In my latest reading of No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, Paul Knitter discussed psychological explanations for religion, particularly those of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, William James, Abraham Maslow, and Robert Assagioli.
One point that stood out to me was Jung’s view that the unconscious (which appears to be both personal and collective) has certain archetypes that are evident in a number of religions: “the divine mother, the wise old man, the dying god, the young virgin, the hero-savior, the cunning evil one, [and] the hidden treasure” (Knitter’s words on page 57). My impression from Knitter’s discussion is that Jung thought that these archetypes were symbolic. For example, on page 61, Knitter refers to Jung’s view that Jesus’ incarnation was a model for “individuation”—-as the self is realized, the ego is left behind, and the person is integrated “into the mystery of the self-in-God” (Knitter’s words).
This reminded me a lot of Joseph Campbell. I have not read most of Campbell’s works, but I did watch Bill Moyers’ interviews with him. I rolled my eyes at some of what Campbell was saying, for it appeared to me that he was reading pop psychology into myths and religions—-such as the notion that we should find our “bliss”. I don’t want to dismiss the idea that the archetypes that appear in various world religions are getting at something psychological—-needs that we have as human beings. But I also want to listen to what the religions, myths, and cultures themselves are saying, without reading stuff into them that they do not explicitly say.
One question that Jung inspired Knitter to address was whether or not Jesus’ historicity is important for Christian theology. Jung focused on Jesus as a mythical archetype. I’m not sure if Jung dismissed the notion that Jesus historically existed, but his focus was on myth and story. I know people who affirm that the historicity of Christian claims about Jesus (i.e., the incarnation, the virgin birth, miracles, Jesus’ death for our sins, and the resurrection), and even Jesus himself, are not important for Jesus to have a place in one’s spiritual and religious life. After all, can’t we draw inspiration from the story of Jesus—-the values that he exemplified as a character—-whether or not he actually existed?
That may work for some people. It just doesn’t work for me. I need to see a story about a hero-savior as grounded in history for it to do anything for me, spiritually. To use another example, I can draw inspiration from Luke Skywalker, but I can’t form a religion out of Luke Skywalker that is meaningful to me personally, unless the story actually happened and literally had an impact on me—-as does Jesus’ death for my sins, according to Christianity.