“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
— Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882)
In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche declared those fateful words:
“God is dead.”
Almost 100 years later, David Miller declared, in The New Polythesism (1974),
“The death of God gives birth to the rebirth of the Gods.”
Sometimes the gods have to die in order for us to rediscover the gods.
At least this was true for me.
“God is dead”
One of the defining moments in my religious evolution was the moment God died for me. It was the year 2000. I don’t recall where I was, but do recall what it felt like. It was the culmination of a years-long, difficult struggle to make sense of the Mormon faith I had been raised with. And when it happened, I felt both terrible fear and exhilarating joy. This was the moment I realized that I had unconsciously created God in my own image — or rather I had created God in the image of a part of me: the stern, cold, judgmental part of me. I realized that this Being whose disapproval I had felt breathing hot and heavy down upon me for 25 years was actually … me. It was like looking at someone who you had known and feared your whole life and realizing all of a sudden that you were looking at a mirror.
What happened next is the story of the rebirth of the gods. Carl Jung wrote: “Only an unparalleled impoverishment of symbolism could enable us to rediscover the gods as psychic factors, which is to say, as archetypes of the unconscious.” Jung was describing a society-wide impoverishment of symbolism which he was witnessing, but I experienced this on a personal scale — an unparalleled impoverishment of my personal symbolism, in the form of the death of God, and the rediscovery of the gods, this time as psychological archetypes.
“Must we ourselves not become gods?”
Jung wrote that when the image of God looses its significance, the psychological energy which had previously been projected outwardly onto God comes back to us, giving rise to a feeling of intense vitality, a new potential. That is precisely what I felt. All that energy I had been projecting outward onto God came back home to me. I felt like I had been reborn.
At that point, it is common for a person’s ego to take the place of God in the psyche. Jung explains that we make the “materialistic error” of inferring that since the throne of God could not be discovered among the galactic systems that God never existed. When this happens, we in our hubris, “make the ego, in all its ridiculous paltriness, lord of the universe.” Jung explains:
“The gods at first lived in superhuman power and beauty on the top of snow-clad mountains or in the darkness of caves, woods, and seas. Later they drew together into one god, and then that god became man. But in our day even the God-man seems to have descended from his throne and to be dissolving himself in the common man. … the common man suffers from a hubris of consciousness that suffers on the pathological.”
This is what happened in Nietzsche’s case. “Must we ourselves not become gods” asks Nietzsche, in order to appear worthy of having killed God? Jung writes that Nietzsche’s tragedy was that, “because his God died, Nietzsche himself became a god … It seems dangerous for such a man to assert that ‘God is dead’: he instantly becomes a victim of inflation.” Inflation refers to the confusion of one’s conscious ego with the much larger wholeness of the psyche.
“It suits our hypertrophied and hubristic modern consciousness not to be mindful of the dangerous autonomy of the unconscious and to treat it negatively as an absence of consciousness,” writes Jung. In this “hubris of consciousness”, we imagine that we know who we are; we think that we are merely our conscious minds. “When one speaks of man, everyone means his own ego-personality — that is, his personality so far as he is conscious of it.” But, according to Jung, our individual consciousness is surrounded by a practically unbounded unconscious psyche — like a vast ocean encircling a tiny island. “Whereas the island is small and narrow, the ocean is immensely wide and deep and contains a life infinitely surpassing, in kind and degree, anything known on the island.”
“An Olympus full of deities”
According to Jung, when we look into the “water” of this ocean, standing on our little island of consciousness, at first all we see is our own image — our egos. We think we are all the life there is. But then other images loom up, fishes and … nixies? And we discover that the waters are full of life which had previously been invisible to us. “Since the stars have fallen from heaven one our highest symbols have paled, a secret life holds sway in the unconscious,” writes Jung. These other forms of life are the “gods” of the unconscious.
“We think we can congratulate ourselves on having already reached such a pinnacle of clarity, imagining that we have left all the phantasmal gods far behind. But what we have left behind are only verbal spectres, not the psychic facts that were responsible for the birth of the gods. We are still as much possessed by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians.”
“[We are] influenced and indeed dominated by desires, habits, impulses, prejudices, resentments, and by every conceivable kind of complex. All these natural facts function exactly like an Olympus full of deities who want to be propitiated, served, feared and worshiped, not only by the individual owner of this assorted pantheon, but by everybody in his vicinity.”
We do not have desires, habits, prejudices, etc., says Jung; they have us. These “gods” have the power to quite literally possess us.
“Called or not …”
Over the door of his home in Switzerland, Jung carved a Latin phrase: “VOCATUS ATQUE NON VOCATUS DEUS ADERIT” — “Called or not called, God will be there.” Jung warns that, when we discover that we have created God in our own image, it is easy to draw the false conclusion that we have a choice whether or not to create gods for ourselves. I thought myself this at one time. If I had created God in my own image, why not create better gods for myself? … and Neo-Paganism offered many interesting gods to choose from. But this, warns David Tacey in Jung and the New Age, “is consumer capitalism disguising itself as spiritual technology.”
