“I think so much of Jung’s work is his wrestling with Christianity. I think if you want to understand Jung, you need to have some understanding and engagement with Christianity. In understanding Christianity, think it helps to know Jung, because he gives us some language and some perspectives that can’t be had in other disciplines. At the same time, it was also necessary to be able to try to engage Christianity on its own terms, not on Jungian terms, to try to meet it in terms of what it says it is, and not just what Jung says it is. And so, there’s a tension in that. In wrestling with Christianity, I’m also wrestling with Jung.”
(1:00) Jakob Lusensky: Welcome back to Psychology and the Cross. In this episode, I speak to Jungian analyst Jason E. Smith, author of the book Religious But Not Religious: Living a Symbolic Life. We discuss Jason’s background as an actor, the difference between a religious attitude and religious belief, how he himself has navigated Jung and Christian faith, as well as individuation’s relationship to the collective. For those of you interested in continuing following Sean McGrath seeking for secular Christ, you need to subscribe to that podcast separately. But now, let’s turn to my conversation with Jason, how he found Jung and his work as a Jungian analyst.
(1:48) Jason E. Smith: I came to Jung almost by accident. My original background, my training—what I went to university for—was the theater. So I trained in the theater. I was an actor and so I was living and working as a professional actor for a while, and I was searching for something that would help me to be better at my craft, something that would help me understand how to portray my characters and human beings more fully and more authentically. I didn’t want an acting book. So, I went into a bookstore and I was wandering around and I was looking at all of these books and I didn’t know what I was looking for. I had no idea. And I saw this book, which I think was the popular sort of Jungian book, called The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By. I think it’s Carol Pearson wrote that book. And I had no idea what an archetype was. I had no idea that archetypes had anything to do with Jung. I had no idea even who Jung was. But I got this feeling immediately that I have to read that book. It was just a very strong sense of that’s the book I have to read. And so I pulled it off the shelf and I bought it and I was absolutely captivated by it.
There was this whole experience of something beyond the everyday, these forces and energies beyond the visible world, that just really grabbed me. It didn’t help me at all to become a better actor, but it planted this seed that stayed with me. A couple of years later, I was in a play and I was gifted another book. I was gifted a book by—about—Joseph Campbell. One of my fellow actors gave me the book. And, again, I was totally gripped by it and I started to read everything that I could find by Joseph Campbell. And I just read and read and read for months, I think. I would spend my whole days on the couch reading. And I started reading Jung. And again, I was absolutely captivated and I knew that that was the world that I wanted to be a part of. I knew that there just was this very strong pull. I had this strong feeling of, this is what I’ve got to do and there is no way on this earth that I will ever get there. It’s impossible to get from where I am to there. It seemed so far remote from who I was and what I was doing. I had no training in psychology. I had no understanding of any of the things that Jung was talking about: mythology, religion, philosophy, alchemy. I mean, all of these were so far beyond me. I couldn’t see a way there. But eventually I did; I went to train at Pacifica Graduate Institute, which is where I met my wife, and eventually we moved to the east coast. I was living on the west coast and that’s where I decided to enter into training, at the Boston Institute—the Boston Jung Institute. So I got there, but it was sort of step by step. It feels like it was. With those books and with those experiences, I really feel it as having been a call. I don’t know why I had to pull that book off the shelf. But I did. That was the one.
(6:26) Jakob Lusensky: And what about the actor in you? Is he still somewhat alive? Is there anything from that that you actually bring, feel like you bring, into the work with patients?
(6:39) Jason E. Smith: Yeah, the actor’s still alive; that’s a great question. I mean, yes, of course he is. There’s a certain performer sensibility that is with me. I think some of those skills that I picked up there served me very well, obviously, in different contexts. It’s not so far, theater and psychology. It’s about human behavior. It’s about understanding what makes people do what they do and what motivates them.
(7:18) Jakob Lusensky: And in the practice room, you become all these characters for your patients, no? When we think about acting, sometimes we think it’s not real, it’s something fake. But I think that’s a very superficial view on acting, I guess.
(7:32) Jason E. Smith: Actually, you’re absolutely right. That view of acting as false or as not true is superficial because the role, or the job—the craft—at its best is to be as real and as honest as possible. And it’s a dual consciousness. Right? It’s both being able to enter into deep states within yourself. And at the same time to hold an objective view and to be able to witness it. So, on stage, you need to know Where am I going on stage? What are my lines? What’s my next move? Where’s the audience? In the room with patients, it’s very similar: to connect with some deep state, some deep experience, that the other is having, to be able to empathically connect to that, maybe through your own experience—but not to get caught in it, to also stay as the observer so that you have a kind of empathic exploration or identification with the other, without getting lost in it. It also, I think, comes in in being able to help guide the other into the experience of their own symbolic universe—What’s that like? What does it feel like?—to help them enter into more embodied imaginal states within themselves. All of—well, not all of, but a lot of—the work with symbols, like an active imagination with dreamwork, involves a kind of similar suspension of disbelief that you get in the theater. And Jung talks about the dream as sort of the theater of the mind, that the dreamer is the producer, the actor, the playwright. He uses that imagery.
(10:26) Jakob Lusensky: I wanted to sort of fast-forward a bit to present time and now. I found out about you through the book that you released. It’s now two years ago—2020, yeah?—and that is Religious But Not Religious: Living a Symbolic Life. Could you start by sharing a little bit about what led you to write the book and maybe something about the title as well?
(10:57) Jason E. Smith: So with my coming to Jung, Jung gave me a language for understanding my own religious sensibility. I didn’t have a very active religious upbringing at all. But with my engagement with Jungian psychology, I was able to become aware that some of my experiences, my sensitivities, my responses to things had a religious character to them. So that dimension of experience, which maybe in the past might have felt like a dysfunction of some kind, a shyness, or something like that, or a being too sensitive, began to open up as a having another dimension. And so the religious question became very interesting to me.
But over time, the religious experience—(you know, in Joseph Campbell, and in Jung, and in Jungian circles, there’s this sense that religious symbols are just metaphors for something else, and I don’t think this is necessarily Jung’s position, but it’s something that comes out in Jungian circles in general, this idea that these experiences were—or the images, the symbols—were only metaphors of something else)—wasn’t enough for me at a certain point, because I was experiencing them as having reality, being very real. And so now I was struggling with this question of, What was the role of religion in my life? And what was the role of this sensibility?
And often in, again, the circles that—when I was in training—there can be this sense, in the religious or in the Jungian community, that Jungian psychology is sort of an achievement beyond religion. You transcend religion and you go to something more enlightened. Again, there are traces in Jung that suggest this and then there are traces in Jung that counter this idea, right? So I felt this tension between my Jungian self and my religious self, and I was trying to work out these different aspects. You know, the book is about—in part about—me reconciling these different aspects of my nature: the religious side, but also an appreciation for some of the skepticism around some expressions of religion.
And I was giving talks after my training, when I had become an analyst. I was doing some public talks, and when I would talk on this subject—I had a talk called “Religious but not religious”—the response to those talks made it clear that this wasn’t just my question, that this was a question that had resonance for people, and that made me realize that it was worthy of a book, in the sense that it wasn’t just for me. It was something that could have some more general interest. And it plays off—the title plays off of that idea of “spiritual but not religious,” and that’s something that I have some sympathy for, and I would have identified myself in that way at one point. But also, I recognize that there are aspects of the structure of religion, the discipline of religion, the institutions, that have their own value, and that too often a spiritual-but-not-religious sensibility can be just taking what I like about the spiritual aspects that make me feel better and not the more difficult aspects that test you, that challenge you, that make you reexamine your own assumptions, your own experience. And so I wanted to convey something of that nature, that religion is a work. It’s a discipline. It’s a challenge.
(16:38) Jakob Lusensky: In the introduction of the book, you’re also sharing a little bit from your personal journey, and your deep interest in Buddhism and in Taoism. And also then how Christianity is coming into your life—or the question that Christianity asks—and that there was at the beginning, also, some resistance, or at least, some wrestling with that. I’m sure there still is. But I was curious, because you do share something very personal there. You’re sharing a dream.
(17:15) Jason E. Smith: Right.
(17:16) Jakob Lusensky: And would you be fine with just reading the dream and then we can talk a little bit about it?
(17:23) Jason E. Smith: Yeah, I found myself at certain points in my own experience confronted with images, in my dreams and in my experience, that were specifically Christian, and there may have been a part of me that wanted, sort of, generic Jungian archetypes to show up in my dreams. But that’s not how it happened. And so this was a kind of fundamental dream, and it went like this:
I found myself going down a river on a boat. The boat came to a spot where the river forked in two directions. Somehow, I knew that to the left was the path of Christianity. I could see that it was a dark, difficult path that led deep into a jungle. It was a hard path with lots of struggles, and I felt afraid at the thought of entering it. To the right stretched the path of Buddhism, a sunny, open and easy passage. I chose to go to the right. At first, I felt I’d made the wrong choice, but soon I set that feeling aside as I entered into a land filled with giant smiling Buddha statues, hot air balloons, and oddly, several police officers.
(19:02) Jakob Lusensky: Could you share with us also how you first interpreted the dream, and what sort of purpose, sense, it got for you with time, or how it grew on you?
(19:12) Jason E. Smith: My first response to the dream was to feel very happy about my choice. Right? There’s this choice between this dark, difficult path of Christianity and the easy passage to the land of Buddhism. And I felt very happy about it, because I think consciously it was what I would have wanted. Buddhism had more of a kind of cool appeal for me in the circles that I was moving. Christianity was associated with, kind of, evangelical, fundamental Christianity, which I wanted nothing to do with, and so I thought, Oh, here’s a dream that just confirms that choice. But there’s this kind of lingering doubt, right? Because there’s a moment in the dream where I thought maybe I’d made the wrong choice, and maybe really I knew I’d made the wrong choice. I made an easier choice to stay away from struggle and to go to something easy.
And so, you know, there was always this sense that something was missing, that something was left behind, something wasn’t right. And that—I think that in itself is interesting to me, that I had that experience. I could have easily just said, “Great. Here’s my choice,” and left it behind, but the fact that there was something nagging was—and it wouldn’t let me go. And it wouldn’t let me go: it wouldn’t let me go in my dreams, it wouldn’t let me go in my own reflections. And over time, as I reflected on it, I realized that the move or the choice to go to the land of Buddhism was a choice to go to a place where things were—where I was looking for a happy, easy experience. I was not looking to be tested. I wanted to escape the challenges of life, really.
I mean, religion at its best is a system for confronting and experiencing life as deeply as possible, and we can use it in a way that helps us avoid that. And we can use religion in a way to—and spirituality in a way to—bypass struggle. Or we can use it in a way to wrestle with the angel, to struggle with life, and to let the difficult things in. And so, over time, things like the hot air balloons became clearer to me, right? The hot air balloons are those things that lift off the ground, and it’s light and airy, and it didn’t have a grounding for me. It wasn’t solid.
And the police officers, that strange image of the police officers, led me to think that maybe there was something that—some development that—was arrested in going down that road. And I make this point in the book, that this is not about Buddhism. This is not about the relative value of Buddhism, because Buddhism is a—can be a—deep and rigorous path for people, and it can be a powerful system of transformation. For me, it was a path of avoidance. As much as I find value in it, it wasn’t going to take me to the places I needed to go, which was that dark jungle, which were my own encounter with suffering, my own encounter even with the difficulties around religion and Christianity and some of the symbolic imagery in it, some of the way that it’s expressed. It’s much more complicated to go into that tradition—at least for me—and deal with my own ambivalence, and deal with my own doubt, and deal with being drawn to a world that has some pretty dark expressions, has had some—has done some damage in the world. It’s responsible for great beauty and great pain in places, and that wrestling with all of that has been part of the process.
(24:57) Jakob Lusensky: And was Jung as involved in that part of your process, the wrestling with Christianity? Or has it been a turning more to other sources, has it been a combination?
(25:13) Jason E. Smith: Well, yes. One of the things that I realized in my process was that before I could reject Christianity, I had to understand it. I had to engage it, and that meant engage it from inside. And so, going to Christianity was also—on the one hand, it was a kind of challenge to Jung, in the sense that I couldn’t just accept what he was saying about his experience with Christianity. I had to encounter it on my own.
I couldn’t just decide that things that he said settled the issue. I needed to see where it was living. Jung gives me language and Jung provides the model, I think, of wrestling with Christianity. I think so much of Jung’s work is his wrestling with Christianity. I think if you want to understand Jung, you need to have some understanding and engagement with Christianity. You certainly need to read the bible. And I think it helps to understand—in understanding Christianity I think it helps to know Jung, because he gives us some language and some perspectives that can’t be had in other disciplines. So he certainly provides a model. But at the same time that he gives language, it was also necessary to be able to try to engage Christianity on its own terms, not on Jungian terms: to try to meet it in terms of what it says it is, and not just what Jung says it is. And so there’s a tension in that in wrestling with Christianity, I’m also wrestling with Jung.
(28:14) Jakob Lusensky: Religious, but not religious. And the “but not religious”—could you just clarify further? What is it you don’t want to see? Or that you say, “no, not.”
(28:28) Jason E. Smith: Yeah. It brings to mind a story about Alan Watts. I think it’s told by Joseph Campbell. Apparently, when Alan Watts was asked the question, “Do you believe in God?” his response was something like, “If you do, I don’t. But if you don’t, I do.” And, you know, on the one hand, it’s a bit sarcastic. On the other hand, I think the intention of that is that we can’t get caught too rigidly in the form. There is an element of that that has to stay open, that has to stay unknown. So, for me the “not religious” comes around the sense of a very sort of strict Orthodox view on—or doctrinal view on—something that has to hold to this in a very literal way. Anything that gets too concrete, that gets too literal, starts to close out the transcendent, right? God can’t be known.
(30:13) Jakob Lusensky: I think the Alan Watts story, it’s interesting, but it’s also highly, to me personally, problematic, in a sense, because it seems to—maybe it’s out of context, maybe—but it seems almost also a rejection of the other, or a wanting to differentiate the individual experience or putting such an emphasis on that.
(30:36) Jason E. Smith: Yeah, I take that point, absolutely. I think there is a need for shared experience, without question. The challenge here, of course, is always that when we’re talking about religion, when we’re talking about God, we’re talking about something that is fundamentally paradoxical. So as soon as you say something about it, you have to kind of recognize that there’s something else as well. Without question, we need collective experience. And this is one of the places that I think is one of the deepest challenges of our age, because we live at a time when we don’t live in these small communities where we are held within a simple tradition. We live in a global experience, where we are aware of all of these other experiences. We’re aware of the Taoist experience and of the Muslim experience and of Buddhism and Hinduism and Native spirituality. We’re aware of all of these things, and all of the scriptures are available at a moment’s notice. They’re not hard to come by. So how do we come to that place of collective experience? I think it’s one of the great challenges. It’s an absolutely necessary element of religion.
Jung in general doesn’t do well with the collective. That’s not his strength. His strength is to talk about the individual. He talks about the creed in a very dismissive way, and he talks about, sort of, the merely social aspect of attendance or participation in a religious service. But we are social beings. We are collective beings, and we can’t be without some shared process. And so the challenge of holding both a kind of collective—a way of being able to communicate with each other—and also holding the unique individual experience. And making room for both of those, I think, is really—I think it’s a great challenge.
(34:35) Jakob Lusensky: Reading your book, it felt really like a manifestation of this religious attitude. The way that you’ve been reflecting, it felt very much like you’ve carefully observed what you have experienced and what you have read. One of the questions, or something that was lingering, that I did sort of miss, or that I was wondering about, was this, what we’re talking about now: the collective dimension and the question of the other. And how these individual struggles that we have ourselves internally or in the analytical room, how this relates to these other people who are not in analysis, or not having the possibility of entering into a Jungian process, for example. And also previously [on the] the podcast, also with others, I discuss this, sometimes the lack of the collective dimension in this very individual-focused Jungian practice. And I was asking you also that question, if there’s a risk in reducing the religious to the individual’s individuation.
(35:59) Jason E. Smith: A quick answer to that—Is there is a risk of reducing the religious to the individual’s individuation?—is yes, of course, there is a risk of that. There’s a risk of making analysis about my experience. There’s a risk of making religion about only my experience. We have the capacity to engage things in a narcissistic or solipsistic manner, where it’s just about my experience—without question. But I think, personally, that individuation is not in conflict with the larger goals of religion: the sense of the other, the need for the care and concern of our brothers and sisters and those who are suffering and those who are struggling. And I think Jung knows this, frankly. I think Jung understands this.
I think individuation is different than other forms of well-being. I think it’s different than wellness. I think it’s different even than some of the goals of psychotherapy. A lot of psychotherapy can aim towards healing the self, healing the individual, and there’s great value in that, of course, right? But Jung is very clear that analysis is not necessarily about a cure. And analysis does not lead to a state where one is free of difficulties and challenges. And there’s one of the things he says about individuation in particular: individuation emphatically includes our fellow man. It is not a course of individualism and it doesn’t result, he says—it doesn’t result in spiritual aloofness, where you pull yourself out of the collective and you are a law unto yourself. It emphatically includes our fellow men, our fellow beings. And he conceives of it as a vocation, right? And more than a path of well-being, it’s a path of—it can be a path of struggle—and it can be a path of pain and suffering, but it’s a path of becoming what one is.
Jung has a moment in his own biography, where he has his moment of vocation, where he realizes he’s going to become a psychiatrist and that it holds these different threads of value in his life. And at one point there he says, “My life was no longer my own. I had no right to it anymore, for it to be myself.” So he sees that coal as fulfilling some purpose that has a larger purpose.
I found this letter recently where—it’s not in his collection of letters, it’s in a private collection and I found it online—where he talks about—someone’s written him and asked him about how to live a happy life. And basically his response is don’t even try. If you try to live a happy life, you’re going to be unhappy. And he says this great quote. He says, “You’d better ask where and how you could be useful to whom.” So in order to live a fulfilled life, in order to live a happy life, you should ask where and how you should be useful to whom. Where is your place of service? Where is your place where you give yourself to the world?
(41:20) Jakob Lusensky: In the Christian tradition, I mean, there is a long history, I think, of holding them: contemplation and action, or if we speak of prayer and work. It’s also in the monastic tradition. There is [the aim] to find a good balance between the two. I guess I’ve been asking myself at times if we Jungians, and Jung included, are sometimes a little bit comfortable, you know? There is something about—I remember a friend used this term not so positively about Jungians: she said [that we’re] “a group of esoteric elitists.” And I’m not saying that we all have to be political. I think there’s so much misguided politics. But there is something about Jung and there is something about Jungianism and there is something—about maybe even the emphasis—always an emphasis on the symbolic—that I think at times might blind us to what is actually just in front of our face. Because we don’t need to go far to see—we don’t need even to go into the desert to see—the state of the world. And what I find in Christ and in Christianity and the symbol of Christ: there is something there that I think can also [mean] waking up to what realities—the realities for all of us. Not individually, but all of us. The reality that we have been put into. Which is a very tragic image—tragic and hopeful at the same time.
(43:02) Jason E. Smith: I think it’s such an important question. And one of the frustrations I’ve had at times it that—there’s often the sense that Jungians are talking to themselves, talking amongst themselves. And that there is a way in which we can use anything, whether it’s Jungian psychology, whether it’s Christianity—any kind of system—we can use it as a means of substitution or we can use it as a means of transformation. And what I mean by that is—Jung says some people like to get—it’s one of his seminars, he’s talking to a group of his students—and he says some people get a psychological term and they cling to it and say that’s it, and they stop. And he says, we always have to remember that psychology is only a stammering stop-gap measure in order to be able to talk about life at all. We’re not dealing with psychology. It’s not about proving that Jungian psychology is right. If Jungian psychology doesn’t lead us into life, if it doesn’t bring more life, then we’re missing the point. And the substitution, right, is that I have a phrase, I have an idea, and now I don’t really have to struggle with the consequences of that idea. Or maybe I want to change something out there. Or now I know why that person needs help or that person is wrong, or something like that. To take it as a means of transformation means something has to change, this has to affect me, this has to open me up in some way.
Yeah, without that kind of coming back and bringing things back into the world—and it reminds me too that—Jung talks about this as well—he says that individuation has an element of guilt attached to it, that when a person starts to individuate, the process pulls them out of the collective for a time. And for that to not be an immoral act, one must produce new values. So out of the work of individuation, you must come back to the world with something. There must be something that adds to our experience, that alleviates suffering, that frees the prisoners, gives sight to the blind, so to speak, to use some of that Christian language.
(47:09) Jakob Lusensky: And I remember that paper, “Individuation and Adaptation,” or, how is it?
(47:15) Jason E. Smith: Right.
(47:16) Jakob Lusensky: No, it’s not called that, but something along those lines. But to me that’s also very much the Nietzschean Jung, “bring your values into life,” and there’s something beautiful there, there is something to that. But it’s also—I guess I often come back to this question of Imitatio Jung versus Imitatio Christ. They represent two different ways of life. And of course Jung had his take also on that, on what that meant. Imitatio Christ, that’s to live your life. There is something about following Christ versus following Jung, you know, as an imitation, and there is something of that lack, the complete lack, I would say, of speaking around the poor or poverty—there’s a lack there that bothers me because, you know, I live in a city like Berlin, where you see that. You see the poverty. You see it everywhere. I mean it’s a developed country and all of it, but you see that—you see the homeless people, and I think at times, you know, there’s just this risk of internalizing things too much. You know, you see a homeless guy in your dream and it’s the homeless part of yourself, and there’s something to that, but there’s also something about experiencing reality. I mean, can we even experience reality as it is, outside of our classes? Or is it too terrible? Was it too terrible for Jung to face the reality of what he experienced in his lifetime? I struggle with this and I struggle with what happens to Christ in Jung’s wrestling with Christianity.
(49:09) Jason E. Smith: Yeah.
(49:10) Jakob Lusensky: You know, there’s this dream in Memories, Dreams, Reflections where he’s following his father, and when he’s going to bow and there’s one millimeter between Jung and the ground. But he knows that he’s going to be taken to the highest presence. And what is the highest presence? It’s the suffering Uria, the suffering man who was betrayed. That’s who—that’s what—he meets. That’s the highest presence. There is no glory there. There is just a man suffering. So and then there’s Jung’s interpretation of that dream. And there’s also Wolfgang Giegerich’s critique. I have had a discussion with him around that lately. Yeah, somewhere, around there, I cannot walk with him [Jung].
(49:54) Jason E. Smith: Hmm. So much to say about that, and I honestly don’t know how much I can contribute to that. But there are a couple thoughts and reflections that come up. I was thinking about that dream that you mentioned, Jung and the one millimeter, and there is something there about not being able to put his forehead on the ground, not being able to submit. There’s a way in which he holds back. I think about—you know, it makes me think about—well, there’s a couple of thoughts that come around. One is that idea of it’s not the end of the road. I’ve experienced that in my own life, that there have been times, there’ve been experiences, particularly in my own suffering, where Jungian psychology can’t help me. It can’t save me. There’s no place of that. There’s a limit there. And that’s where the religious, where Christianity has come in in a powerful way. That there are things that can be met, places at a level of suffering that can be met, that are . . . I couldn’t get there, personally, through Jung. As much as I find profound value in Jung’s work. And I wonder how much part of the issue revolves around that question that you’ve also kind of explored a lot in your podcast around Jung’s notion of “I know” versus belief. “I don’t believe; I know,” right, that thing that he says in the interview.
And of course a lot depends on what Jung means by knowing, what that even means, and we could speculate in a lot of directions and we could probably spend hours kind of exploring that. But one of the things about knowing, the insistence on knowing: it’s problematic because my own take on this is knowledge and faith and belief are not distinct things. There’s this interplay between them. They can’t be separated ultimately from each other, but knowing insists on the “I.” “I” have to know; if I don’t know, I won’t submit. I can’t put my head down. I have to know. And belief or faith has a way of taking a risk and aiming beyond oneself and kind of aiming towards a horizon of sorts that can’t be ultimately known, but a kind of risk of walking into that. And for me this place of the relational dimension—the relational dimension of knowing or the relational dimension of faith, the relation to Jesus, the relation to God—if you can enter into that space, which is a much more personal one, a much more intimate space, then it opens up avenues of relationship to the rest of the world, to ourselves, to our fellows. To the people closest to us, to people far from us. So if it’s knowing from that other place of I have to know that keeps us somewhat safe and protected from life. But the moment you enter into a relationship, whether it’s with your friend, your partner, your spouse, or your God, you are vulnerable, and you are open to suffering because now their experience becomes your experience. And you cannot differentiate between the two. And it feels like that’s the kind of place that is so important to be able to risk.