Psychology and Religion: Natural Enemies or Intimate Partners?


dreamstime_xl_19724675In 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 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 the Bible, Torah, and 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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10 Responses

  1. Dear Jeanie,
    Reading this was my 5th “religious experience” in the past 6 weeks, and my 4th since New Year’s Eve. I have just completed reading Dr. Jung’s Tavistock lectures (1937), which are contained in paperback book form called _Psychology & Religion_. He said in 114 pages what you have managed to say in 1. Awesome! I am planning a review of the book, so I will provide a pointer to your piece when I do.
    Coincidentally, I have been communicating with a minister, who is struggling with the very issue of “faith,” something that Dr. Jung faced, because his Father, a country Parson, was also struggling with a “loss of faith.” Yesterday, as you were posting this piece, I was writing something very similar about “religious experience” to my Minister friend. Synchronicity! Perhaps there are good things happening in the collective unconscious when both of us can be extracting the same ideas from it at the very same time–or at least we both see a need to spread these ideas more broadly.
    My betting is that we will see a lot of this shift in attitude among religious persons in the coming few years. Dr. Jung’s lectures were given aurally to a very small and select audience at Yale University in 1937. Unfortunately, any spread of the ideas was likely drowned out by world events of the day. But now, with social networking, these ideas can be planted in 100 countries in 24 hours, and, in my experience, when ideas that are right are planted, they tend to grow roots and flourish. Thank you for your leadership on this!
    Best regards, Skip

    1. Thank you for your leadership on this too, Skip. And for your plan to point readers to this piece in your review.
      I also believe you and I are responding to the urgent needs and deep questions of the collective unconscious. If we are leaders, it is because we have felt these same needs and asked the same questions of ourselves and have actively pursued answers. Reading and study was my first avenue of pursuit. When I discovered Jungian psychology I immediately ordered and devoured about 20 books from the Jungian publisher Inner City books, . I began dreamwork somewhere between the first and third book! Both practices have brought so many insights and so much ease to my suffering (the “faith” issue was a big one for me too) that I continue them still.
      Yes, some right ideas are being planted, others are already flourishing. I see signs of them everywhere among the nettles and tares that will always be with us…because the pain they bring is a powerful catalyst for growth.
      My best to you, my friend,

  2. An interesting self-reflection…I almost didn’t read this post because of the word “religion.” It makes me realize that although I have come a long way in the thirty years of inner-journeying and spiritual-seeking after leaving the Christian church behind, I still shy away from use of *that* word and all it brings up for me. And so the journey continues… Thank you for the continued opportunity for growth.

    1. Thanks, Darla. I know. I’ve struggled with organized religion for many years too. Yet despite powerful feelings of hurt and disappointment and betrayal by Christianity, many of its rituals and symbols still speak profoundly to my soul whether my mind and spirit want to admit it or not.
      For years I couldn’t step into a church without getting angry, then two weeks ago I attended the children’s Christmas Eve service at the Episcopal church my daughter’s family attends to see my granddaughters who were in the choir. Several times I could not stop the tears from flowing.
      I thought about how fragile and vulnerable we humans are, and how desperately we need assurance that we are safe and loved, and how easily we betray our own souls for a crumb of hope from religious authorities outside ourselves, no matter how rigid or exclusive they might be. I felt such tenderness toward all the beautiful, hopeful souls in that room, and realized my body and tears were telling me that I was finally forgiving the church for its years of hurt and disappointment and betrayal because I knew it was just as flawed and wounded as me.
      Blessings on your continued growth in your journey. I’m in a place in mine where tears come very easily. I hope this signals a softening of my heart. Whatever’s going on, it feels good to be here.

      1. This is beautiful and evokes the possibility of universal healing: “finally forgiving the church for its years of hurt and disappointment and betrayal because I knew it was just as flawed and wounded as me”… Blessings to you also.

      2. Thank you for this post and your response to Darla. I hope that I too experience being part of “healing the sacred divide” even as your words offer a sign on the path to re-vision my own journey.
        Blessings to you,

        1. You’re welcome Kathleen. I appreciate your letting me know my response to Darla brought some hope and direction to you. I’m finding that sometimes the conversations I have with readers make more of a difference than the posts themselves! That’s part of the magic of this medium which I love so much.
          Blessings to you too,

  3. Thank you for your posts. I find them interesting. It is such an amazing thing that there is so much free information and material available online in regard to the works of Carl Jung and Depth Psychology. Thought you and readers of your blog are likely to be interested in my resources page, which is made up of free online films on the work of Carl Jung, Depth Psychology and Transpersonal Psychotherapy. Thanks for your sharing.
    Warm wishes

    1. Hello Howard,
      Thank you for writing. It’s always fun and encouraging to hear from like-minded people! Thank you also for letting me know about your resources. I went to your page at and I look forward to checking out some of your wonderful materials, especially your films on Jung!
      Best wishes with your healing work,

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