GNOSTICISM AND JUNG
A psychology of the soul
When one first begins to look into modern Gnosticism a curious connection is seen: many people who are interested in Gnosticism are also interested in the thinking of Carl Jung. On the surface this shared interest seems odd. What is the connection between a Swiss psychiatrist and an ancient religious movement? To begin to answer this question requires understanding a bit about Jung.
Carl Gustav Jung was born in 1875 and lived until 1961. In his 85 years he was a pivotal figure, taking psychology in a different direction from his one time friend and mentor Sigmud Freud. Although the specifics of his psychology are interesting and useful to understand, it is the drive behind it that is important to appreciate why many modern Gnostics are interested in Jung.
Jung long maintained an interest in Gnosticism and saw a connection between it and psychoanalysis. In a letter from August 12th, 1912 that Jung wrote to Freud he put forward that:
'The Gnostic conception of Sophia [is] a reembodiment of an ancient wisdom that might once again appear in modern psychoanalysis.'1
For Jung, the Gnostics were fellow explorers of the secrets of the human psyche. According to Stephan A. Hoeller, bishop of the Neo-Gnostic church the Ecclesia Gnostica:
'The Gnostics, so Jung perceived, were interested in one thing above all – the experience of the fullness of being. Since this was both his own personal interest and the objective of his psychology, it is axiomatic that his affinity for the Gnostics and their wisdom was very great indeed'.2
Jung read the Gnostics and understood their writings to be on the surface about the Monad, demiurge, archons and other cosmic beings and conflicts, but also believed that these myths represented something important and true about what is going on in the psyche of the individual and the collective unconscious of humanity. Although Jung had an understanding of what he thought the Gnostics were approaching in their writing he had the disadvantage of living before the content of the Nag Hammadi Library was widely available and understood. As Jung explains it, the confusion in the texts he had access to hindered his exploration of Gnostic themes:
'Between 1918 and 1926 I had seriously studied the Gnostic writers, for they too had been confronted with the primal world of the unconscious and had dealt with its contents, with images that were obvious contaminated with the world of instinct. Just how they understood these images remains difficult to say, in view of the paucity of the accounts – which. Moreover, mostly steam from their opponents, the Church Fathers. It seems to me highly unlikely that they had a psychological conception of them. But the Gnostics were too remote for me to establish any link with them in regards to the questions that were confronting me.'3
Jung continued his inquiries, discovering the Alchemists and seeing them as providing a bridge between Gnostic thought and his own.
Modern Gnostics and Jung
What drove Jung originally to look at Gnosticism, and then alchemy, as having deep truths for what is going on within a persons psyche flowed from his general approach to psychology. Jung’s theories, although developed working with patients in practical settings and collecting empirical data, also were influenced by his own experiences, particularly his dreams. Dreams for Jung were a serious matter, where the unconscious raised to the conscious level things that until dreamed had gone unnoticed or were repressed, by the dreamer. Jung was influenced by his own dreams to look into past mythology and symbolism that people used. This academically lead to Gnosticism, but dreams approached this way also provided a kind of gnosis itself to Jung. Jung famously said:
'We are so captivated by and entangled in our subjective consciousness that we have simply forgotten the age-old fact that God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions.'
It is this mysticism and connection to the divine that provided direction for Jung (Even if it is difficult to discern when Jung is speaking of an external divine being or something inside of himself, or if in the end he would accept such a distinction) and attracts modern Gnostics to his writings. Another attraction for modern Gnostics is that Jung showed sympathy with the Gnostic’s continual re-telling and reformulation of their myths. In discussing the dead Christianity of his day he wrote:
'Our myth has become mute, and gives no answers. The fault lies not in it as it is set down in the Scriptures, but soley in us, who have not developed it further, who, rather, have suppressed such attempts. The original version of the myth offers ample points of departure and possibilities of development.'4
Jung knew the christian scriptures and doctrines well, and he saw limitations in them in explaining the world and humans, particularity for modern western persons. For him, their myths no longer answered the questions that are being asked of them, and needed to be re-worked and expanded. This appeals to many modern Gnostics who have come out of Christian churches feeling like the myth has become fundementalized where instead of it should be more open to re-mixing and new understandings. Both those modern Gnostics and Jung looked to the ancient Gnostic’s myths and see them doing exactly that. The modern Gnostics may draw on the ancient Gnostics myths for religious devotion while Jung drew on them for psychological theories, but there is much overlap. A final reason why modern Gnostics are interested in Jung is his writing Seven Sermons To The Dead. These seven short sermons are part of the larger Red Book of Jung’s. The Red Book is a collection of personal writings and reflections that Jung drew together. They were very personal to Jung and he feared misunderstanding of them by others. He never released it in full, and after his death it wasn’t until 2009 (48 years) that his estate allowed it to be published. The Seven Sermons To The Dead form a small portion of the Red Book which he did share with close friends, but was never available to purchase until released as an appendix to Memories, Dreams, Reflections in 1963, two years after his death. In this work, the sermons are attributed to Basilides (an early Gnostic teacher), language is drawn from ancient Gnosticism such as the pleroma and Abraxas, and the ideas of ancient Gnosticism are mixed with Jung’s own understandings to form sermons that can be understood as having Gnostic content yet also holding the psychological ideas that Jung would further develop throughout his career. This combination has created an explicit entry point to Jung for those studying Gnosticism.
Although many modern Gnostics have found in their eyes a kindred spirit in Jung, there are others who point to specifics within Jung’s thought that would seem to be at odds with Gnosticism. Is Jung’s understanding of good and evil at odds with the various types of dualism within the different branches of ancient Gnosticism? How does individualization as Jung understood it work with the Gnostic idea of return to The One? It is safe to say that Jung’s thought is complex, and Gnosticism is only one influence on it. Jung’s brilliance for the modern Gnostic is perhaps not in the specifics of his own thought, but in the opening up of Gnostic thought to be seem from a psychological perspective and allowing Gnostic approaches to shape his own work.
To further investigate Jung and his relation to Gnosticism the following books are useful. It would be best to read them in the order given here:
Memories, Dreams, and Reflections by C.G. Jung and Aniela Jaffe
The Gnostic Jung and Seven Sermons to the Dead by Stephan A. Hoeller
The Search for Roots: C.G. Jung and the Tradition of Gnostic by Alfred Ribi
Turn of an Age: The Spiritual Roots of Jungian Psychology in Hermeticism, Gnosticism and Alchemy by Alred Ribi