Fr. Victor White O.P.:
Tell us about your book and why you wrote it.
The book is an intellectual biography of the English Dominican Fr. Victor White O.P. (1902-1960) which explores the impact of Jung on his life and his work. The journey to writing the book requires a little background. My parents raised me Catholic, and nurtured in me a love of God and a love of learning. I read Theology from a young age, and very much in the traditional sense of faith seeking understanding. It was whilst reading for a B.A. in Theology at the University of Oxford that I took a course on Psychology of Religion which focused largely on Freud and Jung. Something about Jung just fascinated me. The more I read, the more I wanted to read, and I had a sense that there was something to what he was saying. Not many people in Oxford shared this sense, -- in fact Jung was not much respected in many academic circles. I often wondered how Jung’s ideas fit with my own Catholic faith. And then my godfather, a Catholic priest, sent me a copy of Victor White’s God and the Unconscious. I soon began to read White’s other works. Not long after this, I was in conversation with Paul Parvis, then Regent of Studies at Blackfriars, Oxford, regarding the direction of my doctoral studies. We talked about Ann Lammers’ important book on White and Jung, and Parvis suggested that more work needed to be done on White. And that’s what I did. The Dominicans allowed me full access to their Archives in Edinburgh where I was able to pour over White’s letters, diaries, lecture notes and papers. In the years that followed Keith Ward encouraged me to transform the doctorate into a book – an intellectual biography of White if you will. And so Fr. Victor White O.P.: The Story of Jung's 'White Raven' was born.
We know a lot more about Jung than we do about Victor White. Your book begins to address that imbalance. One of the questions that intrigues me about White is just how and why he got involved in Jung's psychology to begin with. It seems like he had personal issues that he was trying to resolve, and even problems with the church. Can you shed light on this?
White was frustrated with the neo-scholastic climate in which he found himself, and with the Church’s suspicion of all things modern. He detested the fact that he had to take the anti-modernist oath. He didn’t like the way in which Aquinas was read. He found the intellectual climate dry. So yes, it’s fair to say that White was dealing with a certain level of discontent in the Church and the Order. And then there are a couple of things that I found during my research in the Dominican Archives which help to shed further light on your question. The first is a letter that White wrote to John Layard, a Jungian analyst in Oxford, in which he describes himself as “a Catholic priest who has become badly ‘stuck.’” The second is a preface to some lecture notes that White delivered at St Albert’s House of Studies in Oakland California in 1954, in which he explains his utter boredom with theology. He says that he just couldn’t get his head into it. He wasn’t gripped by it. He goes on to say that having read some Freud and Jung he had an inkling that Jung might be able to help him with these issues (i.e. with the effects of an overly rational approach to faith). Little did he know how right he was! White then entered into analysis with Layard, and shortly after this he took the initiative to write to Jung and included some articles he had written. Jung’s response, and his appreciation of White’s insights, marked the beginning of a remarkable correspondence.
So it appears that White had a real practical knowledge from experience about how valuable Jung's psychology could be. But what about Jung? What was he expecting from White? It seems that early on he had all sorts of grand expectations.
Yes, I think that Jung pinned great hopes on White. He knew that White had been transformed by the experience of his psychology, and that his theology had been revitalized in the process. He placed high value on the fact that White understood him. I think that (initially at least) Jung hoped that White would be instrumental in the transformation of the western God image, a kind of emissary to Catholic Christianity in the way he had been Freud’s emissary to the gentiles. I argue this point at some length in the book. The tragedy is that despite the initial enthusiasm and good will of both men, ultimately White couldn’t fulfill these hopes.
Now we get to an even more complex and difficult issue. Just why did their relationship fail? How much, for example, of that failure could be traced to what could be called epistemological reasons where Jung at once proclaimed he was only doing psychology, and yet in practice never believed that philosophy and theology could have their own distinctive ways of knowing?
Very complex indeed! The immediate cause of the relationship breakdown was White’s critical review of Jung’s Answer to Job which caught Jung off guard and offended him very deeply. After all, White’s praise for the manuscript had been rather effusive. But there were many other serious issues simmering long before the review. Connected to Job was the dispute over the privatio boni. Jung failed to comprehend that the privation boni was, for White (and Aquinas) about the language and grammar of evil. Reading Wittgenstein might have helped. I spend a lot of time on this issue in the book.
I would agree with you that Jung’s insistence that he was doing psychology and yet his frequent intrusion into metaphysics was a major factor in the failure of the relationship. Murray Stein’s argument that Jung was in a “privileged position” to evaluate “the relative adequacy or incompleteness of statements about God” because all words (including God and privatio boni) have a subjective dimension and say something about the psyche is helpful in this regard. It’s helpful because it means that Jung could maintain the boundaries between metaphysics and empiricism and at the same time criticize doctrines of God as inadequate from an “empirical” point of view (as “psychologically inadequate”, to use Stein’s terminology).
Is there any way to overcome the impasse that Jung and White found themselves in? Certainly the Catholic Church seems in dire need of the kind of psychological knowledge that Jung's psychology can give. Does the Jungian-Christian dialogue really have a future?
Much of the impasse stems from misunderstandings, but, as I argue in the book, they are serious. It’s tragic that these couldn’t have been unraveled during their lifetimes.
As for the future of the Jungian Christian dialogue, I hope so. It needs serious scholars well grounded in theology and Jungian psychology and there aren’t too many of those around. I hope that, at the very least, my book and The Jung-White Letters will go some way to re-opening that conversation.
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