Memory and Emergence: Jung and the Mystical Anamnesis of the Nothing

John P. Dourley
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Association of Graduate Analytical Psychologists

The Problematic: Why ask the question of the mystics and the nothing at all?

Mystical consciousness and its relation to the nothing seem an exotic, even indulgent, topic in the world of Jungian psychology when it seriously faces the question of what it has to offer the contemporary human community. On closer examination the relevance of mystical consciousness becomes quickly evident as Jung’s ultimate corrective resource to the blight he consistently identified at the heart of the psyche and soul of Western society in his time and, by extension, in ours. Jung described this social and individual pathology as a consciousness reduced to “… a rootless will o’the wisp …”1 because severed from that depth of the psyche common to all. Such a state of mind had cut itself loose from the universal “… root of the whole human race …”, 2 and so from the mother of consciousness herself whose archetypal energies give to it its deeper life and meaning.

  • 1 References to the Collected Works (Princeton: Princeton University Press) will cite volume or essay title, paragraph and page. C.G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, CW 5, §299, p. 205. Cf. also J. Dourley, Jung and the Religious Alternative, (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995), Chp. 1, The Uprooting, p. 1-29.
  • 2 C.G. Jung, op. cit. §296, p. 202.

In the individual, this “soul sickness” manifests as the “… uprootedness, disorientation, meaninglessness …” of a life devoted to the surface levels of psyche.1 In the collective the disease manifests as those currently all too obvious “psychic epidemics” compelling archetypally possessed communities to kill for their bonding faiths often along the territorial fault lines that divide them.2 The unconsciousness informing archetypal conflict makes the continuation of the current and future “clash of civilizations”, now a familiar phrase in the mass media, psychologically inevitable.3 For Jung, meaningless superficiality and murderous faiths are joint products of a humanity torn from the universal ground and source of its life and so from the more encompassing compassion conscious rerooting in that ground would afford.4

Much, if not all, of Jung’s mature psychology is an effort to reconnect the currently uprooted mind and soul of the West with its deeper stabilizing roots in its intrapsychic maternal “origin”.5 He uses many idioms and images to depict the dynamic of this crucial reconnection and to name the power that is its sponsor and goal. Sometimes it is the Great Mother or Goddess, 6 sometimes the pleroma or original fullness7 sometimes the One of Plotinus, 8 sometimes the sea, 9 sometimes the prime matter from which all form is born.10 But perhaps Jung reserves his most cogent description of the universal mother of consciousness for those occasions when he makes of her the basis of a truly modern spirituality. Here the rerooting of the uprooted contemporary who may know the Western tradition but can glean little sustenance from it takes the form of an unmediated contact with “… the Nothing out of which All may grow.”11 In this passage Jung identifies the mother of consciousness with the nothing itself.

In establishing this identity Jung makes explicit that the radical resolution of contemporary uprootedness lies in the reconnection with that nothingness, itself divested of mind and form, which is the source of mind and of all archetypal impact on the mind. The most spiritually profound form of baptism is the ego’s dissolution in and return from this nothingness with a consciousness now better able to embrace the all through reimmersion in the maternal nothing from which the all is born. This is a baptism, 12 unlike lesser forms of baptism, which cannot guarantee the return of the initiate. The mother devours as well as renews. This risk is why such dissolution in the origin is a hero’s journey and one the hero undertakes not once but repeatedly in the ongoing renewal of life and consciousness.13

  • 1 C.G. Jung, “The Soul and Death”, CW 8, §815, p. 415.
  • 2 C.G. Jung, “Concerning Rebirth”, CW 9i, §226, 227, p. 126, 127. Cf. J. Dourley, “Archetypal Hatred as Social Bond: Strategies for its Dissolution”, Terror, Violence and the Impulse to Destroy papers from the 2002 North American Conference of Jungian Analysts, ed. John Beebe (Einsiedeln: Daimon Verlag, 2003), p 135-159.
  • 3 Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations”, Foreign Affairs, Summer, 1993, p. 22-49.
  • 4 C.G. Jung, “The Undiscovered Self”, CW 10, §490, p. 248.
  • 5 C.G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, CW 5, §669, p. 429.
  • 6 Cf. for instance, Ibid., §330, fn. 32, p. 222, 223.
  • 7 C.G. Jung, “Septem Sermones ad Mortuos”, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, ed. A. Jaffé (New York: Vintage, 1965), Sermo I, p. 379.
  • 8 C.G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, CW 5, §198, p. 138.
  • 9Ibid., par. 319, p. 218; par. 373, p. 251.
  • 10 C.G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14, §14, p. 18.
  • 11 C.G. Jung, “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man”, CW 10, §150, p. 75.
  • 12 C.G. Jung, “Answer to Job”, CW 11, §677, p. 425.
  • 13 C.G. Jung, “Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious”, CW 7, §260, 261, p. 169-170: “Septem Sermones ad Mortuos”, op. cit., p. 379.

In large part, it was their experience of their dissolution in and return from the nothing that drew Jung to those mystics who people his pages. They were his predecessors in heralding the cyclical rebirth of the “I” through the recurring moment of identity with its wholly intra-psychic source. Like himself, these women and men were not arbitrarily drawn to the original and originating nothingness because like himself they were sensitive to its natural psychic allure. Effectively, their memory of the nothing, the source of the divine image in and for which they were created, empowered their return to it and from it in processes of ever growing realization of a divine fullness in their individual person.

