Freud’s Illusion and the Paschal Mystery

Cemetary2In December 1927, the New York Times announced that Freud had doomed religion with his book The Future of an Illusion. In The Authenticity of Faith: the Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience, psychologist and professing Christian Richard Beck evaluates this claim. Beck points out that Freud did not debunk religion by refuting the classical proofs of God’s existence but by arguing that religion was ego-centric wishful thinking that we must outgrow. We could respond by suggesting that atheism is wishful thinking; a wish not to be accountable to God. There is that but there is much value in taking Freud’s critique seriously to see if it holds up to Christianity as it is actually lived which is what Beck does.

Beck turns to Ernest Becker to evaluate Freud’s thesis. Becker (the focus of Beck’s book Slavery to Death) argued that denial of death was a prime motivation in human behavior, leading us to seek “heroic” acts levels to stave off the reality of death, an example of what Freud called sublimation. (See Escape from the Denial of Death)  It happens that there have been many scientific studies of Becker’s thesis by his followers and they tend to show that the more one is reminded of mortality, the more rigidly one defends one’s worldview and denigrates others. This applies to any worldview, not just Christianity.

Beck then brings in the Psalms of lamentation (a large chunk of the Psalter) and the spiritual darkness that Mother Teresa admitted to as counter-indications that wishful thinking is the only dynamic in Christianity. Beck could just as easily have brought in St. John of the Cross who wrote about “the dark night of the soul.” Beck then turns to William James who pre-dated Freud in his scientific study of religious experience that was published in The Varieties of Religious Experience. James distinguished between “healthy-minded” believers and “sick souls.” The terms are misleading in that “healthy-mindedness” is superficial and leads to denial of life’s difficulties and so is not really that healthy. Meanwhile, “sick souls” wrestle with cognitive dissonance and inner darkness in a way that makes them more resilient and authentic in the long run. The Psalmist of lament, Mother Teresa and St. John of the Cross would be “sick souls.” Beck notes that the charges Freud and Becker make about wishful believers applies well to what James called the “healthy-minded” but not at all to the “sick souls.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace” seems to fit James’ distinction quite well.

Since there had been no scientific investigations of James’ categories, Beck has filled this gap with his own field work. First, participants were given a questionnaire to give ratings as to how “healthy-minded” or “sick-souled” they were and then they were given a task such as to evaluate an essay by a Christian and one by a Buddhist. Not surprisingly, the “healthy-minded” respondents denigrated the Buddhist while the “sick souls” were much more tolerant in their attitudes. The same result came with tests on comfort with the Incarnation (such as whether one admits Jesus might have had diarrhea) or evaluating two works of art, one imaging healthy-mindedness, the other more focused on life’s pain. In each case, there was strong confirmation of James’ distinction of different believers.

It is worth mentioning René Girard’s theory of the origin of religion in collective violence in this context. Girard does not think that early humans wished for pie in the sky and then made up a religion to get it. Rather, they responded to social crises by killing or expelling a victim. The camaraderie that resulted from this act and the institutionalization of sacrifice was the payoff. (See Two Ways of Gathering) In fact, belief in a heavenly afterlife is quite a latecomer in world religion. The social solidarity of collective violence can easily be achieved these days without a deity. Freud himself made a dogma of his ideas and expelled all dissenters. In Girard’s thinking, it is the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ suffering and death that expose sacred violence for what it is. Girard’s thought adds weight to the correlation between being “healthy-minded” and prone to expelling those who differ. Beck does not say anything about the Paschal Mystery, but the cross at the center of Christianity should be enough to suggest that Christianity has its own built-in critique of wish-fulfillment in Freud’s sense or “healthy-minded” religion in James’ sense. One need only read the Epistles of Paul to see this self-critique at the origins of Christianity. I think Beck would agree since he sees a much deeper love among the “sick souls” than among the “healthy-minded” and he notes that in 1 Corinthians Paul says that love is the greatest virtue of all.

Beck’s exploration of Freud and James is of great importance for coming to grips with a theological anthropology and pointing in the direction of authentic faith and genuine spirituality.

Knowing the Wild Things Between Us

buddingTree1Just about all of us talk about the subconscious as if it were familiar territory. By definition, the subconscious, assuming there really is such a thing, is precisely what we are not familiar with, what we don’t know about ourselves.

Pop psychologists, and real psychologists for that matter, along with those of us committed to the spiritual journey, think that it is better to know more about ourselves rather than less. Exploring the unknown may be an exciting challenge at times but it is also threatening. Much talk about the subconscious that has floated around since Freud took up his pen gives the impression that the subconscious is full of horrible monsters and some of them are us. In the simple story Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak shows us what great friends the inner monsters can be if we get to know them.

René Girard has given us a whole new dimension to explore in the subconscious by suggesting that it is primarily mimetic desire that we find there. (See Human See, Human Want) Mimetic desire, the desire of others that has infiltrated us since birth, gets under our skin and deep into our hearts. Hence the importance of the desires we surround small children with to absorb. What keeps mimetic desire in our subconscious is our defiant pig-headed conviction that our desires belong to each of us alone and to nobody else. The stronger this sort of conviction, the more likely the desire is entangled in serious rivalry with somebody else; maybe a lot of somebodies. Somehow, we feel threatened at the idea that our desires are intertwined with the desires of everybody else and we push them away, only to have them manipulate us at very deep levels.

The “wild things” within may not be so much are own personal monsters but the monsters that grow out of the mimetic desires between us. The monster isn’t me, it’s us. These wild things can also be the source of great opportunities for personal and spiritual growth if we get to know them. The web of mimetic desire is not, in the hands of God, elaborate chains to imprison us but links to connect us. That is, mimetic desire is the gravitational field among persons pulls us into relationship with each other. The more we are aware of this field, the more freedom we have to live in it with friendship and sharing instead of hate and rivalry.

Self-examination is a time-honored practice for spiritual growth in all religious traditions. Unfortunately, when this practice is centered on the self, it inevitably creates some distortion because it keeps mimetic desire in the subconscious. It isn’t so much our selves that need examination as it is our relationships. The individual self can look just fine right when relationships are destroying the web of our interrelated desires.

Girard tends to examine mimetic desire in the present tense, and there is always much going on with our interrelated desires in every moment. However, as Per Grande pointed out in his fine book Mimesis and Desire, we go through life interacting with the desires of others in our past just as much, if not more, than those in the present. So it is that we have to increase our conscious awareness of our past as well as the present.

So much attention has been paid to monstrous wild things in the human subconscious that we don’t realize that deeper in the subconscious that any wild desires flaring up between us and other people both in rivalry and ecstatic love and friendship is God’s desire. No matter how entangled our mimetic desires with other people, God holds all of the links in unconditional love, all the while calling each of us to open our outer and inner eyes to see how wild divine love is.