We cannot consciously create our gods; they must be discovered, “… just as we know that we do not ourselves make a dream or an inspiration, but that it somehow arises of its own accord.” The gods arise from the unconscious, not the conscious mind. “Psychologically speaking, the domain of ‘gods’ begins where consciousness leaves off,” writes Jung. Like dreams, the gods are something that happens to us, not something we cause to happen. But while we cannot create our gods, we can choose which ones to serve — in the hope that the service of one or more may safeguard us against being mastered by others.
“Storming the citadel of the ego”
The shift from theism to atheism is a treacherous one, Jung explains, because as we withdraw our metaphysical projections, we become even less conscious of the power of the “gods” over us:
“The truth is that we do not enjoy masterless freedom; we are continually threatened by psychic factors which … may take possession of us at any moment. The withdrawal of metaphysical projections leaves us almost defenseless in the face of this happening, for we immediately identify with every impulse instead of giving it the name of the ‘other,’ which would at least hold it at arm’s length and prevent it from storming the citadel of the ego.”
The gods do not cease to exist when we stop believing in them. They merely slip out of the image we made for them, and “go on working as before, like an unknown quantity in the depths of the psyche.” And so long as we remain unconscious of them, they run amok in our lives.
I experienced this personally as I internalized all the judgmentalness that I had previously projected onto God. After I stopped believing in God, I could not forgive myself for having been “duped” into believing, and this made me unkind toward those who continued to believe. The same “God” who I had felt judging me from “without” was now judging me from “within”. Only I had even less power over it now because I identified with that judgmentalness, whereas before, at least theoretically I had the option of rejecting God’s judgment.
Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
“… there are webs of programmed tissues and autonomous energies which move us to rhythms not consciously ours. Who or what invents our dreams, our religions, our patterned choices? What powers move us to reproduce, to build civilization, to long for meaning? These are the gods, namely the archetypal powers which are more ancient than we can imagine. These powers shape us.” — James Hollis, The Archetypal Imagination
“By why call them gods?” you may ask. Why use religious language? Why not just use words like “desires,” “habits,” “prejudices,” etc. One reason is that these psychological forces exercise the same power over us that a god might. Man “cannot grasp, comprehend, dominate them; nor can he free himself or escape from them,” writes Jung, “and therefore feels them as overpowering. Recognizing that they do not spring from his conscious personality, he calls them mana, daimon, or God.”
Consider this curious line from the book of the Exodus in Judeo-Christian scripture: “But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses …” This comes from the story of the seven plagues of Egypt, which were sent from God as a warning to the Pharaoh to release the Hebrew people from bondage. But why would God send warnings and then harden Pharaoh’s heart? In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes argues that in parts of the Old Testament and in the Homeric Iliad, there are no words for mental acts like introspection and no evidence of consciousness or free will in the actors. It is always a god who moves the action: A god rouses Achilles to fight, a god causes Agamemnon to steal the mistress of Achilles, a god causes Helen to feel homesickness, a god causes the Trojans to panic at the sound of Achilles’ scream. In these ancient texts, the gods function like “little personalities” (Jung’s term) in the human psyche.
I know I feel like this myself sometimes. Jung explains that the unity of the human psyche is an illusion. “We like to think that we are one; but we are not, most decidedly not. We are not really masters in our our house.” Have you ever done something, perhaps in anger, and later regretted it and said something like, “That wasn’t me.” Sometimes, in retrospect, our actions don’t make sense to us. We feel as though we have been possessed by something alien. In Jungian terms, these are archetypes and complexes; but in religious or mythic terms they are gods and daimons. “Anything despotic and inescapable is in this sense [a] God,” explains Jung. “That psychological fact that wields the greatest power in your system functions as a god.”
A god by any other name …
“If modern man does not consciously sacrifice to the Gods, he find himself unconsciously sacrificed to the many pathologies and diseases that assailed him.” — David Tacey, Jung and the New Age
Using the mythic language of “gods” has an additional practical advantage, which is often not appreciated by those who favor more literal language: It helps us objectify the psychological forces which would otherwise dominate us. So long as we use the “objective” language of psychology to describe these dominating forces, we identify with them and confuse them with our conscious ego. But by personifying them, we render them “other” again, distancing them from our conscious egos, holding them “at arm’s length” (as Jung says), giving us psychological space to breathe and the opportunity to take back possession of our lives from them.
In addition, theistic language is laden with emotional resonance and has unique potential to evoke powerful emotions of a special character which more objective language lacks. We may call these psychological powers by any number of words, like “mana,” a “daimon,” a “god,” or the “unconscious.” For Jung, these terms are synonymous, but “the first three terms have the great merit of including and evoking the emotional quality of numinosity [a mysterious otherness],” explains Jung, “whereas the latter the unconscious is banal and therefor closer to reality. … The ‘unconscious’ is too neutral and rational a term to give much impetus to the imagination.”