As they returned from dissolution in their origin they experienced themselves as more intensely imaging God in what Jung describes as a personal apocatastasis, that is, in a greater approximation of their totality, not as in a pre-temporal paradise or in a post-temporal heaven but in the eternal now as the basis of their developing consciousness in finitude. Put succinctly Jung’s most forceful expression of his sustained efforts to reroot individual and society in their native divinity takes the form of the restoration of the lapsed memory of the nothing that precedes the all, gives birth to the all and seeks its fullness in the all. In this manner Jung echoes Heidegger’s critique of an uprooted society that has forgotten and then forgotten that it has forgotten. Neither Jung nor his mystical predecessors had forgotten or could forget. The considerable social significance of Jung’s psychology lies then in his efforts to stir up the memory of a common human origin as the basis of a more complete individual possessed of an extended compassion for differing individuals and for differing archetypally bonded communities.

The Anamnesis of the Nothing and Apocastasis

Throughout Jung’s work the term “anamnesis” usually refers to the wholly conscious recall of a personal history, ordinarily at the beginning of an analysis.1 In one telling passage he confesses that the real analysis, the experience of the deeper unconscious through the dreams, only begins when the more superficial biographical anamnesis concludes.2 However, in rare but incisive passage Jung greatly expands the meaning of anamnesis when he extends its inward reach to the experience of the individual’s pristine nature embedded in divinity itself. Writes Jung, “As a result of this ‘anamnesis’ the original state of oneness with the God-image is restored”.3 Jung elsewhere equates the memory of one’s divinity with the experience of the “eternal” self as “… preexistent to consciousness …”4 The activated memory of the self then becomes “… the most immediate experience of the Divine which it is psychologically possible to imagine.”5

  • 1 C.G. Jung, “General Aspects of Psychoanalysis”, CW 4, .§525, 528, p. 230, 231.
  • 2 C.G. Jung, “Analytical Psychology and Eduction”, CW 17, §184, p. 100.
  • 3 C.G. Jung, Aion, CW 9ii, §73, p. 40.
  • 4 C.G. Jung, “Transformation Symbolism in the Mass”, CW 11, §401, p. 265.
  • 5Ibid., §396, p. 261.

Such an anamnesis brings the individual closer to one’s totality in the present, and so always carries with it “… the restoration of an original condition, an apocatastasis.”1 Apocatastasis usually refers to the reunion of the totality of creation with its origin at the end of history in a post-temporal situation. When Jung equates the recovered memory of one’s totality with apocatastasis he is stating that such wholeness is experienced as worked by the memory itself and in the here and now. Both paradise and the end time are to be approximated and experienced in the present as moments in natural processes of maturation or individuation no longer distinguishable from divinization.

When Jung connects such memory with the experience of immortality he understands immortality as the sense of the individual’s continuity with the total human experience past and future.2 More, he contends that the recovery of this sense of immortality linking the individual to the total temporal human experience is the goal of all ritual especially as it serves the anamnesis of the origin.3 Such ritual activation of the living memory of the ancestral or divine origin serves to unite opposites in the individual and restore to the individual the sureness of one’s instinctive roots.4 In this context ritual anamnesis bears the power of the anthropos symbol, the sense of the identity of each individual human with humanity itself.5 When the ritual is privatized as in alchemy it carries the initiate back to unity with the origin of consciousness as the realization in the present of that eschatological reality toward which all consciousness moves.6 Again Jung understands the end or the eschaton as the memory of the origin making the eschaton a psychic reality in the present.

As suggested the recovery of the origin in the present as the direction of the future is, for Jung, vested with great social import as the only real resource in reconnecting the uprooted individual with a sustaining meaning and society with the energies of evolution needed for its ongoing survival and enhancement. Jung describes the peril of individual and collective uprootedness in stark terms. “Nevertheless, when a living organism is cut off from its roots, it loses the connections with the foundations of its existence and must necessarily perish.”7 “The anamnesis of the origins” then becomes “… a matter of life and death.”8 And so the stakes in the recovery of the memory of the origin could hardly be higher.

  • 1 C.G. Jung, Aion, CW 9ii §73, p. 40.
  • 2 C.G. Jung, “The Psychological Aspects of the Kore”, CW 9i, §316, p. 188.
  • 3 C.G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14, §603, p. 419.
  • 4 C.G. Jung, “Fundamental Questions of Psychotherapy”, CW 16, §251, p. 122, 123.
  • 5 C.G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14, §605, p. 420.
  • 6 C.G. Jung, Aion, CW 9ii, §260, p. 169.
  • 7Ibid., §279, p. 180.
  • 8Ibid.

Jung, the Mystics and the Nothing

The foregoing discussion serves to identify the link Jung establishes between the nothing, the Great Mother and the archetypal psyche. Effectively they are synonyms. Jung was to dramatically illustrate the psychodynamics of cyclical immersion in and return from such nothingness through the experience of a series of mystics prominent throughout the Collected Works. These mystics extend from the thirteenth century Beguines through Meister Eckhart to Jacob Boehme who greatly influenced Hegel and so modernity though he died in the early seventeenth century. In a spontaneous interchange in his Tavistock lectures, Jung unqualifiedly identified unmediated mystical experience with archetypal experience, 1 an identification that clearly qualifies Jung as a mystic himself Kantian reservations notwithstanding. More pertinent to this discussion, the equation of mystical experience with archetypal experience means that such experience charts the further reaches of the archetypal psyche and may even point to psychic geography uncharted or cautiously sketched by Jung himself.

