Carl Jung’s knowledge of God


In a BBC interview which aired during October 1959, Carl Jung told John Freeman about growing up as a pastor’s son in the Swiss Reformed Church, a boy who went to Sunday services  and believed in God. Freeman asked whether Jung still believed in God. Jung answered,

Now? (Pause) Difficult to answer. I know. I needn’t, I don’t need to believe. I know.

After receiving many letters about his answer, Jung wrote to the BBC’s weekly magazine, The Listener, to amplify, if not necessarily clarify, his remarks.

Jung’s letter was published in January 1960. It is the mature Jung’s definitive statement about God. Its text, along with other source material, appears in the Unlinks section, here. Unrolling Jung’s Persian carpet of thought is the object of this post.

Impromptu or rehearsed for years?

Freeman’s abrupt switch of topic, from childhood reminiscence to mature theology, may have momentarily wrong-footed Jung. Nevertheless, his answer essentially repeated what Jung had said four years earlier in a Time magazine cover story,

[W]hen asked if he believes in God, he says: “I could not say I believe. I know! I have had the experience of being gripped by something that is stronger than myself, something that people call God.”

So, Jung’s improvised answer reflected a long-held conviction. A small mystery remains, however, why Jung saying this on television attracted more public interest than his saying much the same thing in print. Several factors worked together.

Jung’s insistence that he knew, rather than believed, may have created a mirage of simple clarity that contributed to his remark’s effect. Like many people, Jung didn’t speak of knowledge as the Bayesian’s limiting condition of belief, the highest possible confidence, but rather as something different in kind from belief.

Later in the BBC interview, Freeman asked Jung whether he believed that death was the end. Jung began his answer,

Well, I can’t say. You see, the word belief is a difficult thing for me. I don’t believe. I must have a reason for a certain hypothesis. Either I know a thing, and then I know it. I don’t need to believe it.

A similar statement appears in C.G. Jung Speaking, edited by William McGuire and R.F.C. Hull, Princeton, 1977, at page 374. It prefaces an answer Jung gave in 1958 to a question posed at the Basel Psychology Club.

While Jung’s Time statement had just as direct an affirmation of knowledge, it didn’t end there. Any mirage of simple clarity was promptly dispelled by Jung’s “something that people call God.” Jung placed his reader on notice that his idea of God may not be the reader’s idea.

Much of Jung’s letter to the Listener expands those extra parts, the “something stronger than myself” that may not be everybody’s God, mentioned in Time but not on TV.

The purely psychological aspect of the stronger something is an inner voice, or conscience, or that “with which I can even converse and argue.” This emphasis on a guiding voice parallels a remark Jung made to Frederick Sands in an interview which ran in the London Daily Mail in April 1955. Sands may also have been Time’s interviewer that year; so this might be an “outtake” from the Time interview.

What some people call instinct or intuition is nothing other than God. God is that voice inside us which tells us what to do and what not to do. In other words, our conscience.

In Jung’s 1960 letter, this inner voice is sometimes complemented by overwhelming emotions, “subduing my conscious will and usurping control over myself.”

The something stronger is not just purely interior mental experiences. Its scope is “all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans, and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse.” It is “the power of fate in this positive as well as negative aspect.”

Fate? Jung had told Sands in 1955,

The fact is that what happens to a person is characteristic of him. He represents a pattern and all the pieces fit. One by one, as his life proceeds, they fall into place according to some predestined design.

How is all of this to be called God?

Jung acknowledges in The Listener that “My opinion about ‘knowledge of God’ is an unconventional way of thinking.” He also realizes that his God lacks qualities found in many of his neighbors’ ideas about divinity. Jung rejects that “my view of a god is the universal, metaphysical Being of the confessions or ‘philosophies’.” He refuses to hypostasize (accord material existence to) his God. Jung’s God is not all good, but “beyond good and evil.”

Moral transcendence might remind the reader of Abraxas, a Gnostic god whose name was borrowed from history and given a new theology in the 1916 Seven Sermons to the Dead.  That poem was given to Jung by Philemon, the thought-form with whom Jung had conversed and argued.

Abraxas begetteth truth and lying, good and evil, light and darkness, in the same word and in the same act. Wherefore is Abraxas terrible

If Jung’s use of the term “God” is unusual, then so is his use of the phrase “personal god.”

[I]nasmuch as its (the power of fate’s) origin is beyond my control, (I call it) ‘god’, a ‘personal god’, since my fate means very much myself,…

In other words, Jung’s god is personal in the sense of affecting persons, as opposed to being a person.

Nevertheless, Jung believes that overwhelming emotional experiences, inner voices and a sense of a designed fate, all felt to originate externally, are what other people call God. This, despite other people hypostasizing their God as a person, attributing only goodness to him, and searching for knowledge of him in “confessions” (Jung’s word for the creedal faiths, like the Swiss Reformed Church he grew up in) or philosophies.

