Search Term Friday: Freud and Theology

If you teach a survey of psychology class you have to talk, at some point, about Freud.

This poses a challenge at ACU. Students coming to college from Christian high schools already have some pretty strong biases and opinions about Freud. Like they do about Darwin.

Basically, these students are already convinced that Freud is no one they should take seriously.

But when I introduce Freud I tell the class that they already are very Freudian. Our culture is steeped in Freudian ideas. By the time you are an adult you've already internalized a ton of Freud's theory. The unconscious. Dreams. Repression. Defense mechanisms. Fixations. Analyzing people. Neuroses. The Id, Superego, and Ego. The Oedipus Complex. Anal retentive. Freudian slips. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

And from there I go on to point out to the students that there is quite a lot in Freud that resonates with Christian theology. For example, Freud's view of human nature is pretty similar to some Christian notions of total depravity. Which brings us to some recent search terms that guided someone to this blog:

freud and theology

Those terms linked to my "Freud and Faith" series from 2009. That was a series where I wrote about some of the things I share with Christian students when talking about Freud.

For example, Freud's vision of the Id, motivated as it is by sexual and aggressive urges, is interesting to think about in terms of "original sin" and human depravity. Sex and aggression does explain a lot about us. Consider the amount of sexual and aggressive content in our entertainments--from movies to fiction to video games to music to sports to film.

For my part, I think Freud's greatest insights had to with neuroses. I can be pretty Freudian in this regard. 

For example, psychologically speaking, I tend to think that human beings are pretty sick. And that we're sort of doomed to be sick.

According to Freud, our neuroses--the psychological sickness I'm speaking about--is what makes us human beings. Neurosis is the critical ingredient. Where Aristotle said that humans are rational animals, Freud argued that humans are neurotic animals. If we lacked things like shame, guilt, and self-consciousness--if we were wholly indifferent to how others approved or disapproved of us--we'd be sociopaths.

So this seems to be our lot in life: to be a neurotic basketcase. We're doomed to worry about what others think about us and how we compare to others.

But the benefits of this neuroses are plentiful. Neuroses is what makes society and civilization work. We care about what everyone thinks, and while the burden of that care is worry, this mutual concern helps us create and navigate a predictable and normed social world.

The question I think a Christian theologian would ask about this Freudian formulation is this: 

Can we ever be free from neuroses? And could this be done in a healthy rather than sociopathic way?

That's an interesting question.

What Jesus neurotic? Was the Buddha neurotic?

When we think of these two persons we tend to picture them as non-neurotic and the exact opposite of sociopathic. They were non-neurotic but loving. So there seems to be, in some religious traditions, this vision of an empathic non-neuroses that we can aspire to. Psychological indicators of this state seem to be tranquility/peace, joy and love.

So how do you go from being psychologically sick into this state?

Buddhists and Christians get there in different ways. Buddhism suggests that you step out of neuroses by begging out of the whole game of evaluation, the sorting of experiencing into good and bad. That's the goal of sitting meditation, to simply sit--to exist as a human person--without evaluation. To sit "as a mountain," where the clouds of mental evaluation drift past without our clinging to them. To sit, to exist, still and tranquil--non-neurotically.

The Christian vision is to transfer the evaluation of the self from the human sphere to the divine, to experience yourself as loved by God. To be found in Christ. To store your treasures--what you value--in heaven rather than on earth. And when you receive yourself from God in this way, your neurotic concern about "what people think" attenuates.  For Christians, the experience of grace breaks the anxious sickness of neuroses. (This is, incidentally, a theme in my book The Slavery of Death.)

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6 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: Freud and Theology”

  1. Great piece. However, in my agreement that we all are neurotic, sick, my question would be just how "cured" are we when we experience grace? Or, are we somewhat cured, leaving us in a "healthy imperfection", freeing us to bestow grace on one another for what is not?

    I recall a Jewish friend and I arguing in a humorous way which mothers were more prone to lay guilt on their children, Jewish mothers, or Southern mothers? I once laid an example on him about my Southern mother that impressed him. As a young man I wore my hair quite long, and like most parents of that time, (pre Duck Dynasty), she was constantly voicing her disapproval and trying to lay some kind of guilt-trip on me to convince me to cut my hair. Well, one day she asked me in her quiet way, "Did you hear about Joe's car accident?" Joe was a friend of the family. I said "Yes, I did. I heard he was injured, but, will recover". A few seconds of silence went by, then she, in kind of a whisper, said, "Joe had long hair, too". All I could do was stare at her with the look that said, "That's crazy!" But I never said it. My mother was a loving, intelligent individual. But when it came to trying to convince her child to get on the straight and narrow, she, like most people who find themselves desperate, would "swerve in and out of the lane", so to speak. But we knew how to forgive each other. Because in looking back I can see numerous times when I was "swerving in and out of the lane" myself; and she would give me the look....but say nothing. Grace.

