Sunday, March 05, 2023

If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

In the process of writing last week’s review of Stephen G. Fowler’s Probing the Mind to Free the Soul: Toward a Psychoanalytic Protest Theology, I thought often of the sage advice of the rabbit Thumper in Disney’s Bambi movie: “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” (Apparently the saying originated with Aesop, but I find the bunny-fied version way cuter and more memorable.) A friend I was texting at the time proposed a Thumperiffic way of dealing with the book. She asked, “What is good about his writing? Anything positive?”

I thought, “That’s a really good way to approach it.” Then I went with my original piece, which was admittedly a little on the savage side. I’m not apologizing for that, but today, I’m going to try to be Thumper.

Paul vs. Barnabas

The reason I’m not apologizing for the earlier post is that some of the best (I refuse to use “most impactful”) lessons I’ve learned in life came from people who mocked me ruthlessly, and made it impossible for me to dignify or excuse the ridiculous and unspiritual position I had adopted. I thank them for it today. Paul takes a scathing tone periodically in his epistles. He must have felt weight and forcefulness in his writing served a necessary purpose, and they did: shame and guilt are good things in the appropriate measure at the appropriate time. They help us recalibrate our thinking a lot faster than a pat on the head and a chocolate chip cookie — especially we men, who often need the rhetorical equivalent of a 2×4 to the noggin to help us process a critical point.

Besides, ideas expressed in public forums need to be replied to in public forums, and if the kid gloves occasionally come off when we do it, that’s not a bad thing if it gets the message across unambiguously. However, blunt force trauma doesn’t resonate with everybody, as I well recognize. I even thought about doing this piece first and posting a warning for the sensitive, but that first post was a visceral expression of unmitigated disgust that I didn’t want to dilute in any way.

So I didn’t, and it’s had a few days to percolate. Now, if I may, let me play Barnabas to that post’s Paul.

Areas of Agreement

I think Stephen Fowler is probably a very nice guy with a genuine heart for God’s people. He’s a doctor, after all, and I get the impression his desire is to see dysfunctional, unhappy people made less dysfunctional and able to move closer to whatever the maximum possible upside is for them given their history and condition. I applaud that sentiment. To Ezekiel, God promised, “I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” Let’s be God-like in that respect to whatever extent is possible for mere humans.

If I look hard, I might be able to find other areas of agreement with Mr. Fowler, notwithstanding my conviction that he has written a distressingly modern book that is already leading unstable people off in unwise directions.

For one, I think the distinction Fowler draws between superego and conscience is a useful way of describing the two kinds of “voices” or impulses Christians find themselves either responding to or rejecting, one definitely more valid than the other. (I am assuming a conscience informed by the Holy Spirit, not a seared, undeveloped or corrupted conscience.)

More Areas of Agreement

Without delving into Freudian theory or terminology, I too believe the unconscious is a major problem for many Christians. I too believe many people, even Christians, have a very hard time looking honestly at themselves and assessing their real condition. The psychic defense mechanisms Fowler talks about are all too real. I too believe wise counsel can help us reorient our thinking in a more profitable direction. I too believe that some Christians over the centuries have been guilty of serving up platitudes, pat advice and misapplied scripture in place of a prayerful, inquiring spirit that is quick to listen and slow to speak. I too think some self-appointed counselors within Christian circles oversimplify the complexity of the human mind, and believe themselves up to a task for which they are not even remotely qualified. When they reach out to help others, well-intentioned people like this may do more damage than good.

I too believe the LGBTQ+ community is full of people injured by others, including professing Christians, and whose only hope is Christ.

I just don’t think the answer to these problems is more Freud. I think it’s more Christ.

Sex and Death and Rock ‘n’ Roll

Freud believed most human motivation came down to either sex or death, and Fowler follows him down that road, concluding there is an “unavoidable and ubiquitous pervasion of sin through all of humanity” and that “sin penetrates all aspects of the human mind”, including the unconscious. I believe that is true. It does not follow from this, however, that every individual is comprehensively subject to the iron control of sinful impulses undetected in the unconscious mind, or else no Gentile in Paul’s day would ever “by nature do what the law requires”. More importantly, no sinner could ever be saved. That sort of worldview would be determinism, not Christianity. Nor is it necessary or reasonable to conclude that all unconscious or subconscious minds are preoccupied with sex and death as motivating forces to anything like the same degree. The potential for sin in every area of human experience does not mean we all sin, either consciously or unconsciously, in exactly the same ways or to anything like the same extent.

Psychoanalysis purports to identify the origin of unconscious impulses to which we are subject and which motivate us to feel the things we feel and do the things we do. But only the word of God can tell us which of these “repressed” or unconscious desires are actually sinful and which are sources of phantom guilt from which we need to be freed. In the first case, a trained and Spirit-guided conscience may respond to scripture with repentance and changed behavior, discharging actual guilt and shame by experiencing God’s forgiveness. In the second, an intellect informed by scripture learns to distinguish between expectations God has for me and expectations I have unwittingly created for myself by paying too much attention to the legalists, nannies, martinets and superstitious people around me (the voice of what Fowler would call the superego or the “accuser”). In this case, the behavior does not change, the expectations do, but the relief from phantom guilt is as tangible and life-altering as the relief from genuine felt culpability.

I cannot see how we need Freud and his pals for this.

Returning to the Word

Rather, we need to make greater use of the scriptures the way James describes:

“If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”

This is how Christians got by for the last 2,000 years, and how devout men and women got by for thousands more before that: they read the word of God and let it transform them. They did not need to contemplate whether as an infant they had an unhealthy repressed attachment to their mothers and an unhealthy repressed desire to kill their fathers, the secret shame of which was now impelling them to do and say things for which they were unable to account against their best intentions. They did not need to know about death fixations, phallic symbolism or the sexual fantasies of infants. All they needed to know was that certain kinds of behavior displeased the God they loved, and in the power of the resurrected Christ reject those behaviors. Many of them successfully did so centuries before Freud and others coined the terminology of Fowler’s book.

If more Christians are struggling with guilt and shame today, the answer does not lie in cultivating a more benevolent superego that:

“… will set standards for the subject’s performance that are reasonable, humane, and reachable; furthermore, it will be gentle in its identification of faults and shortcomings, forgiving, supportive, and compassionate, even encouraging in its efforts to help the subject achieve better.”

The Quest for Purity

As I have noted, a new set of standards may indeed solve the problem of false or phantom guilt arising from the imposition (by self or others) of unreasonable and unbiblical expectations. But lowering the bar cannot address the problem of real guilt and shame created when we fall short of God’s standards for believers who have the inestimable privilege of his Spirit residing within us. These are his mechanisms intended to produce changed thinking and changed behavior. Moving the goalposts, which Fowler justifies by alleging purity is “unattainable”, “exclusionary” or “reflects residual narcissistic infantile beliefs and superego-imposed demands that are impossible to meet and so lead only to intense suffering”, will never ease genuine guilt or shame. These are produced by a Spirit-guided conscience, not the superego, and were intended to spur us to a life of continuing spiritual maturity and, yes, ever-increasing purity.

Consider the following New Testament scriptures:

“Set the believers an example … in purity.”

“Encourage … younger women as sisters, in all purity.”

“I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.”

Whatever is pure … think about these things.”

“Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.”

“Train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure …”

“And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”

Far from viewing purity as unachievable, Paul, John and others view the pursuit of purity as standard practice for believers. Sexual purity, purity of association, purity of thought, purity of conduct, corporately and individually, for young and old, male and female.

Will we succeed in remaining 100% pure at all times? Of course not. Should we pursue that goal regardless of our chances of succeeding? Absolutely.

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