Synchronicity, Coincidence, and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”: Jungian Spirituality for Lent

Note: This post is part of our Lenten study of Joyce Rockwood Hudson’s book Natural Spirituality: Recovering the Wisdom Tradition in Christianity. Links to the previous installments in this series on “Jungian Spirituality” will be included at the end of each post.

18 Moses said to God, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19 And God said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘I Am’”…. 20 But, God said, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21 And God continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Exodus 33

This week as I was preparing this sermon on synchronicity, which was Carl Jung’s term for “meaningful coincidences,” I had a series of synchronicities related to the concept of synchronicity. Or maybe it was a mere coincidence, not a meaningful coincidence? The difference is not always clear, and I’m not sure there is ever a way to move from a subjective, personal sense that a series of events seems to be a synchronicity to a definitive, objective confirmation that a series of events is a meaningful coincidence. Nevertheless, I will at least share with you my experience.

Part of my motivation for this sermon series on Jungian spirituality is that a Jungian perspective on archetypes, the Collective Unconscious, dreamwork, and synchronicities is underrepresented in our modern, technology-center world. But on Monday, I received an email newsletter from the Spirituality & Practice website, which was highlighting this week — of all possible topics — a bunch of books, films, and articles on synchronicity, including the new Duplass brothers film Jeff, Who Lives at Home, which was released last weekend.

I had heard about this film the previous week, when it was announced on one of my favorite podcasts Filmspotting that they would be reviewing it this week. I wasn’t that impressed with their description of the film and didn’t plan to see it. But then I received that e-mail newsletter which was not only about synchronicity in general, but also included an article that synchronicity is a major theme in the new film Jeff, Who Lives at Home. I thought to myself, “Fine. I’ll bite.”

I went to see the movie on Wednesday. The critical reviews so far have been lackluster, and I don’t recommend that you rush out to see it. You should also be forewarned that it is “Rated R” for profanity and pot smoking. If you do end up seeing it at some point, I promise not to spoil the film anymore than the trailer does, but allow to give you a few descriptions:

Watch the trailer on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrDf6Ih8kHw

The film stars Jason Siegel as the titular “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” And indeed he is a thirty-something year-old-man, who lives at home with his mother played by Susan Sarandon. Jeff is obsessed with the 2002 M. Night Shyamalan film Signs.

In an early scene, someone mistakenly calls Jeff’s house asking to speak to “Kevin.” Jeff answers that, “There is no Jeff here.” But after hanging up, he begins to wonder if perhaps the name Kevin is a ‘sign,’ and perhaps “There are no wrong numbers.” As you may be able to guess, the name “Kevin” leads Jeff though a chain of adventures culminating in an unexpected confluence of events at the end of the movie.

The film’s point of view is that there are signs, patterns, and synchronicities that we should notice and respond to. On one hand, this story is merely fiction. On the other hand novelist Milan Kundera has said, “It is wrong…to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences…but it is right to chide humans for being blind to such coincidences in their daily life. For we thereby deprive our life of a dimension of beauty.”

More importantly than the ways that fiction does and does not represent truths about real life and more important than the plot of this particular film is perhaps the question, “Is it merely a coincidence that in the same week I planned to preach about the somewhat obscure Jungian concept of synchronicity that I would both receive an e-mail newsletter about synchronicity and that a major film studio would release a film with synchronicity as a major plot element?” I certainly did not know about that either of these things would happen this past week, when I first outlined this sermon series more than two months ago.

As we have said before in this series, we are entering murky waters. If we aren’t careful, we can slip into some form of magical thinking such as the facile and simplistic assertion that, “Everything happens for a reason.” In contrast, a Jungian understanding of synchronicity is perhaps, at minimum, inviting us to pay attention to the patterns and themes in your life: these motifs may be a call to integrate some aspect of your personal unconscious or the Collective Unconscious into your conscious, waking life. And integrating the unconscious, not-fully-realized, and shadow aspect of ourselves into our conscious, waking life is a large part of the journey toward wholeness and spiritual growth.

