Archetypes in Religion and Beyond – Introduction


Why write about archetypes today? I want to write about them because they are very practically relevant. The archetype is a crucial concept that can allow us to resolve a quite unnecessarily polarised discourse about religion – as well as about any other sphere in which humans have ideals.

Archetypes can have a central place in helping us understand why religion can remain inspiring, and why this inspiration is needed, even though it has no necessary relationship with religious beliefs as widely understood. As well as being practically valuable, I think archetypes can be rigorously theorised, without any of the speculative metaphysics that has sometimes become attached to them.

In writing about archetypes, of course, I am also motivated by my own experience of finding them inspiring, not because I ‘believed’ in them, but because I engaged with their meaning. Probably my earliest experience of that comes from fiction – for instance the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which I read at an early age. Tolkien’s work for me still provides a central example of the separability of archetypal meaning from belief. One can find Middle Earth overwhelmingly meaningful, in all its detail and all its interplay of heroic, attractive, wise and dark forces, but still not use it directly as a basis of judgement in one’s own practical life. I don’t expect to meet Gandalf in my local pub, but nevertheless his perspective is added to the internal voices available to me. As Tolkien also pointed out, this is not at all because his kinds of stories are ‘untrue’. Rather, I would argue, the perspective of belief is not relevant to them, and we need to hold them in a balanced, agnostic position that is meaningful without being assumed either ‘true’ or ‘untrue’.

That this perspective should also be applied to religious symbols is something that has also gradually become more apparent in my personal experience, even though I’d also admit that the actual overwhelming weight of the conventional association of religion with absolute belief has to constantly acknowledged. One breakthrough moment for me in this respect came at the funeral of my father – a Christian minister – where I anticipated a habitual alienation from the service, but then realised that I could put archetypal meaning to work in my active interpretation of every aspect of the ritual. That experience was remarkably liberating, and has done a lot to help form the perspective expressed in this book. Absolute belief, as I shall argue, is closely associated with projection and conflict, but this is not an inevitable effect of religious or any other archetypal symbols. We can be deeply inspired by their meaning without that conflict, and let go of it without taking sides.

The concept of archetype is indelibly associated with the work of Carl Jung: a rich resource to which anyone who writes about archetypes should acknowledge their debt. Jung has provided us with the core idea of functional similarities across cultures that can be recognised through the role of symbols. He saw these symbols as fulfilling universal psychological functions for each individual experiencing them. He also saw that these functions could be displaced, or projected, as a kind of delusion in which the psychological function is believed to be fulfilled by an external object: for instance, that mere devotion to a feminine image can meet our need for feminine qualities. Without the interference created by projections, however, we are much better able to allow those psychological functions to operate helpfully in relation to each other (to integrate them).

I am already paraphrasing Jung here, trying to draw out the general practical significance of what he wrote rather than using his own preferred language. However, the above offers a summary of the Jungian concept of archetype that shapes this book. There are issues about all the key terms here – the symbol, the function, the projection and the integration – that will be explored, but these are nevertheless the central ideas that I believe still have huge potential to resolve our confusions about religion.

However, the practical relevance of these core ideas has unfortunately been obscured for many people. It’s been obscured by unnecessary intellectual baggage on the one hand, and on the other by a failure to synthesise our understanding of archetypes with lots of other interests – meaning, the body, metaphor, bias, critical thinking and mindfulness amongst them. Archetypes are a feature of human experience, and a conceptual tool for everyone. They should not be associated only with the discourse of a small tribe of Jungians. Jungians should be credited with keeping the flame alive, but they have also sometimes obscured it in the process.

Archetypes are no more Jung’s sole property than gravity is Newton’s, or (as I’ve argued elsewhere) the Middle Way is the Buddha’s. To make a discussion of archetypes into a mere scholarly discussion of Jung or his successors would potentially distract from an understanding of their relevance and importance in relation to wider human experience and practice. Instead, this book offers a wider theory of archetypes, justified in relation to a range of evidence and argument in the context of human experience in general, not solely in relation to the authority of the master. To idealise Jung’s authority, indeed, would in my judgement be contrary to the central insights of his archetypal theory.

For that same reason I have dispensed with baggage that many Jungians still seem to regard as necessarily attached to the concept of archetypes, but that, starting with their practical function, I find unhelpful and distracting. This baggage is associated particularly with the concept of the ‘collective unconscious’ in Jung, and also with the Platonic interpretations that Jung tended to attach to the archetypes. I will give some, though not too much, space in this book to explaining these judgements. However, my main focus is a positive one: that of explaining the positive value of archetypal theory without this baggage, and applying it to aid our understanding of religion and of symbolic culture beyond religion. We do not need to know what archetypes “really are”, whether they “exist”, or how they originated, to use them helpfully as a concept. Instead we just need to stipulate clearly what we mean by them, and then show the helpfulness of the concept by applying it to interpreting a range of human experiences.