Currently what is called apophatic mysticism, the mysticism that culminates in the mystic’s total dissolution in the nothing, is enjoying a heightened interest in the scholarly community. As in so many other areas, so also in his choice of mystics does Jung anticipate the present in the current scholarly renewal of interest in the apophatic. For all the mystics of Jung’s interest include in their experience the moment of identity with and return from that nothingness generative of mind and so of the knowable. A scholarly consensus is currently forming around the conclusion that the mystics of apophaticism experience a unitas indistinctionis, a union of identity, between the divine and the human at the height of their experience.2 Such unity is distinguished from a unitas spiritus, a union which maintains a distinction between the divine and human spirit throughout the entire commerce of the mystic with divinity.3

  • 1 C.G. Jung, “The Tavistock Lectures”, CW 18, §218, 219, p. 98, 99.
  • 2 Bernard McGinn, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart (New York: Crossroad, 2001, p. 47, 148, 178; Don Cupitt, Mysticism After Modernity (Oxford, Blackwell, 1998), Chp 8, Meltdown, p. 106-122.
  • 3 Bernard McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism Vol. III, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1998), p. 217.

Of even greater interest in the contemporary appreciation of the apophatic experience is a still inchoate but developing realization that in the end such experience is as psychological as it is religious. For instance, a prominent commentator will state that the moment of identity of the mystic with the divine is not of the “existential I of our subjectivity” with a contrasting divine ego. Rather such identity is attained through a so called “transcendent I”, which is that virtual or residual divine dimension of the person in a shared ground beyond divine/human distinction.1 This language bears patent affinity with the Jungian paradigm of the self orchestrating the ego’s dissolution in the creative nothingness of its origin as a prelude to a deepening and broadening of consequent consciousness.

The following analysis of the mystics whom Jung appropriates on behalf of the elaboration of his psychology and the implication of such appropriation deepen the affinity between mystical experience and archetypal experience. Such analysis also serves to illuminate the further reaches of the ingression of the ego into its divine matrix. Effectively this analysis could suggest an extension of the boundaries of the psyche and encourage the value of plummeting them. For the apophatic experience may well go beyond the parameters of the psyche that Jung more usually establishes in the body of his work.

The Beguines and Mechthild of Magdeburg

The Beguines originated in the twelfth century and moved toward effective extinction in the fifteenth.2 Today they might be termed a “lay” movement. They sought their place in the area between the religious life of those living in permanently vowed communities with formal ecclesial support and protection and those living simply as members of the laity. Their life took on many forms including that of the solitary and wanderer but they are best known as self-supporting communities of women bonded to celibate life as long as they remained in the community and dedicated to a variety of good works including caring for the ill and teaching. Because they never received the unqualified approbation of the Church as did the regular orders of men and women and were even looked on with suspicion by the ecumenical Council of Vienne (1311),3 their status remained vulnerable throughout their existence. Frequently they were or were perceived as threats to ecclesial order. Tenuous though their status was, three of their more prominent members brought an acuity and depth to apophatic spirituality not previously seen in Christianity. Jung refers to one of them, Mecthilde of Magdeburg, in his Collected Works. Her apophaticism will here be amplified by two of her Beguine colleagues, Hadjewich and Marguerite Porete, neither of whom are cited in Jung’s texts but serve to extend the psychological implications of Mechthild’s experience. So original was the experience of these three women that a leading scholar of the period describes them as evangelists and extends to the novelty and substance of their writing, “… a status comparable to that of the Bible itself.”4

  • 1 Bernard McGinn, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart, op. cit., p. 111, 138.
  • 2 Cf. Ernest McDonnell, The Beguines and Beghards in Medieval Culture (New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers, 1954); Amy Hollywood, “Begin the Beguines: A Review of Walter Simons’ Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries”, Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, vol. 4, no. 1, Spring, 2004, p. 91-97; Ellen Babinsky, “Introduction”, Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls (New York: Paulist, 1993), p. 6-20.
  • 3 Constitutio, «Ad nostrum qui», Enchiridion Symbolorum, ed. H. Denzinger (Rome: Herder, 1964), secs. 891-899, p. 282.
  • 4 Bernard McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism, op. cit., p. 199.

Mechthild’s imagery centres around the archetypal theme of sexual intercourse with an eighteen-year-old Christ figure.1 The love-making moves into an immersion in the flow of Trinitarian life which, in turn, brings about the mutual completion of Mecthilde and the Trinity. In a key passage she depicts the members of the Trinity driven to create her and to kiss her to relieve their eternal self-sufficient unfruitfulness. 2 She proclaims that of this “intercourse” the divine cannot have enough.3 From a Jungian perspective the Trinity’s lust for Mechthild is lust for its own growth in consciousness. Her imagery here distantly anticipates the Yaweh of Jung’s Job who was driven to create human consciousness as the sole agent in which he could himself become conscious.

