The Illusion Of Freud’S Irreligion

Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious, by Paul Vitz (Guilford, 287 pp.; $19.95, cloth). Reviewed by Mary Vander Goot, a counseling psychologist in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and author of Narrating Psychology (Wyndham Hall).

Only a scholar of Paul Vitz’s caliber would dare suggest that Sigmund Freud had a Christian unconscious. And only a scholar with Vitz’s breadth and independence could sort through the evidence and convincingly demonstrate that such a thesis is solid.

Why should anyone care whether or not Freud had a Christian unconscious? The answer lies in the pervasive influence of his thinking upon our culture.

Freud was one of the major promoters of the view that religion, rather than being a fact of life, is a set of optional prejudices to which people cling because it affords them some sort of comfort. He insisted that only scientific reason could serve as a valid authority.

Today, relatively few people know the source of this view, but the argument itself has become a standard ingredient in the modern mentality. It has been used over and over again to support the claim that religious belief is a private matter, having to do with opinion rather than truth.

Freud was tolerant of religion only as he was tolerant of any kind of irrational fear, self-defeating habit, and immature behavior. His own approach to psychoanalysis, Freud believed, was a means by which people could be shown the misguided motives for their out-moded beliefs and actions so that finally they would relinquish these illusions.

How interesting, then, that a thinker who claimed he had no need for religion could not himself get away from its influences.

Earlier studies of Freud’s Jewish origins have demonstrated that Freud continued to be very Jewish in the style of thinking with which he approached major problem areas in his own life and in those of his patients. For example, David Bakan, in Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition (Van Nostrand, 1958), suggests that Freud grew up in a center of Jewish thought where Jewish habits of thinking were in the air. Although Freud never studied Judaism, he came to know it in the fashion that all children come to know the beliefs of their families and friends.

Bakan and several Freud biographers recognize that Freud went through a long stage during which he was openly hostile to all sorts of Jewish religious practice. But Bakan demonstrates compellingly that Freud’s writing is laced with references to the traditions of Jewish mysticism.

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Religious Longings

Vitz now adds the view that Freud was equally influenced by Christian tradition. As a psychoanalyst, Freud was a master at uncovering the hidden motives and desires of his patients. Vitz, using Freud’s own method, shows that he was driven by a religious longing that he himself could not understand, but from which he could not escape.

For example, Vitz presents evidence that Freud’s early childhood caretaker was not his own mother but rather a devout Catholic nanny. Freud’s parting from her while still a young child seems to have been a great loss to him. In his professional work he returned repeatedly to the theme of a child who had lost his true mother. He did major studies of the Greek drama of Oedipus, who lost his true mother; of Moses; and of a da Vinci painting of the Christ child with Mary and his grandmother (Saint Anne), both portrayed as madonnas. These and other examples build the case that the influence of Freud’s Catholic nanny was a profound factor in his early development.

Another theme that Vitz explores in detail is Freud’s attachment to Rome. Freud made numerous trips there and spoke of his journey as a pilgrimage. While in Rome he immersed himself in Christian art, and on one occasion intentionally visited the city at Easter.

Vitz, however, clearly is not suggesting that Freud became a professing Christian, or even that he was appreciative of the Christian tradition. Rather, Vitz’s evidence points only to the claim that Freud could not escape the influence of religion.

Inescapable Encounter

Of particular importance in Vitz’s work—beyond the insights into Freud himself—is the clarity and understanding he brings to the ways in which religious traditions are transmitted. For those of us who live in a society that claims religious neutrality, Vitz’s work offers an important moment for reflecting on our own assumptions about how belief is formed and whether or not it can be excluded from public life.

It is clear from Vitz’s work that religion is more than doctrine or creed. It is in the architecture of cities, the traditions of art and music, the calendar of holidays, and the impressions of children. Religion is planted in the unconscious of persons who are raised in a culture. It is carried unawares from one generation to the next. The origin and force of these influences may be something that even those persons themselves cannot grasp.

