden in Christ’s sacrificial ritual in Mass.11 At this point, he states that God, through Christ’s sacrifice, assumes His own guilt for His lack of ability to properly take care of mankind, which is supposedly made clear in many passages of the Old Testament. Therefore, the redemption made possible by Christ’s sacrifice is not properly the redemption of man, but rather it is the redemption of God Himself. Let me quote Transformation Symbolism in Mass once again:

His work [mankind] was imperfect and did not prosper, but the blame cannot be placed on the creature any more than one can curse the pots for being badly turned out by the potter! This argument led to the Marcionite Reformation and to purging the New Testament of elements derived from the Old. Even as late as the seventeenth century the learned Jesuit, Nicolas Caussin, declared that the unicorn was a fitting symbol for the God of the Old Testament, because in his wrath he reduced the world to confusion like an angry rhinoceros […]. In these explanations we find the natural logic we missed in the answer of the Church. God’s guilt consisted in the fact that, as creator of the world and king of his creatures, he was inadequate and therefore had to submit to the ritual slaying.12

We can now interpret those excerpts under the light of that which, as mentioned above, Jung himself considers his best work: Answer to Job. The main thesis of this book consists basically in the idea that Yahweh must be seen primarily as a phenomenon, an “amoral force of Nature, a purely phenomenal personality that cannot see its own back.13 That is to say: Yahweh does not have, at first, moral conscience. His morality, or amorality, is therefore in conflict with general human understanding of good and bad.

It is important to stress this point: Jung is not suggesting that Yahweh is morally superior to man in general, and to Job in particular, nor is he saying that Yahweh’s morality is too high for us to fully grasp – as St. Paul, for example, would teach. Jung is simply saying that man in general, and Job in particular, are morally superior to Yahweh, since the latter is nothing but an amoral, unconscious phenomenon. And it is only as Job overcomes a succession of obstacles and holds firmly to his moral rectitude that Yahweh must face His own amorality. Yahweh’s amorality becomes clear by contrast to Job’s righteousness.

To put it shortly, Jung is saying that, as an amoral phenomenon, Yahweh – or at least Yahweh’s image reflected in the psychic realm – needs humanity in order to develop His own consciousness. By, through and because of man, Yahweh must look into Himself, becoming aware of His being and His lack of morality. By doing so, He ceases to be an unconscious phenomenon, and little by little becomes a truly omniscient God – that is to say, conscious not only of the whole universe, but primarily of Himself. According to Jung, the ultimate reason for existence lies precisely in this path of consciousness development that God Himself must go through.

Now we can understand why, in the abovementioned Transformation Symbolism in Mass, Jung walks along with Marcion of Sinope and the Gnostics in their critique of the Old Testament’s God. Now we can also see how Jung’s words – which at first seem to be (and actually are indeed) of very high value – soon reveal their hidden face. In Jung’s subversion of tradition, man no longer depends on God; on the contrary, it is God, an unconscious phenomenon, who depends on man. It is the unconscious Self, rather than the personal, unchangeable God, who reigns in the Jungian universe. Now, it becomes possible to argue that, in Jung’s view, transcendence itself becomes psychologized, reducible to a purely horizontal, psychic realm, and God – or at least what we can know of Him – becomes nothing but a psychic phenomenon.

Jung’s theories have led Erich Neumann, one of his main followers, to emphatically condemn the “Judeo-Christian morality,” considering it an old ethic system that leads to an illusory life, full of repression and lies. If, indeed, Yahweh is primarily an amoral phenomenon, it is pointless to take seriously His laws. Another subversion takes place here: if God Himself is psychologized, man becomes the center of the entire world, and “the ego conscience, which has become adult and autonomous”, as Neumann writes, “orients itself by itself or by the Self, center of psychic totality.”14 Man, in the Jungian universe, supersedes God.

Of course, the Jungian approach can be interpreted in many ways. It must be clear, however, that, by dethroning God, Jung is also rejecting universal truths, objectivity, and those “living realities that have the power, under the proper conditions, to dominate, guide, purify, and conform our psyches to them” – that is to say, the transcendent realm itself. In its place, all that is left is the psychic plane, made of subjectivity, inconsistency, endless transformation, impressions, experiences, unconsciousness etc. If God Himself ceases to be a personal, objective, and immutable Being – the very source of all there is, eternal, unchangeable, always omniscient etc. –, then all that is left is the human psyche, with its fluctuation, its relativity, and its perpetual struggle against itself.

Symbols as bridges to myself?

In a traditional perspective, symbols are primarily bridges to higher realities. We can think, for example, of the image of Jesus walking on water: a fact that clearly symbolizes the supremacy of the spiritual plane over the pure horizontal, material realm. By contemplating that image, we are naturally invited to notice that reality hides a spiritual meaning, and by fully accepting and realizing it we can also learn to deal in a better way with the ever changing nature of daily human experience on Earth. The same is symbolized, of course, by Christ’s resurrection, which shows again the supremacy of life, or spirit, over death, or purely material existence. Secondarily, symbols are also bridges that allow us to grasp lower realities. The serpent, for example, represents exactly this purely horizontal existence, away from the verticality of God. The serpent also represents change, fluctuations, and inconsistency, especially since it changes skin many times a year.