Mechthild’s tryst with a teen age Christ figure is set in the trope of courtly love. As she moves to the moment of consummation she sets aside her senses but asks them to wait for her for she will need them upon her return.4 As Jung also would have it, the senses cannot go where God is experienced but do serve the experience once had in the consequent interplay between one thus graced and the world. Mechthild also refuses the blandishments of various virtues as cheap substitutes for the intensity of immediate physical love, here a symbol for intimacy with the divine.5 More, she affirms that she is divine by nature and enters naked, stripped of all virtue, into “the blessed stillness” of sexual intimacy with her lover.6 The apophatic moment of identity with the divine is captured, then, by the image of the stillness of sexual love wholly satiated.

  • 1 Mechthild, The Revelations of Mechthild of Magdeburg or the Flowing Light of the Godhead, trans Lucy Menzies (London: Longmans, Green, 1953), First Part, sec. 44, p. 20-25; Seventh Part, sec. 37, p. 237-238.
  • 2Ibid., Third Part, sec. 9, p. 74-75.
  • 3Ibid., Fourth Part, sec 12, p. 105.
  • 4Ibid., First Part, sec. 44, p. 24.
  • 5Ibid., p. 22-23.
  • 6Ibid., p. 24, 25.

Jung mentions Mechthild early in his work in his efforts to differentiate his understanding of libido from Freud’s. The God with whom Mechthilde sought and achieved identity becomes the highest intensity of archetypal energy itself. Jung writes, “To carry a God within oneself is practically the same as being God oneself.”1 He mentions her again in a case where the God image was being projected on himself by a patient. The patient’s recovery of the projection became the occasion of her coming to live her own divinity under the immediate suasion of the self.2 Elsewhere Jung describes the imagery of Mechthild’s love for the Christ figure as a form of the hieros gamos, the marriage of the ego with the archetypal inner opposite, 3 expressed in a “… quite unabashed Christ-eroticism.”4 One can hardly imagine a more supportive animus, at once divine and human, and so uniting the sexual and spiritual in support of feminine strength.

However, Jung does not identify in Mecthilde that moment of rest in the nothingness of God that he so clearly describes in Eckhart. This aspect of Mechthild’s experience, though there in the image of rest beyond sexual intensity, is made explicit in the very similar imagery of Hadjewich, a fellow thirteenth-century Beguine. Hadjewich leaves little to the imagination. In one of her most powerful visions, the Christ figure appears sequentially as a shape-shifter, first as a three-year-old child, and then as an adult at the age of his crucifixion.5 After offering her the sacrament as an external embodiment, “… he came himself to me, took me entirely in his arms, and pressed me to him: and all my members felt his in full felicity, in accordance with the desire of my heart and my humanity.”6 But this image of unqualified intimacy was soon to fade, so that her lover was no longer beyond her nor within her. Her description of this state reads, “Then it was to me as if we were one without difference.”7 Here she describes a state of identity with the divine as beyond all othering and so forces the question whether, from a Jungian perspective, she is describing a recovered identity of ego with the unconscious prior to all differentiation between them.

  • 1 C.G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, CW 5, §130, p. 87; par. 135-136, p. 89-90.
  • 2 C.G. Jung, “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious”, CW 7, §212-215, p. 132-134.
  • 3 C.G. Jung, “The Psychology of the Child Archetype”, CW 9i, §295, p. 176.
  • 4 C.G. Jung, Psychological Types, CW 6, §392, p. 232.
  • 5 Hadjewich, Hadjewich, The Complete Works, trans. Mother Columba Hart, O.S.B. (New York, Paulist, 1980), Vision 7, p. 280-281.
  • 6Ibid., p. 281.
  • 7Ibid.

The third Beguine in this sequence, Marguerite Porete, was burnt in public in Paris on June 1, 1310. She was executed by the secular arm to whom a church court committed her after convicting her of heresy. Throughout her trial she had remained totally silent, witness to her well-founded conviction that those who condemned her had little capacity to understand or sympathize with her or her experience, so wholly foreign was it to them.1 Though her single work, The Mirror of Simple Souls, somehow became a classic through the centuries following her execution, her authorship was only established in 1946.2 Her importance both in the history of mystical experience and Jung’s appropriation of it lies in the fact that current scholarship has established thematic and possibly literary continuities between her formulations and those of Meister Eckhart, a major figure in Jung’s work.3 During his second teaching period at the University of Paris (1311-1312) Eckhart lived with her inquisitor, William Humbert or William of Paris, an English fellow Dominican. In this period Eckhart may have read a copy of her condemned work.4 Some speculate a major sermon of Eckhart’s, “Blessed are the poor”, containing most of the foundational elements of his mysticism, reflected and affirmed Marguerite’s experience.5 Eckhart may have written the sermon in later life when he was defending himself at his own heresy trial or had been already condemned.6

Marguerite is also indebted to the courtly love tradition, but is less explicit sexually7 than Mechthild or Hadjewich in her occasional references to the divine “… Spouse of her youth.”8 Rather she is much more explicit about the culmination of her psychological and spiritual development in that state she calls the “annihilated soul.”9 The annihilated soul achieves an identity with the divine in a nothingness that is at the same time the all. In this radical apophatic state the achievement of the nothing and through it the relation to the totality are but two aspects of the same event. She writes, “Now this soul has fallen from love into nothingness, and without such nothingness she cannot be the All.”10 Nor does Marguerite attain annihilation as a passing moment. Rather she is “established” in it. Her establishment in it means it cannot be lost and her consequent life as “unencumbered” by all forms of will and desire becomes a residual consciousness.11 When the self leads back to the nothing, it is an unforgettable experience.

