Religion and the Unsayable

“This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.” -Søren Kierkegaard

Carl Jung understood that there are two aspects of the psyche: the conscious and unconscious. Conscious reality is affirmed through our capacity to speak about it. Unconscious reality is negated: it is that which the ego cannot assimilate or represent.

Human beings use conscious awareness to make sense of and represent the world around them. Conscious awareness is expressed through language. Most of us take language for granted. We use language to express our desires, feelings, thoughts. We use it to navigate our world and get what we want, focusing only on what we know and can name and speak.

Consciousness may be represented by the number 1. The unconscious, as negated, has no representation, except as we may give it a notation of 0. Thus, 1 and 0 may represent the primal duality of mind. 

Another way to say this is that psychic life is made up of that which the ego affirms (1) and that which the ego negates (0). What the ego negates (0) may show itself in negative terms: shadows, demons, the void or abyss or in positive terms as spiritual images and forms.

Carl Jung understood that the Self includes all that is unconscious and unsayable. The Self, as ultimately unrepresentable, is the sacred ground of our perceptual experience. All representations arise from and in relationship to this ground. We may experience the Self in positive or negative images. It may appear as a theophany to one person or void and abyss to another.

The religious archetypes are forms through which the mind represents of the unsayable dimensions of the Self. Religious images provide a means for the psyche to represents aspects of psychic life for which there are no words or thoughts. Archetypes which are neither sayable nor unsayable, but paradoxical, point at that ‘something that thought itself cannot think.’

The Self so deeply saturates our perception that it is, in fact, very hard to get a hold of, to grasp. It is the purity of our awareness that simply cannot be represented with words. Yet it remains within every given moment, saturating our experience, providing a ground for all conception and experience.



16 thoughts on “Religion and the Unsayable

  1. What may be unsayable or unspeakable is the experience with pure evil. “When it [shadow] appears as an archetype…it is quite within the possibility for a man to recognize the relative evil of his nature, but it is a rare and shattering experience for him to gaze into the face of absolute evil.” – Carl G. Jung Shattering enough to leave one dumb?
    How can we conceive absolute evil? It must rather have elemental good within, one begs. Does not “spiritual wickedness in high places” still serve a divine and mysterious purpose? Was the creation of evil a necessity? The problem of evil is not just going to go away by becoming “enlightened.” The problem becomes more immanent. The light shines in the darkness, does not eliminate it. Overcome evil with good? The absence of evil sounds too much of a utopian humanist project for my liking.
    The act of Creation is divisive. It is a worthy thought by Jenna that the negative is creative. How is transformation even feasible without the struggle between absolutes?

    1. Gary,

      When viewed from a moral vantage we see good and evil. Here we may see good as positive and evil as negative. In fact, we often speak of things which are bad in terms of being ‘negative.’

      From a Jungian perspective we may need to add nuance to our understanding. We may start by taking into account the psychological concept of projection: We project into others that within ourselves which we cannot tolerate. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein posited that, for example, the baby projects into the mother (the breast) their intolerable fears. In a similar way we may project into the negative what is intolerable. In turn, the negative becomes spectral. Dark shadowy figures arise: demons and ghosts come back to haunt us.

      This is not to say there is not evil in the world, but when we are speaking from a Jungian point of view we release enough of our moral fervor to get at psychic truth and archetypal patterns.

      To being to realize the Self we need to distinguish the negative (as the unrepresentable) from the shadows and hell realms we project into it. It is only through a process of pulling back our projections, reclaiming our own shadow, that we may begin to experience the Self in-and-of-itself.

      This requires that we move our view beyond good and evil. Or at least that we tolerate the evil within our own nature, and accept ourselves shadow and all. Through this process we may also learn to love others in their complexity, in their fullness, light and shadow.


      “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
      there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

      When the soul lies down in that grass,
      the world is too full to talk about.
      Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.”

      1. I wonder about “spiritual problems” and was encouraged by it being your PhD dissertation. Part of my wonder has to do with a possible problem God has with evil and the problem of “divine hiddenness” also. I wonder how much of “evil” is hidden from our consciousness. Oh yes, we can see the relative evil in ourselves and in the heinous crimes against humanity; but what was Jung really talking about when having “a real and shattering experience of gazing into the face of absolute evil”? The Christian scriptures refer to a struggle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness in heavenly places, and also refer to God creating evil. Where else did Jung reference the ontological issue of spiritual as opposed to human animated evil. James Hillman was perplexed by the spiritual problem of evil, no? This is in direct paradox to the mystery of godliness, imo. Not to belabor the point, but perhaps this aspect of spirituality has a high numinous dimension to it, which is hidden deeply in even God’s unconscious, if the first and the last, the beginning and end has an unconscious. Or perhaps it’s all absurd speculation. If we embrace mystery and mysticism, can we deny the spiritual dimension of absolute evil? Or can there be a spiritual synthesis/alchemy of absolute good and absolute evil to bring forth a new creation which transcends both?

