Psychologizing Spirit, or Spiritualizing Psychology?

8 02 2013

A reader of this blog wil surely notice that Carl Jung occupies a prominent place in my intellectual landscape. I discovered him in my youth and have returned to him again and again. It is a complicated relationship; every reading of him begins with pleasure and surprise but ends with frustration and disappointment. He was an astute observer, well-educated, a dedicated psychologist, a remarkably spiritual person. For all that, he is also deeply a man of his time, his writing caught between philology and scientism. Both of these are dessicative and, while that has its place in study, it leaves only traces of his subject matter’s vitality available to the reader. For an individual so caught up in spiritual matters, his accounts of spiritual life are startlingly abstract.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that so many who are actively engage in spiritual work disparage treating the spiritual world merely as a repository of archetypes. Psychologizing spirit is unsatisfying. However, in recoiling from it, we often overlook something quite important–spiritual matters are entangled with psychological matters. They aren’t identical with each other, but they aren’t disparate either. This is one reason why I keep coming back to Jung. While he didn’t get it quite right, he did get it. While I can’t simply rest intellectually within Jung’s work, I can wrest from it the means for getting at that entanglement more clearly.

Here and there, I want to start talking about what that means. Things I want to talk about include:

  • how the entanglement of the spiritual and psychological entails the entanglement of psychological and spiritual maturity, how improving one provides the basis for improving the other.
  • how the entanglement entails a necessary confusion of personal desire and spiritual guidance, one that needs to be refined in order to prevent unhealthy conflations of the two, like the ego usurping spiritual authority for its own desires.
  • how our psychological type provides one axis along which we can observe the interaction of spirit and self.

All this begins with the acceptance that much of which we identify as ours, as a simple result of our personal preferences, has ties to spiritual influences that lie beyond our ‘self,’ that what we define as our self is to some extent composite. This notion of the composite self is quite common, both within and without psychology, within and without the Western tradition in which Jung’s work is embedded. Even the discussion of spiritual work alongside this is quite common. All I’m doing is exploring that alongside a discussion of Jung’s work.

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