  2. I tend to think we are somewhat cured. I don't know if being completely non-neurotic is possible or even desirable. My thoughts about this are still very tentative and not very clear. But it seems to me that there is a path where our "concern about others" can shift from being worry to empathy/love. In this way we're still very much interested in caring for and accommodating each other--the social fruit of neuroses as Freud pointed out--but doing so from a less and less anxious place.

  3. Richard and 3am- John in his first epistle speaks to this when he addresses a group of people who are suffering on the basis of doubting that they are truly in the light because they experienced themselves doing things once in a while that contradicted the light.

    His response is absolutely poignant. "Only someone in the light can know that there's a darkness; people in the dark can't tell the difference. " "And even when one walks on a smooth path they can stumble...but but when they do stumble, do they just lie there? No! they get up and continue walking. And then John launches into the memorized verse of 1 John 1:9.

    "The cure" presented here is that stumbling is inherent to being humanly alive: remove the possibility and you remove the potential of being human. John, via verse 9, leads us into a way of being where we don't have to hide ourselves from god or ourselves: we can remain open rather than closed off. I think it's this "closing off" of ourselves that is the real danger in our "neurotic" nature- a nature inherent to being humanly alive.

    Yes? No?

  4. Ah, Freud. I might have studied psychology except for the fear that my practice would turn into an extreme narcissistic, physician-heal-thyself campaign to fix my head, which would leave me at the bottom of a cliff or off a high bridge somewhere.

    I don't think there is a cure. And I think both Jesus and Buddha were neurotic, or else they were not human. I think what we are looking for is not so much a cure but a way to deal with, or work out--or to use a very bible-ly word--overcome our neuroticism. Can I learn to live with my fears and anxieties, and still manage to hold a job, or raise a family, or be a good husband, or save the world? Can I learn to recognize and empathize with these fears in others and still manage to be their neighbor, friend, lover... and help them work it out in their own lives? Can I realize that I will die, and still manage to live?

    In my opinion, to say we are "sick" because of our neuroticism is a mistake. "Sick" implies a "well" state that possible or normal. If everyone is "sick", is it truly a sickness?

    The biggest lie that Christianity has foisted upon is that "our sins are washed away". Buddhism's lie is similar, in that achieving enlightenment or nirvana will end suffering. Wrong on both accounts. Ultimately both end games are a state of denial. This denial, especially in Christianity, only acts to feed our neurotic fears, while adding one more--the fear of being found out to be a fake.

    Accepting the base truth of who we are is the most difficult of all of life's expeditions. Like Obi-Wan said, "...feelings... They do you credit, but they could be made to serve the Emperor." The truth, while neutral, can be used for good or ill. Even Obi Wan advised Luke to hide the truth rather than allow it to be used against him.

    Salvation, again in my opinion, is accepting the truth of who we are and still managing to do good through it.

  5. My sophomore year in HS we had a biology teacher named Viola Fie. She was probably in her early 50's and all the kids refered to her as "old lady Fie," in a way almost a tem of endearment. Miss Fie was a very good teacher. She lived alone in her disceased father's little frame house on the rise across from Shawnee Park. Mis Fie kept her greying hair in a bun. Boy, did she know biology! One day she told us she was doing a secret survey. "What really makes people tick....their brains (reason) or their emotions (or feelings)?" Admittedly rather rudimentary, but believe me, we were rudimentary! The survey's results showed that most of us 14-15 year olds did believe that emotion really is what pushes our buttons. I am still facinated by this question. I don't think Miss Fie went to church, but I'm not sure about that. She was so memorable. When we discected our frogs, I'll never forget how emotional most of us got, even the boys. Hearts and mnds are so hard to pull apart. If guilt is a genuine componen of neurosis, mabe she hit on that subject just a little also. I still get a bit depressed and shame washed when I remember the specter of that litle green amphibian's bodily decimation...even in the name of science. I think Miss Fie was a Freudian. However, she never mentioned his name.

  6. I agree with a great deal of this. If we are going to believe that Jesus was fully human (Heb. 2), then we have to accept that He experienced normal human emotions and (gulp!) neuroses. It seems normal to have twinges of anxiety, guilt, shame, or embarrassment based on what others think or say. The critical element, in my opinion, is what we DO with those feelings. Do we take a moment of honest self-reflection to determine if those accusations are legitimate (or baseless) and responding appropriately, or does it cause paralysis, avoidance, co-dependency, or a primitive act of fight/flight? I'm sure Jesus had moments of anxiety with his family, disciples, and the Pharisees. He was, however, able to maintain a solid sense-of-self, remain calm and soothe those anxieties, all while being emotionally or physically close to others. David Schnarch calls this the act of differentiation.

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