Joyce Rockwood Hudson, the author of the book we’ve been studying, Natural Spirituality: Recovering the Wisdom Tradition in Christianity, writes that synchronicities are “linked not by physical cause and effect but by meaning arising from the unconscious. Synchronicity does not deny or negate causality, but exists alongside it…. There [is] a nonrational element involved” (104-105). In other words, as powerful as the scientific method is for bringing us the Hubble Space Telescope, the Large Hadron Collider, the iPhone, the microwave, the CAT scan, and some many other wonders, the claim of Jungian spirituality is there is more to the Universe and to our personal experience than can be seen through the lens of science and comprehended by human reason.

I think that this insight parallels some of the deep truth underneath our scripture text for this morning. Just as Moses did not have the capacity to perceive or comprehend the fullness of God’s glory (only God’s backside), so too — despite our immense modern scientific knowledge — there remains much more about the universe that we do not know from our limited, human perspective.

At the same time, it is important to remember that the title of Joyce’s book on Jungian spirituality is not “Supernatural Spirituality,” but “Natural Spirituality.” Both she and Jung and not talking about God as some supernatural being who capriciously intervenes from time to time to disrupt the natural flow of cause and effect and to temporarily suspend the laws of physics. Instead, we are talking about natural spirituality that invites us to see that there more to this world than we normally comprehend. And Jung invites us to experiment in our own lives with the claim that through practices such as dream work and paying attention to synchronicities, we can catch glimpses of a web of meaning of which our conscious selves are typically unaware.

Joyce writes:

Our proper relationship to [synchronicities or to our dreams] is a dialogue, our own consciousness neither overrunning it nor being overrun by it…. We supply conscious intent and direction, while [dreams and] synchronicity supply encouragement, hints, or corrections. We weigh these suggestions and decide for ourselves what to think or how to proceed…. When we are open to [dreams and] synchronicity, life itself teems with the presence of God. (109)

So, having reflected on some non-fictional and fictional synchronicities as well as on some of the theoretical background to synchronicities, let me share with you two more true stories of possible synchronicities. The first is from my own life. The second is from Recollections, the autobiography of Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author of the bestselling book Man’s Search for Meaning.

From the many synchronicities I have experienced in my life, in light of preparing to graduate in May with my Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) from San Francisco Theological Seminary, perhaps it is appropriate to share that back in spring 2009 I was talking with the director of the D.Min. program about whether I could start work on my dissertation even though I wasn’t planning to finish the coursework for my degree until summer 2010. He paused for a few moments to consider the options, and surprised both himself and me by offering an unorthodox course of action: “If you can come out here for ten days this summer and take an intensive course, I’ll work with you personally to get your dissertation topic approved.” Normally, you have to attend intensive classes for a full six weeks, during which your dissertation topic is approved. But his offer was complicated by the fact I had already been in San Francisco for three weeks a few months earlier finishing the coursework for my low-residency Diploma in the Art of Spiritual Direction. I normally would not have been able to return to the Bay Area so soon, but in a potential synchronicity, I was already in the midst of planning an Arts and Cultural trip with a group from my congregation at that time to, of all places, San Francisco. With a change in dates of only a week, I was able to come a few days early and complete the part of the coursework needed to begin working on my dissertation. Mere coincidence or meaningful coincidence?

Similarly, Viktor Frankl recounts in his Autobiography that one day he and his wife were walking through the streets of Vienna. They passed by a church they had long admired because of its Gothic architecture and were drawn in on a whim by some organ music they heard being played inside. But as soon as they entered the sanctuary, the music stopped, and the priest began preaching about — of all possible things — the godless writings of one Viktor Frankl. He writes [my emphasis]:

The priest preceded to tear my book to shreds. Later, I introduced myself, a bit worried that this encounter might give him a heart attack. He certainly had not expected that I would be present. How many minutes had passed from my birth up to that sermon, up to the point of our visit to the Votive Church for the first time? How minuscule the chance that I would enter at exactly the moment when the priest mentioned me in his sermon?

