Freud & Faith: Part 1, Insight

Every semester for the past few years I've lectured on Sigmund Freud in my class PSYC 493 History of Theories in Psychology. It's a Senior level class and by the time the students reach it they are throughly down on Dr. Freud. Given that my colleagues are Christian and come at psychology from a cognitive-behavioral slant this outcome isn't surprising. In class after class Freud functions as a punching bag.

I'm sympathetic to this attitude about Freud. But I feel that it is my duty in PSYC 493 to give Freud his most charitable reading. And I'd like to take a few posts to share some of those perspectives, presenting how I see and appreciate Freud.

I start by telling the students about my metaphor for approaching Freud. Specifically, Freud is like an autostereogram:

Unpacking the metaphor, I think Freud was largely off on the details. Like an autostereogram, if you read Freud in a fine-grained way you can't see much. But if you step back from Freud, gaze through him and kind of allow yourself to grow cross-eyed, well, some new vision of things just might pop out at you. Read in crisp detail I don't think Freud has much to offer. But a fuzzy Freud, where only the broad, bold gestures of his theory are noted, is a remarkably insightful thinker.

In this post let's start with Freud's master stroke, the existence of the unconscious.

Most are familiar with Freud's basic notion that the majority of psychic existence takes place outside of awareness. We call this the iceberg metaphor. That is, the mind is like an iceberg. The conscious mind peeks out above the waters but gives no indication about the vast mass below the surface, the unconscious. Our conscious mental life is only, as they say, the "tip of the iceberg."

What is the practical import of the iceberg model of the mind? Well, basically this: You don't know who you are.

Recall the famous dictum of Socrates: Know thyself. Freud is in complete agreement with this sentiment. The goal of psychoanalysis is, at root, insight. Or, as Freud said, to "make the unconscious conscious." In short, Freud stands in the grand Greek tradition of self-awareness, self-investigation, and self-knowledge.

But Freud adds a twist to the Socratic dictum. He makes it harder. Basically, Freud's model of the unconscious implies that insight is very, very difficult.

Freud's claim is that our experience of the self is, at root, one of befuddlement. We just can't figure ourselves out. If you've ever looked in the mirror and said "What is wrong with me?" then you get Freud's basic point.

This experience of befuddlement is nicely illustrated by Paul in Romans 7 who ends the chapter with the lament "Wretched man that I am!"

If insight and self-knowledge are hard to obtain what is a person to do? Well, Freud's answer was that we need some outside assistance. For Freud this assistance was provided by the psychoanalyst. But, again, I'd like to fuzz Freud up a bit on this point. I don't think an analyst is (always) necessary. I think the important point Freud makes is the notion that insight requires community. You can't figure yourself out by thinking really, really hard. You need someone to give you some concrete feedback about your behavior.

For example, let's ask these questions: Is Richard Beck a good husband? Father? Friend? Co-worker? Well, if we follow Freud we know that the last person who can give a good answer to these questions is me. I can't see myself clearly. So if you, or I, want to know if I'm a good father you'll need to ask (or I'll need to ask) my family. They are better situated to answer that question. In short, if I want to "know myself" I need to start having conversations with the people in my life. Introspection only goes so deep. It's like staring into a mud puddle.

I think all this has important implications for spiritual formation. Freud's thought highlights the need for community in the pursuit of self-awareness and self-understanding.

"Know thyself" is about conversation rather than introspection.

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16 thoughts on “Freud & Faith: Part 1, Insight”

  1. I enjoyed your article. It's not often a person reads something positive about Freud!

    I'm a former therapist, and now a Lutheran pastor--hence, my special interest. I very much appreciate your connection between the analyst and the community, and how the ego is formed through community interaction, etc. Good stuff. Thanks!

  2. Our world is quite different from our 19th century forebears in part because of Freud. Even if he got the details wrong, most everyone thinks "psychologically" to some extent and it is because of him. Also, came across this interesting tidbit:

    "...but one gift from Freud we ought never neglect; his return to the sources of culture in Mediterranean myths, rooting psychology not in the brain, or genetics, or blind evolution, but in the poetic basis of mind, whose imagination is structured by mythical configurations..."

    from the article Point of View: The Gods, Disease, and Politics by James Hillman in Parabola Vol 29(4) p 72, 2004.