The world’s leading psychologist might be right, of course, about people’s experiences of God. It is simply not the case, however, that Jung’s concept of God is “what has been believed always, everywhere, and by all,” as Jung’s letter suggests in a Latin phrase, borrowed from Saint Vincent of Lerins’ ancient definition of Christian orthodoxy.

Frieda Fordham, in an article which appeared in The Listener shortly after the Freeman interview was aired, remarks that “to understand Jung,” what Jung meant throughout the interview, “requires hard work.” Jung “loves paradox,” Fordham observed. Amen.

Although Jung exaggerated the degree to which those around him share his concept of God, he felt he had met people with an unhypostasized divinity. In a 1959 interview with Georges Duplain (Jane A Pratt’s translation in C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, already cited, pp. 419-420), Jung reminisced,

I remember an African tribe whose members greeted the first rays of the sun by spitting in their hands and turning them towards it.

At first, Jung tried to understand the tribe’s rite as a hypostasis of a sun god.

I watched the tribesmen and when I thought I had understood them I asked, “Your god Mungu, he is the sun?” Homeric gales of laughter from the tribesmen. This poor imbecile of a white man, imagining that we worship that ball of light and heat!

Jung continued to investigate, and after he noticed that the same rite greeted the new moon, he had an epiphany.

So, in the end, I understood their god: it was the moment when darkness changes into light, not the sun itself, but its appearing.

Whether or not Jung’s recollections are sound anthropology, they do establish that he would accept a god that is an abstraction of events, rather than a thing in himself. Who, after all, is Jung’s Abraxas? Not a who, nor a what in the sense of being any thing, but a quality, according to the second of the Seven Sermons,

God and devil are distinguished by the qualities fullness and emptiness, generation and destruction. EFFECTIVENESS is common to both. Effectiveness joineth them. Effectiveness, therefore, standeth above both; is a god above god, since in its effect it uniteth fullness and emptiness.

This is a god whom ye knew not, for mankind forgot it. We name it by its name ABRAXAS.

There is irony in quoting a personally revealed scripture to explain a religious conception that rejects revelation and Scripture.

So, why were so many listeners puzzled by Jung’s statement on TV?

Whether momentarily surprised by the question or not, whether blurting out the first thing that came into his head or not, Jung’s answer to Freeman was representative of Jung’s documented opinion. However, Freeman and Jung probably meant different things by the word God. The context provided by Freeman’s line of questioning may have misled viewers, suggesting that God  meant the God of the church in which Jung was raised.

Jung’s God wasn’t his father’s God, although Jung remained what is now called a “cultural Christian,”

I quite understand if it should be suggested that I am no Christian. Yet I think of myself as a Christian since I am entirely based upon Christian concepts.

Nor was Jung’s relationship to God the categorical rejection advocated by Sigmund Freud, Jung’s spiritual father. On the question of God, Jung’s individuation project had progressed nicely.

Was Jung justified in saying he knew God existed? He knew what experiences he had had. If that is what Jung meant by God, then there is no arguing with definitions, although a clearer statement of the definition would have been welcome.

Jung did make a further empirical claim, however, that his experiences were similar to what informed other people’s conception of God. While that qualifies as an expert opinion coming from Jung, it is an opinion nevertheless. However confidently held, scholarly and justified, it is possibly false, and so uncertain.

Jung knew what he had experienced, but believed that this was God.



Filed under Psychology, Religious beliefs of famous folk

4 responses to “Carl Jung’s knowledge of God

  1. Jim Lawrence

    Thank you for a very helpful overview reflection on Jung’s famous comments on knowing God from the 1959 BBC interview. I’m surprised there are not some comments here. I think this subject might remain important for a while, as it seems another renaissance in interest in Jung might be occurring. Placing Jung in a study of comparative mysticism(s), these reflections on the sense of encountering a real interactive something “Other” is important.

    • Thank you for writing, Jim. This is the most frequently read article on the blog. I think many people come here asking “Did Jung really say that he knew God exists?” Yes, he did, at least three times, but then it turns out that the God whom Jung was so certain about is also utterly unlike what many people think of as “God.”

  2. Pingback: Car Gustav Jung in the BBC interview, October 1959 - Believing and knowing - | Jungian online magazine – news, books, blogs, conferences and more…

  3. I think Jung had the experience of God, that he preferred NOT to call knowledge. He differentiated between ‘knowing’ and experiencing two vitally different ways. Knowing involves a mental activity, a synthetic creation. Experiencing is like ‘seeing a tree’ or smelling a rose. MInd is a ‘public’ realm. It mostly contains ‘collective’ knowledge, mostly in language form. It is owned by EGO, our public self.

    No genuinely seeking person can ignore the realm beyond the public mind, where the empirical tenets of Science dwell. Yes, man is a dual entity; his personal self, and his public self.

    Love to share with genuinely seeking minds, a natural extension of what Jung had experienced as God:
    [edited for formatting and to remove an apparently erroneous link]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s