• 9780824514129
John A. Sanford (Author)

Mystical Christianity

A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John
  • Imprint: Herder & Herder
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  • Title: Mystical Christianity
  • Subtitle: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John
  • Page Count: 360
  • Available Formats: Trade-paper (9780824514129)
  • Edition: Trade Paper
  • Original language: English
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John A. Sanford (Author)

John A. Sanford was an Episcopal priest and Jungian analyst. His wrote many books on biblical interpretation, dreams, the afterlife, mystical Christianity, ministry, and other topics that relate to spirituality and psychology.

  1. John A. Sanford, a Jungian analyst and author of 16 Books, has written an Intriguing and enlightening book called Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John published by Crossroad. He astutely calls the fourth gospel "a treasure-house of psychological and spiritual insight." Sanford brings to the fore neglected and overlooked aspects of early Christianity which speak directly to those engaged in the spiritual craft of soul-making. For the author of John, Christ was "the divine word made flesh whose presence was felt intimately in the soul." Sanford suggests at the outset that readers of this Johannine text put themselves in the shoes of the disciples. He presents some unusual slants on Jesus's actions at the wedding at Cana and the cleansing of the Temple. The first shows the Master's positive valuation of women in a dominantly patriarchal culture and the latter demonstrates that anger has its place in the repertoire of soulful actions. In his discussion of the healing stories in the fourth gospel, Sanford shows how faith is that quality of soul which paves the way for healing.  The author salutes the ancient yearning for numinous encounters which bypass reason and connect with our inner center. Sanford frames the clash between Jesus and the Pharisees as a conflict between the old consciousness and the new. His assessments of John's understanding of evil and the deeper mysteries connected with the coming of the Paraclete have direct relevance to contemporary confusions over human nature and authority. At one point Sanford quotes Fritz Kunkel who called John's Gospel "a great spiritual symphony." The movements and variations in Mystical Christianity will be of great help to those engaged in soul making.
    --Values & Visions Magazine
  2. 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.
    --Michael McNiermey, Gnosis Magazine
  3. This Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John may prove to be John Sanford’s magnum opus. In it, he weaves together the interests and themes of a lifetime to bring out the interior (psychological and spiritual) levels of meaning in the fourth Gospel. His main tools are the precise significance of the original Greek words, the teaching of ancient Fathers of the Church, and the modem psychologies of Jung and Kunkel. The result is a masterful and meaty synthesis of scholarship, theology and psychology which only John Sanford could have put together. Mystical Christianity is a veritable feast for anyone seeking a fresh and invigorating interpretation of John’s Gospel, or exploring the interface between Christian spirituality and depth psychology.
    --Booknook Magazine
  4. The thirty-two chapters of John Sanford's work demonstrate the contribution psychological-critical commentary can make to biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, despite certain limitations of the work from a biblical scholarly perspective. Falling within a genre of commentaries typified by the Michael Glazier series, New Testament Message: A Biblical Theological Commentary, and the Crossroad series, The New Testament _for Spiritual Reading, Sanford's work focuses on the theological vision of the biblical text and its religious meaning for the reader. Episcopal priest, pastoral counselor, and Jungian analyst, Sanford has written sixteen books, several of which have applied psychological insight to biblical interpretation: The Kingdom Within: A Study of the Inner Meaning of Jesus' Sayings (New York: Lippincott, 1970); The Man Who Wrestled with God (King of Prussia, Pa.: Religious Publishing, 1974); and King Saul: The Tragic Hero (New York: Paulist Press, 1985). Sanford identifies his approach variously as "spiritual," "symbolic," "esoteric," "mystical," and "psychological" (pp. 3-4), offering no definition or differentiation of terms. Despite this disappointing lack of clarification, and specifically of his failure to spell out the nature, rationale, and method of "psychological commentary," the volume demonstrates in nuce five of the contributions a psychological-critical approach can make to biblical interpretation. First, Sanford advances a psychological model for understanding the etiology of the Johannine text, approaching it not simply as the product of social, cultural, and historical factors, but above all as originating, first, in the conscious and unconscious "inspiration" of an historical speaker (Jesus of Nazareth) and, second, as originating in its written textual form out of the inner dialogue that occurs between the "ego-centers" of early Christian writers and their internalized images of Christ, resulting in the psychically charged production of the Christ-hymn of chap. 1, of rich symbolic vocabulary (bread, living water, vine, etc.), and of christological discourses (pp. 8, 136-42). Sanford cites the surprising judgment of B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (London: MacMillan, 1924) 391-92, that the Fourth Gospel is the product of "the creative power of the mystical imagination" (p. 9). Second, Sanford advances a psychological model to interpret the patterns of conversion, transformation, and rebirth assumed in the text. The model of "individuation" that he proposes is drawn from the thought of depth psychologists C. G. Jung and Fritz Kunkel. Individuation, in brief, is that species-wide process of increased consciousness in which one moves through the "death of the ego" to the "emergence of the Self" (pp. 248-49), the Self understood as that larger whole of which one is part, transcendent to the ego,frequently symbolized with images of the divine. Sanford finds a psychological analogue between Johannine teleiōsis and individuation (pp. 299-300), and accordingly proposes that the experiences of the disciples in the text function as "paradigms of the experience" the reader may "have to undergo" in his/her "spiritual and psychological development" (p. 32).