I think the only appropriate attitude to such coincidences is to not even try to explain them. Anyway, I am too ignorant to explain them, and too smart to deny them.

In the contemplative silence to follow, I invite to you be open to what this talk of synchronicity, mere coincidence, and meaningful coincidence may have stirred up within you. Do any memories of synchronicities emerge from your unconscious?

In the coming weeks, I invite you to be open and attentive to unexpected patterns in your life, meaningful coincidences, and your dreams. You may be surprised what you notice.

For now, I invite you to be still and listen….

 

Previous Sermons in this Series on “Jungian Spirituality for Lent”

  • Confronting the Unconscious: from Supernatural to Natural Spirituality(Lent 1). Available at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/03/confronting-the-unconscious-from-supernatural-to-natural-spirituality/. An excerpt: “We have to be extraordinarily careful about attributing causation to God and meaning to events. In particular, I am by no means promoting a variation of the harmful canard that, “everything happens for a reason.” But, at least for Joyce Rockwood Hudson, calling these two events “mere coincidences” did not adequately explain the powerful impressiveness of her personal experience. She increasingly had eyes to see and ears to hear “very personal and specific meaning” in events that would have previously seemed coincidental, random, and generic. In Jungian terms, Joyce was experiencing a “confrontation with the unconscious.” And when she examined these resonances between the inner and outer world, she found guidance, insight, and encouragement on her journey toward spiritual growth and greater wholeness.”

 

Resources on Jungian Spirituality

  • Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections: Jung’s autobiography is arguably the best, most accessible entry point into his writings, which can be difficult to read. The next best step is probably The Portable Jung (The Viking Portable Library), edited by Joseph Campbell. This sampling of Jung will help you discern where you may want to begin to dive into his Collected Works.
  • Seedwork.org: a website filled with practical tools for listening to God’s Wisdom in many forms, including dream work, deep prayer, and meditation. Originally created under the auspices of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas. A primary site for gaining information about the expanding field of inner journey.

Notes

1 Joyce Rockwood Hudson, the author of our focal book, is the founder and director of the Natural Spirituality Program at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Athens, Georgia. According to one reviewer, she takes the insights of Carl Jung’s (1875–1961) writings “out of the professional world of the analyst’s office into the everyday world of the laity in the local church. The book offers serious Christians in every community an opportunity to embark on the spiritual path of individuation. With clarity and simplicity Joyce Hudson puts into her reader’s hands the tools for inner work that Jung offered to Christianity. She then goes beyond Jung to present original models of masculine and feminine wholeness.”

2 For the Spiritually &Practice newsletter on synchronicity, see http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/blogs/maps.php?id=22525. I do not necessary recommend all the resources on this website as equally valuable. For a short excerpt of Carl Jung’s writings on the subject see, “On Synchronicity,” in The Portable Jung, 505-518. For a more contemporary take on such matters, see David Ray Griffin’s Parapsychology, Philosophy, & Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration (SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought).

3 “there is more to the Universe and to our personal experience than can be seen through the lens of science.” — see the series of short videos on “Emergent Evolution, Spirituality and God,” featuring the theologian Philip Clayton, who is also steeped in the latest scientific breakthroughs (http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2012/03/13/emergent-evolution-spirituality-god/). Two highlights from the video descriptions:

  1. [R]ecent scientific discoveries show how organisms work together symbiotically to create ever new forms of cooperation. More than just being ‘red in tooth and claw,’ nature seems to act in powerful ways through cooperation across a vast variety of ecosystems. It appears that some scientists have projected their own (materialist, sexist, or atheist) values onto the data that they are seeking to interpret.
  2. In the centuries after Newton, science was held not only to exclude ‘spirit’ but also to disprove its existence…. Clayton argues that recent changes in the interpretation of science actually invite the non-material back into the conversation. The question confronting us now becomes whether we think of the universe as functioning only reductively — with all true explanations lying ultimately at the level of physics — or as full of possibility, with newness emerging from sources all around us. If the universe is really ‘upwardly open’ in this way, science and religion may serve as partners in addressing life’s deepest questions: What is the meaning of life? What matters? What is of value? And what does it all point to in the end?

