Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Integrating the Collective Unconscious

Written by: on March 8, 2022

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then they heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” – Genesis 3:7-10 NIV

Mythologically and psychologically, Genesis 3 offers readers the first buddings of human consciousness. Our eyes opened, we were naked, shamed, afraid, and so we hid from one another and from God. This is not a historical origin story of human sin, but a symbolic reflection of the drama enacted by every individual and system on earth.  Our work is to take ownership of and integrate our naked, shamed and fearful self, and cease projecting our fig-leaf-clad shadow onto others, be they other humans or God.

Dr. Pragya Agarwal’s book Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias explores exactly what the title indicates. Agarwal’s work aligns with and compliments Daniel Kahneman’s work around bias, or what he calls heuristics. Both authors approach, from different perspectives, the bias of human intuition and human institutions. Sway approaches this topic through qualitative and quantitative research, and addresses bias from a more practical and societal perspective than Kahneman who does so from more of an esoteric plane. Dr. Agarwal writes, “In this book I am looking primarily at examples where a bias is misdirected and creates prejudice and discriminatory behavior through a negative association with a certain group of community.” (13) As a British Indian, Dr. Agarwal draws many stories from her life and discrimination she’s experienced, but always connects her individual experience to the systemic roots of bias.

The subtitle Unravelling Unconscious Bias offers a bias of its own! Western culture is inherently individualistic, and operates from a heuristic of personalization. However, we do not simply hold our personal unconscious, but the collective unconscious; the personal unconscious is to the collective unconscious as a drop of water is to all the waters of the earth. Dr. Agarwal offers a benign, if not rationalized reasoning for human bias through her integration of evolutionary science. She writes, “Detection of trustworthiness has been crucial for human survival […] Faces play a key role in determining membership and in signaling social cues such as trustworthiness.” (83) What Kahneman calls system 1 thinking, Agarwal calls our gut instinct.

This brings back Max Weber’s work on the development of rationalism and bureaucratic systems. Truly, humans are not purely rational beings, but simply beings capable of rationality. Bureaucratic institutions attempt to be non-bias, but, because of a bias toward rationality, they actually create systemic bias through a self-perception of objectivity. Here bias is not propagated solely by those operating and enacting the bureaucratic system, but by the system itself. This is why racism, sexism, ageism etc. cannot be understood or addressed solely as an issue of the “heart” or of individual moral corruption. Certainly, arriving at the origin of bias is a “chicken or the egg” dialectic, and its presence is ubiquitous. Addressing individual racism is essential; however, our individual biases must be understood within the context of the cultural and historical collective, but I do not believe our collective shadow work can be done from a rational-historical approach. This is why myth is so vital. The mythology of Genesis offers symbols of “sin” or disconnection which enable us to peer into our individual and collective unconscious waters of bias. Myth and symbol offer a gracious perspective, which allows us to engage in the painful and transformation process of Christian formation. Without myth, a new path forward seems impossible because there is no way to recover our shadow-projections, our prejudices, our biases from those on whom we have projected.

Finally, being labeled as bias, racist, sexist etc. is a contemporary scarlet letter, a mark of uncleanliness, and rejection. Owning personal and collective bias will always be uncomfortable, but its work each of us must do to live more whole, inclusive, and holy lives. Dr. Agarwal offers that the etymology of bias is rooted in the Indo-European word sker-, which means ‘to turn or bend’. (11) It is fascinating that repentance has a similar meaning, to turn, or turn back toward. Repentance of bias is not magical, and it may even be helpful to see it as non-spiritual. Ultimately it is an action we take and the Spirit guides us in. As a white, Christian, heterosexual, cisgender man, I have more to do here to uncover my unconscious bias – truly the American system was created by and for people like me. But I know I can approach this work confidently and actively. This work is worth it because it is at the root of my humanity, and holds high stakes for the humanity of others.


Agarwal, Pragya. Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020.
Gen. 3:7-10 NIV



About the Author

Michael Simmons

- Tennessee --> Oregon - Father to David and Bina, Partner to Liz - Portland Seminary Admissions Counselor - Spiritual Director - Companioning Center Leadership Team - Deep Water Board Member - Ordained Elder, FMC - Aspiring Jungian Theologian

15 responses to “Integrating the Collective Unconscious”

  1. mm Troy Rappold says:

    I made the same connections with Pragya’s book that you did: Kahneman and Weber. It’s good to start to see parallels in our reading and make new connections. I like the feeling You make a good point about our own bias–that even the title of this week’s book exposes a bias. In this life we just can’t escape it. I have a bias towards sin in my, I just don’t want anything to do with it. Reading books like we have been assigned to read this year, combined with a faithful walk with Christ together forms a powerful bulwark against having the wrong kind of biases in our life though. Good post.

  2. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Michael, such a thoughtful, well-written post. A few questions that came to my mind in the reading I will ask you: As I read your call for us to move beyond our biases, I agree. How do we know that we are not just trading one bias for another? Am I understanding you correctly to use the humanity of people as a guide for that? If so, are there any boundaries in addition to that? Thank you!

