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An Insufficient Truth

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was the Swiss psychoanalyst and founder of Analytical Psychology whose contributions to the field may end up being more lasting (and closer to the truth) than those of his mentor, friend, and antagonist Sigmund Freud. Both men believed sexual development is important, but Jung thought human personality was not driven by the libido to the extent Freud insisted it was. Jung saw a spiritual purpose in human life.

His work was influenced by his Christian upbringing, and he was among the few Christians in the first generation of psychologists.

I am fascinated by what Jung said about the “death of God” in modern culture, which he believed was at the heart of the modernist/nihilist project: it means not that God is rejected entirely but that He has descended into the subconscious. Maybe that’s a recapitulation of the Crucifixion and entombment of Christ. So, if Jung was right, we may suppose what happens next: a resurrection.

Yet when a friend converted to Catholicism, Jung wrote to him, “I am for those who are out of the Church.” I have the sense that this may have also been true – so far anyway – of the contemporary Jungian psychologist, Jordan Peterson (author of 12 Rules for Life), whose wife, Tammy, entered the Catholic Church this past Easter. Whether or not Jordan will follow remains an open question, but he should.

I believe Dr. Peterson may be a transitional figure. At the very least, he is – through his enormously popular books and lectures – leading many young men to reconsider the role the Bible can play in helping them improve their lives. But Peterson is also transitional because he is (or certainly seems to be) a man in transition, and to get where he is headed may require a break with Jung.

Jung was a Christian in name only – and barely that. It may be better to say he was a Gnostic. His appreciation of the faith was in its utility vis-à-vis atheism (vis-à-vis was a term of art with Jung) in that the summum bonum, the idea of God, is at the center of the collective unconscious – Jung’s most famous coinage.

This collective unconscious is populated by instincts and archetypes that manifest in myths that have appeared in disparate cultures throughout history and around the world and, in some cases, predate any interaction among those cultures. And more than that, these myths arise through mental images in dreams, creating congruity and unity between a culture and each of its individuals.

This has similarities to the work of Thomas Bulfinch (Mythology), James George Frazer (The Golden Bough), and, later, Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces), and there may be much to it. But even if there’s some truth in it, surely, it’s an insufficient truth.

Interlocutors: Dr. Peterson and Bishop Barron [The Daily Wire screenshot]

In his several video exchanges with Bishop Robert Barron – some leading up to We Who Wrestle with God [1], Peterson’s forthcoming book (November 19th), Peterson is seen nodding and taking notes as the Bishop explains the Catholic understanding of some part of Genesis, Exodus, or the Book of Job. (Take a look at their discussion of Moses and the Burning Bush [2].)

Peterson often seems to be evoking Anselm of Canterbury’s famous ontological proof – that God is that being than which no greater can be conceived, and a God that actually exists would be greater than one who merely exists in thought. Peterson, though, puts a Thomistic spin on it by saying, essentially, that God is the highest aim behind all proximal aims – the summum bonum, as Bishop Barron reminds him.

The good bishop also makes clear to Peterson that God is not a small-b being, in competition with other beings, human beings especially. He is Being itself. Peterson writes that down. And as much (if not more) than the pure atheism of Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, or Jean-Paul Sartre, the soft agnosticism that rejects God as a barrier to human freedom is what’s bedeviling modernity. Peterson gets this. But even when speaking of the Incarnation, one senses hedging – that he accepts the power of the story but not necessarily of our Lord.

And watching video excerpts of Peterson’s ongoing 2024 tour (of the same title as his new book), I have the impression of a man who is still struggling to understand what it is he’s talking about. And it’s almost as if the people in his audiences have dropped anywhere between $50 and $450 for seats to watch this extraordinary man work out his own thoughts and his own salvation.

It’s a heck of a show.

Men such as French novelist Michel Houellebecq, Tom Holland (author of Dominion), and Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion) are unbelievers, each of whom considers himself, as Dawkins puts it, a “cultural Christian. . .and I think it would be truly dreadful if we substituted any alternative religion.” For Peterson, however, this seems insufficient.

Mind you, this courageous man is doing great good right now in the neo-Jungian, quasi-Christian intellectual space he is occupying. But the Peterson story will not have a truly happy ending unless and until he follows his wife into the embrace of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. One is encouraged in this regard by Tammy Peterson’s devotion to the Rosary.

Let’s pray that Jordan will follow the path laid down by C.S. Lewis:

In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction. . . .The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. (From “Myth Became Fact” in his book, God in The Dock.)

Maybe it’s time for Dr. Peterson to move on from the Hebrew Scriptures to John 1:1-18. Biblical truth can only be fully known inside the Faith.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.