Freud & Faith: Part 6, O God, Our Mother and Father

One of the more provocative theories Freud posited was his notion of the Oedipus Complex. According to Freud, at a critical juncture in childhood the child would experience sexual desire for the opposite sex parent and rivalry/aggression toward the same sex parent. The names for the Complex come from two Greek tragic figures, Oedipus and Electra, who unwittingly killed their same-sex parent and married their opposite-sex parent.

Given the power differentials between the child and the parents during the Oedipus Complex, the child finds themselves psychically and sexually thwarted and frustrated. That is, the sexual and aggressive drives cannot be expressed. According to Freud, the child resolves this dilemma by identifying with the same-sex parent. The boy becomes the father or the girl becomes the mother. For Freud, this process of identification is important for the formation of the superego. That is, the superego, the moral voice inside our heads, is the internalized parent.

What should we think about all this?

As best I can tell, modern scientific psychology has rejected any strong notion of the Oedipus Complex. However, if we approach the Oedipus Complex in the fuzzy manner I suggest (see Part 1) then some interesting things emerge.

First off, we all know that the relationships between parents and children can be volatile and ambiguous. And Oedipal dynamics do seem ubiquitous. When boys have intimate and idealized relationships with their mothers we call them a "mama's boy." Conversely, when girls have intimate and idealized relationships with their fathers we call them a "daddy's girl." Notice how these relationships fall along Oedipal lines. Further, conflict in the home is often hottest between the child and the same-sex parent. Sons fight with fathers and daughters fight with their mothers. Again, this is consistent with an Oedipal alignment. None of this is sinister or weird, but it does go to show that Freud wasn't pulling this stuff out of thin air.

Second, the resolution of the Oedipus Complex leads to the internalization of the parent's voice. I think most of us know what this is like. Messages and scripts from our childhood get into our heads to shape our identities and how we see the world. Often, these parental voices are toxic; we internalize the voice of the parent who told us we were fat, or stupid or worthless. Once that voice has been internalized it is very difficult to shake. The shadow of a parent (inside our heads) can be very, very long.

And, finally, let's talk theology.

Freud's basic claim is that our interactions with our parents shape our identity, relational style and conscience. Although most of us would reject the specifics of the Oedipus Complex I think we can see the larger point Freud was making. Child-parent dynamics are complex and formative.

This is important to recognize because God is primarily understood as being a parent, generally a father. Consequently, our experiences with our parents have implications for how we approach and experience God. Given that God is mostly seen as a Heavenly Father, our experiences with our fathers can be critical in determining the shape and style of our spiritual journey.

This impact is by no means predictable. For example, I know people who have been sexually abused by their fathers. Many of these people struggle with the notion of God as Father. The relational schema of father is toxic to them. Thus, any mention of God as Father in church, Scripture or worship just pushes them away.

By contrast, many people with abusive paternal relationships often find in God the loving Father they never had. For these people the metaphor of God as Father is deeply healing and comforting. In short, the effects of abusive or conflicted relationships with parents, fathers in particular, do not seem to have any predictable or uniform outcome. Regardless, the relationship with parents does have an impact upon how one experiences God.

What if the father-schema has been traumatically broken? Is it vital to the Christian faith that God must be understood as Father? Or is this metaphor dispensable? Might the father-metaphor be a product of a bible-times patriarchy that our more egalitarian era can correct?

No doubt, God is understood as Mother at times in the bible (e.g., Isaiah 49.15; 66.13). Consequently, this has prompted a demand for bibles that are gender-neutral or gender-inclusive. For example, rendering "God our Father" as "God our Father and Mother."

The parental metaphor imbalance is less acute in the Catholic and Greek Orthodox traditions where the veneration of Mary as the Mother of God is integral to the Christian experience, in worship, prayer and devotion. Protestants, however, generally worship only with masculine metaphors. Recently, some Protestant writers and thinkers are beginning to explore Mariology, hoping, I think, to find a place for the feminine in Christian devotion. I think this impulse for redress is what sits behind a lot of the fascination with books like The Da Vinci Code.

Now, I'm not interested right now in getting into the political and social debates about feminist critiques of the bible and Christian parental metaphors. Nor am I interested right now in the place of Mary in Christian devotion. What I am interested in, in this post, is how our early experiences with parents impact how we experience God. And I wonder how those experiences might affect how we experience the paternal and maternal metaphors of God. That is, I wonder how old Oedipal issues might be driving things like the gender-inclusive language debate. And, finally, I wonder how, from a pastoral perspective, we are to approach a person whose father-schema is so poisoned that they practically vomit inside a Christian worship service.

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4 thoughts on “Freud & Faith: Part 6, O God, Our Mother and Father”

  1. I recall watching a television program of about 20 years ago about a young Asian American poet. He read some of his poetry and discussed his life in an interview. It came out that he was a preacher's son. It also came out that he said that he had realized recently that when he prayed, it was to his Dad. Somehow there was a subconscious identification of God and his Dad that eventually welled up to his awareness.

  2. 'Father-God' is a term used by a friend when he addresses God at the beginning of prayer. It is a term of familiarity which disturbs me somewhat. I relate much better to the term 'Heavenly Father' as it denotes reverence, formality, and for myself personally, creates distance. 'Father-God' places God in the context of one Who is not an impersonal diety, but one Who has an intimate relationship with me. This is both the comforting aspect of God's love in relationship and is also the discomforting aspect of God's love in relationship.

    My personal history is such that intimacy with a Father is a place in which I am not comfortable, or familiar, or is even desired. My personal relational view with Fatherhood is one of waiting in anticipation of the next tragedy, when will the hammer fall? Even in the best of times there is an expectation of disappointment and pain. When life is based on a predicament for which the authority over life refuses to correct or change, then life is lived with the spectre or shadowing of failure and in that lies the tyranny of the oppressed. It is living in the presence of unyielding and inflexible authority that has little or no regard for the subject of love that creates a problem of acceptance of any power over life with regard to anticipating a 'good' to result from the relationship. There is a constant cloud or apprehension in any blessing or gift received as it is expected that the eventuality of any benevolent action will be pain and suffering.

  3. Richard,

    Phillip Greven's Spare the Child and any of Alice Miller's counter-Freudian writings are helpful regarding parent-child dynamics in understanding God as a loving parent.

    All-too-often the child abuse and abandonment in Oedipus is ignored entirely--even as Freud did.


  4. I stumbled onto your blog while looking for articles about Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity. I like what I'm reading so far.

    I admittedly haven't read all your posts on this subject, but I think what's missing from your analogy is the second-half of Father/God which I see as Mother/Church. More broadly, mother institutions.

    Just as we relate to God as Father (in Western world anyway) so does our attitude about institutions appear to parallel our mother associations.

    I started my blog as a means of sorting through my life following my departure from being a Seventh-day Adventist member and pastor. My heroes include Paul Tillich, C.J. Jung, Joseph Campbell, and James Hillman. After leaving the pastoral life I went back to school and am now a Psychological Resident. My blog is not nearly so developed as yours, but if you have time, I'd love to share one post in particular that relates to some of the themes you're tossing around on yours.

    here's the link:


    S.P. Lunger

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