Archive for February 2010

Religious Resonance: A Psychotherapeutic Resource

February 7, 2010

This is an article that was just published in the Santa Barbara Chapter of CAMFT.

In the early days of my role as a Presbyterian minister I did a lot of Pastoral Counseling. The more I did this the more I wanted to know and understand about psychology. I read widely but quickly realized that there were two main points of view: first, the traditional, theologically based view that attempted to explain all experiences and treatments in terms of accepted and approved biblical and theological dogma; second, was the variety of psychological schools that tended to reduce religious perspectives to fantasy and wish-fulfillment.

It was when I was introduced to C.G. Jung’s work that I finally found a point of view that respected the “religious” experience as a psychological reality that was rooted in each person’s experience. A few years later as I was training to be a certified Jungian analyst I came across the following quote: In Jung’s Collected Works vol. 11 he defines religion as “a peculiar attitude of mind which could be formulated in accordance with the original use of the word ‘religio’, which means a careful consideration and observation of certain dynamic factors, that are conceived as ‘powers’: spirits, daemons, gods, laws, ideals, or whatever name man has given to such factors in his world as he has found powerful, dangerous, or helpful enough to be taken into careful consideration, or grand, beautiful, and meaningful enough to be devoutly worshipped and loved.”

Over the years I have found that this “peculiar attitude” has allowed me to work with a very broad spectrum of clients from a variety of backgrounds in terms of their experience with religion. For many this has included experiences within traditional religious institutions that left them angry and abandoned. For others it is a question of how to respect their own belief in rationalism, atheism, science etc. and still have a way to relate to what they experience as something larger and unknown. For Joseph Campbell a major stumbling block regarding the value of a “religious” point of view can be found in our attitudes toward metaphor and symbol. In Thou art that he observes, “half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”
In my experience the main function of metaphor and symbol is to give us a way to address the “Other”, be it internal or external. In Jungian terms this Other starts with the Shadow, those elements of the whole personality that are not acceptable to our adaptation to the world. These elements can include things like anger, power, greed and sexual fantasies. But they can also be positive things we don’t know how to claim – like talents, creativity, and anything that might evoke envy from others. On a larger scale we collectively project these Shadow elements onto the world by creating Others in terms of race, gender, language, culture, religion and politics. From this perspective the Shadow, using Jung’s definition, can be seen as a religious issue or dynamic. The key has to do with how the projections, be they positive or negative, activate psychic energy. All therapists have experienced such positive and negative energy in terms of transference and counter-transference dynamics.

How does having an attitude that is open to what I am calling Religious Resonance help us at these times? First, it gives us a way to respect what is happening as not all being generated at an ego level. The advantage of this is that we can be open to addressing and resolving them within our human limits. Resolution does not have to be perfect. Second, such respect for the idea that more is present than just the ego actually frees us to avoid the extremes of either identifying with the power aspect of such psychic energy on the one hand, or, being crushed by the dark side of it on the other. It is at this point we can take on the demanding task of taking responsibility for what is ours rather than what we have projected onto others. Not surprisingly we as therapists and as persons often encounter enormous resistance to the idea that we have any responsibility for what is happening. It is important at this juncture to note that taking responsibility is not the same as taking blame. Such self-blame allows me to avoid the always difficult aspect of holding what Jung called the “tension of the opposites” where more than one thing is true. Taking responsibility for this “tension of the opposites” is what creates a religious resonance because it is just there that the “peculiar attitude” opens us to a third thing in terms of a dream or a symbol that somehow resolves the situation in an inclusive rather than an exclusive way. Here is the living experience that is at the core of all the great religions of the world. Here one is confronted with the mystery that threatens to overwhelm us, and the grace that transcends our old point of view. It is also here that we do everything we can to not have our familiar ego perspective relativised in relationship to a larger Other. We tend to cling to whatever dogma has worked in the past be in theological, political or psychological. Jung has said that one of the functions of religion is to protect us from the religious experience. Which is to say the immediacy of Other.

I believe with Alice Miller that most of us are called to this work out of our own life experiences and hopefully in that process we have found healing as well as vocation. Such healing often, if not always, included opening to the most vulnerable parts of ourselves and trusting an “other” to see us and hear us so that we might see, hear and experience a self that included more than just our ego’s perspective.
. In our offices powerful energies are present whether we like them or not. We may experience them as seductive and exhilarating at some points, and mysterious, overwhelming and humbling at others. It is our ability to continually have the courage to recognize and respect our experiences with “Other” and bring to them this “peculiar attitude” that fosters a truly religious resonance and helps keep our work alive.