ƒ Christianity for Thinking People: March 2011

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.

Monday, March 7, 2011

When Science Kisses Religion

I've been thinking lately about the relationship between religion and science. We often see these as competing systems of thought but that battle just seems tired and outdated even though people on both sides keep going at it. Over the years I've come to realize that science and religion are really just two distinct ways that human beings try to understand the world and our place in it. So instead of pitting them against each other as so often happens in the theism/atheism and the creation/evolution debate we should listen to each as a distinctly and legitimately human way to find meaning and purpose for our lives.

Here is what I think religion has to gain by embracing the type of thinking that undergirds scientific discovery.

1. Science is hypothetical and based on observation. As such there are ultimately no sacred ideas or theories. Everything is open to question and part of the joy of genuine discovery lies in demonstrating the inadequacy of all prior hypotheses. It just feels good to tear an old theory down! If religion would recognize this it would allow people the freedom to examine their beliefs in a playful and creative way. If we can recognize that our religious ideas are hypothetical contructs then we can experience freedom from the fear that stifles spiritual creativity.

2. Science is subject to falsification. This one is a bit tricky because most religions like to think that they have the "truth" in an absolute sense. However, this is a misconception. Ultimately, no human idea is ultimate or absolute because the human mind is not ultimate or absolute. Just like the eye cannot see infrared rays so the mind is not aware of much of the reality that exists in the universe. Because of this limitation in the structure of our thinking it is necessary to recognize that our religious ideas are likely to contain as much error as truth.

3. Science makes progress through controlled dissent. There is no real development or progress without the ability to disagree. Scientists like to engage in what they call, "discussion without domination." This is exactly the kind of thinking that is required in a healthy religious environment. Even the Bible itself contains writings that express dissent against the status quo of religious tradition. For example, Proverbs says that the world reflects a just order in which sin is punished and obedience is rewarded. However, the author of Ecclesiastes observes that often the wicked get what the righteous deserve and vice versa. So we have some dissonance even in our venerated religious text. But as in music the dissonance is as a much a part of the song as the harmony.

I would encourage you not to leave your critical thinking at the door of your religious texts and experiences. Instead take your whole self, including the rational and scientific part, into an engagement with your spiritual traditions!