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The God Within (2)

By George Elder, 1/27/24

Jung’s discovery that “God” is within the human psyche had its precedents. Perhaps the earliest was in India, second century BCE, when the Kaṭha Upaniṣad said of the divine “Self” (Skt., ātman): “A certain wise man in search of immortality, / turned his sight inward and saw the Self within.” In the third century CE, Mahāyāna Buddhism would speak of a sacred Buddha “Embryo” or garbha within the mind with which we are all pregnant.


The Jewish philosopher Philo—a near contemporary of Jesus—wrote of the biblical imago dei that we are not made physically in the “image of God” but mentally (Gk. nous): an “image that resembles its archetypal model.” (On the Creation, 71) Jesus himself told his disciples that when he died physically, he would send an invisible “Holy Spirit”—that St. Paul took to be “Christ within.” Augustine would write: “Do not go abroad. Return within yourself. In the inward man dwells truth.” (Of True Religion, 39.72)   


Nevertheless, these ancient anticipations of modern psychology are ambiguous. The Kaṭha would still speak of the Ātman as everywhere; Jesus would still pray to “Our Father, who art in heaven.” That is because the collective unconscious was still in projection, although beginning to withdraw. Nor was there yet a strong awareness that the mind is not just conscious but has an unconscious dimension, both personal and transpersonal.


Perhaps I should add that the vast majority of religious people today, worldwide, have yet to reach the Upaniṣadic or Augustinian level of insight—and happily find Divinity “outside” in the universe somewhere, almost “physically.” But I am not writing of the majority and, instead, of what Toynbee called the “creative minority” in any age who move their culture ahead.


What difference does it make to see what Jung sees? I have already commented in the previous Post on this topic that it allows one to pause and reflect on “what is really going on.” And we are always safer, wiser, in a better position to make decisions when realistic about ourselves and our fellow human beings. 


Besides, as Jung has written: “the imago Dei pervades the whole human sphere and makes mankind its involuntary exponent”—which means at this very moment we are being influenced by the collective unconscious and are not as “free” as we think. (CW 11, par. 660)

As a species, however, we cannot survive being mere “exponents” of unconscious forces—for good or ill—since a compulsive outcome can go either way. “God” does not always know what He or She is doing (at least, in the short term) and needs to be assisted or “humanized” by free, ethical decision (i.e., to the best of our ability, since we will never be “in charge”). That is the psychological meaning of an archetype’s “incarnation” in human form, whether found in Christianity or in the Hindu stories of Viṣṇu’s avatāras. This religious imagery tells us, moreover, that the unconscious wants to become more conscious.


Jung cautions that a person cannot safely approach this new notion of a numinous archetypal psyche without a keen awareness of insufficiency. There must be a crisis of some kind, enough suffering. The ego has to admit failure (by definition, people in therapy have done so). There must be some acknowledgement of the shadow—that carries one’s unconscious “sins.”

Otherwise, the ego thinks that consciousness is “God” and inflates like a balloon (“Where there’s a will, there’s a way!”). From that error, a catastrophe surely follows. The myth of Icarus is not a “myth” (as popular culture has it) but a true story about how the psyche operates.


There are many today who genuinely suffer from an apparently “Godless” world. They find the conventional marks of successful adaptation—position, money, a house, even family—achievable but hollow. Or they are incapable of adapting and see no real reason for being here. They are often deeply depressed, even suicidal. Edinger wrote in Ego and Archetype: “Symptoms are intolerable precisely because they are meaningless. Almost any difficulty can be borne if we can discern its meaning. It is meaninglessness which is the greatest threat to humanity.” (117) 


The Jungian view of a psyche that is sacred at its depths offers meaning—indeed, “God” is traditionally a name for the Highest Value. And just hearing that there is great Value “within” oneself can be a blessing. This new view, however, poses a new task of adaptation: namely, to learn what it is that the archetypal psyche wants from one’s life and how best to achieve it.

Now there’s a challenge! But it generates its own energy, relieving the depression. And suicide is ruled out since it takes at least a lifetime to achieve.


Jung once wrote that there are really only three instincts: the instinct for preservation of the species (sex); the instinct for self-preservation (power); and a “religious” instinct to become increasingly more conscious, a distinctly human capacity that we do not share with animals. Some persons have a strong religious instinct—by temperament or by life experience (say, being raised religious and having that instinct activated or “turned on” as if a breaker in the breaker box). Jungian psychology, then, offers a way to satisfy that religious “urge” and to do so without having to sacrifice the other two instincts, whatever their strengths.


Finally, Jung said he deliberately linked his work to: “respect for the eternal rights of man, recognition of ‘the ancient,’ and the continuity of culture and intellectual history.” (Memories, 235) It is indeed satisfying to know that when one’s “wheels run along old ruts”—as Lao Tzu advised—that one is following a very old path even as one knows it is a new way of understanding it. Jung writes:

If we cannot deny the archetypes or otherwise neutralize them, we are confronted, at every new stage in the differentiation of consciousness to which civilization attains, with the task of finding a new interpretation [Jung’s italics] appropriate to this stage, in order to connect the life of the past that still exists in us [my italics], with the life of the present . . . . (CW 9.i, par. 267)

Making that connection means, for those who are called, to “get right with God”—as always, everywhere.


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