Jung Goes to Chalcedon: A Christology of Archetypes?

Below is a talk I gave at the Angelicum’s annual student theology conference last week. Enjoy!

Eamonn Clark, STL

A fallen away Lutheran’s Kantian appropriation of Platonic forms hardly seems like the place to look for shocking insight into Christology, but today I will make the case that it is.

In this paper I will argue that psychologist Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes gives us tools for deepening our understanding of Christ as a Person within the narrative given to us in Sacred Scripture, in particular by examining two archetypes which have been well-treated in mythological and psychological literature: the hero and the trickster. I take all of the classical definitions of the Councils for granted – Jesus Christ is truly God the Son, and fully a man born in Bethlehem. There is much to talk about within the paradigm of Chalcedon and the Alexandrian-Antiochene controversies which occasioned the advent of our cherished credal formulas – but since we do indeed possess revealed data, we have solid ground from which to jump into areas yet unexplored. We can be like Theseus – not running into the labyrinth and becoming lost, food for the minotaur, but not simply staying safe and sound outside either. We can take hold of the cord of tradition and bring it with us to keep ourselves oriented – we can slay the minotaur.

An archetype for Jung is a kind of impression of deeply meaningful symbols upon the collective unconscious – a sort of echo of Averroist anthropology that has somehow taken in data and leaves its mark within us. Jung rejects entirely the “tabula rasa” of St. Thomas and Aristotle. We are born with these ideas already deep within our psyche, and their use in stories or encountering them in our life moves us in particular ways. We expect certain things from certain kinds of characters – a witch-queen is altogether different from a wizard-king, whether they are good or evil. Most people automatically perceive this, even if they can’t articulate it, which is normally the case.

While I am not an Averroist, there is something to be said for the observation that so many peoples across time and space seem to use extremely similar kinds of characters and tropes in their great myths – everything from wise old men to floods to heroes who go on quests.

One might be inclined to dismiss the Jungian thesis outright by saying, “It’s just the way that stories work.” But why is it that we want these kinds of characters and these kinds of stories? We can’t say it’s coincidence. We could try to chalk it up to cultural conditioning, but again, this elides Jung’s main premise: we see these patterns in practically every story-telling culture across time and space, and it is unlikely that all of our common ancestors were telling stories which were sufficiently advanced and powerful to populate our minds with this amount of similar ideas so profoundly. One might also posit that we experience life, and life has its rhythms and structures which our emotions and imagination correspond to in such a way that we are attracted to particular sorts of narratives. This is not wrong, but it still doesn’t get to the heart of the problem, as our emotions and imagination receive the world and process it in a particular way with identifiable patterns which do not explain themselves. We simply return to the same question with different terms: why these kinds of emotional responses, and these imaginative structures? There must be something deeper.

I would suggest the following limited analogy: Christ is to our perception of Him as mathematics is to music. Music has certain rules, which, if violated, create a kind of dissonance which we find jarring; these rules can be laid out in mathematical formulas. The classical liberal arts proceeded from mathematics to music, just as it proceeded from geometry to astronomy and from grammar to rhetoric: the latter studies are of the object of the former studies put into motion, that is, music is mathematics in motion, astronomy is geometry in motion. Christ is the Word, the eternal Logos, the Wisdom of God, through Whom all things are made. Our encounter with Him flows from the “rules” found within Him, the natural law and law of grace finding their origin in Him, the Eternal Law, and thus our encounter with Him is the Logos “in motion,” just like music. However, musical taste is much more deeply informed by culture than is our relationship with Christ – this is where the analogy begins to break down. For example, Westerners intuitively find minor chords “dark,” but this is not the case for others. The rules for our encounter with Christ, where not totally individual, are totally universal, that is to say, a culture does not get to tell us Who Christ is or what He wants, despite shaping the style and circumstances in which we approach Him to some degree; and yet, of course, because charity is a personal friendship with God, its pursuit and activity will also have a dynamic unique to each person.

Because our journey with the Lord is the Word “set in motion,” we can easily see how this puts us into a narrative, a story, which is more literally “words in motion,” so to speak – as from grammar to rhetoric. The fact is that the sacred story of which we are a part has rules. This means that good attempts to reach out to the sacred narrative which imbues the world with its ultimate meaning will track these rules, using particular symbols in the form of characters, tropes, and events. And indeed, we see in the narrative of Sacred Scripture the same threefold operation upon profane myth which grace has on nature: healing, elevating, and perfecting. As a result, it should not be surprising that we are somehow ourselves marked with an intuitive sense of the symbols which fill the great myths, and which even fill normal kinds of good literature. We want to tell certain kinds of stories because we are part of a story whose Divine Author is telling us to do so, whether in our nature somehow, or through the promptings of universal sufficient grace, or some combination of both. Here is not the place to explore how such a theory might respond to the theses of someone like Dupuis, but I simply note that this is a possible way to understand the “logos spermatikos,” the seeds of the Word, among the nations. The conclusion is that our mind is shaped in such a way as to recognize the hints of Christ’s truth, beauty, and goodness as hints – a point I am taking and appropriating from Fr. Pierre Rousselot.

