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The hidden dangers of carl jung

Updated: May 26, 2023

By Douglas Groothuis


Several years ago, after giving a message on New Age spirituality at a church in Berkeley, California, I was approached by a distraught middle-aged woman. She asked if I was familiar with Jungian therapy. After I said that I was, she spoke briefly of her mental problems, which were being treated by a Jungian analyst. Looking at me intensely, she asked, “As a Christian, should I be treated by someone like this?” I answered that although Jung provided a few helpful psychological insights, his overall world view was Gnostic and anti-Christian. Therefore, a Jungian analyst would not be able to help her work through her difficulties in accord with her own Christian beliefs. In fact, such a view could do much harm to her soul.

Although I am not a trained counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist, I did not offer this advice lightly. I warned of the dangers of Jungian analysis not because I reject all psychotherapy as unnecessary or dangerous, as do certain incautious and unsophisticated Christian critics. I accept the legitimacy and importance of integrating a thoroughly Christian world view with psychological insights. However, as a student of new religious movements, I have repeatedly found Carl Jung to be a fountainhead of all manner of spiritual aberrations, whether in non-Christian movements or in Christianity itself.[1] More recently, psychologist and best-selling author, Jordan Peterson, has drawn attention to Jung’s philosophy, which he draws on and uses as a lens to interpret the Bible. Christian counselors and other Christians, however, may be drawn to the fascinating figure of Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) for several reasons. Before summarizing some of the hazards of Jung’s thinking, we need to understand something of his strange magnetism. Over thirty-five years after his death, Jung’s influence is on the rise. While Freud’s star is waning, Jung’s is waxing. Much of the recent interest in “the new spirituality” or just “spirituality” (terms that have largely replaced “the New Age”) draws deeply from the Jungian well. For instance, the immensely popular television series and book The Power of Myth featured the ruminations of Joseph Campbell (d. 1987), a professor of literature and a follower of Jungian thought, who edited The Portable Jung. Campbell’s treatment of mythology, religion, and Christianity reflects Jungian themes, as when Campbell praises the Gnostics and criticizes Christians for being too literal in their dogmas. More recently, Thomas Moore has produced several best-selling books, including Care of the Soul and Soul Mates, which resonate deeply with Jungian themes on the deity of the self, the hazards of orthodox Christianity, and an interest in occult practices such as alchemy and astrology. Jung’s influence has reached far and wide, even popping up in beer commercials and episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which invoke the Jungian notion of “the collective unconscious.” As many men and women seek out their own gendered and individualized forms of non-Christian spirituality, Jungian ideas propel them along the way. The secular men’s movement looks for the masculine warrior archetype within, while many pagan feminists search for the goddess or the wild woman buried somewhere in their psyches, as discussed in Clarissa Pinloola Estes’s best-selling book Women Who Run with Wolves. Jung was a key player in the origin of the psychoanalytic movement in Europe in the earlier part of this century. The young Swiss psychiatrist was mentored by Sigmund Freud and accompanied him on his short but influential visit to America in 1909. Their intense friendship—initiated by a thirteen-hour discussion—ended in a bitter break in 1914 and a life-long estrangement. Jung could not accept Freud’s views on the psychological centrality of sexuality or his rejection of religious impulses as neurotic. Jung, always the spiritual explorer, sought to fathom the spiritual needs of the soul while presenting his brand of psychoanalysis (analytical psychology) as a burgeoning science. Despite Jung’s ambitions, Freud’s theories proved far more influential in the coming decades and became a kind of orthodoxy in their own right. Richard Noll’s fine scholarly study of Jung’s intellectual history and influence, The Jung Cult, notes that “Jung and his theories have remained well outside the established worlds of science and medicine, as they have been regarded, with justification, as inconsistent with the greater scientific paradigms of the twentieth century.”[2] Nevertheless, “in sheer numbers alone, it is Jung, who has won the cultural war and whose works are more widely read and discussed in the popular culture of our age.”[3] Many Christians are attracted to Jung because of his recognition of the spiritual nature of the human condition. While atheists such as Freud, B. F. Skinner, and Albert Ellis offer no solace for a soul they do not believe exists, Jung delves deeply and sympathetically into a variety of spiritual topics. When asked in a BBC interview if he believed in God, Jung replied, “I don’t believe—I know.” Many Christians hope that Jung may provide a fruitful model for the elusive integration of psychology and spirituality. A raft of books written by Morton Kelsey, John Sanford, and others attempt to affect such an integration. Despite these efforts, such a project is ill-fated, for the Jungian world view is deeply non-Christian and even anti-Christian. In order to show that a particular psychological theory cannot be integrated with a biblical world view and a Christian theory of counseling, it is not sufficient to show the non-Christian character of a particular thinker. Unbelievers may have legitimate psychological insights that do not violate Christian truth and which bear good fruit in the counseling situation. Just as God gives rain to the righteous and unrighteous (Matthew 5:45) through his common (non-saving) grace, so God allows non-Christian thinkers insights into human psychology. However, when a theorist’s views are incorrigibly enmeshed