Polarities and Jung
Carl Jung, founder of a major school of modern psychiatry, came of age in the last decade of the 19th century. He was a sensitive, introverted boy alive with passionate curiosity about his own inner life and a sense of relatedness to the trees and rocks and water around him that he rarely felt towards other people. Like Buber a decade later, he encountered Nietzsche’s writings in university. Living in a more conservative and “respectable” city than Vienna, however, Jung observed that Nietzsche’s personal idiosyncrasies “got on the nerves of the good people of Basel in those days.” Unlike his fellow students who scorned Nietzsche as bizarre, Jung was gripped with an initial enthusiasm when he dared read “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” But the growing fear that he would find he was “another such strange bird” caused him to shut down that avenue of exploration. (MDR:101-2)
A primary preoccupation of Jung’s early years, and a reason he chose psychiatry, was his sense of being split between two distinct personalities that were in conflict with each other. As a result of exploring what happens to those qualities we reject in ourselves and in our experience, he developed the concept of the shadow. Psychological and spiritual health, in his opinion, depends to a large extent upon how much of our shadow we can bring into consciousness and how we handle the resulting polarities. “The years when I was pursuing my inner images were the most important in my life,” Jung wrote. “In them everything essential was decided. It all began then. . . “ (MDR:199) These inner images often manifested through a vivid dream life that at times overshadowed his waking world, and gave shape his personal understanding of reality.
Unlike “darkness,” a shadow actually does depend upon light for its very existence, not just its definition – an intriguing difference! A strong light from only one source creates a dark shadow, unless the sun is at the “balance point” of the heavens. If light comes from many directions, however, shadows soften and ultimately become transparent. An analogy could be made for a dialogical approach to religion and to life, as well as to psychology – if we are open to wisdom from many sources, we are far less likely to be blindsided by what lurks in the shadows.
Jung’s fascination with polarities, along with his own life-long curiosity about other places and cultures, led him into exploring Oriental traditions of thought. Having encountered Taoism, he wrote: “The truth is one and the same everywhere and I must say that Taoism is one of the most perfect formulations of it I ever became acquainted with” (C.G. Jung Letters, vol.1:560). Its perfection, as he saw it, lay in giving central importance to the dynamic dance of polarities at the heart of the world. “The Chinese have never failed to recognize the paradoxes and the polarity inherent in what is alive,” he reflected. “The opposites always balanced one another – a sign of high culture. One-sidedness, though it lends momentum, is a mark of barbarism.” (quoted in ToJ:92). Over a number of years between 1933 and 1951, Jung took part in a series of Eranos seminars, together with Buber (on one occasion), Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade and others, exploring common ground between Eastern and European religions traditions. (TotW:p.49)
Jung thought it remarkable that humans, given their complex inner dynamics, were able to develop an ego identity at all. This he attributed this to opposites being interactive and having a tendency towards balance –“to seek compensation in unity.”. The unity between conscious and unconscious, in particular, is most often achieved through myth and symbol. His work in this area was ground-breaking.
Son of a Reform minister, Jung became disillusioned with religion early. Yet he remained fascinated with the subject. He raged against the inhumanity of Yahweh in the Old Testament, and claimed to be a modern Gnostic (in the Gnostic worldview, Yahweh is generally seen as a lesser being who has delusions of being the ultimate). Over the years, Jung proposed theories about the nature of God that went far beyond what his psychological research could support, although he continued to claim they were based upon “science.” His “god” was ultimately synonymous with the collective unconscious and its proddings that were knowable only within. (MDR:216)
Jung speculated that God must be morally ambivalent, containing evil as well as good, and could not be conscious, or God would not need conscious creatures! (MDR: 216, 339) He believed that “all statements which seek to overstep the limits of the psyche’s polarity – statements about a metaphysical reality, for example – must be paradoxical if they are to lay claim to any sort of validity” (MDR:350). If we claim one quality for God, it “necessarily” brings up its opposite. For this reason in particular, he and Martin Buber came into conflict later in life. Buber saw Gnostic ideas about God “as the real antagonist of faith,” more dangerous than atheism. Jung’s fallacy, according to Buber, was that of “mystically deifying the instincts instead of hallowing them in faith.” (Quoted in MB, Life & Work:174). Jung, in response, declared that Buber misunderstood his ideas because “he has no conception of psychology,” and accused Buber of being dominated by a stifling religious tradition from which Jung had freed himself. (Friedman,: 173).
Despite his perceptive understanding of polarities within the human psyche, Jung in his theories ignored the possibility of insight from the realm of the between in the world – giving weight neither to human relationships nor relationship to a holy other. According to Friedman, “Jung’s whole epistemology is based on the contrast between inner and outer with a distinct depreciation of the outer as the ‘persona’ – the social role, the ego which must submit to the unconscious . . . the external world which finds its true meaning only in the depths within” (L&W:176). Despite his admiration of Taoism, Jung missed a crucial part of that reality-based tradition – its orientation towards the social as well as the natural world in which we live.
Jung did, apparently, experience I/Thou relationships in his life, if not in his theories. There is a telling story in his autobiography about sensing as a child that a certain stone he regularly sat upon had a relationship with him. (MDR:20) Relating often to nature as a “Thou,” Jung recalled times in his growing years when, in responds to crisis, he “crawled, as it were, into the very essence of nature and away from the whole human world.” (MDR:32) Later in life, observers agreed that he often encountered his clients with an I/Thou attitude, to the degree it was appropriate within therapeutic boundaries, although this was not necessarily true of his students (some of whom considered him quite autocratic). He remained, however, a deeply solitary person who spent his later years in an isolated stone-towered house he designed and partially built himself. Despite his best efforts at “objectivity,” once again theology proves to be biography.
Jung learned early that his ideas roused skepticism, and as a young man was cautious about making them public. His sense of being misunderstood resulted in his often feeling “utterly forlorn.” He confesses in his autobiography: “I knew that what I said would be unwelcome, for it is difficult for people of our times to accept the counterweight of the conscious world.” (MDR: 222). So he found it “truly astonishing” later in life that his ideas about the nature of the psyche (if not the nature of God) were so well received.
Today we encounter the influence of Jung’s work on personality on many fronts. The Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory draws upon his work with four key polarities that he believed shed light upon the diversity of personalities within a given culture. As he explained it, drawing from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “Just as all energy proceeds from opposition, so the psyche too possesses its inner polarity, this being the indispensable prerequisite for its aliveness . . . Both theoretically and practically, polarity is inherent in all living things.” (MFD 346)
Unitarian Universalist minister Peter Richardson has taken Jung’s personality polarities and developed a model of four “spiritual types” that he believes can be used across cultures to help us understand how we construct such different worldviews. He offers Buddha (“intuitive thinking”) and Confucius (“sensory thinking”), Jesus (“intuitive feeling”) and Mohammed (“sensory feeling”) as exemplars of his four types. While all classification systems need to be used with caution, I have found this one useful in understanding why it can be hard to bridge differences in the ways we encounter our world. Richardson’ work brings some of Jung’s insights into dialogue with our own times. (Four Spiritualities)