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The Theologian and the Psychologist: An Unfinished Conversation?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

For over a decade in the 1940s and 1950s an English Dominican, Fr Victor White OP, corresponded with the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Both hoped that psychology and theology could be mutually enriched.

Prof. Clodagh Weldon, an alumna of Blackfriars, Oxford, retraces key steps in this dialogue.

A Spiritual 'Dark Night'

Fr Victor White OP (1902–1960) was a young friar in 1930s Oxford when he encountered the ideas of Swiss analytical psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961). Frustrated by the arid intellectualism of his formation at the Dominican studium in Hawkesyard, White experienced his own ‘dark night of the soul’. He reached out to his friend, the philosopher and theologian Donald MacKinnon, who suggested that he write to John Layard, an anthropologist and Jungian analyst in Oxford. The letter began, ‘I am a Catholic priest who has become badly ‘stuck.’ It is the writings of Dr Jung that has given me some inkling of what it is I am up against.’ White’s lecture notes from the 1950s take us further into his spiritual turmoil. He writes, ‘I am by profession a theologian. But I am a theologian to whom, some fourteen years ago, something happened. Suddenly, or perhaps not so suddenly, theology ceased to have any meaning to me at all: I could not get my mind into it, or anything to do with it, except with horror, boredom and loathing. You may imagine that that was quite a serious thing to happen to a theologian. Other theologians and pastors did not seem able at all to help me out of my difficulties. And so I was forced to turn to the psychologists. I had not been particularly interested in psychology up [un]til then, but I had read a certain amount of Freud and Jung, and I did have a hunch that the method and approach of Jung might have something that spoke to my condition.’

Healing

Writing in his Memories Dreams Reflections, Jung offered a cause of White’s condition: his indebtedness to Aquinas, and in particular ‘the prejudice that the deity is outside man’. White’s ‘hunch’ was incisive. He experienced healing through Jung’s psychology and it revitalized his theology. God was no less real than before, but the divine transcendence was also God's immanence, His intimate presence at the heart of the human person. In August 1945, White wrote to Jung to express his ‘immense debt of gratitude’ and included some of his writings. One article revealed how Jung had pushed him to re-evaluate Thomistic approaches to direct experience of God and led him to recapture for Catholic theology an apologetic of immanence in Aquinas’ notion of affective knowledge which had been sorely neglected in his day. On 1st October 1945, Jung replied,

Excuse the irreverential pun: you are to me a white raven inasmuch as you are the only theologian I know of who has really understood something of what the problem of psychology in our present world means. You have seen its enormous implications.

Drawing on a symbol of transformation in alchemy, Jung envisioned White as the black raven that becomes white. He hoped that White would be instrumental in the transformation of the western god image to include both the shadow side and the feminine. White was, he said, the ‘only’ theologian to truly understand him, and, as Freud had anointed Jung crown prince of the psychoanalytic movement, Jung hoped that Victor White would carry on the ‘opus magnum’. For many years, each writer clung to the hope that this could be a reality. White travelled to Zurich and the two exchanged many letters. They talked about God and Revelation, faith and knowledge. But it was on the traditional definition of evil as a privatio boni which White embraced and Jung abhorred where their discussion came unstuck. Once evil was transferred onto God – as White believed to be the case in Jung’s daring and vexing Answer to Job – the conflict between the authority of the psyche and the authority of the Church seemed irreconcilable. He could not accept a God who was evil as well as good, and expressed this in a damning review.

Parting of the Ways

Finding the review unforgivable, Jung and White parted ways in May of 1955. Both men were grieved by the split, and disappointed that Jung’s great hope for the transformation of the western god image could not be fulfilled in White. White learned from Jung the emotional importance of the transformation of the human person – Jung’s ‘individuation’ – but he was not and could not be Jung’s ‘white raven’. White died after a short illness in May of 1960. Although the disputed questions between the two remained unresolved, his relationship with Jung remains a powerful Dominican story of dialogical encounter: two men open to the ideas and questions of their day who laboured in the pursuit of truth and, as Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP reminds us, help us in finding it.

The Theologian and the Psychologist: An Unfinished Conversation?Clodagh Weldon is Professor of Theology at Dominican University in Chicago. She is the author of ‘Fr Victor White OP: The Story of Jung’s White Raven’ (2007) and ‘Teaching Jung’ (2011). 

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