in a world view that radically opposed Christianity, these views are incompatible with Christian thought—whether in psychology, psychiatry, or any other discipline. In The Jung Cult, clinical psychologist Richard Noll amply documents Jung’s immersion in the paganism and occultism of German culture near the turn of the last century. Although raised in a Christian environment, Jung’s passion focused on the rediscovery of ancient mystery religions that emphasized occultic initiations and sun worship. He immersed himself in the study of mythology and archeology in the hope of finding a primordial wisdom that had been obscured and rejected by the Christian conquest of paganism. Jung resolutely rejected the Christian view that God transcends the creation. Instead, he embraced pantheism, with its god within or divine self. Moreover, Jung deemed himself a kind of liberator who would lead his followers out of the dead ends of Christianity and atheism into a richer spirituality. He viewed his version of psychoanalysis as something of new religion. This is why Noll entitled his study, The Jung Cult. Jung was a highly intelligent and mesmerizing personality who was believed by his followers to have a charismatic authority and rare insights. Mystical paganism was not mere history or theory to Jung. Noll reports Jung’s claim that in 1913 he himself became a god through an extended visualization exercise based on the elements of the initiation rituals of the ancient mystery religions, especially Mithraism. Noll comments that it “is clear that Jung believed he had undergone a direct initiation into the ancient Hellenistic mysteries and had even experienced deification in doing so.”[4] This was not an isolated event in Jung’s life. Jung also claims to have contacted various spirit entities through his process of “active imagination,” or directed visualization. By 1916, an entity called Philemon had become Jung’s spiritual guru, and functioned much like the “ascended masters” of the Theosophical movement in Jung’s day. These entities were not occasional visitors with little influence on Jung’s work. According to Noll, these encounters helped shape the whole pattern of Jung’s theoretical work.[5] According to Jung, they had “their own life. Philemon represented a force which was not myself.”[6] Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, records a haunting of the Jung house, which, he claims, involved paranormal phenomena.[7][vi] Through the profound influence of this haunting, Jung wrote a short essay called the “Septem Sermones ad Mortuous” (the Seven Sermons to the Dead), under the pseudonym Basilides (a second Century Gnostic writer). In his autobiography, Jung says that “I was compelled from within, as it were, to formulate and express what might have been said by Philemon. This was how the Septem Sermones ad Mortuous with its peculiar [Gnostic] language came into being.”[8] The sermons are directed at deceased Christian souls who arrive at the Jung household because they have failed to find liberation through the church. The first six sermons present a Gnostic world view, and prepare the dead for the final sermon. Here, Jung tells them to stop seeking salvation outside of themselves, but to look inward toward the “innermost infinity,” which is also referred to as the inner “Star” or the “one guiding god.” Having received this revelation, the restless dead disappear and rise into the night sky, apparently to find their own inner stars. Jung’s sun worship and Gnostic predilections appear in full force in this essay.[9] Much more could be documented to establish Jung’s deeply anti-Christian world view. Surely, the burden of proof lies on anyone who would attempt to draw healing waters from such a polluted well. Out of Jung’s occult experiences came the substance of all of his work. In his autobiography, he wrote: “I can say that I have never lost touch with my initial experiences. All of my works, all my creative activity, has come from those initial fantasies and dreams which began in 1912.”[10] He also clamed that “these conversations with the dead formed a kind of prelude to what I had to communicate to the world about the unconscious.”[11] Jung never dismissed these occult, mystical experiences as psychotic or delusional, although some of his defenders have done so. Given Jung’s background, it is not surprising that his major theoretical claims have little if anything to contribute to a Christian model for psychology and counseling. At the root of the problem is Jung’s highly subjective orientation. He rejects the Christian view that God is outside of us and has the authority both to redeem us and command us. Stanton Jones and Richard Butman highlight this fact: “The experiential nature of analytic psychology resists an external, authoritative understanding of truth, emphasizing, in contrast, the personal myth and story of the individual.”[12] This influence is abundantly evident in the work of Jungian thinker Thomas Moore, who, in Care of the Soul, rejects the idea of objective spiritual truth as damaging to the soul.[13] Because of this inner focus, Jones and Butman warn that “the Christian reader of Jung and Jungian psychology must be extremely cautious when encountering phrases and concepts borrowed from Christian theology.”[14] Jung’s subjective approach, with its exploration of the unconscious, lacks clear moral guidelines or a reliable spiritual orientation. This is evident in the Jungian notion of the shadow, or the dark and submerged side of our personalities, which we typically deny or explain away in favor of cultivating our public face (or persona). According to Jung, the shadow lacks the moral dimension; it is an unintegrated and immature aspect of the self that must be brought to consciousness and integrated with the whole personality. Because Jung rejects the authority of a personal God outside of the individual, he can only look within for redemption. Therefore, the shadow cannot be rejected on the basis of a higher standard above the person. It must be accepted. Jung also claimed that the Christian doctrine of God was psychologically inadequate because “the dogmatic aspect of the evil principle is absent from the Trinity.”