Depth Psychology and Mysticism

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Thomas Cattoi, David M. Odorisio
Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Mysticism
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , May
     289 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In their introduction, the editors of Depth Psychology and Mysticism plunge right into the central issues that have emerged in the interface between depth psychology and “experiences of the numinous,” the latter standing in for the mysticism of the book’s title. In the past such experiences “were mediated by established religious traditions,” but with secularization and the appearance of depth psychology we are compelled “to look deeper into the psyche for alternative ways to articulate these experiences” (3). To do so results in a number of responses, from psychological reductionism to developing amodus operandi between religious assertions and their psychological correlates. Variations of the latter are what the editors explain characterize the collection of fifteen essays , which range widely, and whose authors bring the perspectives of backgrounds in religious studies or depth psychology with many incorporating a distinct Jungian influenced orientation, as the editors acknowledge (9). The more or less Jungian orientation of many of the essays assures the reader that what pertains to the religious—especially on the experiential level that is central to any definition and discussion of mysticism—will be given due regard. Nevertheless, as is evident in a number of the essays, this does not thereby guarantee that religious assertions related to those experiences are going to be taken at face value. Instead, an interpretative framework that is rooted in depth psychology is brought to bear and makes up the approach by which the phenomena in question are rendered meaningful in psychologically palatable terms.

The essays in this collection are gathered under three headings: Methodological, Hermeneutic, and Inter-disciplinary Perspectives; Historical and Theoretical Approaches; and Self and No-Self, Knowing and Unknowing in Depth Psychology and Mysticism. In addition to Carl Jung, James Hillman, and Eugen Drewermann, Freud and other psychoanalytical sources are called upon to elucidate various aspects of what can be broadly termed mystical experiences. These range from early Patristic writers, St. John of the Cross, Pseudo-Dionysius and the via negativa tradition, to mystical dreaming, alchemy, Buddhist notions of the unconscious, and even some recent US teachers of nonduality. Nor do les éminences grises, Freud and Jung, escape examination here and there and, in particular, under the scrutiny of Christine Downing’s “Sigmund Freud and Jewish Mysticism,” and Lionel Corbett’s “Jung and Mysticism.” Other essays address some of the theoretical and practical matters that emerge in therapeutic settings as in Robin Brown’s “Spirituality and the Challenge of Clinical Pluralism” that critiques the reticence of practitioners to include spirituality within the clinical domain. Turning to developments in psychoanalysis and Jungian archetypal theory, Brown argues that these can align with Jorge Ferrer’s notion of a participatory turn to offer an in-depth understanding of transpersonal experiences.

While many of the essays are refreshing in their openness to mystical experience and, for the most part, avoid undue reductionism by offering nuanced attempts to accommodate spiritual elements into their psychological readings, a few issues beg for further examination. For instance, a number of the essays make passing reference to the Jesuit Michel de Certeau’s seminal essay “Mysticism” as foundational in locating the decline of religious institutional-based mysticism in the West in the past centuries. The consequence was to open  the way for individual experience and what he termed the “psychologization of mysticism.” In many ways this culminates in William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, with its individualized definition of religion and its focus on individual mystical experience, seeming unencumbered by any determinative religious context.

It would appear from the general tenor of many of the articles in this collection that de Certeau analysis is deemed sound, that in the West we live in a post-Christian world, and that a new interpretive framework is needed to decipher and make intelligible mystical experience on a global scale. Moreover, that a Jungian-oriented depth psychology is best suited to take up this cultural task. Indeed, there are more than hints of this claim in Jung’s own writings and letters, and especially in his exchange with the Dominican, Victor White, and now in his Red Book. Given the weight of Jung’s overall influence in this collection of essays, it raises some questions of the degree to which a Jungian-oriented depth psychology is up to the task? In fact, the editors’s comments in the introduction, ambiguous though some of them are, demonstrate an awareness of what is seemingly at stake in the tension between the legitimacy of religious experiences and depth psychology (7-9). While the proposed analogous example of the emergence of transcendental Thomism from the neo-scholastic encounter with Immanuel Kant is an interesting one, it is probably lost on most of the potential readership and falls short of incorporating other pronounced tendencies. William Parsons, in the only essay that tackles definitional issues, “Mysticism in Translation,” offers a sketch of the encounter between psychology and religion, and the pros and cons of what this means for the psychological understanding of mysticism. One of the outcomes he alerts us to is the emergence of “psychology as religion” or “psychospirituality,” largely found among Jungians and others of the transpersonal school, and evident in many of the essays in this collection.

In the enthusiasm to embrace de Certeau’s views about the decline of institutionally-based mystical experience, it seems his later comments have been largely overshadowed. They are worth restating as an insight into the broader religious context, while assuming unparalleled authority for depth psychology and its interpretations of mysticism: “Whether it wishes to be or not, any Western analysis is situated within the context of a culture marked by Christianity. On the other hand, within Western science as well as Western experience, mysticism implies a distancing from Church authority. It indicates the unity of a modern lay reaction before sacred institutions. These two coordinates determine the site of any current interpretation of mysticism and religions (“Mysticism.” Diacritics Vol. 22, No. 2 (Summer, 1992), 23).

About the Reviewer(s): 

F.X. Charet is Coordinator of the Consciousness Studies Concentration at the Graduate Institute at Goddard College.

Date of Review: 
January 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas Cattoi is Associate Professor of Christology and Cultures, Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University and Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA. He co-edits the journal Buddhist-Christian Studies and is the author of Divine Contingency: Theologies of Divine Embodiment in Maximos the Confessor and Tsong kha pa (2009) and Theodore the Studite: Writings on Iconoclasm (2014). 

David M. Odorisio is Director of The Retreat at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Santa Barbara, CA, and teaches in Pacifica’s Mythological Studies graduate degree program in the areas of methodology, psychology and religion, and comparative mysticism.  He has published in numerous journals at the intersection of depth psychology and religious studies.


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