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The God Within

By George Elder, 12/4/23

C. G. Jung’s greatest contribution to culture is his discovery of the collective unconscious. It is a profound level of the psyche beyond the conscious ego (of which everyone is aware) and beyond the unconscious shadow (of which some are aware). In fact—or as best we can tell at this stage of our development—it lies deep within mental life as the psyche’s very foundation.

And while it is true that we are all different at the shallower levels of the mind (my ego thoughts are not yours, and my shadow contents are somewhat specific to me personally), it is at the level of the “collective” unconscious that we are all one, globally and historically, where the “Family of Man” can be found. Thus, this discovery holds out the possibility that someday everyone will be aware that profoundly we have a common bond.


As “mystical” as this may sound, Jung thought it no more mysterious than the fact that we are all one physically, that we function biologically with the same organs. Indeed, he often likens the “archetypes”—his name for the specific contents of the collective unconscious—to the organs of the body. Jung writes:


Archetypes were, and still are, living psychic forces that demand to be taken seriously, and they have a strange way of making sure of their effect. . . . Moreover, they are the unfailing cause of neurotic and even psychotic disorders, behaving exactly like neglected or maltreated physical organs or organic functional systems. (CW 9.i, par. 266)


That puts the matter rather negatively, but the point is that the archetypal unconscious provides “archaic” and “typical” patterns of psychic life upon which we can rely for our well-being. They influence us, or should influence us, in all the great moments of our lives. It is why Lao Tzu, the Taoist sage, advised: “Let your wheels run along old ruts.” 


Jung not only saw this, he was also deeply moved. For he realized that the collective unconscious is numinous, i.e., “fraught with the divine,” and that he had come upon the “God within.” Since perhaps the Upper Paleolithic, our species has imagined the archetypes as “gods”—albeit projected onto the external world. This means that for the last many millennia, human beings have been convinced that there are “gods” and that a safe, good, and meaningful life is not possible without a right relationship to them.

With some exceptions, it is only recently that we have thought otherwise—as our religious institutions, whose function has been to preserve the “god-human” connection (i.e., to keep the ego in touch with its foundation) have been failing. But the institutional failure does not mean there are no “gods” (no archetypes), only that we don’t know where they have gone.


It is not entirely a mistake that more and more people are saying, “I don’t believe in God.” For that is part of a very long and necessary process of withdrawing projections. Jung explains:


The gods [in polytheism] at first lived in superhuman power and beauty on the top of snow-clad mountains or in the darkness of caves, woods, and seas. Later on they drew together into one god [monotheism, the dawning awareness of a central archetype], and then that god became man [the dawning awareness that divinity has to do with us]. But in our day even the God-man seems to have descended from his throne and to be dissolving himself in the common man . . . . But since the development of consciousness requires the withdrawal of all the projections we can lay our hands on, it is not possible to maintain any non-psychological doctrine about the gods. [my italics] If the historical process of world despiritualization continues as hitherto, then everything of a divine or daemonic character outside us must return to the psyche, to the inside of the unknown man, whence it apparently originated. (CW 11, par. 141)    


This means that Jungian psychology is a radically new understanding of the religious life. Indeed, it is a Copernican revolution in culture, even a new world view. And just as few agreed at the outset with the Polish astronomer that the earth really goes around the sun, so it is “hardly credible” at present—as Jung put it—that the psyche is sacred at its unconscious depths.


In practical terms, an archetypal viewpoint means that when we “fall in love,” it is not just an instinctual event but a wonderful psychological experience—felt by countless couples in much the same way worldwide since time immemorial. Everyone calls their beloved “honey” (Rādhā questions Kṛṣṇa, “But tell me, / Mādhava (“sweet one, honey”), beloved, / who are you? Who are you really?”). The experience is wonderful, moreover, because it is sacred. The ancient Greeks said it was caused by the goddess Aphrodite (a personification of the archetype of “Love”) or by her child Eros who shot another of his arrows (sometimes, unfortunately, blindfolded). In ancient India, it was the work of Kāma (“love) who had in his quiver five “flower arrows” (infatuation, excitement, withering, heating, and paralysis!).  


But the world’s pantheons inform us that there is, as well, an archetype of “War” built into the human psyche. It was personified by the Greeks as the god Ares (the lover of Aphrodite). Kṛṣṇa himself personifies war in the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavad Gītā—something Gandhi refused to accept. It is naïve, however, to think that given the right circumstances (say, the temptation to regain territory once lost or in revenge for being personally humiliated) this impersonal archetype will not be activated and that we will not “go to war.” Indeed, “God” will be on each side of the battle—as always, everywhere, since time immemorial. Jung put that starkly in 1934:


It is the psyche of man that makes wars. Not his consciousness. His consciousness is afraid, but his unconscious, which contains the inherited savagery as well as the spiritual strivings of the race, says to him, “Now it is time to make war. Now is the time to kill and destroy.” And he does it. (C. G. Jung Speaking, 74)


Here we can see the great value of a higher level of consciousness. For an individual who knows more or less how the psyche is actually “constructed” may be able to reflect before acting . . . and change the dynamic ever so slightly.


In the case of Love: “So is she really that wonderful? It sure seems so! But we’ve only just met. Better not to rush things.” In the case of War: “It is evil to kill people. But I feel so ‘self- righteous’! Am I inflated? Have I done everything to avoid fighting and is it only the enemy’s fault? At least, I must try to bring to an end this war that has already started . . . the meaning of which I do not fully understand.”

We might also seek out deliberately that other archetype, “Wisdom,” imaged in the world’s religions as the goddess Sophia, as Prajñāpāramitā, etc. In imagination, we can ask, “What should I do?” And like an ancient devotee, one can “pour a libation” to encourage a response—by pouring time and attention into reading (actually, studying) about Wisdom, pondering her many images. While one can no longer watch the flight of birds to take the divine auspices, as did the Romans, one can watch one’s dreams for hints from the “gods,” who reside now as “living psychic forces” within ourselves.


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