        1. Gary,

          Your ponderings on the nature of good and evil are beautiful. You have touched upon the paradox of God, and also the dialectical struggle which the opposition between good and evil creates. It is an opposition which none of us will escape: we will encounter it both inside and outside of ourselves.

          While I eventually want to allow Jung’s words to enlighten our understanding, I will offer a few personal thoughts. Without good and evil life lacks spiritual tension, and thus growth. Growth emerges from the powerful psychic forces such tension creates, from the struggle with such tensions.

          Some have said that the tension between good and evil provides for the concept of ‘freedom.’ Only when there is good and evil do we have the freedom to choose good. But again there is a tension, those who call themselves ‘good,’ may be hiding the ‘evil’ which lies within. So the true ‘good’ is knowing ourselves, being honest with who we are, and struggling with our shadow. Such a struggle provides a ‘vale of soul making.’

          1. Well written. Gets into the whole objective of finding meaning to life. Depth psychology at its best, Jenna. Thanks for putting it into the dialectic of struggle and tension. I enjoy your accuracy and focus.

  2. this puts me in mind of the fabric of space. we now know its there and integral to all else. the ‘zero’.
    appreciate your follow-up comment, too, as that adds clarity.

    not sure who said it but ‘the universe doesn’t care about good and evil; it cares about balance and imbalance’. we, in our tribes, find it necessary to classify morally.

    love that rumi segment!

  3. The unsayable should not be equated with “the negative”, first because it isn’t, secondly because it strengthens public avoidance, and thirdly because even CG Jung doensn’t resort to it.
    In fact, Laozi’s very first two sentences ( “dao ke dao…” and “ming ke ming…” ) are rendering of the same unspeakable, much as their Wuwei is…

    1. ArtsLivres,

      Preconceptions exist. Avoiding something does not make it go away.

      A fundamental realization of the analytic model is that we must bring out, make clear, that which was previously buried and negated.

      Something is negative in relationship to that which is affirmed. A foreground is known against a background, the finite against the background of the infinite, the temporal against the background of the eternal, the conscious against the backdrop of the unconscious.

      Poles reverse: if we look into the negative for long enough it may be affirmed. But, if we avoid it, and only seek the affirmed, then the negative may appear overwhelming, or possibly empty, like the void, abyss, or shadow.

  4. Ruminations…not exactly thought out…

    The writer Alan Moore made the observation that if “gods” exist anywhere they at least exist in human conciousness. He was talking about a particular goddess figure he was interested in. But it made me think of the controversy around Jesus. Some argue that he is a completely made up figure. But if that’s true, does that significantly diminish his impact? We can picture Jesus, we can draw him, and talk about what he did or didn’t do. So it “may” be that text and icongraphy created him and inserted into our consiousness, but now he is there and can be passed from person to person and the text only is needed to amplify what’s in our consiousness.

    1. Anonymous,

      Yes indeed, and Jung said ‘God is a psychic fact.’ But this does not diminish the significance of God. I believe it allows us to know just how close we are to knowing God. God is immanent to our psychic life.

      I like your thoughts on Jesus. I would say that the messiah is also immanent to psychic life. Jung says the messiah represents the Self, as does the God image.

  5. An important question to ask is, “Do I have my own ‘unspeakable’ experiences or am I relying on the unspeakable experience of those who have come before me?” There is a big difference between operating (unthinkingly) out of the cultural background of values and meaning vs. seeking out the immediacy of the moment for myself and using it to form my own relationship with G-d and the world around me.
    The Amidah (Standing Prayer) is the central prayer of Jewish devotion. In the opening section it addresses the G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob. The question is raised by the Jewish commentators, “Why doesn’t the prayer just say G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” The answer is because each of the Fathers had to form their own, unique relationship with the Eternal – based on their own experiences of the “unspeakable.”
    Living according to tradition is important but it should never be done unconsciously and it should always be complemented by one’s own seeking out the unspeakable.

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