See also Clayton’s new book The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith.

4 “Natural Spirituality” — see David Ray Griffin, Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion (Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion).

The singer-songwriter David Wilcox has an interesting song related to synchronicity that is a play on the Quaker notion “Hold it up to the light,” meaning to offer the fruit of your best discernment up to God. The lyrics are as follows:

It’s the choice of a lifetime – I’m almost sure / I will not live my life in between anymore / If I can’t be certain of all that’s in store / This far it feels so right / I will hold it up – hold it up to the light, / Hold it up to the light, hold it up to the light / The search for my future has brought me here / This is more than I’d hoped for, but sometimes I fear / That the choice I was made for will someday appear / And I’ll be too late for that flight / So hold it up – hold it up to the light, Hold it up to the light, hold it up to the light / It’s too late – to be stopped at the crossroads Each life here – a possible way / But wait – and they all will be lost roads / Each road’s getting shorter the longer I stay / Now as soon as I’m moving – my choice is good / This way comes through right where I prayed that it would / If I keep my eyes open and look where I should Somehow all of the signs are in sight / If I hold it up to the light / I said God, will you bless this decision? / I’m scared, Is my life at stake? / But I see if you gave me a vision / Would I never have reason to use my faith? / I was dead with deciding – afraid to choose / I was mourning the loss of the choices I’d lose / But there’s no choice at all if I don’t make my move / And trust that the timing is right / Yes and hold it up hold it up to the light / Hold it up to the light, hold it up to the light.

You can listen for free here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHsU6RTQvE0&feature=related.

I also highly recommend the version (which includes a story introduction) found on his album Live Songs and Stories.

The Rev. Carl Gregg is the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

About Carl Gregg
  • Tim Zebo

    Your “two more ‘true’ stories of possible synchronicities” reminded me of this one:
    Diagnosed with incurable Parkinson’s disease in 2001, Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre could barely move her left side. She could not write legibly, drive, move around easily and was in such pain she couldn’t sleep. She could not bear to watch her esteemed Pope John Paul II, also a Parkinson’s sufferer, appearing on television in his pope-mobile.”It reminded me of what I would be in a few years’ time, I had to listen to his broadcasts rather than watch them,” she said. Her disease worsened after his death, and her whole order prayed for his intervention to ease her suffering. Then one night after scrawling his name on a paper with her trembling hand, she woke up the next day cured.
    (Details are here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/mar/31/catholicism.france )

    Was the nun’s “cure” and her writing the Pope’s name a synchronicity that “we are too ignorant to explain, and too smart to deny?”

    Michael Shermer, argues “No!” as follows: “Say 1 million people have cancer in America (it’s much higher than this), and only 0.1% experience a spontaneous recovery (it’s actually higher than this). 1,000,000 x .001 = 1,000 people. Out of that cohort of 1,000 people, what are the chances that 6 of them have compelling narrative stories? Pretty good! However, a story you’ll NEVER read about is: “Next, we examine the remarkable fact that 99.99% of people who were diagnosed with incurable cancer, and were prayed for, died anyway…you won’t want to miss these stark statistical realities.”
    (see: http://www.michaelshermer.com/category/skepticblog/page/12/ )

    Analogously, I’d suggest that we’ll never see you write about the times you talked about “X” with the D.Min. program director, and you never thought or heard about “X” again.

    There’s even more we could say about Fankl’s story, but in the interest of time, dare we ask the question, “Did Frankl’s [subconscious?] mind, author of books intended to “inspire”, have any incentive to tell the (emotionally moving) details of the story exactly as he did?”

    Postscript
    Sadly, in March 2010, the 49-year-old nun became sick again (see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/05/nun-cured-pope-parkinsons-ill )

    Bottom Line
    We’re living in a world that’s being destroyed by two competing ideologies – are you sure you want to promote the one that teaches, “We’re living in a world we are too ignorant to explain, and too smart to deny?”