When Vitz suggests that Freud had a Christian unconscious, he is recognizing that Freud grew up in a Western culture whose dominant religious tradition is Christian. As such, Freud was unavoidably exposed to Christian influences. To escape these influences he would have had to become something other than the Western man he was.

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Is the pattern Vitz has uncovered a pattern that is peculiar to Freud? Is it not likely that a leader who shapes the imagination of a culture is also influenced by the spirits of that culture? The encounter with these spirits may be congenial or reactionary, but it is inescapable. Every thinker, whether Christian, Jewish, or secular, lives in a culture where the power of belief has left its mark, and where the forces of unbelief wrestle to undo these effects.

In the interest of toleration, most of us have learned to be discreet about religion. However, our efforts at tolerance have gone to an extreme, so that today opponents of religion have more liberty to speak out than do the faithful. To maintain the illusion that religion is of marginal importance sometimes requires that we not tell the truth as we see it, and equally often requires that we pretend that we are naïve. It is this misunderstanding that Vitz challenges so effectively.

What Makes An Ethic Evangelical?

Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, by Oliver O’Donovan (Eerdmans, 284 pp.; $18.95, hardcover) and Freedom for Obedience: Evangelical Ethics for Contemporary Times, by Donald G. Bloesch (Harper & Row, 342 pp.; $24.95, cloth). Reviewed by Allen D. Verhey, professor of religion, Hope College, Holland, Michigan.

Oliver O’Donovan and Donald Bloesch agree that ethics can be part of the good news of the gospel and not just an addendum to it. But if they agree that ethics can be evangelical, they give different accounts of how ethics can be evangelical.

O’Donovan, an Oxford University theologian of increasing stature, has written a brilliant book. It is an account of ethics that is evangelical by beginning with the good news that God raised Jesus from the dead. The Resurrection vindicates and fulfills God’s good creation and our created life within it. Therefore, the gospel holds us to our moral reality as creatures of God in God’s world; it does not remove us from it.

Accordingly, O’Donovan affirms an objective moral order that is built into the universe. This order may be known in fragmentary and incomplete ways by any person who lives in God’s world, but it can be known as a whole only in Christ.

An evangelical ethic, then, need not deny moral knowledge outside Christ. But an evangelical ethic will not substitute such knowledge for the gospel as an acceptable moral foundation.

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For O’Donovan, the good news of resurrection is not simply objective. It also forms and nurtures within believers a subjective moral reality that conforms to it. Because Jesus has been raised, the Spirit is poured out, and the Spirit makes God’s moral reality present to us and authoritative for us. It evokes our free response to it.

This means the redeemed creation does not merely confront us with its objective reality. Instead, by the Spirit, it includes us and enables our genuine participation in it. In Christ, by the Spirit, human beings assume their proper place within the order of God, the place of dominion given to Adam. This is a dominion marked not only by sharing in the authority of Christ, but also by sharing in the salvific concern of Christ for the true being of all God’s creation.

This brief overview does not do justice to O’Donovan’s book since it fails to capture either the subtlety or the cogency of his argument. It also omits O’Donovan’s thoughtful engagement of other theologians, and his perceptive commentary on matters such as church discipline and the moral significance of baptism. Suffice it to say that it is an outstanding book, an account of the Christian life that evokes both joy and discipline. It is, and is destined to remain, a book from which subsequent attempts to form an evangelical ethic will learn and a standard by which they will be judged.

Concrete Commands

Donald Bloesch, of Dubuque Theological Seminary, has made genuine and significant contributions to evangelical thought. But Freedom for Obedience does not live up to the level of his previous work. Bloesch describes his ethical position as “evangelical contextualism.”

By that label he owns the claim of Karl Barth that the decisive criterion for an evangelical ethic is the concrete command of God in the moment. Barth deemphasized the moral knowledge available to all persons by virtue of general revelation, as well as the entire idea of broad ethical principles applying to all times and all places.

