Jung at Heart

When I no longer believed in the fundamentalist God of my childhood, the spiritualism of a Swiss psychiatrist helped me rediscover my faith.

January 2003By Comments

FOR SOME PEOPLE, RELIGION SATISFIES their search for faith. For others, religion is only the beginning of the search. I discovered this distinction ten years ago, when I lost faith in the fundamentalist religion that I grew up with. Of all the losses that I have experienced, the loss of my faith in the God of my childhood caused the most pain. I was born into religious fundamentalism, and for a long time, it was the lens through which I viewed the world. To people who have never experienced the certainty of fundamentalism, that may sound hard to believe, even silly. But try to imagine waking up day after day knowing that no matter what happens—no matter how bad things get—you have the promise that God is on your side.

I carry that promise in my DNA. It was my inheritance—my father was a Southern Baptist minister of music in several small churches in the Piney Woods north of Houston—but fundamentalism was never my choice. As a child, I was religious by nature and temperament; I played church the way other girls played dolls. When I was seven, during a revival in Pasadena, I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior and was baptized. For years my imagination was fired by the same image of God that Alice Walker described in the novel The Color Purple, the God who was “big and old and tall and graybearded and white.” To me, the Bible was sheer poetry. I loved its stories and images and was consoled by the customs of church—gospel music and dinner on the grounds after services on Sunday. Sometimes I was afraid when grown-ups in church were “slain in the Spirit”—so moved by God that they fainted flat, rolled around on the floor, and spoke in strange languages. But to anticipate such drama was thrilling.

When I was 42, two things happened that cracked the fundamentalist lens. First, my mother died of breast cancer. Less than a month later, my husband, a Methodist minister, told me he wanted a divorce. As I struggled to make sense of my life, I realized that the God of my childhood no longer worked for me. In fact, this particular idea of God hadn’t worked in a long time. I had begun to question it while I was in junior high, when the congregation of my church voted not to accept blacks as members, should any black person be brave enough to apply. When I was in college at the University of Texas, that shameful memory was reinforced by the total absence of blacks at the heavily attended eleven o’clock service at Austin’s Hyde Park Baptist Church, where I was a member. By that time, as a woman who came of age in the sixties, I also found it hard to square my desire to be treated as an intellectual equal by men with fundamentalism’s attitude toward women, which told us to be submissive to our husbands and other male leaders.

As I packed up my belongings from the parsonage and prepared to make a new life, I tried hard to draw on the promise of fundamentalism for strength. But at the time when I most needed the certainty of fundamentalism, I simply didn’t have it. Racism and sexism in the church were not the only problems. I now felt that my childhood conviction was a terrible, imprisoning illusion. It was then that I rejected my religion—which meant leaving the institution of the church—to wrestle seriously with my own personal faith. Sometimes religion can be an obstacle to faith, and that was what had happened to me.

Like many people who lose their religious moorings, for a while I tried other denominations. In particular, I was drawn to the beautiful images and symbolism found in Episcopal and Catholic churches, so different from the sparse Baptist churches of my childhood. Mostly, I tried to come to grips with the fact that, spiritually speaking, I was on my own. Then in 1995 I had a dream that felt to me as big and real as the stories of dreams of Bible characters that I had loved as a child, such as the dreams of Joseph—the shepherd boy with the many-colored coat who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers—assuring him that God would provide the strength to persevere. In my dream, I was seated in a plain Protestant church that was built in the shape of a circle. An angry, tyrannical minister stood behind a pulpit with his hand raised and his finger pointed in judgment at the members. I stood up and told the congregation that I could no longer be a part of this church because of the minister’s lack of compassion. Everyone turned their back on me. I bowed my head in shame. When I raised my eyes, I saw an ethereal female spirit hovering near the altar. She was luminous and covered with gold and white butterflies. I looked around, but apparently no one else could see her. I could see nothing else.

The dream was an accurate snapshot of how I felt—cast out of the church but imbued with a strong sense of the sacred. Although I had made my intellectual departure from fundamentalism a long time ago, I did not break with it emotionally until this dream. What gave the dream added importance was a series of difficult conversations I had had with my mother as she lay dying. During 38 years of married life, my mother had learned about the things that ministers tell only to their spouses—petty power plays, sexual betrayals, alcoholism, mental illness, and cruelty, of every imaginable description. My mother confided that sometimes she felt that my father and many Southern Baptist ministers she knew well had used faith as a defense against their own fears and doubts. She did not want me to do the same. “Forget about finding the will of God,” my mother advised on her deathbed. “Find your own will, Jan. That’s what God wants from you—just to express who you really are.”

This advice came as a revelation. As I thought about it, I remembered my earlier readings in college that dreams were central to the ideas of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who, along with Sigmund Freud, created modern-day psychoanalysis. Unlike Freud, Jung believed that the instinct toward religion was a sign of health—not neurosis, as Freud believed. Jung was a philosopher, not a religious leader, and his term for God was the Self. His idea was that there is an instinct within each of us toward wholeness. The Self guides us in that direction if we make a connection to it through dreams, myths, metaphors, and symbols.

I realized that these secular ideas were untenable for fundamentalists, but by now the lens of my faith had spun inward—toward what Jesus called “the kingdom of heaven within”—and away from the institution of the church. I sought out a Jungian psychologist in San Antonio and was surprised to learn that Jung had equated the Christian idea of the incarnation of God with what he called “individuation.” Edward Edinger, a Jungian author, has written that to the extent that a person becomes aware of the Self and lives fully out of that awareness, that person can be said to be incarnating the experience of God. A simpler definition of individuation is the one my mother suggested: becoming the person we are meant to be.

In Texas the strongest center of Jungian life is found at the corner of Montrose and Bissonet in Houston’s museum district. The Jung Center, one of the oldest educational facilities in the world for the study of analytical psychology, is located in a small, one-story building. Its soothing beige walls are lined with an ever-changing display of artworks, some of them done by artists who are themselves students of Jung. Since 1958, the Jung Center has offered courses on such topics as uncovering the unconscious and the connection between spirituality and psychology, as well as classes in yoga, photography, art, dance, and writing. Each semester about 700 people take the classes offered at the Jung Center, but many more find their way there: 20,000 people a year walk through the glass doors, searching for meaning.

The Jung Center is not a church: It’s a place where people of all religions or no religion can explore their own personal experiences of the sacred without the imposition of dogma. It’s a place where doubts and conflicts are welcome. Pittman McGehee, an Episcopal priest and a Jungian analyst who is a regular lecturer at the center, says, “The God that we talk about is our own experience of God, and that experience varies from person to person and from religion to religion.” To a Jungian, faith is the amount of trust an individual places in his personal experience of God.

From 1980 to 1991, McGehee was the dean of Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Houston, one of the most powerful clerical positions in Texas. A few years before that, however, he came to see himself as having reached a fork in the road—one route led to power and the other led to personal meaning and creativity. He began to question how he should spend the rest of his life. He decided to leave the full-time parish ministry and become a Jungian analyst. “What I’ve found is that for most of us, the first half of our lives is biography,” says McGehee. “We unconsciously wrap ourselves around our family histories. The second half of our life has the potential to be autobiography, provided we take responsibility for our own choices.”

I agree with McGehee. In the first half of my life, I blindly lived out my family’s fundamentalist religion, but at 42, I began the search for my own faith. I haven’t given up Christianity for Jung. In fact, his ideas have strengthened my faith by making it possible for me to persevere in a careful examination of what of Christianity has meaning for me and what no longer does. As James Hollis, the director of the Houston Jung Center, puts it: “Be careful about asking for an authentic religious experience. You might just get one.”

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