But what is important to notice is that, regardless of what symbols are pointing at, it is always a reality that cannot be entirely reduced to ourselves. The eternal, immutable reality symbolized by Christ’s walk on water should never be reduced to some sort of psychological ability to remain calm in adverse situations. It should not also be reduced to a psychological capacity of feeling well, of happiness, of attributing to everyday facts subjective meanings which satisfy our desires. Of course, every spiritual reality to which we connect brings about psychological implications; however, interpreting spiritual themes in purely psychic terms means separating ourselves from the vertical dimension or from Heaven.

In traditional theology, it is not a secret that, in a way, God lives within us. There is of course a bit of theological discussion here, but we can say that, at least after baptism, the Holy Spirit can actually live inside of us. This knowledge lies at the very basis of real mysticism, and the Patristic notion of theosis points exactly to the fact that this presence of God in us can reach a level at which it is, as St. Paul says, “no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). However, this life of God in us only happens by participation, which means that there is a life of God that exists regardless of our own existence. “Before Abraham was, I am,” as Jesus said. Before any of us, there has always been a transcendent reality that cannot be reduced to immanence.

By dethroning God, allowing followers as Neumann to despise the Judeo-Christian morality as something purely arbitrary, Jung cuts our very connection with transcendence. By stating that there is a purely psychic ‘archetype’ that corresponds to the integrated totality of psyche, and attributing to it an almost divine character, Jung appears to be doing justice to ancient mystical traditions, whereas he is, in reality, subverting mysticism. The Self, in the Jungian universe, occupies the place that has always been reserved for God – and this surely impacts the role of symbolism in his theories.

In tradition, as I have already pointed out, symbols are fundamentally bridges to a reality that is not accessible through ordinary means. Such a reality is surely reflected in our own souls, our own selves, but such a reflection takes place in a secondary moment: the universal reality exists prior to any of its particular reflections. The only type of self-knowledge that ultimately leads to the knowledge of God happens through traditional mysticism – that is to say: it is only possible if the seeker deeply comprehends that any divine reality he may find within can only exist in reference to a Divine Reality he can only aim to participate in. It is never solely about ourselves, or solely about our Self: if this is the only reality symbols are pointing at, high are the risks that we get trapped in the narcissistic maze of self-delusion.

As stated above, man is supposed to be a mediator between Heaven and Earth, or between transcendence and immanence. By choosing to live solely in the immanent realm, he ceases to connect meaning and matter, and therefore immanence ceases to support and to reflect transcendence. All that remains then is matter without meaning, and all man can do is to cover himself up with garments of skin. If a symbolic path is not a bridge to the transcendent, spiritual world, but only to our own immanent psyche, it becomes nothing but another layer of skin we cover our nudity with. If, as Jung has written, “the psyche cannot leap beyond itself” and “we are hopelessly cooped up in an exclusively psychic world,” symbolism becomes a self-referential tool by which our psyche seeks itself: all that is left, as we can see, is immanence.

Jung has had, for a long time, a huge impact on me. Actually, I am still an admirer of much of his work. I have been studying symbolism for almost 15 years, and people like Jung or Joseph Campbell – to name just one more – are of paramount importance for it: without them, my passion for symbolism would probably never have emerged, nor would I be, right now, writing these lines. Nevertheless, the reader must bear in mind that these lines are written by someone who, seeking liberation from the ego, has also fallen into the narcissistic trap of self-delusion. In mythology, when one of Hydra’s heads is cut off, three brand new ones arise. In seeking to escape the perils of ego, we often end up falling into an even more dangerous maze. Symbolic thinking may lead us to ever increasing degrees of freedom just as much as it can lure us into a narcissistic labyrinth we might take years – if we are lucky enough – to notice.

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. May, Rollo. Love and Will, at 137. New York, W. W. Norton, 1969.
  2. Pageau, Matthieu. The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis: a Commentary, at 23. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018.
  3. Jung, Carl Gustav. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, at 350-352. New York, Vintage Books, 1965.
  4. Jung, Carl Gustav. Answer to Job, at 361-363. New York, Bollingen Foundation, Inc., 1958.
  5. Ibid., at 362.
  6. Sotillos, Samuel B. “The Impasse of Modern Psychology: Behaviorism, Psychoanalysis, Humanistic, and Transpersonal Psychology in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy,” at 67. In: Psychology and the Perennial Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana, World Wisdom, 2013.
  7. Upton, Charles. “Drug-induced mysticism revisited”, at 131-132. In: Psychology and the Perennial Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana, World Wisdom, 2013.
  8. Jung, Carl Gustav. “Face to face: Carl Gustav Jung (1959)”, at 7:49. Youtube, May, 2022.
  9. Jung, Carl Gustav. Transformation Symbolism in Mass, at 261. New York, Bollingen Foundation, Inc., 1958.
  10. Ibid., at 262.
  11. Ibid., at 269-270.
  12. Ibid., at. 270-271.
  13. Jung, Carl Gustav. Answer to Job, at 385.
  14. Neumann, Erich. Psicologia profunda e nova ética, at 100. São Paulo, Paulinas, 1991.

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