  3. Great question. I see salvation as personal and communal wholeness, and sin as separation from wholeness – that’s what I see happening from the Genesis myth, to Christ, and the inception of the Church. So, one’s humanity must be a guide. Protestantism, inspired by sola scriptura, relocates the locus from Christ, to our interpretation of Christ. It also moves the locus form internal to external. I think Christ directs us to the marginalized within and without, so seeking and saving those parts. The boundaries are defined by one’s full humanity. This isn’t scientific and is certainly not tidy. Such soteriology is bound to get one in trouble or even crucified… 🙂 I love these conversations, specifically with you, Roy. What are your thoughts?

  4. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Michael: But what would Jung say? 😉 jk

    You say “our individual biases must be understood within the context of the cultural and historical collective” — how do you think the LGP program has been equipping you to integrate and evaluate different cultural perspectives in ways you haven’t before or maybe when thinking about certain topics?

    • That’s a great question. I think this program is helping me receive my heritage and thus myself more deeply. I came into the program with a sense that Evangelicalism is the root of all evil. This perspective has been cast in the context of the larger historical perspective. I believe, Jung would call this shadow work! 🙂

  5. mm Eric Basye says:

    Wow, excellent post! I too saw the connection with Kahneman, but had not thought of Weber. Interesting (and good) thought!

    This was a great line, “Our work is to take ownership of and integrate our naked, shamed and fearful self, and cease projecting our fig-leaf-clad shadow onto others, be they other humans or God.”

    While I want to agree, is that not the work of God (and the gospel)? I have all of Genesis 3, especially as we see the grace of the Lord “properly cover their nakedness” though they were undeserving. Thank goodness for the grace of God.

    • Yeah good question Eric. Actually, I’ve noticed a practical problem with this atonement theory: It doesn’t create a pathway for shadow integration. The metaphor of “covering” or “washing” our sins away feels really good, but I actually think it serves to perpetuate the Genesis 3 split – God becomes pure light, and we attempt to imitate this light while denying our shadow. Grace is good, but the grace must radiate from within, and not simply be something applied from without. Thoughts?

  6. mm Henry Gwani says:

    Michael, excellent post as usual. I like how you reference Genesis 3 in discussing bias. In what ways might the church in your context be used by God to help society’s eyes become open to whatever biases might exist within her?

    • Hey Henry! Yes, I think the church in my context could lead the way in uncovering bias by doing to deep work of claiming its own bias, racist, sexist, and homophobic practices. This is a big task, but personally the church needs to excise more humility around the human sexuality conversation. It’s not enough to keep arrogantly quoting scripture, when there are literally 6 verses in the entire bible that even make mention of the topic (each of which are contextually and culturally bound). I think this is the primary issue as it is the only one many denominations aren’t willing to reconsider. I think systemic homophobia serves to disables racial reconciliation, so true repentance never takes root. Thoughts?

  7. Elmarie Parker says:

    Hey Michael. Like others, I very much appreciate your reflections on Agarwal’s work and integrating it with Genesis 3, Weber, Kahneman, and the field of shadow work. Your connections between Agarwal’s etymology work on the word ‘bias’ and the meaning of repentance revealed to me an ironic relationship…that bias is a bending away from the wholeness of another/ourselves and repentance offers a pathway to turn back/bend back towards that wholeness. Thank you for this insight.

    I also valued your paragraph on Weber, rationality, and myth. You write: “Myth and symbol offer a gracious perspective, which allows us to engage in the painful and transformation process of Christian formation. Without myth, a new path forward seems impossible because there is no way to recover our shadow-projections, our prejudices, our biases from those on whom we have projected.” I’m curious what societal-level myths you believe we in the USA have access to that invites us into a gracious transformation journey? Not everyone today is aware of the biblical stories that give us in the Christian community this opportunity. I’m interested in exploring what I’m going to call here ‘bridge myths’ that are accessible to both those who are followers of Jesus and those who are not. As I look to societal-level reconciliation and resiliency work through my NPO, these types of myths will be important to access. For example, in Lebanon, the mythology around the phoenix is six thousand years deep in Lebanese culture and everyone, regardless of religious identity, immediately ‘gets’ the implications of this myth for sustaining resiliency during this deeply challenging season. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

    • Well I love this comment. I just sent you a podcast literally on the symbol of the phoenix and it’s mythological qualities. I’d actually love to hear more about this from a Lebanese perspective! The phoenix symbol is a symbol of death and rebirth, and is a storehouse for resilience and even more so for transformation. Unfortunately, I don’t know if there is an American myth we can access to transform. I think it could have been Covid, and though I think the pandemic has served to transform on a broad individual level, there is significant resistance to this at a macro level. Perhaps a new myth will come out of this transformational season, as myths often do. But I doubt it will look Christian or American. So much to explore that can’t happen in a blog post!

  8. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Michael what do you glean from Agarwall’s story of the Chris with Williams Syndrome especially around race and gender? What do you glean from the research that could be interpreted that in our brains race conjures fear while gender does not?

  9. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Michael, once again you challenge me to look deeper into the inner soul of humanity and myself. I am curious if you could further explain what you mean by “The subtitle Unravelling Unconscious Bias offers a bias of its own! ” For me it is unclear as to whether the book has a bias or explains bias. I am also interested to learn more about your understanding around people being labeled sexist, racist, homophobe, etc. and the possibility of the one doing the labeling as expressing their bias. Especially, in the current polarized climate.

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