In my growing up years the relationship between psychology and religion mirrored the cold war between the U.S. and Russia. Other than the fact that each was suspicious of the other, they appeared to have little in common.
But this began to change for me at the age of 17. One morning I was reading the assigned Bible verses at church camp when suddenly the door to a hidden dimension of my being burst open and a flood of feeling and meaning rushed into my awareness. Suddenly I understood words which, until then, were written in a foreign language. And they spoke directly to me!
My heart responded with stunned awe and wonder. God was real. Moreover, God knew me and was using the Bible to communicate with me!
Joseph Campbell called an experience like this “… a profoundly felt, inward knowledge of the transpersonal imperatives and quality of life…” The impact was so powerful, in fact, that I couldn’t get enough of the New Testament and read it again and again over the next several years.
“‘Archetype’ is Jung’s word for the psychological image of a god, and when an archetype is activated, we speak of its impact as numinous. In other words, numinosity is the charge of energy in whatever we experience as divine or demonic. If you want to know what is numinous to you, consider what you find fascinating, compelling, thrilling, mysterious, horrifying, gripping, tremendous, terrifying, dreadful, or awesome. Think about the things with which you are preoccupied in spite of yourself.” -Jungian analyst Janet O. Dallett
My experience was numinous. I can use religious language and call it a “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” Psychologically I can interpret it as the activation of the Self archetype. Or I can see it as both. Having no psychological understanding at the age of 17, I chose the former. But it doesn’t really matter how I saw it. Either way, it happened. And it got my attention in a big way.
“The religious part of the psyche is at work whenever you pay attention to something that is numinous to you, whether or not other people feel it is important.” -Janet O. Dallett
I kept paying attention and had more numinous experiences. Each one awakened life-changing awarenesses about the spiritual dimensions of life and created lasting changes in me. I knew I was part of a vast Mystery and I was compelled to trust the stream of life-giving feeling and knowing that was my umbilical cord to the Sacred.
For a long time I dared not speak about this. Who was I to think God indwelled me, when one of the most respected religious authorities in my church openly disparaged “humanism” and “psychology” because they were the despised “wisdom of man” as opposed to “the wisdom of God?” What was important to him was belief in the word of God as revealed to spirit persons two thousand years ago and recorded in Holy Scriptures. What was revealed to today’s spirit persons was heretical.
But religious symbols like the Bible, Torah, or Koran are not God. They are symbols that point to the Mystery some of us call God, Yahweh, or Allah. As such, they can trigger life-changing numinous experiences, but only if they activate our archetypal roots—the religious part of the psyche—in ways that get our attention. Whatever God is, it cannot change us or the world without our growing awareness!
Psychology and religion are not natural enemies, but intimate partners in the sacred dance of life. We are not only imprinted with the Sacred, we are sacred, just as all life is sacred.
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