Book Review

The Religious Function of the Psyche
by Lionel Corbett

reviewed by J. Marvin Spiegelman

This is an exceptional book.  It is the first book, to my knowledge, in which a contemporary clinician not only continues the tradition inaugurated by Jung of explicating the attitude toward the psyche as a religious one but does so with full inclusion of the considerations attendant upon the practical work with patients and in relation to the theoretical contributions of neighboring psychoanalytic fields and even several religions.  Dr. Corbett, a physician and Jungian analyst who is a professor of depth psychology, does all this with both clear intellectual understanding and feelingful connection with the ground of all religious experience—the numinosum.

Corbett begins his book by referring to two sources from which his work grew.  The first was his "personal frustration with traditional concepts of divinity."   He states that he has always been a religious person but never had much use for the ways traditional religious systems conceive of God.   You could have fooled me, however.  As one who has had a more positive experience of the various religions and has written about them, I found that Corbett was both respectful and knowledgeable about several faiths, including a knowledge of some abstruse meditation practices.

His second source, Corbett says, was the realization that many of the people he has worked with in psychotherapy "have a deeply personal or private sense of what is really sacred to them, while they maintain an outward adherence to a traditional church or synagogue for reasons such as family allegiance or simple sentimentality."  Many therapists will no doubt know what he means.  In the remainder of his book, Corbett sticks close to such genuine experiences while he courageously and thoughtfully examines belief systems and ideas with a psychological eye.  So it is quite true that the book is "about the experience of divinity that emerges both from the practice of dynamic psychotherapy and from the principles of depth psychology."

The first chapter, "The Religious Attitude in Psychotherapy," convincingly establishes depth psychology as a spiritual pursuit.   One can only be glad that this viewpoint is finally retrieved from the endless concern with case studies and cozying up to other disciplines.  The second chapter takes up the theme that personal spirituality is based on contact with the numinosum—namely, one’s own real experiences.  The third and fourth chapters address the transpersonal self and the archetype as a spiritual principle from a comparative point of view.  He is able to demonstrate his thesis that "psychology and spirituality are synonymous."  Chapter 5 takes up the mythological and symbolic aspects of the psyche’s religious function, showing that some psychotic conditions produce religious and self imagery without the patient’s being able to assimilate this material or truly profit from it.  Chapter 6 breaks new ground in presenting a psychological view of some traditional religious ideas, such as the sacramental nature of the psyche and psychological forms of salvation.  Particularly insightful are his reflections on sin and redemption understood archetypally.

Corbett then addresses spirit and soul.  Understanding that the latter is what gives us the ability to grasp the experience of spirit consciously.  He concludes that consciousnessis the factor common to body, soul, and spirit, providing a hermeneutical method to address their interaction.  A brief discussion follows of "soul and self object," along with an examination of soul-retrieval as it is done in shamanistic traditions and in therapy.

Chapters 7 and 8 contrast traditional and psychological approaches to suffering, particularly in the area of dogma, which is seen as fields of experience that have become rigidified and, perhaps, outmoded or defensively used—e.g., in a possibly outmoded need for celibacy.  Such considerations are useful, but in the rough and tumble of dealing with priests and nuns, however, one must stick to what Corbett also values most: what the unconscious has to say that it.  Corbett’s assertion is the right one for a psychotherapist: the patient needs to arrive at a totally idiosyncratic solution to his or her suffering, based on an archetypal dream, for example, as well as concurring with the viewpoints of a system far from the one in which he or she was raised.  The psyche, I would say, tends to be ecumenical, drawing on what it needs and can use; therapists, as empiricists, rely on what the Self offers in the here and now.

Corbett presents several criteria by which one can address the efficacy of such personal solutions: (1) the truth is affective and not just cognitive; (2) it has a strengthening effect in overall integration; (3) it enhances the self’s relationship to the Self; (4) it is not defensive; and (5) it makes sense in terms of both the developmental context and also points to the future of the personality.  Such clear and practical thought is typical of Corbett’s work.

Chapter 9 returns to the consideration of sin and evil, essentially presenting Jung’s viewpoint on the dark side of the Self.  But chapters 10 and 11 are quite original contributions.   The former "Psychotherapy and Spiritual Practice," reprises his main argument and should be read fully rather than in precise form.  Chapter 11, "The Rationale for a Contemplative Psychology," offers a surprising suggestion that a kind of "monastery" for a contemplative psychology is possible in the coming era, in which people will come for varying periods to discover the Self in their own souls in a communal context.   I have seen hints of his new monastery of the soul in dreams and heard certain patients even describe plans for establishing such environments, whether as "spas," "workshops," or traditional spiritual communities—and one can only hope that Corbett is right about this.  Only glimpses can be given in a brief review; the full weight of Dr.Corbett’s achievement must be read to be understood.

J. Marvin Spiegelman, PhD, is a Zurich-trained Jungian analyst practicing in Los Angeles.  An author of many books, his most recent is Psychotherapy as a Mutual Process.

Reprinted with permission from Psychological Perspectives, issue thirty-five, C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles.


[ Book Reviews ]            [ Home ]