Why Psychology Saved My Faith…

Thomas Merton once wrote, “Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about Him.” Deeply embedded within the human psyche are images that we hold of God. Images that are objective and subjective. Images that we hold consciously and unconsciously. Images that we find in the churches and homes that we are raised in. And, in images that we hold because of our personal experiences. This is the power of the human brain. Psychologist Carl Jung talked about the unconscious self, or, as he called it, “the dark side”, as the places we don’t see (or don’t want to see). So, to be a faithful servant to God, to find wholeness, is to dare to enter the dark side, to have revealed to us that which we don’t want to see. This is part of God’s work in reconciling all things. He is bridging together all of the gaps in the individual psyche and in the social constructs. Ann Ulanov, professor of psychiatry at Union Theological Seminary, writes, “The psyche wants to be whole, which does not mean perfect, but that all parts are brought in. God wants all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, not just the parts that we choose.”

I know that psychology, or at least the God who is working in the human psyche, has saved my faith. My first memory of church was my Sunday school teacher telling me how disappointed God was in human beings because of their sin. This God was pissed off and was going to take it out on his creation (as if our own sin doesn’t create an unconscious self-destruction). God was ashamed of the people he created and could only love them if they changed. While they taught that God was a God who was loving, compassionate, and kind, these teachings were unconsciously rooted in my head and have needed years of prayer (and still am working through it) and spiritual direction to alleviate this tension.

With all of my heart, I believe that I could not worship the God I was taught in my Sunday school (as well as some other painful experiences that embedded an image of God). Worshipping and appeasing that God would feel immoral and unattainable. I believe that God is at work in the Self. As Ulanov explains in her book, The Living God and Our Living Psyche: What Christians Can Learn From Carl Jung, “The Self demands conversation between the conscious and the unconscious. In working through contradictions and personal failures psychological healing and transformation can occur. This activity of the Self is what Jung called its transcendent function. By acting as a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious, the Self allows the individual to move beyond the one-sidedness of the dominant character traits expressed by the ego. In the agony of living, in suffering the contradictions of life, in this de-centering of the ego, a new attitude, a novel way of being emerges, which has become more psychologically integrated.”

The God of psychology is interested in permeating the whole being–that which we are and are not aware of. The God of psychology is mysterious because he is at work in the unconscious mind. He is trying to reveal things to us that we do not see. He is trying to make known the truth that sets us free. He is trying to reveal to us who he is, beyond our experiences, beyond the image that we have received from our family and friends, and beyond the religious institutions that we have been a part of.

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