Sunday, May 25, 2003

A Review of The New God-Image by Rose F. Holt

The New God-Image: A Study of Jung’s Key Letters Concerning the Evolution of the Western God-Image by Edward F. Edinger. Chiron Publications, 1996.

Jung once remarked that his life’s work has been to encircle the “central fire” with a series of mirrors but that necessarily there were gaps where the mirrors met. In The New God-Image, Edward F. Edinger provides a great deal of fill-in for one of Jung’s gaps. The book is from audio tapes of a series of lectures Edinger gave in the Fall of 1991 as part of the Analysts’ Training Program at the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles. In the lecture series Edinger drew on letters Jung wrote about the on-going transformation of the god-image and in so doing wove together a coherent understanding of Jung’s thinking about this vital topic.

The opening sentence of the book is startling: “The history of Western man can be viewed as a history of its God-images, the primary formulations of how mankind orients itself to the basic questions of life, its mysteries.” My reaction as I read those words was, “Well, yes, of course!” I remembered a similarly startling statement from an old theology professor: “We all have a theology, whether we know what it is or not.” Edinger helps make conscious some of the theological underpinnings of Jung’s depth psychology. Those underpinnings inform a good deal of the theology of modern peoples—whether we understand them or not.

In the Introduction, Edinger gives us a survey of the six major stages in the evolution of the Western God-image, stages through which each individual passes in the development of consciousness. The sixth of these stages, Edinger tells us, is individuation, the discovery of the psyche. Jung discussed religious imagery as the phenomenology of the objective psyche in two of his late works, Answer to Job and Aion. Edinger, however, believes Jung’s clearest statements about the God-image and its transformation are to be found in letters he wrote during his last ten years, from 1951 to 1961. As material for the lectures, Edinger selects fourteen of the letters, dividing them into three major subject areas: (1) Jung’s epistemological premises, (2) the paradoxical God, and (3) continuing incarnation.

Edinger tells us that there are three steps involved in understanding Jung’s material concerning the new God-image. One must be able to perceive the new God-image and that requires mastering certain epistemological premises. One must actually perceive for one’s self this living reality and the impact it has on one’s own psychology as well on the psychology of the collective. Jung (and analytical psychology) can teach the how, but it is not something taken as an article of faith. It is something one must do for one’s self, a kind of God-has-no-grandchildren concept. And the third step requires a developing awareness of one’s own role in the transformation of the God-image, one’s part in the process of continuing incarnation.

Part I, the first four chapters of The New God-Image, is devoted to the necessary epistemological premises. In these chapters Edinger presents a rather fine crash-course on Kantian philosophy. Jung was very much influenced by his early studies of Kant and never wavered about the import of Kant’s contribution to the theory of knowledge. Jung wrote in 1957: “. . . here that threshold which separates two epochs plays the principal role. I mean by that threshold the theory of knowledge whose starting-poing is Kant. On that threshold minds go their separate ways: those that have understood Kant, and the others that cannot follow him”

Edinger ends Part I by talking about the redemptive power of Jung’s work and the impact it had on his own personal redemption. Edinger explains the Marcion Heresy, an early Church split in which Marcion argued for a complete departure from the Old Testament Yahweh in favor of a new all-loving God. Had Marcion won the day, there would have been no continuity with the past. It is a split suffered frequently by moderns—the idea that one need not be concerned with history, that one can supersede and disregard all the old gods. There is a warning in the I Ching about such an attitude—it is dangerous to cling to the tops of the trees without regard for the roots. A consciousness split off from the levels or stages of evolutionary collective development is in a vicarious and unredeemed state. Jung’s work, according to Edinger, has a great value not only for redemption of the individual but also for redemption of collective human endeavors—alchemy, mythology, philosophy, and more primitive aspects of existence—by demonstrating how each is a manifestation of the eternal, ever-living psyche.

In Part II Edinger explores the topic of the paradoxical God, the God who needs humankind, who incarnates in the human to bring Himself to consciousness. This view of incarnation assigns enormous dignity to the meaning of human suffering as well as huge responsibility for how one handles suffering. The psyche has as one of its functions, the assignment of meaning, and meaning lends significance. Edinger quotes Jung in this regard: “Buddha’s insight and the Incarnation in Christ break the chain (i.e., the Nidhana-chain of suffering) through the intervention of the enlightened human consciousness, which thereby acquires a metaphysical and cosmic significance.”

Lastly, Edinger covers Jung’s ideas of the continuing incarnation. Key questions arise if we accept Jung’s notion that the ego, as exponent for the Self, has a role in incarnation, that psychological maturity means “the responsible living and fulfilling of the divine will in us.” Such questions include: “What is that? How can we do that? How can we even know the divine will? . . . It is the problem of distinguishing between the ego and the Self.” Edinger gives us some fine examples from Jung’s letters, from Melville’s novel White Jacket, and from clinical case histories to illustrate how the paradoxical Self manifests itself in human experience and the care a conscious ego must exercise in relating to it.

In a particularly poignant passage Edinger explains that, “In Jung’s view one is not entitled to pray for anything at all, except one thing: remind the Self to go easy on the ego, that it is expecting too much. One must remind the Self how things are up here in the material world, and thus not break the fragile bonds of the ego by demanding too much. Take it easy, let up a bit.”

One can approach this book in several ways. As an aid for understanding Jung’s formulations about the Self, it is superb. For a quick survey of historical ideas about religion and philosophy, it is a solid primer. It is fine explanation of the thinking of Jung in his later years. Edinger was a man who studied and worked in the area of analytical psychology for more than forty-five years. In the Preface to his book, The Aion Lectures, he offers some advice on reading Jung: “. . . you should realize that Jung’s consciousness vastly surpasses your own . . . If you make the assumption that you know better than he does and start out with a critical attitude—don’t bother, the book (Aion) isn’t for you . . . To read Jung successfully we must begin by accepting our own littleness; then we become teachable” (p. 11). Not bad advice for approaching The New God-Image.

This review was first published in The Round Table Review, January/February 1999, V. 6, No. 3.]

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