    • Carl Gregg

      On the bottom line you name, I seek to promote a middle way between either secular fundamentalism or religious fundamentalism: a progressive religion that is open to both personal experience and the best scientific insights.

      • Tim Zebo

        Thanks. Does anything change if we remove the perjorative “fundamentalism” and the complimentaries “progressive” and “best” from your reply? e.g., “I seek to promote a middle way between the secular and religious: a religion that is open to both personal experience and scientific insights.” Are you worried that without religion “personal experience” will be invalidated in some way?

        • Carl Gregg

          Progressive Christianity has a particular interest in the validity of personal experience as a criterion of authority, in contrast to more “orthodox” perspectives that tend to rely on hierarchal authority and tradition to the exclusion of personal experience. But my interest in personal experience goes beyond the general to the specifics of helping others cultivate firsthand experiences with God, as opposed to merely relying on secondhand talk about God.

          • Tim Zebo

            I love the clarity of your comments, so thanks again for that. Is there a set of criteria you use for deciding when you (or another) are having a “firsthand experience with God”, and when you’re not?

          • Carl Gregg

            My current best understanding of God is panentheism: that God is within, with, and beyond all things. Another definition: “God is the circle whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere.” Given that, mostly firsthand experience is about whether people make the time and space to attend to their firsthand experience through contemplative prayer, meditation, etc. In contrast, most people just stay on the surface level, never look inward, go from one things to another, and distract themselves constantly with TV, the Internet, iPods, alcohol, etc. God’s there (or that dimension/aspect of reality that we refer to as “God” in our human language); it’s just whether we pay attention or not.

          • Tim Zebo

            So is “my awareness of God” identical to “my awareness of my physical, emotional and intellectual experience?”

          • Carl Gregg

            William James might say that it is identical in the sense that one’s firsthand experience is one’s access to the “More” — the divine correlate that is both perceived partially and also beyond one’s conception.

            Jung might say that one’s firsthand experience includes the ways the personal unconscious and Collective Unconscious are penetrating through into our conscious waking lives.

          • Tim Zebo

            If I understand you correctly, “God” is “highly focused human awareness of one’s internal and external world.” What do you think of that definition?

          • Carl Gregg

            Your definition is a little too neo-Feuerbach for me. Although I can respect that perspective, God is not only “within” and “with” but also “beyond” me. Sallie McFague has an interesting take on God. She says something along the lines of Soul/Spirit:Humans::God:Universe.

  • http://gibbsonline.com gibbs a williams Ph.D

    Dear Mr. Gregg – I appreciate the unusual clarity and objectivity your website brings to this most complex and fascinating subject. I have been investigating the perplexities of synchronicities for the past 50 years. I began my journey as a de-facto Jungian focusing on the collective unconscious as the central organizing concept but came to view the role of the personal unconscious as a much more reasonable and ‘grounded’ concept and experience to account for the nature and process and use of meaningful coincidences. The details of my research and conclusions reached are found in my book called DEMYSTIFYING MEANINGFUL COINCIDENCES: (SYNCHRONICITIES) – The Evolving Self, The Personal Unconscious and The Creative Process. Briefly I believe that the kinds of synchronicities you describe begin with a seemingly unsolvable problem. If the attitude to the problem is a dedication to search for an answer no matter what – this attitude stimulates a person’s idiosyncratic creative process. The process consists of initiating a “psychological scavenger hunt” for clues – each clue being like a piece of a complicated multi leveled jigsaw puzzle. When enough clues (pieces) are joined together they eventually form a recognizable pattern. When the pattern is clearly visible to the pre conscious it is experienced as a synchronicity which still has to be decoded like a waking dream. The synchronicity in question is the creative solution to the seemingly unsolvable problem which is often experienced as if it was from an area transcendent and external to the self. In my theory the embedded “messages” associated with the synchronicity are messages from ones own personal unconscious now made conscious.

    • Carl Gregg

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad to learn about your book, research, and perspective. Best, Carl


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