Michael McNiermey, Gnosis Magazine

January 5, 2022

John Sanford makes a better case for Christianity as a living religion, relevant to our confused and questioning age, than any other author I have read. And I have read Matthew Fox.

Fox, the Dominican priest who recently left Catholicism for the Episcopal Church, is sometimes called the “Martin Luther of the twentieth century.” Yet he is so radical in his syncretism and so loose in his scholarship that it is difficult to see his theology and mysticism as being Christian in the traditional sense of the term. Fox’s work may well herald a new cosmic spirituality, but it can be called Christian only by virtue of his use of Christ as the central symbol for his
vision. In his attempt to save Christianity from itself, Fox draws almost indiscriminately from nearly every source, including Wicca and modern science.

Sanford, by contrast, stays much closer to the original spring of the faith – the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures – and simply digs deeper. He reminds me of some of the early Church Fathers who sought to probe the mysteries and contradictions of scripture and make them palatable to the Pagan world by employing the intellectual language of the age, which was Greek philosophy. Sanford attempts to do something similar for us by using the dominant psychological language of our time, which is Jungian psychology. As both a Jungian analyst and an Episcopal priest, he is well-qualified for the task.

Both the title and the subtitle of the book are a bit misleading. (I intend only clarification, not criticism, in saying this.) It is not a line-by-line, word-by-word examination of the text, as the word “commentary” might imply to those familiar with Christian hermeneutics. And the mysticism is not the sort one finds in John of the Cross or Evelyn Underhill. But mysticism is difficult to define, and Sanford is entitled to his own interpretation of the word. He makes his view clear: “By mystical I mean to refer to the Gospel’s interior, psychological, and esoteric sense. . . . From this perspective the Gospel proves to be a treasure-house of psychological and spiritual insight” (emphasis in original).

With some exceptions, the ancients, both Pagan and Christian, considered the unseen world, the “worlds invisible” of the Nicene Creed, to be as real as or more real than the everyday world of the senses. The dominant view in the West today, of course, ostensibly grants no reality whatsoever to the unseen. I say “ostensibly” not only because quantum physicists deal with an unseen world far stranger than anything in the Bible, but because scientifically trained psychoanalysts and psychologists work daily with such things as complexes, transference, and the unconscious. You can’t see or touch any of these things, yet they are treated as real. Archetypal psychologists – I think it fair to say Pagan psychologists – like James Hillman and Ginette Paris have affirmed repeatedly that these terms represent a reality no more and no less real than that of the ancient gods and goddesses. In fact they may well be the same thing.

It’s refreshing to read a Christian who has come to the same conclusion. Sanford does not waffle. For him what we call the unconscious is the unseen world of the ancients. He is thus at the center of what I consider to be the most important spiritual development of the West in the late twentieth century: the interaction, interweaving, and approaching fusion of depth psychology, Western myth, and ancient Western religion.

Sanford has long been quietly working this ground: he has written sixteen books so far. Two of the best are The Man Who Wrestled with God (original edition, 1974; revised edition published by Paulist Press in 1987), which is about the story of Jacob, and The Kingdom Within (original edition, 1970; revised edition published by Harper & Row, 1987), a Jungian interpretation of the sayings attributed to Jesus. In Mystical Christianity Sanford continues the themes of his previous hooks, only in greater depth and breadth.

The fourth Gospel is very different from the other three “synoptic Gospels.” In John, Jesus is less the historical, human figure pictured in the other three and more the divine, cosmic Christ. John is imbued with a different, more numinous atmosphere and shows definite influences from Greek philosophy. The Logos of the prologue to John may in fact have been adopted directly from Stoicism, the most popular philosophical school of the first century C.E. In Jungian terms, the fourth Gospel is more clearly archetypal than the others.

After a short historical introduction, Sanford speculates that the author, whom we call John for lack of another name, wrote his Gospel by literally carrying on conversations with “inner figures,” including Christ. This intriguing suggestion could explain many of the differences between John and the synoptics. Readers who have done this themselves, whether or not they were aware that they were engaging in what Jungians call “active imagination,” may find this theory, as I do, plausible and consistent with their own experience.

Sanford then takes various incidents, parables, and stories as the starting points for illustrating Jungian themes and their relationship to Christian spirituality. A few chapter titles will give a taste of his approach: “The Psychology of Anger: The Cleansing of the Temple,” “Light and Darkness: The Discourse with Nicodemus,” “Ego and Self: Jesus Replies to His Accusers,” “Confrontation with the Shadow: Jesus Arrested.”

One of the most interesting chapters is “The Feminine Gospel: The Wedding Feast at Cana.” Sanford sees two aspects of this story as having great psychological and spiritual significance. The first is that the celebration emphasizes that individuation and spiritual development can and should be joyous as well as painful. Both Jungians and Christians tend to heavily emphasize the latter quality.

The second and more important inner meaning of this story concerns Jesus’ relationship to the feminine and all that it implies for personal individuation, social emancipation from patriarchy, and the gender implications of Christianity itself and of the whole Christian concept of God. Sanford is eloquent, if not entirely convincing, in his attempt to attenuate the patriarchal and sexist bias of the Bible, and he makes good use of the fact that even feminist scholars have long recognized that Jesus’ positive attitude toward women was unique in his day (and pretty much ever since, for that matter).

Mystical Christianity is an important and beautifully written contribution to the spiritual literature of our age. Even those inclined toward the polytheistic psychology/ spirituality of Hillman and his school will find much to savor in this more purely Jungian and humanely Christian book.

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