I am concerned here with Christology – the entrance of the Author of the story into the story itself. I will focus exclusively on two great archetypes, which I think give us the beginnings of a psychological Christology: the hero and the trickster. I propose that we can understand Christ as a hylomorphic unity of these two opposing archetypes, with the hero as form and the trickster as matter. I will begin with the trickster archetype.

Claude Levy-Strauss posits that tricksters in mythology are frequently animals which eat carrion, that is, meat which is already dead. They are therefore not hunters, but they are not herbivores – they are something in-between, neither this nor that. We are inclined to be uncomfortable with figures like ravens or coyotes or vultures or snakes (and many snakes do in fact eat carrion) – we’d prefer things that we know do this or that, peaceful plant eaters or vicious hunter-killers. In fact, it is the object which they approach that unsettles us first: the corpse, the dead thing which was living. The trickster is one who cannot be trusted: he is the one who lies, who has petty motives, who will harm others for his own selfish gain, who wants to attain power over us, often by leading us into taking his own unfortunate place, such as by trapping us in a hole while climbing out of it himself. Certainly, this is not how Christ is, but we will return to this description momentarily.

Non-dietary ritual purity laws in Israel related to the state between life and non-life, or death. Thus anytime something seems to be related to crossing the divide between the two “worlds,” it is considered impure – neither this, nor that, something in between, something different. Things which cannot be categorized easily into the world of the living or the world of the “non-living” are to be rendered clearly one thing or the other. If a person becomes impure, such as through contact with a corpse, he or she must go through the symbolic stages of re-entering the world of the living. There is more to be said, but this will have to suffice – I simply point one to the thought that such a lens for studying the Passion and Resurrection could be quite illuminating.

Here are some actions of Christ which correspond to the trickster type: Shapeshifting (the Incarnation as the invisible taking a shape, the Eucharist as the visible becoming hidden in a new shape, the Resurrected Christ’s body changing into a glorified shape); Riddle-telling (parables, rhetorical responses); Gatekeeping (“I am the narrow gate,” etc.); Dwelling on the outskirts and going to the “in-between places,” which Levy-Strauss points out of coyotes, ravens, etc. (Christ does this during much of the public ministry, and especially in Bethany, just before and during Holy Week, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives, Golgotha, all just outside of Jerusalem; in-betweenness is found especially in the Baptismal site, which is in between “life and death”: Israel and the nations, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, in the jungle surrounded by desert, and then going down into water which gives and takes life, in the place which is in fact the lowest point on the planet by several hundred meters); Physical evasiveness (“He passed through the crowds,” etc.; tricksters are slippery and quick, like serpents); Touching impure things (i.e. the lepers, the woman with the hemorrhage, the dead girl – “Talitha koum” – just like eating carrion, but it is a spiritual eating); Working through chaos and shadow (in particular the miracles, which are always somehow hidden, whether by the confusion of a crowd as in the multiplications of loaves, or by the weather, as in the walking on the water, or by a wall, such as in the raising of Lazarus, and so on – it is not like jumping off the parapet of the Temple and being protected by the angels, there is room left for both doubt and for a  deeper encounter with the mystery being revealed on account of the need for faith to understand its proper meaning).

All of this symbolizes Christ’s space in our psychological weak spot – the uncanny valley, which is of course maxed out in the Resurrection, as exemplified by the fear which the Apostles experienced when they first saw Him in the Upper Room, thinking they were seeing a ghost. (Luke 24:37) He is the apex, the climax of the story, the way to the happy ending through an unsettling doorway called death. We are unsettled because we do not know what is there – we must ask, “What is it?” “Manna?” We learn in John 6 that Christ is in fact the true Manna, the true “what-is-it,” the real Mystery which provides the bridge between our deathward bios and the zoe of Heaven which shocks our psychology on account of the space whence He comes to us – but this fear is replaced by Paschal joy, when we see that He is not a ghost, or some kind of zombie, but Life itself come to us as a Friend Who will carry us safely across the divide, as our Viaticum.

But Christ is not a trickster, except in a material sense. By this I mean that it is how He works out His program among us, in particular among His contemporaries – our experience is quite different in that we have nice Chalcedonian definitions by which to understand Him. Not so for the Eleven gathered in the Upper Room, and yet in some way they understood Him much more. Christ uses these uncomfortable techniques to shake us out of the comfort of our present modus vivendi and drag us across the divide between bios and zoe – life here, and life in Heaven. He is the way there, and He is the life, zoe.  But He is also the Truth, so that leaves us wondering about the significance of Him qua trickster. In fact, the hero archetype, the formal part, gives us an entirely different lens by which to understand His trickster part. The heroic element inverts the entirety of the meaning of the trickster in Christ: instead of lying to gain power over us out of petty and selfish motives at our expense, He makes Himself weak, giving us power over Him, even to harm Him unto death, and His motive is grave, namely, to help us, especially freeing us by taking on our sorry lot Himself and revealing to us the truth. That’s a complete inversion.