Such an understanding of ethics is flawed on several counts. Theologically, it construes God’s relation to morality too simply as “Commander.” Morally, it construes discernment too simply as “hearing” and not sufficiently as reflection. But its fundamental flaw is its subjectivism, for how can one test the claim to “hear” the command of God without reflection or discussion with others? One might think and talk about the sorts of things God has commanded in the past, but that is not determinative for Barth’s and Bloesch’s ethical theory. Or one might think and talk about a moral principle, but that, too, is not determinative for Barth’s and Bloesch’s ethics.

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Of course, when decision is called for, both Karl Barth and Donald Bloesch are better than their theory, and both attempt to convince their readers on the basis of good reasons..

The ‘Other Side’ Of Arafat

Arafat: Terrorist or Peacemaker? by Alan Hart (Sidgwick and Jackson, 501 pp.; $21.95, hardcover), reviewed by Roger Malstead, who has been a Christian leader in the Middle East for more than 20 years; and Bob Hitching, director of Reach and Teach ministries and author of two books on the Middle East.

For more than 20 years, Alan Hart has been one of Britain’s leading investigative journalists. His role in “Panorama,” the widely acclaimed BBC political affairs program, cast him as one of the foremost authorities on the Middle East.

Hart’s credentials and skills as a journalist provide the main point of interest in this book. The obvious political statements are definitely not mainstream evangelical in their ethos. However, the book’s compelling style and researched documentation makes it important reading for those who want to approach the subject seriously and develop a well-informed point of view.

Hart’s book is now several years old, having first been published in England before reaching the American market. Yet, because recent developments in the Middle East have given new importance to Arafat and the PLO, the book is a valuable source of a different perspective.

The entire report is the antithesis of the generally accepted notions of both Arafat and the PLO. Arafat is portrayed as a victim rather than a culprit. His rise to power is explained in politically shrewd terms, yet tempered with a perspective that shows him held in almost messianic esteem by the Palestinian populace.

Highly skilled documentation of many of the controversial points of history replaces the emotional propaganda that so often surrounds this subject. Hart traces the PLO’s development from a small group in a Kuwait apartment to a multinational organization.

The real villians of the book are not the Jews, as one might expect, but rather the front-line Arab states and the superpowers. The PLO is portrayed as a blindfolded pawn in a chess game.

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Passion For Justice

Perhaps the most disturbing revelation of Hart’s documentary is Arafat himself. If what Hart says is true, Arafat is an intensely sensitive man with a passion only for justice and equity; a man who finds death abhorrent, yet who has lived with bloodshed for over 35 years.

Another surprise is the role of Father Iyad, an Arab Catholic priest, in the Palestinian movement. On more than one occasion Arafat has gone to Iyad for counsel and guidance.

In late 1965, for example, after Arafat and some of the top leadership of the plo were almost killed in Beirut, Father Iyad tells this story:

“On this occasion he did not come to me at the convent.… He told me that his colleagues on the Central Committee [of the PLO] were asking him to give up the military way and that he was refusing to obey their instructions. He said he understood their fears that he would be pushed into becoming a Syrian puppet. But they did not understand him. ‘I will never, never, never become the puppet of any regime.’ … After that he did not speak for some moments. Then he [Arafat] said: ‘Father, I have decided that I must continue with the armed struggle. Will you give me your blessing?’

“I said: ‘Yes’: and I did. I told him the following: ‘God is love and love is justice. You will not be fighting alone.’ He smiled.”

So often the Middle East conflict is seen in terms of Muslim and Jew. Yet this conversation with Father Iyad underlines how a significant group of Christian Palestinians has a passionate allegiance to the liberation struggle.

Arafat: Terrorist or Peacemaker? is definitely the “other side” of the story concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict. But it is a side worth hearing clearly in the continuing din of the Middle East

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