In the last of my Easter posts from last year about the mythological aspects of the holiday, I focused on the meaning of Christ’s resurrection in mytho-psychological terms and what this means for our own spirituality, concluding that our resurrection “is an internal affair.” This year I go at Easter from a somewhat different angle, focusing on the meaning of the “incarnation” and the resulting passion and resurrection of Christ in light of a more detailed historical evolutionary background showing how we and God got to the crossroads of Easter, so that we can better understand what this holiday can mean for us.
To get right to the point, from the mytho-psychological and spiritual perspectives, the life and teachings of Jesus together with his suffering and resurrection can be understood as portraying the integration of our total psyche (the “Self”), specifically the integration of the unconscious part of our psyche with the conscious part (ego consciousness, here called the “self” (uncapitalized)). (Corbett; Jung AJ) Carl Jung called this the “individuation” process, which results in a person reaching a higher level of consciousness and self-awareness, and being more advanced spiritually. Psychologically, this endeavor can be termed “religious” because at the deepest level of our collective (transpersonal) unconscious lies an archetype of unity and totality that Jung calls the “God-image,” which is the deepest source of our numinous experiences of “divinity” that have a lasting emotional impact on us and drive much of our thinking and behavior, including in the individuation process. This happens in everyone, atheists included, and it is the realm that mystics from various religious and non-religious traditions access during their sacred experiences.
Jung held that there was a long historical period of evolution and preparation before ancient Mediterranean culture could reach the point where the Christ figure could emerge in myth to represent the individuation process and resonate with people’s psyches so that Christianity could emerge, become viable, and even dominate that culture. As Jung observed, “If ever anything had been historically prepared, and sustained and supported by the existing Weltanschauung, Christianity would be a classic example.” (Jung AJ, 687) It is important to outline these developments here.
The process actually begins with the creation of the cosmos as depicted in myths. Myths typically depict the creation as a process of formless, unordered chaos being transformed into order, resulting in differentiation, multiplicity, and opposites (dark/light, heaven/earth, god/human, good/evil, male/female, etc.). This motif is actually a reflection in myths of the evolution of human consciousness to a higher stage of being, i.e., to a developed ego consciousness (self) that enables us to make distinctions and see opposites. (Neumann, 2-38) As the psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz put it, such myths “describe not the origin of our cosmos, but the origin of man’s conscious awareness of the world.” (Franz, 5) This process of rising consciousness is evident in the biblical Garden of Eden creation myth in which Adam and Eve gained the “knowledge of good and evil,” meaning that they became able to distinguish opposites (good/evil, male/female, naked/clothed) and therefore were ready to function outside the Garden in civilization. (George & George, 83-84, 245-80) As Joseph Campbell put it, “The Garden is a metaphor for the following: our minds.” (Campbell, 50) We must bear this in mind when we see St. Paul and other early Christian writers describe Christ as the “second Adam” who symbolized a second transformation of human consciousness.
While humans were gaining in consciousness, however, Israel’s god Yahweh was temperamental, impulsive, and unpredictable. While sometimes loving and merciful, he was just as easily unjust and cruel and often changed his mind, reflecting a lack of self-awareness and a failure to consult his own omniscience. He violated many of the Ten Commandments. And he broke his Davidic Covenant in which he had promised that a descendant of David would forever be king over Israel; instead came the Babylonian captivity. Accordingly, Jung described Yahweh as “unconscious,” and specifically as having a dark, shadow side that was not integrated into his consciousness. He was not meaningfully aware of the opposites within him and they were not integrated, so he lacked control. Yahweh needed to better himself. Eventually many people grew tired of this and started to doubt Yahweh, because their own consciousness had outgrown that of their own god. Yet Yahweh needed humankind (its consciousness) to uphold his identity, to the point where he would need and want to share in being human. (Jung, AJ, 574) This represented our own restless unconscious seeking to make itself more conscious.
The turning point came when Yahweh let his shadow side (Satan) mistreat Job, who then protested Yahweh’s injustice, inflicting moral defeat on Yahweh from which he would never recover his old form. (Jung, AJ) His wisdom became personified as feminine Sophia, needed by Yahweh for self-reflection and to accommodate to some extent the feminine side of the psyche. (Jung AJ, 617) Also, in the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and 1 Enoch, Yahweh drew closer to humanity as his consciousness developed, being represented in each of these books by quaternity symbolism of the Self, and each of these books featured the “Son of Man” figure, an outgrowth of Yahweh embodying wisdom and righteousness, an intimation that Yahweh’s incarnation lies in the future (Jung AJ, 665-86); the gospels later would call Jesus the Son of Man. The figure of Satan became distanced from Yahweh, which mytho-psychologically speaking would inevitably require a counterpoising mythical figure of goodness, justice, and love. In short, Yahweh’s divine qualities were becoming differentiated, changing from an unconscious totality of all divinity into distinct conscious opposites represented by corresponding mythical figures.
