Religious Knowledge: Jung and the Gnostics

This month at Numinous we will explore where religious knowledge (gnosis) comes from, its role in traditional religion and how Jung saw in Gnosticism a way in which the revelation of divine knowledge could continue in the individual’s psyche.

bjj0e75Religious statements are, however, never rational in the ordinary sense of the word, for they always take into consideration that other world, the world of the archetype, of which reason in the ordinary sense is unconscious …. the more clearly the archetype is constellated, the more powerful will be its fascination, and the resultant religious statements will formulate it accordingly, as something “daemonic” or “divine.” Such statements indicate possession by an archetype. The ideas underlying them are necessarily anthropomorphic and are thereby distinguished from the organizing archetype, which in itself is irrepresentable because unconscious. They prove, however, that an archetype has been activated.  Jung CW1 222-3

Every closed system of religion has an undoubted tendency to suppress the unconscious in the individual as much as possible, thus paralyzing his fantasy activity. Instead, religion offers stereotyped symbolic concepts that are meant to take the place of his unconscious once and for all. The symbolic concepts of all religions are recreations of unconscious processes in a typical, universally binding form. Religious teaching supplies, as it were, the final information about the “last things” and the world beyond human consciousness. Wherever we can observe a religion being born, we see how the doctrinal figures flow into the founder himself as revelations, in other words as concretizations of his unconscious fantasy. The forms welling up from his unconscious are declared to be universally valid and thus replace the individual fantasies of others. Jung CW 6, 80

Although in crude form, we find in Gnosticism what was lacking in the centuries that followed: a belief in the efficacy of individual revelation and individual knowledge. This belief was rooted in the proud feeling of man’s affinity with the gods, subject to no human law, and so overmastering that it might even subdue the gods by the sheer power of Gnosis… In Gnosticism we see man’s unconscious psychology in full flower, almost perverse in its luxuriance; it contained the very thing that most strongly resisted the regula fidei (rule of faith), that Promethean and creative spirit which will bow only to the individual soul and to no collective ruling. Jung CW6, 409

As the most conservative of all products of the human mind, religions are in themselves the bridges to the ever-living past, which they make alive and present for us. A religion that can no longer assimilate myths is forgetting its proper function. But its spiritual vitality depends on the continuity of myth, and this can be preserved only if each age translates the myth into its own language and makes it an essential content of its view of the world. Jung CW14 fn 297

Gnosis is characterized by the …. integration of archetypal contents beyond the revealed “truth” of the Gospels. Jung CW 18, 1647