  • 1 Babinsky, op. cit., p. 20, 21.
  • 2 Ibid., p. 1; McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism, op. cit., p. 244, fn. 237.
  • 3 Bernard McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism, op. cit., p. 246, fn 253, p. 263, 297.
  • 4 Bernard McGinn, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart, op. cit., p. 9.
  • 5Ibid., p. 135-136.
  • 6 Michael Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 183.
  • 7 Bernard McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism, op. cit. p. 260.
  • 8 Marguerite Porete, Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls, trans. and intro. Ellen Babinsky (New York: Paulist, 1993), p. 193.
  • 9 Cf. key citations in Ibid., p. 102, 121, 135, 153, 169, 174, 185.
  • 10Ibid., p. 193; cf. a variation p. 129.
  • 11Ibid., p. 90, 144, 194. On being “unencumbered”, cf. p. 127, 129, 159, 167, 171.

Like Mechthild the annihilated soul is naked of whatever clothing the virtues can provide. Yet the annihilating identity with the divine nothing does not preclude the virtues. Indeed it even presupposes them, even as it lies beyond them and defies attainment through them.1 Her position here resonates with Jung’s. No doubt individua tion requires the virtuous effort of the ego, but the ego never writes its dreams or works their effects and remains throughout subject to the self experientially indistinguishable from “God”.2 For Marguerite souls whose spiritual journey terminates in the virtuous life are “sad” souls.3 For the hopelessly “lost”, the depression of leading a virtuous life goes unnoticed because they can imagine nothing beyond its sterility.4 With others the disappointment of virtue attained is the strongest suggestion and prompt that there is something more, for Marguerite, the living out of a fixed identity with the nothing which mothers the totality.5

Especially in her understanding of the will and its role in creation, fall, and return to God does Marguerite reflect the psychology that attracted Jung to Eckhart. Her thrust on these foundational religious themes is this. In the use of the will she has severed herself from the divine with whom she enjoyed a prior identity, “… where she was before she was.”6 Marguerite’s logic is foreign to our modern mindset yet is consistent on its own presuppositions. It argues that, if the alienation between the divine and the human is due to the will and the knowing of two distinct subjects, this knowing and willing others them in a creation now fallen from their initial identity. If this alienation is to be defeated it demands the recovery of identity with the divine in that state Marguerite enjoyed prior to her willful removal from this identity.

  • 1Ibid., p. 169.
  • 2 C.G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14, §778, p. 546.
  • 3 Marguerite Porete, op. cit., p. 130, 134, 153, 166.
  • 4Ibid., p. 132.
  • 5Ibid., p. 134.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 218.

This cosmology and psychology would then endorse the annihilation of the faculties of consciousness, at least temporarily, so that between the human will and the divine will there could only be a total fusion, by implication beyond consciousness. Abstracting from the question of Eckhart’s literary dependence on Marguerite and approaching the two through thematic affinity, it cannot be denied that the dynamic of the annihilation of will as well as intellect is at the heart of Eckhart’s experience of the return to the nothing. Nor can it be denied that Jung’s attraction to Eckhart rests on the dynamic of the ego as a child of the Nothing, Pleroma or Great Mother, name it as you will, reentering the womb as a pre-condition to a return to a greatly enhanced consciousness. The process, taken in all its moments, effects a more residual and mutually redemptive marriage of ego with its eternal and maternal ground and lies at the core of the individuation process itself.

Jung, Eckhart and the Relativity of God1

Eckhart’s continuity with Marguerite rests, in large part, on her description, in a religious idiom, of the universal dissociation which occurs when consciousness is born from the unconscious and seeks to overcome the split occasioned by its birth. In his thought on the relativity of God, Jung transposes these dynamics into a psychological idiom which bears an identical content with their religious formulations. However, Jung’s elevation of their religious experience to the psychological level imbues their experience of the nothing as well as his own psychology with an enhanced intelligibility for the religiously and psychologically aware contemporary mind. No doubt Jung cites Eckhart extensively in connection with the gnostic/alchemical2 and Zen traditions.3 Yet his thought on the relativity of God is the centerpiece of Jung’s interplay with Eckhart throughout his works because in these passages Jung effectively equates the dialectic between the ego and the unconscious with the dialectic between the human and the divine. Further, in doing so, Jung contains the dialectic within the psyche, forbids external intervention in the process, and so eliminates all supernatural residue in the commerce between the divine and the human. In doing so Jung fuses the realms of psychic and religious experience in a synthesis which forces neither and enriches both.