My definition of an archetype may at first sound technical, but please be assured that the terminology I am using has a practical purpose, and will become familiar. An archetype can be defined as a diachronic schematic function. The term ‘function’ may sound reductive to some ears, but it is not here: it is just a common name for a huge spectrum of identifiable tendencies for parts of a system to organise so as to achieve an apparent goal for that system. One can see a ‘function’ at work in the coagulation of oil droplets that seem to seek each other out in water at the most simple extreme, to the immense and mysterious complexity that is the human relationship with God at the other. In human experience we tend to see functions as purposes or motives, whilst in observed inanimate things the scientifically inclined are more likely to assume that they are determined events that merely appear motivated. It does not matter for our purposes whether or not functions in any context are causally determined (we could never know in any case). In practice, we can let go of that, and just note the systemic relationship of ‘function’ that we observe. By acting in a particular way, parts of the system benefit the whole.

An archetype, however, is a very specific kind of function. It is a human function that benefits us in our whole complexity, in both our psychological and cultural context. It is schematic because it consists in a set of basic associations that make symbols meaningful to us. It is diachronic (from the Greek for ‘through time’) because it is specifically the type of schema that helps us to retain the awareness required to maintain a function over time. We are forgetful creatures, and archetypes have the function of reminding us of what we find most meaningful in the long-term. Cultural expressions of archetypes are interdependent with their psychological functions so as to create these reminders.

Such a definition of archetypes may sound superficially like reductionism or “murdering to dissect” to those who have an immediate and intuitive relationship with them. It is not. Just because we recognise a function does not mean that we claim to know exactly what it ultimately is, which is what reductionists claim to know. An account of what archetypes do can be helpfully precise without posing any threat to our appreciation of the profundity of archetypal experience, because it does not involve any assertion that archetypes are just anything. Archetypes have the function of being inspiring, meaning that they provide us with ongoing motivation for developing beyond our limitations at any given point, but along with that function comes the profound experience of being awed and challenged. So we can see archetypes as both profound experiences for individuals, and at the same time phenomena whose structure and functioning can be clearly theorised, observed in individual experience, and potentially also tested scientifically to some extent (see 1.i).

This account of archetypes as diachronic schematic functions, which will be explored more fully in the course of this book, is consistent, I believe, with how the notion of an archetype helpfully functions in Jung’s work. It does not fully accord with how Jung defined them, which combined both Platonic and biological features in uneasy relationship. Rather than maintaining the purity of Jungian doctrine, then, I am much more interested in synthesising Jung’s insights with those I have found in other areas.

In particular, that includes the embodied meaning theories of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, which can offer great illumination of archetypes in relation to the schematic development of meaning for human beings in their embodied interaction with their environment. In their account, our experience of meaning as association through embodied schemas is then extended by metaphor, so I will be discussing archetypes in relation both to schemas (1.c) and metaphors (1.d).

The chief practical value of the idea of archetype consists in the way in which it can help us distinguish between deluded projection and valuable meaning. This is a distinction that strongly parallels the Middle Way of the Buddha (as well as the Middle Way found, in a less developed form, in Jung’s own work[3]). The way that archetypal projection and integration can be traced in mindfulness and meditation practice can provide a clear practical starting point to working with archetypes that can also be applied in the context of any tradition.

Archetypal projection and integration also have a crucial relationship to systems theory, where the concept of a function is found. Although it is humans that project or integrate archetypes, these responses to them correspond to the two types of feedback loops in systems theory – closed, ‘positive’ or reinforcing on the one hand and open, ‘negative’, or balancing on the other (see 2.g). To project an archetype is to continue repeating your current way of trying to fulfil a function regardless of the circumstances, but to integrate it is to adjust the way we relate to it. As humans, our great evolutionary advantage is adaptability, but we constantly tend to lose that advantage through rigid projection of the archetypes. Absolutizing religion and its conflicts are good immediate examples of this bloody-minded loss of balancing awareness that we are so prone to. We could parallel this to rigidity in any system: for instance, the feedback loops of accelerating climate change that have been set off by our own psychological feedback loops of projected ‘reality’. As long as we believe that God commands us to do as we wish with the earth’s infinite resources, for instance, the feedback loop of projection can continue to ruinously feed non-sentient feedback loops in our environment.

The relationship of the archetypes to the massive amount of work on biases that has been accomplished in cognitive psychology is also striking. In this book I will argue that biases and archetypal projections are equivalent (2.f). Our work in overcoming projection and integrating archetypes can thus also support the overcoming of bias – provided that the areas of cognition and emotion are no longer falsely separated. For instance, a prejudice against someone is also a projection of the Shadow archetype. To assume that someone, say, of a different race must be a threat, is also to substitute a simplistic concept of evil for our complex experience of a person.

Far too much of Jungian discussion of archetypes seems to neglect the critical thinking that we need to stop projecting those archetypes – something that I mean to remedy in this book. Critical thinking needs to be combined with the deep intuitive cultivation of imaginative associations, not separated from intuition as an either/or choice. To stop the projection we make when we fall in love, for instance, so as to recognise the qualities of our beloved in a more realistic and balanced fashion, we need to be able to think through the way we are using that archetype. This involves avoiding the ‘halo effect’ by which one attractive quality leads us to unthinkingly attribute lots of other good qualities. This is an archetypal projection that can also be aided positively by cultivating our relationship to the archetype represented by the beloved. For instance, a man who can positively recognise and celebrate Mary, or the Buddhist figure Tara, as an aspect of his own experience is far less likely to treat a woman deludedly as though she possessed all those qualities.

