Psychology, Religion and Symbols of Transformation

After my anger subsided a little following the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11, a horrid, smoking scene in plain view from my bedroom window, I decided to read the Koran. This was long before the 9/11 Report but at a time that the alleged complicity of Saudi Arabia was still in the air. Given the behavior of the Saudi Royal family over the last fifteen years, beheading its internal enemies, funding ISIS, and destabilizing the Middle East, one has to wonder whether the Saudi Royal family has been getting away with murder. One also has to wonder whether even an obtuse President Bush would have invaded Iraq if he had truly known the cultural, historical, and theological issues wrapped up in the Sunni vs. Shiite conflict now being nicely played out in the confrontation between the Saudis and Iran. After all, that conflict has been percolating since 632 AD.

So, I decided to read the Koran. (I had read it in college but not with much seriousness.) I approached the Koran as I would have any other holy book, aware that I was looking at this text through a Jansenist, Irish Catholic upbringing that had been ameliorated through my time in the military, at the university, and as a globe-trotting businessman. And as a poet, I would much more likely go to William Blake to learn about his version of “The Gates of Hell” than to my original source.

But, as my mother would say, that is too clever by half. The embers of one’s childhood religion can burn in the psyche for a lifetime, showing up at funerals or where fate might intervene. I recall that as a graduate student at Lehigh University I worked in the library, painted houses and wrote odes to the Virgin Mary for various Catholic magazines for pocket change. I recall that an editor rejected one poem because I had “sexualized the Mother of God.” I can’t remember the actual language of the verse or whether I offered to make appropriate changes for a cash consideration.

I didn’t consider this blasphemy. I was also writing a dissertation at this time about “Aesthetics and the Religious Mind in Three Catholic Novelists.” I focused on what Irish writer and Irish politician Conor Cruise O’Brien called “Maria Cross,” the intersection of women, sex and the cross. In Francis Mauriac, Graham Green and Flannery O’Connor these themes usually played out in the white hot fields of their imaginations rather than in some carnal romper room. I published a few chapters of my dissertation, which is still gathering dust in some library vault. But the idea of Maria Cross has stayed with me. I explore these themes from deeper psychological, mythological and theological perspectives in my upcoming novel, “Chanting the Feminine Down” (

In the Introduction to the Penguin edition of the Koran, the Arab editor, N.J. Dawood, writes that for Muslims the Koran “is the infallible Word of God, a transcript of a tablet preserved in heaven, revealed to the Prophet Muhammed by the Angel Gabriel. Except in the opening verses and some few passages in which the Prophet or the Angel speaks in the first person, the speaker throughout is God.”

I note what I had underlined, my scribble in the margins and frequent question marks. On this and subsequent readings of the Koran, I found countless parallels to the Christian anthem. I found the language of mercy and kindness from the Gospels and the blessings of the beatitudes. The quote, “A kind word with forgiveness is better than charity” put me in familiar territory. After all, Islam is built on the other two pillars of monotheism, Judaism and Christianity.

I also note the martial language, the misogyny, the piety with a fist and the ways to execute unbelievers. I take heed that a Muslim is instructed not to be a friend of the Jews or Christians. I see echoes of petty tribalism; the desert Arabs surpass others in unbelief and hypocrisy. I note the many signs of a warrior religion and the repeated assertion that there is no god but Him.

One of my final comments was that all these examples from the Koran could just as easily be found in some form in the Bible where they are likely presented with considerably more psychological and theological terror. In a side note, I asked myself how the Koran might advance the theology of its monotheistic predecessors. I also made a reference to the psychologist Carl Jung’s work, Answer to Job.

For centuries, both Jews and Christians have wrestled with the plight of Job, not completely satisfied with the Sunday school version that bad things happen to good people. Jung, who struggled mightily with his Christianity, suggested that the coming of Christ represented the Godhead coming into consciousness and self-reflection. By this account Jehovah, in the psychological sense, was unconscious and this state, by extension, contributed to the horrors against Job. Again, this is a psychological reading and to a degree is consistent with the Redemption narrative. The self-reflection of Christ is profoundly captured in the crucifixion.

Jung wrote Answer to Job in response to the announcement of the Assumption of Mary as infallible doctrine on November 1, 1951, which was, in psychological terms, the Catholic Church’s effort to bring the feminine into the pantheon of the male Gods. He also acknowledged that the book was motivated by contemporary events. Falsehoods, injustice, slavery, and mass murder had engulfed Europe and much of the world. What does a benevolent, omniscient God have to say about these things? This is the unanswered, nagging, existential question.

