Live Your Animal: Carl Jung and the Anabaptists

Issue 2023, vol. 77

In 1916, Carl Jung was haunted by a group of Anabaptists. The famed depth psychologist had parted ways with Sigmund Freud, his mentor and father figure, in 1913. That experience left Jung disoriented, without footing. Not only had he lost the theoretical foundation of his psychological work when he broke with Freud and his school of thought, but he realized he had no mythos by which to live. The descendant of a long line of Swiss pastors, Jung believed Christianity had lost its ability to serve as a living faith or meaning-making system for the majority of Western people, including himself.

The foundation crumbled, Jung stood uneasily among the ruins. Then, he started to have compelling dreams. He began paying attention to his fantasies, to memories that rose unbidden into consciousness, to seemingly irrational impulses – such as to play with children’s building blocks, which he loved doing as an 11-year-old. With nothing else to guide him, Jung reluctantly gave in to these dreams, memories and impulses. Although at times he feared he was becoming psychotic, he continued what he called his confrontations with the unconscious. “Below the threshold of consciousness everything was seething with life,” he said of this time.[1]

He began writing down his fantasies and dreams, following the style seemingly dictated by his unconscious. “Sometimes,” he said, “it was as if I were hearing it with my ears, sometimes feeling it with my mouth, as if my tongue were formulating words; now and then I heard myself whispering aloud.”[2] A skilled artist, he later went on to paint the images flowing from his fantasies and dreams. Together, with his writings, they formed the famed Red Book.[3] He gave himself over to exploring that underground life – conducting experiments with it and then bringing that psychic data to consciousness and study.

Three years into his confrontation with the unconscious, Jung began sensing a shift in his psyche, an internal restlessness that quickly became an external agitation in the entire atmosphere of his house. He felt the air fill with ghostly entities. His eldest daughter saw a white figure pass through a room, and his younger daughter – independently of her older sister – reported that twice her blanket had been snatched away in the middle of the night. His son had a vivid, portentous dream and insisted he draw it upon awakening, something he had never done before.

And then, around 5 p.m. on a bright summer Sunday, the front doorbell began ringing frantically. From where he sat, Jung could see the bell moving. The maids, who could view the front door from the kitchen window, saw no one there. They opened the door; again, no one. Jung later wrote: “The whole house was filled as if there were a crowd present, crammed full of spirits. They were packed deep right up to the door, and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe.”[4]

Jung knew he had to do something. Finally, he asked the ghosts, “For God’s sake, what in the world is this?” The ghosts revealed themselves to be a group of wandering Anabaptists, who cry out in chorus, “We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought.” Apparently, the ghosts were seeking something from Jung, something they had not found in their wanderings. For the next three evenings, Jung wrote down what flowed from that haunting, a strange work called “Septem Sermones” or “Seven Sermons to the Dead.” The work was, he said, a response to the Anabaptist dead, who “prayed me let them in and besought my word.”[5] The haunting ceased as soon as he began writing.

Jung recounts this incident in full in the Red Book (I have italicized his part of the dialogue for easier reading):[6]

I hear an odd swishing and whirring – and suddenly a roaring sound fills the room like a horde of large birds – with a frenzied flapping of wings – I see many shadows like human forms rush past and I hear a manifold babble of voices utter the words: “Let us pray in the temple!”

“Where are you rushing off to?” I call out. A bearded man with tousled hair and dark shining eyes stops and turns toward me. “We are wandering to Jerusalem to pray at the most holy sepulcher.”

“Take me with you.”

“You cannot join us, you have a body. But we are dead.”

“Who are you?”

“I am Ezechiel, and I am an Anabaptist.”

“Who are those wandering with you?”

“These are my fellow believers.”

“Why are you wandering?”

“We cannot stop, but must make a pilgrimage to all the holy places.”

“What drives you to this?”

“I don’t know. But it seems that we still have no peace, although we died in true belief.”

“Why do you have no peace if you died in true belief?”

“It always seems to me as if we had not come to a proper end with life.”

“Remarkable – how so?”

“It seems to me that we forgot something important that should have been lived.”

“And what was that?”

“Would you happen to know?”

With these words, he reaches out greedily and uncannily toward me, his eyes shining as if from an inner heat.

