The Parable of a Father and Two Sons: Jungian Hermeneutics and Therapeutic Applications

By Veliyannoor, Paulson V. | Journal of Psychology and Christianity, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Parable of a Father and Two Sons: Jungian Hermeneutics and Therapeutic Applications


Veliyannoor, Paulson V., Journal of Psychology and Christianity


Using Jungian hermeneutics as a tool for psychological biblical criticism, this article analyzes the biblical parable of the prodigal son. It proposes that the two sons in the parable are symbolic of the conscious and the unconscious, the two segments of personality, and that the father who is also the mother is the symbol of the Self. The prodigality of the younger son and the frugality of the elder son are unwholesome extremes of existence. The task of the two sons is to grow towards individuation - moving to the centered and life-giving position the father occupies, and become like him. The father in the parable who is the Self stands for Christ, the Imago Dei imprinted on human nature as its highest potential. Offering the concepts of Christie potential and Christie differential, the article discusses how the hermeneutical insights into the parable may be applied to the practice of Christian psychotherapy.

Over the past several decades, psychology has rediscovered the realm of the soul, recognizing care and cure of the soul as one of its legitimate fields of intervention (Hillman, 1975, 1997; Johnson, 2007; Moore, 1994; Stevenson, Eck, & Hill, 2007). Religious functions of the psyche and the psychic functions of spirituality and religiosity are gaining recognition as fields worthy of psychological research (Corbett, 2004, 2007; Koenig, 1998; Sperry, 2001). Newer research methods that honor the luminal labyrinths of soul are gaining ground (Coppin & Nelson, 2005; Romanyshyn, 2007). In conjunction with this greater focus on the soul-matters and even pre-dating it, there has also been a growing interest in psychological analysis of sacred texts of various religious traditions, especially in biblical hermeneutics. Psychoanalytic criticism has come to be recognized as one of five new literary critical approaches to biblical scholarship (Exum & Clines, 1993)· Such psychological-critical method, now known as psychological biblical criticism (Rollins, 2002), seeks to approach the Bible primarily as the product of a psychological process in which both unconscious and conscious factors are at work. It also seeks to examine religious phenomena and biblical personalities from psychological perspectives, and to elucidate both pathogenic and therapeutic elements of the Scriptures (Ellens & Rollins, 2004; Rollins, 1999, 2002).

The impetus for the study of the soul and psychological biblical criticism owes its modern origins to the psychologies of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Jung (1875-1961), especially the latter. Their lives and research show intense interest in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. Jung seems to have remarked, "We must read our Bible or we shall not understand psychology. Our psychology, whole lives, our language and imagery are built upon the Bible" Qung, 1977, as cited in Rollins, 2002, p. 108). Jung approached the Bible and the Judeo-Christian traditions with the purpose of unraveling the psychological significance and benefits of its teachings and practices (Kings, 1997). He believed that the goal of religious texts and traditions was cura animarum, care and cure of souls, and his psychology was deeply oriented towards the same (Rollins, 2002).

Though Jung did not provide for a detailed hermeneutic for biblical studies, many scholars have applied several of Jung's constructs and analytical methods to the study of the Bible. Thus, one may speak of a Jungian hermeneutic method for biblical exegesis, though the method is not without shortcomings (a brief discussion of which will be taken up later). Central to such Jungian hermeneutics is its teleological orientation that gels well with the purposive functions of the Bible. It applies to the biblical exegesis, its constructs of personal and collective unconscious with their complexes and archetypes respectively, study of the symbols, and the technique of amplification (Kings, 1997). Many biblical figures are excellent examples for the application of the dynamics of individuation, which is at the heart of Jungian psychology (Rollins, 2002). …

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