At the core of his thought on the relativity of God Jung makes the daring statement that God and the human are “functions of each other”, effectively caught up in a single organic and universal process of mutual reciprocity and redemption.4 In this process the soul as mediator between the divine and the human loses all substantial connotations. The soul as “receiver and transmitter” simply becomes the very symbols5 and the energies the symbols mediate to consciousness from the depths of the psyche beyond the soul.6 The image carrying the greatest energy is the image of God. Just as the soul is the images and the experience of the images it bears, the soul becomes God as the image of God is born in it. To speak then of God is to deny substance to God. Rather, to speak of God is to speak of the experience born in the soul as it mediates the image of God to consciousness. And what is this experience? In all the master images of God throughout Jung’s works, the experience the image of God conveys to consciousness is that of a greater individual integration of the personal complexes accompanying an ever more inclusive embrace of the totality as an expression of an ever deepening and widening compassion. This personal integration and extended sympathy are consistent with the immersion of the ego in and return from its source in the maternal nothingness of the apophatic moment because this nothingness mothers the all. A moment of dissolution in her can only breed a sense of identity with and love for the all which she births in finitude.

  • 1 C.G. Jung, “The Relativity of the God Concept in Meister Eckhart”, Psychological Types, CW 6, p. 241-258.
  • 2 C.G. Jung, Aion, CW 9ii, §209, p. 135; §295, p. 189; §301, 302, p. 193-194.
  • 3 C.G. Jung, “Foreword to Suzuki’s ‘Introduction to Zen Buddism’”, CW 11, §887, 888, p. 543-544; §892, p. 547, 548.
  • 4 C.G. Jung, “The Relativity of the God Concept in Meister Eckhart”, Psychological Types, CW 6, §412, p. 243.
  • 5Ibid. §425, p. 251.
  • 6Ibid., § 420, p. 247.

With this understanding of soul, Jung amplifies Eckhart’s statement that the soul is not blissful when she is in God.1 The soul is unhappy in God in two ways. The more common peril of the soul’s loss of bliss through a destructive identity with God takes the form of the soul’s projection of God beyond the psyche into matter. In this situation the soul must sacrifice its idolatry and recover the divine energies which have turned an entity external to the soul into a God.2 But then the soul faces a second and even greater danger to its bliss. For, in its retraction of the wasteful projection of those energies, which create the Gods beyond the soul, the soul runs the risk of identifying with the inner God or with the archetypal power which gives birth to all external Gods. Beyond his specific discussion of Eckhart, Jung understands the current evolution of religious consciousness, at least in the West, to be at that point where the return of the transcendent Gods to their common psychic origin is the foremost demand the psyche presently makes, a demand on which the survival of the species may now depend.3 However, his discussion of this process in specific relation to Eckhart does clarify the risks and challenges of this stage in humanity’s religious evolution. The recall of the Gods to their common psychic source must face and evade the danger of the ego’s identifying with an inner God and losing both itself and its soul to such identification.

For the return of the Gods to their womb in the psyche necessitates the descent of the ego and soul to their primal genesis in the “dynamis4 or “flood and source”5 of the unconscious as the mother of all consciousness. This is the descent to what Jung terms the “deus absconditus”, the hidden God, 6 the chaotic nothingness from which all form derives. Jung is as aware of this psychic experience as was Eckhart himself. In modern philosophical or theological terms this is where the subject-object split between the divine and the human is definitively overcome in that moment of identity between the deepest human subjectivity and what was commonly heretofore perceived as a wholly other God. Jung could hardly be more explicit about this psychic state than in his restatement of Eckhart’s experience. “But when the ‘breakthrough’ abolishes this separation [between the human and the divine] by cutting the ego off from the world, and the ego again becomes identical with the unconscious dynamis, God disappears as an object and dwindles into a subject which is no longer distinguishable from the ego.”7 Jung goes on to identify Eckhart’s breakthrough even more succinctly as simply the reestablishment of “… the original state of identity with God …”8

  • 1Ibid., §418, p. 246.
  • 2Ibid., §421, p. 247-248.
  • 3 C.G. Jung, “Psychology and Religion”, CW 11, §141, p. 85.
  • 4 C.G. Jung, “The Relativity of the God-concept in Meister Eckhart”, CW 6, §425, p. 251, §430, p. 255.
  • 5Ibid.
  • 6Ibid., §427, p. 253.
  • 7Ibid., §430, p. 255.
  • 8Ibid., §431, p. 255.

Jung takes Eckhart’s use of the term “breakthrough”, (durchbruch) from Eckhart’s sermon, Blessed Are the Poor.1 In this sermon Eckhart makes the point that true poverty has little or nothing to do with various forms of virtuous self-denial.2 Rather, poverty means the foregoing of mind, will, and even autonomous existence, through what Eckhart calls the “breakthrough”, that situation of identity with the divine which he enjoyed in his own words, “… as he was when he was not yet.”3 In this sermon he twice utters his paradoxical prayer. “Therefore we beg God to rid us of God …”4 The prayer is to the Godhead beyond the trinitarian God of creation. It implores the Godhead to reestablish that pristine identity shattered when creatures removed themselves from their source to know and love a God as an entity from whom creation had estranged them and with whom they were no longer identical. In this, the current state of the human psyche, states Eckhart, all proclaimed God but none were happy because of the universal sense of alienation from their source.5 Only the recovery of the nothing can alleviate this bifurcation. That Jung understood Eckhart’s breakthrough as a moment of the ego’s unqualified identification with the original nothingness which violated the always to be maintained distance orthodoxy places between the divine and the human, is confirmed in his statement, “The characteristically Eckhartian assertion that ‘God is nothingness’ may well be incompatible in principle with the contemplation of the Passion of Christ, with faith and collective expectation.”6

  • 1 For a good translation cf., Reiner Schurmann, Meister Eckhart, Mystic and Philosopher (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1978), p. 214-220.
  • 2 Meister Eckhart, “Blessed are the Poor” in Reiner Schurmann, op. cit., p. 215.,
  • 3Ibid., p. 215.
  • 4Ibid., p. 216, 219.
  • 5 C.G. Jung, “The Relativity of the God-concept in Meister Eckhart”, Psychological Types, CW 6, §429. Here Jung is citing Eckhart to the effect noted above.
  • 6 C.G. Jung, “Foreword to Suzuki’s ‘Introduction to Zen Buddism’”, CW 11, §893, p. 548.