“Let go, daimon, you did not live your animal.”

Twenty-five years ago, I encountered Jung for the first time when I found a copy of Memories, Dreams, Reflections at a small Benedictine retreat center in Kalispell, Montana. Immediately, I found insights about the human psyche that resonated strongly with me. His map of the psyche, especially the personal and collective shadow, helped me understand a conundrum I had experienced my entire life.

My family has been Amish or Mennonite for 500 years. I deeply cherish this legacy for its ethical rigor and its oddly optimistic view of humans – that we can, together, help bring about the realm of God on earth. At the same time, it was all too obvious that we constantly fell short of our ideals. With Paul, I wondered: Why do we not do the good we want to do? Even more so, what if our concept of the good was actually the source of suffering and division? My wonderful home church wounded me and others with its teachings about sexual purity, to cite just one example. We participated unknowingly in oppressive systems we thought were God’s holy will – colonization, white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, to name just a few.

Enter the shadow. Our ego, the conscious part of our personality, wants to be significant, central, important, right, righteous, attractive… fill in with your own adjective. This ego wants to eliminate what is bothersome, humiliating or negative – basically, whatever threatens the ego’s identity. So we push those emotions, desires, and aspects of ourselves that our ego doesn’t wish to acknowledge into the underground of our psyches. There, the exiled parts unconsciously influence us, becoming neuroses, additions, dis-eases. Collectively, what we push into the shadow – and then project onto the other – becomes monstrous, even demonic.[7]

One of Jung’s lifelong projects was to reform and redeem Christianity so that it could become a living, healing meaning system again. As such, he performed his own kind of psychoanalysis on the Western Christian psyche, looking at what it had exiled into its unconscious. Two years after his Anabaptist haunting, in 1918, Jung wrote an essay, “On the Unconscious,” in which he stated that Christianity had repressed the animal, producing a problematic relationship with our instinctual drives, including our sexuality.[8] Says Jung scholar Sonu Shamdasani, summarizing that 1918 essay, “…if individuals had a better relation to their own ‘animal,’ they would set a higher value on life. Life would become the absolute moral principle and the individual would instinctively read against any institution that sought the destruction of life.”[9]

Jung returned to these themes several years later in a series of lectures in Cornwall on Christianity and its historical effects on the unconscious. In them, Jung differentiated what he called “ecclesiastical Christianity” from the real Christianity of Christ’s teachings. Ecclesiastical Christianity had repressed the animal, as well as Nature and the flesh, and creative fantasy, he said.[10] Unlike Eastern religions, Christianity had little appreciation for seeing animals as living beings, St. Francis being a notable exception. This exclusion  of the animal led Westerners to see themselves as inappropriately distinct from these “lower” life forms, thus separating them from the animal life within and outside of themselves – indeed, separating themselves from the evolutionary heritage they shared with other animals.[11]

These exclusions, he said, have made Western humanity feel very isolated. “When this happens you feel that you have fallen from grace, for you cannot drink from the wells of nature and then you must seek for grace elsewhere. Indeed, the Church has brought this condition of affairs about for this very purpose.”[12] In other words, Jung believed it was in the Church’s interest to cut humanity off from the animal, leaving people to seek salve for that alienation in the Church alone. He believed a right relationship to the animal was necessary for true humanness to be possible and was a critical cultural task for industrialized Westerners.[13]

To truly take on this task would mean a reordering of our supposed place within creation. Jung found the idea that humans alone possess reason to be “antiquated twaddle. I have been found that men are far more irrational than animals.”[14] In a seminar on the interpretation of visions in 1930, Jung said:

“We are prejudiced in regard to the animal. People don’t understand when I tell them that they should become acquainted with their animals or assimilate their animals. They think the animal is always jumping over walls and raising hell all over town. Yet in nature the animal is a well-behaved citizen. It is is pious, it follows the path with great regularity, it does nothing extravagant. Only man is extravagant. So if you assimilate the character of the animal, you become a peculiarly law-abiding citizen, you go very slowly, and you become very reasonable in your ways, in as much as you can afford it.”[15]

Jung believed that our capacity for reflective consciousness not only confers no superiority to us – it actually makes it possible for us to deviate from divine law. Animals, he said, were more pious because they fulfill the divine will more completely than humans ever can. Animals cannot deviate from “natural law”; humans can. They alone are capable of disobedience against the Creator, by believing they can separate themselves from the rest of creation and from their own “natural” selves – their bodies, their sensual animal selves, their instincts, their proper place in a pulsing, living, animate creation.