Yet Christ still has and always had power over us. This is because He is God, but, in the narrative sense, He is first and foremost a hero. Heroes are powerful. This is his formal part. Christ qua hero is a theme much more explored than the trickster element, so I will only briefly examine it before returning to a consideration of the question of power.

I pass over Raglan’s 22 points of the heroic “mythotype,” though this is worth its own investigation, and I go instead directly to the “hero’s journey.” This “monomythic” narrative structure has been described by several authors, including most famously Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, where it was pioneered, but also by other more recent authors. The hero’s journey essentially consists in a departure from the home, where one is born and raised, to go on a quest of some sort; next, there is some kind of initiation or trial; finally, there is a return home. The quest is always successful – the enemies are thwarted, the magic sword or golden fleece is obtained, or some object which is too powerful is destroyed, like a ring or a sorcerer’s stone. Then the hero returns home triumphant. The parallels with Christ are almost too obvious to point out: it is the entire story of the Incarnation, the Public Ministry, the Cross, the Resurrection, and the Ascension.

It is important for Campbell, at least, that the hero begins in the ordinary world, and is then called to adventure, in a world of mysterious forces and challenges, only to return home to normalcy. Odysseus is a great example. But Christ is very unlike Odysseus – and I speak here just of the “call to adventure” which the Lord receives. His real call to adventure is summed up by St. Paul: “Not deeming equality with God something to be grasped at, He emptied Himself, taking on the form of a slave.” The visible mission of the Son in the Incarnation is the call to adventure. The world of men, unlike the normal hero stories, is not full of mysterious forces, it is full of mundane forces which are perfectly comprehended by the hero and are completely under His control. Then the Lord ascends into Heaven – Nazareth is not really His home.

The journey continues after the call to adventure, with its various stages, which Christ fulfills par excellence, and which for the sake of time I will pass over. The point is that the “hero” is His formal part – He is the one who can rescue us and bring us home with Him safely.

I wish to return to a consideration of power, specifically the power of Christ over our minds as a narrative figure. I note that Christ as a narrative figure has three modes – a mode which is inaccessible to us, another which is partially accessible to us, and another which is totally accessible to us. The first mode is as a flesh-and-blood historical figure during His earthly life and ministry. The second is as a figure who is spoken of by those who had encounters in the first mode, and of course for us this comes especially in the form of the Gospels and Acts. The third is as one with whom we live out our own lives now, and to whom we pray and make sacrifice. In each of these three modes, Christ exercises a unique kind of psychological power.

The first kind of power over humanity is as an uncategorizable figure. In the Public Ministry He was somehow “not this and not that” – again, “manna,” “What is it?” This ambiguity gave Him a power over His interlocutors, both the friendly ones and the unfriendly ones. We are threatened by what is ambiguous, what is “impure,” because we do not know how to treat it… We don’t know what to expect; everything is surprising. This is the trickster element coming to the fore.

The second kind of power is as the Hero which emerges as intellectual and spiritual keystone of human history. The story itself of the Gospels is compelling because it is the story our minds were built to receive and recognize as the “right narrative.” Here we see the hero most on display.

The third kind of power is as the Lord, our God, Who has ascended into Heaven, body and soul, and Who wants now to save us if we let Him. By encountering through prayer and the sacraments the One described in our creeds and in our liturgy, prescinding from the reading of the Scriptures, we get the doctrine of His salvific power. We are utterly helpless before the gaping maw of the abyss which stands beyond death. Only He can help us. To do this, those who are capable of human acts must in fact make the choice to invite Him into their lives. They must walk with Him, in a strange and sometimes very confusing way. He is here, there, everywhere, hiding… He plays a kind of game with us, a game which is ultimately ordered to our salvation if we “play along” and follow the rules. The hero and the trickster reveal themselves here together as a unity most forcefully. He is in hiding, changing shape, touching the impurities of our souls – but he is mighty to save, using that very hiddenness and ambiguity to our advantage and the ultimate advantage of all Creation and God’s own glory.

More research is called for into the Jungian psychological paradigm as a tool to sift through the Scriptures, taking the revealed data as “the story which God wants told,” the narrative which heals, elevates, and perfects pagan narratives – including, of course, the actual historical fulfillment of those stories and their figures. This kind of approach to Scripture is becoming more popular, but this seems to be primarily the case among non-Catholics, and non-theologians; we ought to take our cue from the popularity and power of these kinds of analyses as an opportunity for evangelization, in addition to an opportunity for deepening our own speculative understanding of Christ and our relationship with Him.

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