Wednesday, March 01, 2023

The Aliens Have Landed and They’re In My Bible

Congratulate me. I have finally finished reading Stephen G. Fowler’s Probing the Mind to Free the Soul: Toward a Psychoanalytic Protest Theology. It took me three weeks but I did it. Let me say this: forcing myself back into the text day after day, trying to pierce Fowler’s layers of nuance, complexity and self-questioning in order to tease out what the man was actually trying to say is one of the most monumental exercises in self-discipline in which I have ever engaged.

So congratulate me … or don’t. Some thoughts you can’t unthink. I will try not to share too many of them here.

An Unwanted Appointment

My home is not large, but it is floor to ceiling with books, and we won’t even talk about my Kindle library. I read incessantly, often a book a day, four to six books a week. For me to take three weeks to read anything is unheard of; I blew through Plutarch’s 1,600-page Lives in less than two. Why so painfully slow in this case? Well, Probing the Mind is replete with some of the most bizarre and distasteful concepts I’ve ever had to engage with. After the first sip of swill, preparing for another eight ounces is like getting out of bed and realizing you have an appointment scheduled with a particularly insensitive proctologist … for 21 straight days. The things I do so you guys don’t have to!

A second problem is Fowler’s penchant for bobbing and weaving rather than saying what he means in straightforward fashion. This is apparently the de facto mode of communication among psychoanalysts: Fowler opens with a quote from Tad Delay that reads, “When someone worth listening to speaks, the word will be cryptic enough to be meaningful, which is to say that it will be cryptic enough to be misunderstood.” Further, in many of his chapters, I find myself incapable of seeing how one point connects to the next and on what superstructure Fowler is building his argument. Let me concede up front that may be a defect in either my intelligence or my attention span. It’s clear Fowler is not a man who writes with impatient readers in mind.

Cultivating Ambiguity

But in Fowler-speak, cryptic is good and nuance is better, and that’s an ominous start. I can say with confidence that among the “general, educated, and curious readership” for whom Fowler (allegedly) wrote this book, the atmosphere of deliberate ambiguity he cultivates is maddening. Fowler repeatedly forces his readers to draw their own conclusions, preferring to let us guess what he really thinks rather than simply spelling it out in plain English. His final chapter terminates with the abruptness of the gospel of Mark, leaving the reader relieved to have reached the end of the road, but perplexed by the total dearth of practical application.

Then again, considering what Fowler appears to be recommending it is probably better he didn’t get too explicit or detailed about it. The friend who passed Probing along to me did so because she couldn’t get through it, but thought somebody should probably engage with Fowler’s ideas, which are now circulating in the churches with which I am most familiar, and even being studied in small groups (God forbid!). I will try to let the man speak for himself as much as possible, as any attempt to force an interpretation on him is likely to prompt one of the author’s newfound acolytes to respond with some variant on “He didn’t mean that!” And truly, who can say for sure what he means?

Protest Theology

So what is Fowler protesting? That must await his Afterword, because if he hadn’t spelled it out there, I would have difficulty telling you. Fowler writes:

“I protest against the church’s general failure to account for the unconscious and the immense complexity of human beings in its biblical interpretations and their applications to real life. Christianity has therefore tended to portray human experience in falsely simplistic terms. Especially as knowledge in the human sciences of neuropsychology, psychology, sociology, and psychoanalysis has advanced, old paradigms of theology bereft of a conceptual structure sufficient to contend with new complexity have in some instances, left the church crippled in its capacity to speak meaningfully into the lives of contemporary people. New wine demands new wine skins.”

“New wine demands new wine skins”? No, what Fowler is telling us is that new wine skins demand new wine, which is something quite different. For my money, the “old wine” of that excellent first century vintage will do us just fine, thank you. But okay then. Given Fowler’s rejection of false simplicity, I will avoid the temptation to streamline this into something like “Christians don’t understand the Bible because they haven’t read Freud”, though Fowler’s endless quotations from the Big Sig, his apologists and his modern reinterpreters are ample evidence that’s what he really means. If the path you have walked in life has led you to believe everything is really about sex and death and that all human inter-connectedness is “infused with libido”, this is definitely the book for you. If, on the other hand, you are shaking your head and wondering “What on earth?”, perhaps not.

Sometimes We Just Have to Streamline

Freud’s Oedipus Complex, unapproved version: As infants, we all repress the desire for sexual relations with our opposite-sex parent and the related desire to murder our same-sex parent in order to better facilitate ongoing intimacy with our opposite-sex parent. (Wait ... if homosexual orientation is genetic, as many contend, shouldn’t this script be flipped in 3-5% of human beings? Eh, whatever.) Anyway, recognizing on some level (the superego, I suppose) that murdering either Mom or Dad is unacceptable (no kidding!), we repress this self-knowledge into our unconscious and create all kinds of problems for ourselves in later life that we are incapable of understanding without analysis. The more a parent chides or shames a child experiencing these feelings, the more messed up he will be as an adult.

The problem with this theory, as any sane, thinking adult quickly intuits, is that it is utterly unfalsifiable. To the extent I protest (oh, the irony) that I have never experienced any such feelings, or that most people don’t, Freud and his cronies will simply tell us our problem is buried much deeper than we can possibly imagine, the evidence being that we are denying it. That’s the thing about the unconscious: anything at all could be lurking in that invisible database, and it has no “print” command, no way of objectively determining its contents or how they came to be there. There is no guarantee that what the analyst dredges out of me after years of therapy isn’t something he accidentally implanted there in the first place, or something I hallucinated after watching a particularly nasty episode of X-Files, or eating too much sugar late at night. To number Freud’s unfalsifiable psychoanalytical theories among the “human sciences”, as Fowler does, is to make nonsense of the word “science”.