Meanwhile, in the everyday human world, by the time of Jesus people in Palestine were dominated by the Roman military and governmental machine on the one hand, and by a strict and dry Jewish legalism managed by an aloof and corrupt priesthood on the other. People were taxed by both, monetarily and spiritually. Both trends were manifestations of ego consciousness run rampant, to the point where too many people’s lives had lost touch with the unconscious psychic energy that is the source of spirituality (in Christianity symbolized and carried by the Holy Spirit) and ultimately with the archetypal God-image; consciousness and the unconscious had become dissociated. The result was what psychologists term a “loss of soul” (Jung AJ, 688; Jung CR, 213-14, 244-45), which is the initial reaction to the unconscious reaching out to make itself felt by ego consciousness. Hopefully the end result of the process would be the integration of the Self. In 1st century Palestine, this process manifested itself mythologically as Yahweh inserting himself into humanity, resulting in the mythical figure of the God-man.
Thus, as Jung observed, the Christ figure is a symbol of the Self. (Jung CSS) But we must be careful here. As Jung also recognized, Christ is not a “snapshot” of anyone’s entire Self at any point in time. The deity now having split into various aspects, the Christ of the gospels represented only light, consciousness, goodness, love, and justice, lacking both the feminine element and any dark side, elements carried by Mary (in part) and Satan respectively. Rather, Christ was a mediating figure who represented the Self as it goes through the dynamic process of the incarnation of “God” coming from the unconscious into consciousness, spirit into body, as the Self becomes integrated and a person individuates. (Corbett, 128-30; Jung AJ) While in Christian tradition Christ’s appearance was literalized as a one-time historical event, mythologically and psychologically the implication is that incarnation can occur in any and all of us. Indeed, we see other versions of incarnation in other religious traditions, which suggests that the process of incarnation of the “divine” is an archetypal psychic process. Thus, in ancient Egypt the king was the god Horus born to a mortal woman, and in India Vishnu incarnated at times of need, while a Bodhisattva incarnated in order to liberate humanity. (Corbett, 128)
Take, for example, Jesus’s saying in Matthew 18:4, that “unless you change and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (likewise Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17; Gospel of Thomas 22, 46.2). Mark’s gospel provides a larger narrative context for this metaphor of integration. The enacted parable of “the child amongst” in Mark 9:33-37 can be read according to this psychological framework. In verse 34 the disciples’ egos seeking greatness and preeminence are driving their behavior and hindering their spiritual growth. So Jesus teaches them that if anyone would be first, he first must be last and be a humble servant. (In the ancient household, where this scene takes place, a child has the lowest status; also, in a young child the ego is not dominant and so is more integrated with the unconscious, so the child archetype represents the potential for wholeness of the Self.) So as Jesus the God-man visually embraces a child in a house, he teaches that a person first must identify oneself with a child and in an important sense become mentally like one, with the ego having no pretensions to greatness. Being a good and humble servant means being faithful to one’s principal, which in this case is Jesus and ultimately God, who originates in the God-image. Psychologically, the story shows the need to tame ego consciousness by becoming like a child, which through incarnation enables the divine (God, unconscious content) to integrate with the self so that self-aware individuation can occur. This can establish a new pattern for human relationships that will leave no occasion for strife, which is what at the beginning of this story had been occurring among the disciples.
The inevitable consequence of unconscious content confronting ego consciousness in the integration (incarnation) process is suffering, suffering of our ego consciousness (the self) as it cedes some of its position of preeminence and is transformed by unconscious content. The old self is “crucified” and then, as it transforms, it is “resurrected” into higher level of consciousness, resulting in a more integrated and “redeemed” Self. Easter. Springtime.
May we all celebrate a fruitful and happy Easter!
Sources and Bibliography
Campbell, Joseph. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor. Novato, California: New World Library (2001).
Corbett, Lionel. The Religious Function of the Psyche. Routledge: New York (1996).
Edinger, Edward. Ego and Archetype: Individuation and the Religious Function of the Psyche. Boston & London: Shambhala (1972, 1992).
1 Enoch, in Charlesworth, James, ed., The Old Testament Pseudapigrapha,vol. 1, pp. 5-89. Peabody, Massachusetts (1983).
Franz, Marie-Louise von. Creation Myths. Boston: Shambhala (rev. ed. 1995).
George, Arthur, and Elena George. The Mythology of Eden. Lanham, Maryland: Hamilton Books (2014).
Jung, Carl. “Christ, a Symbol of the Self,” in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Collected Works, vol. 9.2, paras. 68-126 (cited as “Jung CSS”). Cites to Jung in this and other works listed below are to the numbered paragraphs, not pages.
Jung. Carl. “Answer to Job,” in Psychology and Religion: West and East, Collected Works, vol. 11, paras. 553-758 (cited as “Jung AJ”). This essay is also available as a separate book published by Princeton University Press.
Jung, Carl. “On Resurrection,” in The Symbolic Life. Collected Works, vol. 18, paras. 1558-74 (cited as “Jung OR”).
Jung, Carl. “Concerning Rebirth,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works, vol. 9.1, paras. 199-258 (cited as “Jung CR”).
Neumann, Erich. The Origins and History of Consciousness. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1954).
© Arthur George 2017.