  3. Thanks for sharing this reflection, and for your blog reflections in general. As a pastor, I find Freud to be helpful in thinking about the dynamics of faith in people's lives. As you say, the unconscious is a signficant reality to deal with. There is always something going on behind our back which we cannot see, as it were. Or as William James famously wrote we "arrive too late for the fair." Things have already been set in motion with us--instinctively and emotionally. We are like the formless and void of Genesis 1:2, stirring with all kinds of impulses, energies and possibilites. The model for us is not Mr. Spock (rational clarity) who is in some ways the philosophical equivalent of Descartes. A much more realistic model, commensurate with Freud, is the Pauline understanding of humanity is driven by desires of all kinds. This is where I see myself and the people in my congregation. So I must address them at a deeper level than simply theological tenets or ethical commandments. I'm looking forward to your further posts on this, even as I enjoyed the earlier series on Freud.

  4. While I think that the id cannot control the personality, the Ego can be hindered as much by the superego, which religion "helps"to do...A healthy conscience is formed when there has been a developemnt to choose freely without addictive desires of the id, or oppressive suppsion of the superego. This is the double minded man that seeks to do right but can't.

    I don't think that anything is won by spiritualizing things, especially to those who have been spiritually abused.

    A good therapist is necessary at thmes to help one see and assess what is true about oneself in a situation and what would be the right choice. This is where a distinterested party is necessary to ascertain what should be, morally, legally, and otherwise...

    For instance, I read a student's paper where another teacher had written that this student had chosen the '"easy way out", when the student shared about a struggle he was having and how he reconcilled the struggle and made his choice. I thought the teacher had made a grave mistake in judging the student's motives without really knowing all of the details, context, etc...was the teacher adding to or helping the student to develop or just condemning him?

  5. Steve,

    Glad to see you are reading Hillman.


    My frustration with Freud is his underlying determinism and his Oedipal notions--essentially, he secularizes and makes mechanical Augustine's ideas. Both Frued and Augustine were obsessed with sex as the source of destructive behavior. I know both are exceptional thinkers and complex in their thinking but they both tend to impose on infants and children "adult" categories of flawed activity.

    For all their insight--and they have much to offer--they are not Pauline.


  6. The Pauline scholar Robin Scroggs has a good essay on the many analogies between Paul and Freud. It is titled something like "The Heuristic Value of a Psychological Model in Pauline Theology." To be sure, Paul does not hold to an oedipus complex or a deterministic model, but I understood the point of this first essay on Freud to be focused upon the unconscious and the difficulties of self-understanding. Surely there is some analogy with Paul here (and other biblical sources), particularly if we "re-focus" in our approach to Freud like the essay asks of us at the beginning.

  7. I like Freud - read a biography of him once - and liked my college psych courses.

    Sometimes groups of people, like one's community, can be not exactly wrong but maybe skewed? I'd trust a good spiritual director over a religious community for advice, I guess.

  8. I like how Transactional Amalysis adapted Freuds 3 inner motivations and made them more user-friendly to modern thinking. I wonder about viewing Freud alongside Augustine and Calvin and see the parallels and differences??? Do you have thoughts on Jung as well??

  9. I was surprised there wasn't a picture of your Freud finger puppet included in the post somewhere. Oh, well. Maybe next time.

    Your wife

    P.S. And yes, you are a good husband and father---just in case you were really asking.

  10. Welcome to the madhouse, Jana! :)

    I like this, Richard. I, too, hated Freud when I studied him in college, but it's interesting to get a positive perspective, even if it is "fuzzy." And I definitely agree that we need community in order to know who we are.

  11. Richard and the group:
    Very interesting article, but I refuse to be drawn into familial postings. I was thinking more about Orientation and John Donne’s poem, ‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward’and what it has to offer.

  12. I am not a student of psycology. But i have great interest in psycology. When i was searching for the material on 'Faith' to write a post on my blog i stumbled upon your blog. I was truly facinated to read this article. Thanks. V Gopalan

  13. This is how Freud misinterprets Romans 7 though I believe. Romans 7 is not a Christian struggle between two natures, that would be a dualistic approach. Paul rather, is using verses 14-24 as a way of showing how he thought before he became a Christian. I was wondering if you were a Christian. I have read some of your blogs and was curious.

  14. Luke,

    How do you come to the conclusion that he is explaining how he thought in the past when all of the verbs are in the present tense?

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