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.

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One thought on “Freud’s Illusion and the Paschal Mystery

  1. Of “healthy-mindedness” and the argument about religion being opium to the people in the Marxian vein, I’m reminded of what Terry Eagleton said about the core Christian message of the Cross: “If you do not love, you are dead. If you love, they will kill you.” A comfortable message indeed!

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