Bursting Illusions: Part 1, Love Those Comforting Whirlwinds

You can make a good argument that Freud's The Future of an Illusion is the single most devastating critique of religious faith that has ever been penned. It's so influential that modern criticisms of faith often just rehash and warm over The Future of an Illusion.

This blog started, way back in 2007, with a series called "Freud's Ghost," reflections that ultimately lead to my book The Authenticity of Faith. In that series and in that book I took as a starting point that we have to take Freud seriously. Religious people often don't. But it seems pretty clear that many (most?) religious believers do display defensiveness. That is, religious beliefs are often used to console and comfort in ways that help us deny, avoid, or repress harsh realities. 

Freud writes in The Future of an Illusion

[Religious believers] will, it is true, find themselves in a difficult situation. They will have to admit to themselves the full extent of their helplessness and their insignificance in the machinery of the universe; they can no longer be the centre of creation, no longer the object of tender care on the part of a beneficent Providence. They will be in the same position as a child who has left the parental house where he was so warm and comfortable. But surely infantilism is destined to be surmounted. Men cannot remain children for ever; they must in the end go out into 'hostile life'. We may call this 'education to reality.' Need I confess to you that the whole purpose of my book is to point out the necessity for this forward step?
Faith is a "warm and comfortable" house where we are protected by the "tender care" of our Father in Heaven, a cozy fantasy where we can play pretend to avoid facing the harsh realities of "hostile life."

Again, I absolutely think Freud is naming something real here, a dynamic that I spend The Authenticity of Faith wrestling with. And yet, as I've pondered Freud's argument, I also think it is often overstated. 

Specifically, Freud didn't know a lot about religious experience. He stood as an outsider and, as an outsider, mischaracterized the life of faith. And without a truthful and accurate description of faith--a real failure for a scientist--Freud filled in the gap of his ignorance with his prejudices and biases. Faith was childish. All soft edges and cozy blankets. Faith was an avoidance of reality. 

But any cursory reading of the Bible reveals that this is nonsense. Consider the book of Job. Such a consoling, comforting story, right? 

Ponder Job's encounter with God in the whirlwind. How comforting is God in that theophany? Job has suffered so much, and God, notoriously, never attends to Job's pain, nor condescends to answer Job's questions. Instead, Job gets this:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?"
To borrow from Dr. Freud, what Job gets from the whirlwind isn't "warm and comfortable," what Job gets is a bracing "education to reality." What Job gets a bucket of cold water to the face. Job gets no comfort, no answers. Just exposure to a Reality that humbles him into repentance in dust and ashes. 

Turns out whirlwinds aren't all that cozy.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply