It’s Time for Depth Theology/Thealogy: Perspectives from the AAR

The academic disciplines of Theology/Religious Studies and psychology are two parts of a symbiotic whole, and there is a critical necessity for these disciplines to embrace an academic cohesion. The key to analysing and understanding contemporary religious (or spiritual) experience and beliefs is a new methodology: Depth Theology/Thealogy.

Analytical Psychologist Carl G. Jung’s models and theories are inextricably interwoven within parts of the growing Western Goddess Movement and are fundamental to the sect of Charismatic (or Pentecostal) Christianity that, contrary to other sects of Christianity, continues to gather present-day adherents. The Charismatic movement within Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, has often been credited to Jung. (Noll, 1994; Hird, 1998) Jung’s influences are obvious in fundamental ways. The Charismatic (or Pentecostal) movement values the core concept of Jungian analytical psychology—personal religious experience of the Divine—over scripture and dogma. Moreover, the Roman Catholic Emmanuel Community believes strongly in Synchronicity which is another Jungian postulate. Jung and feminist revisions of Jung have significantly influenced the emerging Western Goddess Movement by presenting a form of post-Jungian Individuation as a route to Goddess and personal and spiritual transformation. Adherents are encountering Goddess through a process of Jungian Individuation, yet religious and psychological scholars continue to work in relative seclusion. And while there is an important field of Psychology of Religion, it’s high time theologians, thealogians, and religious scholars seriously consider the need for a psychodynamic theological or thealogical lens when it comes to examining contemporary religious experience and beliefs.

During the recent SBL/AAR Annual Meeting in San Antonio, Texas, I attended a panel from the Mysticism Group entitled ‘Depth Psychology as a Hermeneutical Key for Mystical Phenomena’. Jason N. Blum from Davidson College, presided. David Odorisio from Pacifica Graduate Institute presented Dionysus in Depth: Mystes, Method, and Madness; Thomas Cattoi from Graduate Theological Union presented Rescuing Alexandria: Depth Psychology and the Return of Allegorical Exegesis; Ann Gleig from University of Central Florida presented Embodying Enlightenment: The Adoption of Depth Psychology in Contemporary American Mysticism; and Margarita Simon Guillory from the University of Rochester presented Beyond the Racialized Ego: Depth Psychology and Self-Representation in the Nahziryah Monastic Community. Focusing on the theme of ‘Depth Psychology as a Hermeneutical Key for Mystical Phenomena’, Odorisio spoke of James Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology as a useful lens to mystical experience. Cattoi spoke about moving towards a mystical interpretation of the Bible; Gleig spoke about the embedded, embodied, and experiential components of the Eastern influences on Mysticism in the West. Guillory spoke about African-American Mysticism, the goal of attaining at-one-ment with the Divine, and the Jungian influences found in this faith tradition. The Respondent, and here my apologies as the AAR Program fails to mention the Respondent’s name, spoke about three specific movements in Mysticism: the first being Psychology as religion, or Psychospirituality, found in Freud, James, and Jung; the second movement with Tillich (who was in dialogue with Jung) and now considered Practical Theology; and a third movement that is comparatist in dialoguing with Eastern Traditions.

While each panelist spoke about the importance of some form of Depth Psychology as a hermeneutical key to understanding mystical phenomena, and Jung’s theories and models played a prominent role in each of these papers, what I found most fascinating was how three of the four papers presented mentioned concepts or constructs that echo the work of Jewish Scholar Abraham Heschel.

A leading Jewish theologian and philosopher in the Twentieth Century, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) wrestled with ultimate questions and matters of religious truth; he struggled with the constraining and oppressive nature of religion and the institutions that seem self-indulgent rather than all-encompassing, and he grappled with the nature and power of individual human experience of the divine. For Heschel, as for Jung, religious experience was a fundamental human impulse. This impulse sat outside organized religion and its institutions. Heschel’s writings on the religious experiences of humanity were often criticized by his peers as being far too spiritual in nature, and he was faulted for not undertaking traditional Judaic textual inquiry. While his work is widely-read, his pioneering Depth Theology as contained in his The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence (2010 [1959]) has often been ignored. Focusing on the potential of the divine Self (an idea akin to Jung’s model of Individuation), and perhaps understanding the power of symbol, imagery, and archetypes, Heschel spoke of a personal religion outside any organized dogma or creed. Heschel writes:

There is another component, however, which may be regarded as the vital ingredient, and yet because of its imponderable nature it often escapes the eye of the observer. It is that which goes on within the person: the innerness of religion. Vague and often indescribable, it is the heart of religious existence. Ritual and myth, dogma and deed remain externals unless there is a response from within the person, a moment of identification and penetration to make them internals. (2010 [1959]: 116)

Comparable to Jung, Heschel also believes that it is the internal world that is the most significant to religious belief and praxis; Heschel writes:

Depth theology seeks to meet the person in moments in which the whole person is involved, in moments which are affected by all a person thinks, feels, and acts. It draws upon that which happens to man in moments of confrontation with ultimate reality. It is in such moments that decisive insights are born. (2010 [1959]: 119)

This process can also be understood as Jung’s Path of Individuation – the path in which one seeks to attain union with one’s highest divine self. It is an individual path that is wholly unique and meant, among other tasks, to come to terms with the shadow elements of self. The Path of Individuation is the process by which, in Jung’s views, one attains Selfhood. It is the path that the individual must take to become whole psychically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually wherein the fully-Individuated Self replaces the Ego as the centre. Heschel’s Depth Theology is a model for Self-discovery as well; Heschel writes:

Depth theology must guide us in experiencing our own selves as well as the world in the light of the teaching we receive, in translating a thought into prayer, a doctrine into a personal response, to perceive a mystery as a challenge, a problem as a call addressed to our innermost selves. (2010 [1959]: 122)

This ‘innermost’ self must be awakened and nurtured, and it must also be examined and embraced. Heschel’s Depth Theology focuses on the internal Self and the birth of belief: ‘to lay bare some of the roots of our being, stirred by the Ultimate Question. Its theme is faith in status nascendi, the birth-pangs of insight.’ (Heschel, 2010 [1959]: 124) This birth of insight of which Heschel speaks is located deep within the individual. It is, as Heschel notes, ‘beneath’ the surface held within the human psyche.

Perhaps what shocked me the most, as the panel ended and the Q&A session began, was that none of the scholars present on the panel had heard of Heschel or his successor David L Miller—both long-time proponents of the creation of a field of Depth Theology. While each of these scholars presented well-researched and thought-provoking papers, I disagree with their conclusion that the hermeneutical key to mystical phenomena (e.g. religious and or spiritual experience and belief) is Depth Psychology; rather the key to understanding contemporary religious or spiritual experiences, praxis and belief lies in the new field of Depth Theology/Thealogy. It is time theologians, thealogians and religious scholars understand the importance of psychodynamics in religious adherence and belief. It is key to religious experience, and it will be the key to understanding the shifting nature of religious and spiritual practice today.

Works Cited
Heschel AJ (2010 [1959]) The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Hird E (1998 [1996]) CARL JUNG, NEO-GNOSTICISM, & THE MBTI. A report by the Past National Chair to the Anglican Renewal Ministries of Canada Nov 1996, revised by author and posted by St. Simon’s Anglican Church, North Vancouver, B.C. January 1998. Available at:
Jung CG (2009) ‘Mandala’. In: The Red Book: Liber Novus. Shamdasani S (ed). London: W.W. Norton & Co.: p105.
Noll R (1994) The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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