The first three sections of this book, then, are concerned with a general theory of archetypes. I explain what they mean and imply (or do not imply) on the most helpful model, how they are projected, and also, crucially, how they can be integrated as a crucial aspect of personal religious or spiritual practice. The value of discussing archetypes is so that we can recognise and celebrate archetypes as part of ourselves, rather than projecting them.

After these initial sections, I then go on to the categorisation of archetypes (section 4), which is another vexed subject. What are ‘the’ archetypes? Can there be such a thing as a complete list? To get too hung up on archetypal taxonomy, I argue, can be an unhelpful distraction from the ways that the concept of archetype can be helpful to us. However, a fourfold analysis of the chief archetypes – hero, anima/animus, shadow, and God – in my view puts a necessary focus on the functions of archetypes in our experience. Jungians and New Age archetype enthusiasts often talk about a whole range of archetypes: for instance the lover, magician, trickster, mother, child etc. In my view this puts insufficient emphasis on the core inspirational function of the archetype – though that doesn’t imply that these subsidiary archetypes, along with many other possible variants, cannot be helpful and inspiring. I argue that the functions of self and other, attraction and repulsion, integration and conflict, can help us to identify the chief archetypes. In each case, though, we also need to distinguish those archetypes themselves from other distracting associations that are largely products of the projection of the archetype. This account of the four main functional archetypes gives us four types of inspiration (an earlier candidate title for this book).

It is this general discussion of archetypes and their function that lays all the groundwork for the subsequent discussion of archetypes in religion (section 5). Here, by analysing selected aspects of the world’s religious traditions, I will trace how the four types of inspiration have been cultivated in many different contexts. In the process, I will also need to distinguish between the helpful and integrated use of archetypes as a source of inspiration, and their common projection, which can then turn the archetypes instead into a source of repression and conflict.

Though I argue that there are four basic types of inspiration, I also suggest a fifth that can be distinguished in some respects but not others: the Middle Way archetype. This inspires us not only through a vision of potential integration, but also to focus simultaneously on our current non-ideal situation and continually work with the tension between ideal and actuality.  The Buddha gave the most explicit account of the Middle Way, but it also emerges implicitly in the incarnation of Christ, and even potentially in the Muslim vision of worshipping God without idolatry. The Middle Way, then, has a hybrid archetypal status, somewhere between God and the hero, reminding us not to project either of them. The positive function of religion for many, then, is as a source of inspiration for balanced spiritual development in which different human functions remain in tension with each other. The implications of that development are also not merely individual, but need to be applied in the judgements made by religious groups and organisations.

Archetypal religion, then, consists in an interpretation of religion that fully acknowledges the power of these archetypal functions in it. However, it also applies critical thinking to maintain the awareness that absolute religious ‘beliefs’ are not only unnecessary to this archetypal function, but also in conflict with it. There is no shortage of evidence and argument available on the negative effects of absolute religious belief, particularly as assembled by atheist thinkers. However, the unnecessary association between recognising these negative effects on the one hand, and beliefs about the non-existence of the projections (particularly God) on the other, is one of reactive projection (see 2.b). Projection can be just as much a matter of believing that our own assumptions ‘don’t exist’ beyond us as that they ‘do exist’. We do not resolve a projection by just introducing a contradiction, but by recognising and avoiding the projection. At the same time we can positively cultivate an integrated relationship with the archetype. I thus argue that the practice of archetypal religion is one that requires rigorous agnosticism – agnosticism of a kind modelled to some extent by religious mystics as well as by the most reflective secular thinkers.

The apparently non-religious, ‘secular’ cultures of the classical and modern worlds also have other ways of projecting absolute ideas and forming beliefs about them. These are primarily conceptual rather than visually symbolic, but another of my quests in this book is to argue against conceptual exceptionalism. Abstract concepts can operate as symbols fulfilling archetypal functions just as visual symbols can. For instance, the widespread uses of the concepts of ‘Nature’ and ‘Truth’ in scientific culture can fairly, I argue, be seen as archetypes of science. The issues are the same as those of religious archetypes, in the sense that these archetypes can be projected and become the basis of beliefs, or they can be recognised as inspirational ideals and celebrated as such. A good many other ‘secular’ qualities have been allegorised as figures as well as being reified in conceptual beliefs – including goodness, beauty, rationality, humanity and democracy.

Once we consider these ‘secular’ archetypes and how much they have a similarity of function with religious archetypes, the grounds for over-strong popular distinctions between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ (or other ‘non-religious’ areas) rapidly disappear. We all have the same problems as well as the same kinds of inspirations: these problems and inspirations are human, not just ‘religious’. One major message of this book is thus that the false boundaries put around religion by those who think of it only in the light of its ‘beliefs’ can and should be eroded. In the light of the erosion of religious ‘belief’ amongst Western populations, the revival of its function for human beings surely lies in an archetypal interpretation.