    Third, Sanford demonstrates a method of comparative symbology. Throughout the volume, Sanford seeks to amplify the meaning of biblical images by examining the values they purvey in the broader "collective unconscious" of the human psyche manifest in dreams, myths, stories, and folklore outside the biblical text, assuming that the widespread appearance of these motifs evidences that they are part of the collective human spiritual journey. Such images include the "above and below" motif (pp. 79-80); water and wind (pneuma) (pp. 85-87); the serpent (pp. 93-94); light and darkness (pp. 101-2); "fields ready for harvest" ("a psychological development that has reached its time") (p. 117); numerical symbolism of the numbers 3, 4, 7, 10, 12, 5000, and 153 (pp. 146; 296-97; 334); kosmos as a prevailing "state of consciousness" (p. 173); principalities and powers, "the collective dominants of the thinking of this world" (p. 194); the sheep, gate, Good Shepherd, thieves, and "other sheep" (pp. 210-12); the grave or "cave" (pp. 225-26); the donkey (pp. 244-45); "washing" and "bathing" the foot (pp. 256-58); the vine and "the mystery of the transformation of the soul through union with God" (p. 279); the garden (p. 307); the cross (pp. 317-29); and suffering and death (pp. 329-30). A fourth contribution consists of observations on the psychological dynamics operative in the personality portraits and dialogues of the Johannine text that will be especially visible to the trained psychoanalytic eye. Sanford comments on the phenomenon of transference, evident in the announcement, "We have found the Messiah" (pp. 35, 127); the psychology of anger (pp. 73-75); psychological dynamics in the conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus (p. 77), Nathanael (p. 30), the woman at the well (pp. 107-19), the paralytic at the pool of Bethzatha (pp. 131-32) ("he perceives health . . . to be more dangerous . . . than illness"), Judas (pp. 230-40), and Pilate (pp. 313-16); Jesus' "creative ego response" to the accusers of the woman taken in adultery (p. 170); the dialogue in the story of the man born blind (p. 203); the response of the crowd to Jesus and Barabbas (pp. 245-46); and the farewell discourses (p. 291). A fifth contribution psychological insight can make in biblical interpretation is demonstrated in Sanford's psychological-critical commentary on religious phenomena cited in the text, e.g., the phenomena of "conversion" (p. 34) and angelology, which Sanford observes is foreign to "our collective conscious attitude" but at home in the "unconscious" of dreams, story-telling, fairy tales, and myths (p. 31); the phenomenon of the "inner eye" in the Nathanael narrative and in the story of the woman at the well (p. 30); the symbolic naming of persons (e.g., Cephas) (p. 30); the concepts of "flesh" (pp. 14-16, 194-95) and "sin" ("as failure of consciousness")       (pp. 194); baptismal symbolism and ceremonial cleansing (pp. 39-40); "born again" symbolism ("an identifiable and describable psychological experience . . . at the heart of every process of individuation") (pp. 81-83); faith and healing (pp. 122-30); the use of spittle in healing (pp. 203-4); the experience of the numinous (pp. 150-51); dreams and their significance in the NT and the Church Fathers (p. 155); eating the body and blood (p. 159); receiving the spirit (p. 161) and the paraclete (pp. 289-90). Biblical scholars will take issue with Sanford at a number of points. For one, the text betrays a remarkable indifference to citing current Johannine scholarship, mentioning only Raymond Brown (once, and with an incorrect page reference in the index) and Sandra Schneiders, though at the same time conversant with a general menu of critical historical, literary, and lexical issues in Johannine studies. Second, a number of typographical errors in transliterated Greek stand out, e.g. ti emoi kai [sic] sol (p. 44), ho (sicl huois tou anthrōpou (p. 97), and oraō (p. 27) (though correctly cited as horaō in the Greek index). From the psychological side, critics will certainly fault Sanford's failure to define his terms psychologically, to defend his exclusive use of Jung and Kunkel, and to explain what is meant in his anachronistic references to Jesus, Gregory of Nyssa, and  the early Christian commentators as "depth psychologists" (pp. 144, 303, 3). General readers will appreciate the relevance of Sanford's work for contemporary self-understanding, as well as his general introduction to key dimensions of Johannine spirituality. It includes a useful ten-page index of names and subjects, along with a two-page glossary of transliterated Greek terms that enjoy special discussion in the book. In addition, the commentary is illumined richly by a compendium of insight from the Church Fathers, including Augustine, Athanasius, Clement of Alexandria, Cyril of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Origen, Hippolytus, Ignatius, Tertullian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and above all Gregory of Nyssa. Sanford with some justification calls them "psychologists," but this half truth needs to be made whole by a more precise and historically discriminating examination of the term.
    --Wayne G. Rollins, Biblical Studies Magazine

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