I understand that the above remarks might sound like apostasy to some, depending on their religious views. That’s not my intention. As a writer and student of religion I am interested in exegesis or the ongoing interpretation and re-visioning of scripture and doctrine. Jung writes in his Symbols of Transformation that Christian symbols have over the centuries been drained of their psychic energy by being embraced as kinds of literal data points for a religion — my coinage. Over time, the symbols have lost power and influence over the interior lives of the faithful. Jung reminds us that many of the images and symbols Christians appropriated from their pagan cousins are steeped in sexual and psychic energy.

For Jung the answer seemed to be continuous exegesis, a constant soul-searching and examination of our symbols of religious transformation. As I explore in my novel “Chanting the Feminine Down,” such scrutiny and exegesis seems to be impossible for institutions like the Catholic Church without a thorough transformation in its views of the feminine.

When writing the novel, I thought about conversations with my Jewish friends and what I perceived at times to be their militancy in their opinions about the Torah. I was reminded that the Jews had not established a weighty, doctrinal and often unresponsive superstructure like the Roman Church with its Curia, Synods and Councils. Their doctrinal squabbles were mainly on a local level. This has impressed me, so much so that Jewish themes are showing up in my dreams, particular when I was writing the novel. I call this one “Prophets in a Parking Lot.”

The dream seems to be in the form of a parable and begins in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The cars parked there belong to worshipper attending a nearby mega-church. The sermon seems to be about Yeats’ beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

Soon, men in rags and wearing long beards show up in the parking lot. On closer inspection, I see the men are not wearing rags but layer-upon-layer of old cloth worn in a way that resembles folds. The men are dressed alike, right down to these folds.

When about fifty men have arrived, they begin to discuss the Book of Job, softly at first, finding quick agreement about the nature of Job, his essential goodness and the test God has designed for him. Now the crowd becomes animated, talking faster and using their hands to make a point. As they speak the men seem to become different. Some lose their beards. Some are now dressed in white; others in black gowns.

The more they discuss, the more different they become. Now they ask whether God fell for the Devil’s trick when tempting Job. What was the lesson here? Was God not fully formed and did he need Job for that work?

As the conversation grows more heated, workmen appear in the parking lot, fashioning a mural for the prophets to enter. They enter this work of art willingly, without dropping a syllable, until becoming part of the frieze, when they become silent, hands frozen in mid-air. To compensate for their loss the artists shave their beards and add rich reds, blues and greens to the prophets’ tunics. It resembled the Last Supper. The sense is, once finished, the mural will be on display for centuries.

There are a number of threads in this dream. My preoccupation with Carl Jung, Job and biblical exegesis, courtesy of the Jewish prophets is obvious. The dream echoes Jung’s thinking in Symbols of Transformation, about what keeps doctrine alive and what drains the life out of it. The psychologist spoke of a literal rendering of rituals and symbols, which would be the death of religion.

Jung tried to move Christianity beyond what had become for him in the early 20th century something of a soulless enterprise. This was his conflict. He thought religion was imperative if man was to move away from the Dark Ages, noting that it was not so many years from his writing that the last poor soul had been burned at the stake in Switzerland. He lived within earshot of Germany during the Nazi horror and was well aware of the consequences of unbridled energy, often tied to mythological or religious themes and tokens.

Jung was a student of religions and wrote about the powerful psychic forces that release an unconscious dynamism. He mentions Nazi Germany as a negative example of these forces. He suggests that the overwhelming expansion of Christianity in the second and third centuries and the explosive spread of Islam in the seventh century were positive examples of unconscious energies being contained and channeled. Jung also reminds us that the dark forces are always nearby, such as the witch-hunting mania in the Germanic countries in the fifteenth century which he calls an epidemic insanity.

Jung was acutely aware of the unconscious elements of a religion being harnessed by a charismatic leader. He writes of early World War II (1939) that “We do not know whether Hitler is going to found a new Islam. (‘He is already on the way; he is like Mohammed. The emotion in Germany is Islamic; warlike and Islamic. They are all drunk with a wild god.’) That can be the historic future.”

Jung presented these ideas to the Guild of Pastoral Psychology in London, April 5, 1939, three weeks after Germany had annexed Czechoslovakia. Here he speaks eloquently of the Christ within, our shadow; our rejected brother who was illegitimate, disobedient and born in misery. He is our symbol; he is us. This is modern psychology. This is our future.

Jung’s previous remarks about Islam seem to suggest that powerful, unconscious forces might very well be our future. Perhaps his fantasy was that every religion would go through its own Reformation and Restoration, and the energy directed inward to contemplation and reflection rather than to enforcing belief at the point of a gun.

I don’t know how deeply Jung understood Islam other than that he was a serious man and was keenly aware of the symbols that transform or impede the development of religion. For him, being religious meant living the symbolic life that was rich in doctrine, rituals and enjoying an intense inner life. Whether Jung’s remarks in 1939 were psychologically accurate or reflect the anguish of a warrior moment begs the question. What we are seeing today in the murderous actions of ISIS is a group that interprets the Koran in a very narrow, literal and punitive sense. Of course, this is politically, theologically and financially expedient.

