Jung’s regret over “I don’t need to believe, I know.”


Jung’s most famous televised quote came after he was asked if he believed in God. He replied, “I don’t need to believe, I know” (Jung 1959a, p. 428). His reply caused some furore at the time and, in the decades since, it has been quoted by many – such as Richard Dawkins who cites it as an example of blind faith (Dawkins 2006, p. 51).

Jung immediately regretted his answer – because of it’s controversial, puzzling, or ambiguous nature (Jung 1959b). To understand why, we need to take a look at the context of the interview, and the background of Jung’s attitude towards God.

Face to Face

Although the BBC Face to Face interview may seem tame by modern standards, it was a pioneering television programme. John Freeman used clever techniques to unmask public figures and reveal the private person underneath (Freeman 1989, pp. 12-13).

The impact of Freeman’s technique on Jung can be seen in the first few minutes of the interview. On four occasions, Jung replied with phrases such as “that’s difficult to say” and/or a long pause. Jung was also taken by surprise when Freeman switched quickly from Jung’s childhood (asking if he was brought up to believe in God) to the present day (asking if he believed in God now). Jung recognised this after the interview:

Mr Freeman in his characteristic manner fired the question… at me in a somewhat surprising way, so that I was perplexed and had to say the next thing which came into my mind (Jung 1959b)

However, Freeman’s questioning had worked as intended. What came into Jung’s mind was not an odd-ball answer, but exactly the same answer that Jung had given in a newspaper interview four years earlier:

All that I have learned has led me step by step to an unshakable conviction of the existence of God. I only believe in what I know. And that eliminates believing. Therefore I do not take his existence on belief – I know that he exists (Sands 1955, p. 6)

This was not a “blind faith”, as Dawkins has argued, but (according to Jung) a certainty that is based on evidence. His practice as a psychotherapist and his mythological research had convinced him of God’s existence.

So why did he regret his answer?

Jung did not regret the answer he gave, he regretted the inevitable misunderstandings that would result. This was because his reply was too short and viewers were working on a different set of assumptions to him.

After the interview, Jung expressed concern that most people thought “the truth is simple and can be expressed by one short sentence” (Jung 1959c). In Jung’s view, the truth about God is complex because God is a mystery whose nature is beyond human comprehension. In trying to understand God, we each create our own image of him – and the image is never accurate. Jung recognised this about his own image of God:

Whatever I perceive from without or within is a representation or image… caused, as I rightly or wrongly assume, by a corresponding “real” object. But I have to admit that my subjective image is only grosso modo identical with the object…

our images are, as a rule, of something… The God-image is the expression of an underlying experience of something which I cannot attain to by intellectual means… (Jung 1959c)

In another letter, Jung makes it clear that he would have given a different response if he had been asked whether he agreed with anyone’s particular image of God (Jung 1959b). Because of the mysterious and incomprehensible nature of God, no image of God will ever be adequate.  He therefore asserted the inadequacy of all images of God, including his own.

What should Jung have said?

Jung was often critical of Christian theologians for failing to recognise the difference between their own image of God and the mysterious reality of God (e.g. see Jung 1955). Jung’s response to the Freeman question played along with this conflation. It allowed people to think that Jung was talking about the same image of God as them.

What Jung tried to do in his letters after the interview was repair some of the damage. He confirmed his assertion that he was convinced there is something there, but also said that none of us knew what is there. In the interview, he would have been better understood if he had acknowledged that there is something very real and mysterious, which we all call God, but the images of God we all hold are different and inadequate.

Practical Implications

Jung’s argument, in his post-interview letters, can be summarised by saying that God is first and foremost a mystery. This happens to be the first tenet of the Orthodox Church (Ware 1979, p. 11) but Jung was not arguing for a conversion to Orthodoxy. Rather, he was suggesting we recognise that any and all images of God are always different from the actual nature of God. Once we realise this fact then, in Jung’s view, we have taken a small, practical, but significant step forward in our spiritual development.

References

Dawkins, R. (2006), The God Delusion, (London: Bantam Press)

Freeman, J. (1989), Face to Face with John Freeman, (London: BBC Books)

Jung, C.G. (1955), Letter to Paster Walter Bernet in C.G. Jung Letters, Volume 2, 1951-1961, edited by Gerhard Adler, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul), pp. 257-64

Jung, C.G. (1959a), The Face to Face Interview in C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, (Princeton: Bollingen Paperbacks, 1977), pp. 424-439

Jung, C.G. (1959b), Letter to M. Leonard in C.G. Jung Letters, Volume 2, 1951-1961, edited by Gerhard Adler, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul), pp. 525-6

Jung, C.G. (1959c), Letter to Valentine Brooke in C.G. Jung Letters, Volume 2, 1951-1961, edited by Gerhard Adler, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul), pp. 520-3

Sands, F. (1955), Men, Women and God: An interview with Frederick Sands – Part 5: I believe in God (Daily Mail) in Heisig, J.W. (1979), Imago Dei: A Study of C.G. Jung’s Psychology of Religion, (London: Associated University Presses), p. 90

Ware, K. (1979), The Orthodox Way, (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press)

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