But the moment of the loss of difference between the divine and the human, ego and unconscious, is not the whole story for Jung or for Eckhart. This is so because in the completion of the cycle of the ego’s entry into and dissolution in the unconscious its return is implied. Jung picks up on the return with the other half of Eckhart’s expression. The soul is not blissful when she is in God but is blissful when God is in her.1 For Jung the bliss of the soul when God is in her describes the soul as returned from her perilous moment of identity with her origin, now able to mediate the energies derived from a divine source preceding herself to the ego in the interests of the intensification of its conscious, affective and creative life.2 Here Jung goes to Goethe and describes the flow of psychic energies in an extended analogy with the flow of blood in its diastolic and systolic pulsations to and from the heart.3 The image makes explicit that for Jung, using Eckhart’s experience, the residual rhythm of individuation is one of the ego’s othering from the divine, followed by an return to an identity with the divine culminating in the ongoing “renewal of life.”4 This dialectic describes the most foundational movements of psychic and true religious life which now can be seen as one.

The predominant focus in Eckhart’s apophaticism and Jung’s use of it lies in the moment of identity of the human and the divine, the ego and unconscious, though the completion of the cycle in the recreated ego’s return to consciousness is certainly there. The far-reaching consequences of the ego’s return from the nothingness is the central focus in the experience of the only mystic more cited in Jung’s works than Meister Eckhart, namely, Jacob Boehme.

Jacob Boehme and Humanity’s Redemption of the Divine

When Jung refers to an age old human premonition, namely, “… the idea of a creature that surpasses its creator by a small but decisive factor.” he was probably referring to the consciousness of Job.5 He could equally well have been referring to Jacob Boehme, (1575-1624), the first Western Christian mystic to make explicit that divinity can only become self-conscious through the reconciliation of its eternal self-contradiction in human consciousness. Like Eckhart, Boehme too had the experience of immersion in the ground, or the ungrund in his quaint German, the one, the nothingness, the mother of the all, herself beyond all differentiation even that of the Trinity.

  • 1 C.G. Jung, “The Relativity of the God Concept in Meister Eckhart”, Psychological Types, CW 6, §418, p. 246.
  • 2Ibid., §427, p. 252-253.
  • 3Ibid., §428, p. 253.
  • 4Ibid., §427, p. 252.
  • 5 C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflection, ed. A. Jaffé (New York: Vintage, 1965), p. 220.

However, it was in his return from identity with the source to what he terms “… the grossest and meanest matters of the earth. “1 that Boehme’s experience takes on the characteristics that distinguish it in the history of religious experience. For, in the process of the return from the point in psyche where divinity and humanity coincide, Boehme became painfully aware that the powerful opposites which constitute the eternal life of the divine have not been resolved in eternity as a resource for their resolution in time as orthodox Trinitarian thought would have it. Rather the divine antinomies can only be perceived and resolved in human consciousness created out of divine necessity for that purpose.2 Obviously these foundational themes in Boehme bear dramatic affinity with Jung’s mature understanding of divinity, made explicit in his late work on Job. In that work Jung defines a divinity seeking the unity of its opposites in a humanity burdened with the suffering of their unification as the most profound form of suffering and meaning in personal and collective history.3

As with Jung, so with Boehme, two of the predominant opposites are that of evil and good. Boehme locates these opposites in the Trinity itself. The first power becomes a dark fire, a masculine, angry figure, the reality of hell itself to which the fallen angels were consigned. Effectively Boehme is here experiencing evil as the power of unrelated assertion. The second power is a relational principle of light and loving communication, a Christ figure closely associated with the feminine figure of Sophia and so possibly androgynous. These are the powers which war eternally in the divine and seek their redeeming embrace in the human.4 Boehme’s images of this reconciliation are filled with a sense of the suffering such reconciliation entails. Such images make it evident that the deepest meaning of human historical suffering is the resolution of whatever aspect of the divine contradiction is most operative in the suffering of the individual and of the historical epoch in which the individual lives.

  • 1 Jacob Boehme, The Clavis, trans. John Sparrow (London: John M. Watkins, 1911), sec. 8, p. v; Cf. also Andrew Weeks, Boehme, An Intellectual Biography of the Seventeenth- Century Philosopher and Mystic (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), p. 193.
  • 2 J. Dourley, “Jacob Boehme and Paul Tillich on Trinity and God: Similarities and Differences”, Religious Studies, vol. 31, no. 4, December 1995, p. 434.
  • 3 C.G. Jung, “Answer to Job”, CW 11, §739, p. 455; §745, p. 459; §747, p. 461.
  • 4 J. Dourley, Religious Studies, op. cit. p. 434, 435, 438, 439.

