ƒ Christianity for Thinking People: What Freud Taught Me About Faith

Friday, March 18, 2011

What Freud Taught Me About Faith

I have been fascinated with Sigmund Freud since my first encounter with his writings while attending a small Christian liberal arts college (1985-1989) in preparation for ministry.  The following passage seared its way indelibly into my new-forming pastoral psyche.
We know already that the terrifying effect of infantile help­lessness aroused the need for protection -- protection through love -- which the father relieved, and that the discovery that this helplessness would continue through the whole of life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father - but this time a more powerful one.[1]
That idea literally exploded in my mind.  What?  Is he saying that religion is rooted in the infantile wish to be protected from the dangers of life by a divine father.  What a wonderfully subversive idea!  I wasn't quite sure how to respond to that criticism of my faith but I knew instinctively that I couldn't ignore it.  The idea struck me with all the force of a divine revelation and has continued to shape my faith from that moment to the present.
The idea that religion is a childish illusion that keeps humanity from falling into the abyss of despair touched a deep nerve in me.  In retrospect, I understand now that on that day Freud became my lifelong teacher, a creative catalyst that opened a door in my mind, altered my thinking and enlarged my understanding.  Freud taught me that there is a vital connection between our beliefs and our deep-seated needs and desires.
That single sentence started a long process in which I began to think about the the inner significance of my religious ideas.  Thanks to Freud, I have no doubt that the idea of a divine heavenly father speaks to the human need for security and protection.  Such faith can be part of a healthy life as long as it doesn't lock us into childish ways of thinking that keep us from developing a mature perspective and taking responsibility for our lives.

[1] Freud, Sigmund.  "The Future of an Illusion," The Treasury of Modern Religious Thought, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1990); 75.

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