When I first read the story of Jung and the ghostly Anabaptists, I had an intuitive stirring that this was more than just a delightfully weird story about how my people had shown up in the imagination of an influential thinker. Somehow, I sensed that it touched at the heart of the conundrum I mentioned earlier: Why did “good people” do awful things? Writ large, that question has morphed for me into: How has our Western, Christian dominant culture gone so wrong that we have brought ourselves to the brink of ecological destruction?

I eventually found the work of Jungian scholar John Beebe, who helped me articulate the intuition behind that initial stirring. Jung, he said, admired Christianity’s focused, ethical stance. In Jung’s psyche, Anabaptists – as a group of people trying to take seriously Christ’s teachings – perhaps represented a distillation of the best of Christianity.[16] The early Anabaptists frequently spoke of the Christian life they were trying to build as the “new Jerusalem,” as Beebe notes. When this group of dead Anabaptists say that they have returned from Jerusalem, where they did not find what they were looking for, they seem to be saying that they could not solve the conundrum I referenced earlier – of how to make Christian community grounded in the teachings of Jesus a reality on earth. “Perhaps” Beebe says, “their movement was too idealistic.”[17]

It’s likely Jung would have agreed with this assessment. He believed that Christianity – and by extension the Western psyche – had become dangerously one-sided through its repression of the animal, the body, nature, and the feminine. Cut off from its ground in matter,[18] its view of perfection had become alarmingly abstracted, overly spiritualized and intellectualized. It had spiritual truths to offer, but these were not sufficiently grounded in psychological truth, or, one could say, in bodily truth.[19]

Through this haunting, Jung came to believe that what we owe the dead is “no less than to take up the problems they left unsolved when their lives ended.” Indeed, he believed that the dead are waiting for answers from us, the living. “Thus one of the things Jung believes he owes the dead is to conceive of a way to live Christianity that honors the physical part of man’s [sic] nature,”  says Beebe. Jung endeavors to meet his obligation to past Christians by reintegrating the animal, nature, the body, and the feminine back into the Christian psyche – a re-union he pursued throughout his life. According to Beebe, this was an attempt to reunite the pagan tradition, which had been so violently repressed during the Christianization of Europe, to Christianity, “without losing the latter’s focused, ethical standpoint.”[20]

This deeply resonates with me. Many years ago, I had my own kind of Anabaptist haunting. On a plane back home after visiting my birthplace in Ohio, I felt an internal restlessness that suggested a poem was waiting to be written. I opened myself to the restlessness, and a particular voice came out, an experience I had never quite had before or since. The result was the poem “The Woman with the Screw in Her Mouth Speaks:”

When people are starving, they go inside. This is the only way

to survive. Conserve. Save. Go to the quiet place in yourself

and wait for the day food comes. Wait without hoping,

for hope takes energy and you have very little to spare.

We went inside, too, but we wrapped our silence around a kernel

of fear. This fear fed us, and for this we were grateful. It made us

shrewd and cautious, not dim-witted like those who starve,

nor desperate. For us were the orderly rows of corn, the tight cluster

of farm buildings. Our barns were clean and painted white, bright white.

No one was going to find a blemish, an opening, a crooked row,

a reason. For the most part, outsiders would not see us, and

when they did, they would see only perfection.

And now what has happened to you? Some of the ancestors

are not pleased. They fear for you; some fear for themselves.

They would tell you not to be messy and bold. Don’t take us down

with you, they say. But listen to me. We oldest ones remember: The dying

was worth it, every pain. We were chosen to bring something new

into the world. They had to keep us from singing. They had to keep us

from singing.[21]

Almost 30 years later, I can still sense this ancestor’s presence, who identifies herself in the poem as “one of the oldest ones.” I never thought much about that phrase before. But now, it suggests to me an ancestor who still lived within the lineage of an earth-based, animistic, pagan tradition.[22] And yet, she clearly identifies herself as an Anabaptist martyr, as someone boldly and joyfully chosen to bring something new into the world. In my imagination, she embodies the integration with the animal that the Anabaptists who haunted Jung had lost.

And now, what has happened to us? We teeter on the precipice of several ecological crises.[23] We know what lies before us and yet remain suicidally addicted to the status quo. Something new must come into the world. Like Jung, I believe we need a new mythos for Western culture. As a Mennonite pastor, I obviously believe that – at least for some of us – Christianity can be that mythos, and I am committed to its re-formation, its reintegration with what has been exiled. In fact, I don’t think it’s too bold a statement to say that the future of our life on this blue-green planet hinges on whether enough of us who identify as Christians can form a right relationship with “our animal.”

May the oldest ones continue to haunt us.



[1] C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Random House, 1989),  178.

[2] Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 178

[3] Jung carefully guarded this book throughout his life and shared it with few people. After his death in 1963, his heirs likewise kept it from public eye, likely afraid that it would damage Jung’s reputation. They eventually decided to release it in 2000, and it was published in 2009, becoming a surprising bestseller.

[4] Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 190-1.

[5] From the text of “Septem Sermones,” printed in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 378.

[6] C.G. Jung and Sonu Shamdasani, ed., The Red Book: Liber Novus (New York: Norton, 2009), 294. There are some discrepancies between Jung’s accounts of this haunting. In the Red Book, the haunting occurs on January 17, 1914. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, it occurs in 1916. I have chosen to follow the latter timeline in my retelling. Also, in the Red Book, the ghosts are heading to Jerusalem, while they have returned from there in Jung’s recounting in Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

[7] Think of the crusades, inquisitions, witch burnings, enslavements, genocides, concentration camps – the whole horrendous catalog of humanity’s inhumanity to each other, animals, and nature.

[8] Sonu Shamdasani, Jung and the making of modern psychology: The dream of a science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), location 3546 (Kindle edition). The essay “On the Unconscious” can be found in Volume 10 of Jung’s Collected Works.

[9] Jung and the making of modern psychology, location 3549 (Kindle edition).

[10] Jung and the making of modern psychology, location 3552 (Kindle edition).

[11] We share almost 99% of our genetic code with chimpanzees, 98% with pigs and 90% with cats.

[12] “Cornwall Seminar, July 1923, C.G. Jung: Unauthorized Notes / by M. Esther Harding. -Yale University Library,” n.d.

[13] He saw positive signs in this regard, citing the rise of societies dedicated to the care and protection of animals and the “modern custom” of keeping pets.

[14] “Carl Jung: I Have Even Found That Men Are Far More Irrational than Animals.” 2020. Carl Jung Depth Psychology. March 18, 2020. The original reference is from a letter to a pastor found in volume 1, page 119 of Jung’s letters.

[15] Jung and the making of modern psychology, location 3570 (Kindle edition).

[16] For instance, right before this haunting is recounted in the Red Book, Jung engages in a series of discussions about the classic spiritual book The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. Jung would certainly have been aware of Anabaptism. He was a Swiss man living in Zurich, the birthplace of the Anabaptist movement, and a student of history.

[17] John Beebe, Energies and Patterns in Psychological Type: The reservoir of consciousness (New York: Routledge, 2017), 176.

[18] The word “matter” comes from the Latin mater, from which we derive the word mother and matrix, or womb.

[19] The Anabaptist vision of establishing a “pure” church, “without spot or wrinkle” (Eph. 5:27), could be considered the apex of this overly idealistic one-sidedness.

[20] Energies and Patterns in Psychological Type: The reservoir of consciousness, 176.

[21] First published in Ann Hostetler, ed., A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003), 127.

[22] Interestingly, Jung believed there was still a “deeply buried and archaic earth mysticism” in the Swiss psyche. From Frank McLynn’s “A Swiss Childhood” from the archive of the New York Times. Carl Gustav Jung (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), “Carl Gustav Jung,” n.d. Accessed May 29, 2023.

[23] Sarah Augustine and I talk about the ecological crises and how we believe the church must respond in our forthcoming book from Herald Press, So That We and Our Children May Live: Following Jesus in Confronting the Climate Crisis. It will be published in October.