Using the word “god”, instead of “archetype”, encourages us to engage with these powers with our whole being. Anthropomorphic language stimulates different parts of the brain than non-anthropomorphic language, the regions of the brain associated with sociality and relationship, in contrast to the part of the brain that processes objects and abstractions, and so we have a different experience in response to words like “god” or “goddess” than we do to more abstract or impersonal words like “archetype” or “complex”. As a result, we become open to a kind of relationship with nature that would have been impossible had we used more objective language, and we become more susceptible to the life-transforming religious experiences that flow from that relationship.
“The great advantage of the concepts ‘daimon’ and ‘God’ lies in making possible a much better objectification … a personification of it. Their emotional quality confers life and effectuality upon them. Hate and love, fear and reverence, enter the scene of the confrontation and raise it to a drama. What has merely been ‘displayed’ becomes ‘acted.’ The whole man is challenged and enters the fray with his total reality. Only then can he become whole …”
In other words, so long as we treat the gods as “merely” psychological archetypes, we tend to engage them only with our minds. But when we see them as “gods”, we engage them with our whole being: heart and mind and body.
“Dionysus versus the crucified”
This is how the death of God lead to the rebirth of the gods within me. Yahweh, the god of my youth, “died” when I realized that he did not exist independently of me. At first I thought he was gone from my life when I stopped believing in him. But he was still there, imperiously at work in the background of my consciousness. I had no choice as to whether or not he existed; he was a part of me. I could only choose whether to remain conscious of him or to repress him again. As a character in Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian explains, rather than trying to drive away or exorcising parts of ourselves, we should treat treat all of our drives and so-called temptations with respect and love, and then they will reveal their meaning to us. When I realized this, I decided to reclaim Yahweh. I had to find a time and a place to honor him, and integrate him into my life in a healthy way.
In the Judeo-Christian scripture, Yahweh is the creator God who brought order to universe by dividing light from darkness, land from sea, and so on. The Yahweh of my youth was the god who brought order to my personal universe. He was the power of logos, the power of dividing one thing from another, the power of reason and individuation. Left unchecked, though, this god killed all spontaneity and vitality and feeling of connection for me. He made it impossible for me to let go mentally, to immerse myself in the experience of life.
The problem was not Yahweh’s existence, though, but the lack of balance. As Jung said, “Without the experience of opposites, there is no experience of wholeness.” To borrow a Nietzschean concept, Yahweh was the Apollonian pole of my psyche, which needed to be balanced with Dionysian — the power of eros, of connection and union with the “other”. (Not coincidentally, Dionysos was Nietzsche’s new god, which he invoked to replace the crucified Christian god.) I needed to balance reason and structure with instinct and spontaneity, logos with eros, Apollo with Dionysos.
Paganism has given me opportunities to engage with the Dionysos, the wild god of ecstasy and abandon. Paganism is a religion of drums, moonlight, feasting, dancing, masks, flowers, divine possession. But I still need Yahweh — or “Apollo” as I now call him. To use Jung’s metaphor of the island in the ocean, I need a lifeline of rationality connecting me to the shore, so that I can feel safe plunging into the depths of ecstatic religious experience. In my religious devotions, then, I pay homage to both gods, and thereby I seek the balance that I need.
The Author: John Halstead
John Halstead is a former Mormon, turned Jungian Neo-Pagan with interests in ecology, theology, and ritual. He is the Managing Editor at here HumanisticPaganism.com, a community blog for Naturalistic Pagans. John also blogs about his spiritual journey at The Allergic Pagan, which is hosted by Patheos, and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at Dreaming the Myth Onward, which is hosted by Witches & Pagans. He is also an occasional contributor to Gods & Radicals and The Huffington Post, and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com.
This is so beautiful. It puts into words everything that I’ve slowly been learning over the past few months… Thank you so much!
Thank you. I’m glad you appreciated it.
This has to be one of your best articles John. Really really interesting and enlightening.
Really liked this! It ties into some research I’m doing on consciousness and animism.
I’m glad. I’d love to hear more about your research. I’ve been curious about the intersection of animism and archetypalism.
The gods may exist irregardless of our psychological activities. Even if it were infantile to believe in gods (which I don’t think), the gods may still exist. Even if it was shallow and selfish to wish for things from gods and see them with human-like faces and bodies, the gods may still exist. Their existence or non-existence is an independent factor from our psychology. The gods cannot be psychologized away. I think a better question is whether there is (rational) metaphysical existence or reality. If not, the question of the existence of gods isn’t important.
John, you wrote: “After I stopped believing in God, I could not forgive myself for having been “duped” into believing, and this made me unkind toward those who continued to believe.” As a former atheist as well as child who believed in Santa Claus, I can relate to this. I can tell you though that when I converted away from atheism, I was at peace and still am with believers. My last tie before I broke with atheism was defending pagan atheism and pagan atheists while I only sort of considered myself to be one. Although gods can’t be psychologized away, there may be a loose-knit, common psychology in relating to believers among most atheists.