If the development of ISIS was fueled by inept U.S. foreign policy, Saudi Arabia was the real birth mother, promoting a severe form of Islam called Salafism that Asra Q. Nomani, writing in the Daily Beast, says is fueling extremism everywhere. Ms. Nomani says it has taken almost 15 years since the 9/11 attacks for her to “fully understand the underlying ideology that we must dissect if we hope to dismantle the threat of terrorism in the name of Islam.” She refers to this ideology as a puritanical, literal interpretation of the Islam that has become “political Islam” or “Islamism.” Nomani observes that it is this perversion of Islam that was behind the recent execution of a Saudi cleric from a minority Shiite sect and 46 others. Saudi Arabia finances the global spread of political Islam.

From a psychological perspective, purveyors of Islamism remain locked in a fixed textual reading of a holy text that was “written” more than a century ago. In Jung’s words, their religious symbols have not been transformed. Any exegesis that has been provided by Islamic scholars has been ignored. Of course there are broader issues involved, such as the role of the Enlightenment in pushing the other monotheistic religions to adapt to the changing nature of reality and the budding psychological awareness of the modern man. As Carl Jung wrote, this is our task; this is our fate.

Jung insisted when he was writing about religion that he was really writing about science because he was observing the archetypal forces that underscore our beliefs. His interest was in the symbols of transformation, not worship per se. I suspect he would be concerned and amused listening to the remarks about terrorism, Islamism and jihadism by the current crop of Presidential contenders, many of whom trumpet the superiority of the Christian God, a timely reminder of the Crusades.

Dr. James Hillman, a psychologist and “student” of Jung, tended to ask, “What archetype are we living in; what forces hold us captive; what god compels us and which one do we serve?” Hillman was fond of the Italian Renaissance, where he was drawn to the writers and artists who revitalized the old mythological gods, not as objects to be worshipped but as psychological perspectives, ways of seeing and examining our behaviors. Myths represent psychological truths, not theological doctrines that dispense a final word.

At the moment, he might say America is in service to the war god Ares/Mars, given our preoccupation with guns and violence. America with 4% of the world’s population provides from 30% to 50% of the world’s armaments in any given year, including that recent $1.29 billion sale to Saudi Arabia. In his “A Terrible Love of War” Hillman readily finds the bellicose in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For him religion is war and he puts Christianity at the head of the class, noting there is much to fear in America! “First, the sheer numbers of believers among the population; second, the literalism of their beliefs; and, third, the impregnable innocence of their belief, as if the commitment to the doctrine of love prevents awareness of the facts of war and the terrible truth of a militant monotheistic psychology enacted by a Christian civilization.”

The evangelical Christian presidential candidates might remember Hillman’s remarks when they threaten to carpet bomb or “nuke” the Middle East. They might also take note of his views on a martial Christianity that he considers much more dangerous than Islam:

“The fact is clear: Western wars are backed by the Christian God, and we cannot dodge his draft because we are all Christians, regardless of the faith you profess, the church you attend, or whether you consider yourself utterly atheistic. You may be Jew or Muslim, pay tribute to your God in Santeria fashion, join with other Wiccas, but, wherever you are in the Western world, you are psychologically Christian, indelibly marked with the sign of the cross in your mind and in the corpuscles of your habits. Christianism is all about us, in the words we speak, the curses we utter, the repressions we fortify, the numbing we seek, and the residues of religious murders in our history. The murdered Jews, the murdered Catholics, the murdered Protestants, the murdered Mormons, heretics, deviationists, freethinkers … Once you feel your own personal soul to be distinct from the world out there, and that consciousness and conscience are lodged in that soul (and not in the world out there), and even the impersonal self is individualized in your person, you are, psychologically, Christian. Once your first response to a dream, a bit of news, an idea divides immediately into the moral “good” and “bad,” psychologically you are Christian. Once you feel sin in connection with your flesh and its impulses, again you are Christian… And you are especially an American Christian when idealizing a clean slate of childlike innocence as close to godliness. We cannot escape two thousand years of history, because we are history incarnated, each one of us thrown up on the Western shores of here and now by violent waves of long ago.”

The existential question Hillman leaves us with is this: “why is Christianity, which entered the world as a religion of love and has distinguished itself by the message of love in its founder and its apostles and exemplified in its martyrs and saint, also so martial?

Its notion of love has not converted the god of war, and in fact the Christian culture has inspired the greatest long-lasting war machine of any culture anywhere.

Does this not demand from our educated Christian minds a sharper examination of Christian love?”

This is our future. This is our fate.