[15] In equating the unconscious with the divine, he advocated instead a quaternity as “the formula of the unconscious mind,” which ought to include the devil.[16] The notion of fusing good and evil appears in the works of many Jungians, including Joseph Campbell, who counseled that “one of the great challenges of life is to say ‘yea’ to that person or act or that condition which in your mind is the most abominable.”[17] Thomas Moore blasphemously claims that Christ’s death on a cross between two criminals sanctifies evil as holy.[18] Jungian therapist and author John Sanford believes that evil is necessary for the development of personality and that the apostle Paul was psychologically imbalanced because he counseled Christians to put away the flesh when he should have told them to integrate their shadow side.[19] These remarks all flow from the Jungian perspective. The incorporation of evil into the Godhead and the refusal to take seriously the reality of evil is both theologically absurd and practically dangerous for counseling. Responsible Christian therapy sensitively challenges the conscience of the client according to scriptural realities. Christ challenges us to get to the root of our sin and uproot it if we are to be his disciples (Matthew 5:29-30). Jesus also offers pardon for those who confess their sins and trust in his loving forgiveness (1 John 1:8-10). Those flirting with Jungian themes should remember the warning of the prophet Isaiah, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isaiah 5:20). In addition to the individual unconscious, Jung advanced the idea of a hidden storehouse of racial memories that manifest themselves in dreams and fantasies. Jung’s celebrated notion of the collective unconscious and its archetypes adds a mystical dimension to psychotherapy not admitted by Freud. The collective unconscious is a “psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals” and is inherited, not acquired.[20] Jung believed that similarities in the world’s religions and myths could be accounted for by this construct, and it assumes a privileged place in the Jungian understanding of the soul and the practice of analytic psychology. In the collective unconscious, Jungianism offers its initiates access to an esoteric resource largely hidden from the masses. Richard Noll has documented that, despite its romantic allure, this notion is pantheistic in nature and rooted in occult doctrines that were rife during Jung’s day. Furthermore, it lacks scientific corroboration. Pivotal cases cited by Jung to prove that patients were calling up archetypal images can be explained simply in terms of previous personal knowledge.[21] Jungians often take the collective unconscious as an item of faith instead of arguing cogently for its existence.[22] Christians need not look to a collective unconscious as a source of revelation and redemption. Finite and sinful beings need a revelation from a personal God in order to find the truth that will set us free (John 8:31-32; 2 Timothy 3:15-17). Jung advocated “active imagination” as a means of connecting with the personal and collective unconscious in order to find greater personal wholeness. Much of modern visualization methods are rooted in Jung’s approach, which is itself based on spiritistic and occult methods for gaining access to the world of the spirits (see Isaiah 8:19-20).[23] Jung’s deification experience was occasioned by a visionary exercise. Jungian visualization requires the suspension of rational judgment to facilitate the formation of inner images. Such occult and irrational elements in Jungian therapy should give pause to any Christian counselor who believes that Jungian visualization practices can be healing to the soul. Of course, not everything Jung advocated was occult or dangerous; some ideas were probably relatively harmless, such as his theories of introversion and extroversion. Nevertheless, a careful consideration of the sources and nature of Jungian thought reveals a world view utterly and inexorably alien to biblical faith. Having rejected the Christian God, Jung admitted that he could find no “Archimedean point” (transcendent standpoint) from which to judge the soul.[24] In Paul’s words, since Jung neither glorified God, nor gave him thanks, his thinking became futile and his heart was darkened. Claiming to be wise he became a fool, and exchanged the glory of God for the poverty of the fallen self without benefit of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:21-22).

[1] See Douglas Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986) and Douglas Groothuis, Confronting the New Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988). [2] Richard Noll, The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 8. [3] Ibid., 6. [4] Ibid., 213. [5] Ibid., 210; see also Carl G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 182-85. [6] Jung, 183. [7] Ibid., 190-191. [8] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992), 246-247. [9] See Ibid., 378-390, and Noll, 242-246. [10] C. G. Jung, Psychology and Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1938) 73. [11] Ibid., 192. [12] Stanton L. Jones and Richard E Butman, Modern Psychotherapies: A Comprehensive Christian Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 122 [13] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992), 246-247. [14] Jones and Butman, 122. [15] C. G. Jung, Psychology and Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1938) 73. [16] Ibid., 73-74. [17] Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 66. [18] Moore, 133. [19] John A. Sanford, Evil: The Shadow Side of Reality (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 10, 67-84. [20] Carl G. Jung, “The Concept of the Collective Unconscious,” in The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell (New York: Viking, 1971), 60. [21] Noll, 181-84. [22] Francis Schaeffer offers an alternative language-based understanding of what Jung was trying to explain in The God Who is There, signature classic edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020), 74-75. [23] Ibid., 202-204, 215. [24] Jung, Psychology and Religion, 12, 62.

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