The Cross to Bear

In Fowler’s opinion, the church is now “crippled in its capacity to speak meaningfully into the lives of contemporary people”, at least in some instances. So how do we reconcile Oedipus and the other theories of respected analysts with what we find in our Bibles? This is Fowler’s cross to bear, and it’s almost as painful to read about as to drag toward Calvary. How do we attempt to discuss sex in relation to the Trinity, or read phallic symbolism into the relationship between the Father and his children? The very notion is vomit inducing.

I will spare you the meandering middle chapters, largely consisting in Fowler’s efforts to establish things he cannot possibly establish with any certainty. To build some kind of credible basis for his obsessive need to “fix” the church, he piles up vast quantities of opinionated quotations from people as irrelevant to his subject as activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein (who is only quotable because, like Fowler, she views fundamentalism as inherently dangerous), and then asserting “Therefore, it must be so.”

The End in View

So let’s cut to the chase: Where is Fowler going with all this? Well, he seems to be going the same place every liberal Christian is these days: accept the unacceptable or you’re not a good person.

A typical example of lowering the bar:

“As for pornography, while it can be too simplistically easy for Christians to vilify and moralistically reject all pornography, perhaps a deeper look into motivations for both those who produce erotic images and those who consume them might render greater understanding and less harsh automatic judgement. I suspect for many, Christians and non-Christians, the creation of erotic imagery and for others, the viewing of erotic imagery enables the discharge of impulses that might otherwise lead to more egregious and relationally destructive behaviors.”

Okay, so, per Fowler, we need to stop being so judgmental about porn addiction. I sure would hate to fall into the trap of vilifying and moralistically rejecting all pornography. Life will be so much better from hereon in than it would if, say, I were to “put to death the deeds of the body”, as the apostle Paul counseled, “and live”. (And no, I am not advocating an Old Testament-style putting to death of the pornographers, though it would certainly make the world a better place.)

The Cloistered Enclave

Then there’s this gem:

“Might we rightly question whether some of the difficulty Christians have with the more obvious expressions of sexual diversity, as manifest for example in the LGBTQ categories, or with extramarital sex, arises from the mindset produced from complacent adoption of the cherished notion that heterosexual marriage confers purity onto sexuality, thus authorizing a kind of cloistered enclave of privileged morality?”

One: Of course heterosexual marriage doesn’t confer purity onto sexuality. But it makes purity in sexuality remotely achievable (or less-completely unachievable, if you prefer), in a way that other forms of sexual expression the writers of scripture considered “off the table” do not. If you start the day squeaky clean, there is at least a slim chance you will finish it that way. If you start by rolling in the pigpen before breakfast, all bets are off. Two: Is it possible at least some of the difficulty Christians have with the more obvious expressions of sexual diversity is that the word of God teaches such expressions are displeasing to God?

Goodness no, says Fowler, don’t be so silly:

“Insofar as the church has tended to fill in the blanks left by Paul’s ill-defined ‘sexual immorality’ with codes for conduct, it has been woefully inept at addressing the reality of disorder in human sexuality wherever it appears, outside marriage, inside marriage, and beyond the narrow scope of Christian heterosexuality with its touted clear unambiguous sexual and gender identity.”

Fowler says we must understand that Paul wrote what he did in a cultural context that has since evolved. Imposing self-control on ourselves concerning these new expressions of human sexuality (or, worse, recommending self-control to others) is as naïve as observing the first century women’s role in teaching and leading in the church and home, wearing a head covering or literally washing other people’s feet.

The Primitive Purity Perspective

I should stop here, but let’s sum up with this:

“Honoring sexuality as a private and yet paradoxically communally cherished entity demands that Christians shake free of their primitive purity perspective in order to shoulder responsibility for better informing young people, for overcoming our own constricting paradigms for how sexuality ‘should’ be, our own and that of (stranger) others, and embrace the difficult challenge of living truly by conscience and not by law, allowing ourselves to grapple with how sexuality actually is.”

We are left to speculate as to what all that “grappling with how sexuality actually is” might involve. I won’t try.

One fundamental problem is with Fowler’s concept of love trumping law. In scripture, love is the key to learning to do what pleases God without making a bunch of rules for ourselves and coming over all legalistic. In Fowler’s way of thinking, love is the key to redefining what pleases God so that we can have more sexual freedom than we might have had under law. Turns out God never really cared whether we do anything about the sin that law-keeping was intended to show us lies inside us. Hey, we should probably be celebrating it, or at least conceding it’s impossible for us to do any better than we are currently doing, so we can feel good about ourselves.

That’s because for Fowler, the metric by which we judge the value of what we are doing is psychoanalytical, not scriptural. As he says, the prospect of access to the unconscious “can represent the unlimited expansion of new possibility and enlarged freedom of choice”. He quotes Donald Moss’s reference to “sympathizing with the psychoanalytic imperative toward freedom from judgement of aberrancy with its inherent demand for action directed toward correction”. [All emphasis mine throughout.]

That’s where this is all going, and I don’t think I’m putting too many words in Stephen Fowler’s mouth. Okay, maybe one or two.

More on that if I can bring myself to explore it further.

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