The broader implication of Boehme’s experience is that human consciousness is a necessary creation of a divinity which could become self-conscious only in it. Human consciousness thus experienced is in ontological continuity with its divine source. In this sense the emergence of human consciousness becomes an historical necessity as the sole locus in which its creator can become conscious through the human perception and resolution of the creator’s opposites and at the insistence of the creator itself. The process brings redemption to a conflicted divinity through the resolution of its conflicts in a humanity itself redeemed wherever and to the extent such resolution is effected.1

In his work, Answer to Job, when Jung answers Job’s question directly, he describes the answer as both “psychological” and “eschatological”.2 Jung’s answer to Job is the crucified Christ, a symbol of universal human consciousness suffering the divine self-contradiction to the point of death as a prelude to the embrace of the opposites in a resurrected consciousness enriched by their synthesis. By uniting in this process the deepest movement of the psyche and the eschatological telos driving history itself, Jung is simply following Boehme’s mystical intimation that humanity is charged by the divine with the progressive redemption of the divine through the resolution of its archetypal contradictions in the historical life of humanity itself.

Conclusions: The Myth of the Double Quaternity

And so at the end of the day we come to a deepened appreciation of Jung’s psychology and the myth it bears when looked at through the prism of those mystics whose experience both anticipates his psychology and is made more conscious in it. Jung’s myth can then appears as the myth of a double quaternity. This twofold quaternity centres on the priority of the nothing and on the full cycle of the ego’s commerce with her. The thirteenth century women mystics whose experience culminated in a moment of identity with the nothing are now known to have influenced Eckhart in his clear statements on mystical identity with the Godhead beyond the Trinity and beyond its boiling lust to give itself expression within and beyond itself. Effectively, Eckhart’s experience places a fourth in the divine beyond all form and even tendency to form. This is the God that Paul Tillich identifies as the “God above God”.3

  • 1Ibid., “Soteriological Implications”, p. 439.
  • 2 C.G. Jung, “Answer to Job”. CW 11, §647, p. 408.
  • 3 Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), p. 182

When the light of Jungian psychology is brought to bear on this furthest reach of divine life it would point to a dimension of the psyche beyond the archetypal and free of the archetypal compulsion to create consciousness and become incarnate in consciousness thus created. This moment of rest might well moderate the possessive urgency the archetypes exert in their creation of patterns that can so easily congeal into absolutes breeding conflict hostile to individual and collective life. The pacific power the mystics exert may well flow from their having gotten behind the archetypal energies that inform and empower the murderous faiths, religious and political, of their time and of ours.

Yet it cannot be denied that the moment of nothingness, however liberating and broadening, could foster a sterile solipsism unless it completed itself in the consciously and politically human. This completion of the nothing in human consciousness is at the heart of Boehme’s experience. As such it constitutes the second quaternity. In this quaternity humanity is the trinity’s natural and completing fourth. The human psyche becomes the theatre of history wholly encompassing the divine/human drama. For only in the psyche can the divine antinomies find relief in a humanity broadened and deepened by suffering toward a full consciousness of its divine ground in the resolution in time of divinity’s failure to integrate its life in eternity.

The dynamic of the two quaternities when combined yield a myth in which divinity and humanity, the archetypal powers and human consciousness, are poles in an all encompassing and organic totality. The first quaternity leads consciousness to a point in the psyche beyond the need for any expression or activity, and yet this moment of rest in the God beyond God, serves as a prequel to a more gracious ushering of the divine contraries into the embrace they seek and can only enjoy in humanity. In short, the deeper the ingression into the depths of the divine or the psyche, the greater humanity’s ability to unite its conflicting opposites in the world. The compassion such penetration enables carries with it into the world the ability to bring real but never more than partial expressions of ultimacy, especially in religious and political form, into ever richer harmonies and not lethal conflict within the confines of finitude itself.

The ground dynamic of the myth of the double quaternity would, in the end, present humanity with stark alternatives. Either the divinely based opposites will come into those unities that redeem divinity and humanity as two sides of the same process or the opposites will continue to petrify in individual and community possessed by truncated archetypal compulsions destined to destroy each other. Currently in so many places in the world it is not difficult to identify this sad scenario in the destructive nature of archetypal hatred turning community against community. At this point the mystical values of the myth of the double quaternity move beyond idle sociological, psychological or religious speculation. They take on survival value. If we cannot get to a point of rest beyond the inner archetypal war which would enable the intrapsychic combatants more humane incarnation in conscious life, then the combatants’ archetypal concretion in individual and community is likely to continue to threaten the species. Jung died in the Cold War when then as now archetypal absolutes pitted communities against each other in potentially lethal interface. Yet near the end he could still write, “The afternoon of humanity, in a distant future, may yet evolve a different ideal. In time even conquest will cease to be the dream.”1 For Jung, and the mystics who inform his work, only humanity’s recovery of its deepest ground made real in living memory will enable it to move beyond archetypal enmity to the embrace of the other as other, and to the wealth such embrace could yield if humanity is, indeed, to enjoy its afternoon.

  • 1C.G Jung, “Psychological Commentary on ‘The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation’”, CW 11, §787.