Edward F. Edinger, Ego and Archetype: Individuation and the Religious Function of the Psyche

(Shambhala Publications; USA, 1972)

When I studied undergraduate sociology I frequently felt that, from a theological perspective, I was engaged in the study of structural sin.  In the past year I have been reading bits and pieces of Jungian and Depth Psychology and I frequently feel that I am engaged in the study of ‘human beings created in the image of God’.  It has been fascinating to link psychological insights and questions to theological insights and questions and has drawn me deeper in love of a truly awesome God.

I find myself struggling to find the right language with which to authentically articulate these inner realities though I recognise them in myself.  Each term that I try on to describe my inner life  seems to have it’s detractors and I become acutely aware of how uncomfortable my culture has been discussing anything metaphysical (i.e. meta – beyond – physical – things that are emperically measurable by sight, sound, touch or taste).  Pre-modern theologians were comfortable with talk of the ‘soul’ or the ‘heart’ but their philosophical constructs are not always palatable with my post-modern sensitivities.  The bible seems to use a plethora of possible terminology leaving me with no other guidance than there is a large amount of  theological choice in how one describes the inner life which in itself should hint towards it’s meaning – it is our entire experience of reality, so much so that it is at times beyond our grasp.  As such, the inner life is always a human life, though at times the partition between human ‘ imago dei’ and the mystical divine, to whom we owe our entire existence (and whom Christians describe as Trinity), is the finest veil.

Here is an attempt at a response to EE in my own words:

Ego and Archetype asserts a psychological theory which connects individual experience and being with the broader reality of ourselves and the universe.  Within the inner life of a human being, our conscious, subjective, self-understanding (ego) is in dynamic relationship with the entire, objective human person – conscious and unconscious (self).   Sometimes the ego suffers from inflation – we think of ourselves more grandly than we ought (sounds very like the apostle paul); sometimes the ego suffers from alienation – we do not know ourselves as we ought (cf the experience of the psalmist when he cannot work out what God is doing in his life).  As life prods and pokes us, we gradually move towards the right balance where the ego is in harmony with the self (individuation).  In most cases, it is not until the second half of life, that this kind of full adulthood is entered into.  If the process of growing up is a universal human task and the imago dei, the mark of the Creator upon human creation is also universal, it should seem unsurprising that there are patterns of humanity, glimpses of the divine personality that repeat themselves constantly in the universal human story (i.e. Jungian archetypes).

Advances in early childhood research in recent decades have moved towards an understanding that the human brain continues essential growth outside of the womb.  The human being is unique in that the final stages of brain development happen in social interaction.  Each of us start life in this self-absorbed state, until we begin to encounter experiences that evolve the brain into understanding that there is something more.  Surely this is what the apostle Paul has in mind when he talks about the immaturity of the sinner and is foundational to my own concept of the doctrine of original sin.  It is certainly a process intimately familiar to every parent as we endure the challenges of raising children whom we hope will grow out of their pediatric self focus.  On the other hand, if we think of the wisest people we have encountered in life, often the really old ones, we glimpse a sense of peace with the world and with themselves, even though comprehension is beyond them.  A childish man who undergoes suffering says, ‘why me?’, whilst a wise man says, ‘gosh!’  That is, the wise man is somehow comfortable with the ambiguity of life and all it’s circumstances.

What I found fascinating in Ego and Archetype was EE’s discussion of how these archetypal patterns interact at a social level in what he terms ‘supra personal categories’.  In society, individuals share externalised projections of their inner beings collectively.  It is how we may live together in peace and harmony, by a structured, shared, ‘authorised version’ of reality which gives meaning and form to our individual selves.  If the shared meaning system of a society breaks down, as is the case with religion in the west, individuals have a problem.  As a sociologist I have long observed the social deterioration that results from the loss of a shared meaning system.  However, this was new food for thought about what happens pscyhologically.  It is not just that an individual suffers from a lack of meaningful relationships with others who share the same beliefs; the individual suffers from the lack of an externalised expression of their core beliefs, many of which are held unconsciously.  When we can glimpse parts of our deepest selves projected into the public sphere, it is as a kind of mirror in which to gain perspective on one’s true and full self.  Without religion, individuals are drawn into a spiritual quest to know the mystery of their their own soul.  In other words, the increase in spirituality in western culture, is a direct pscyhological consequence of the decrease in the christian religion’s monopoly.  Fascinating!  Further, I think the concept of individuation applied to Christendom as a socio-cultural entity, goes some way to describing it’s current cultural crisis.  It has slowly dawned on the christian church in the last half century that there is a whole lot more to the universe than we can contain or explain.  In other words,the western church is in the middle of it’s mid-life crisis – well that is exactly what it feels like to me!

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