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Freud and God

ISSUE:  Summer 1981

Relatively unknown, and resident of a strongly Catholic city, Freud dared take on belief in God at a meeting in early March 1907 of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society. He presented a paper with the title of “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices.” Most of the observations were clinical—the work of a brilliant physician connecting instances from his practice into a narrative presentation meant to convey a theoretical point of view. But at the end, when Freud mentions “the sphere of religious life,” a morally argumentative strain begins to appear. The reader is told that “complete backslidings into Sin are more common among pious people than among neurotics,” an incautious generalization even then (despite the inhibitions Freud had noticed among “his” neurotics) and a quaintly unsupportable one now.

When Freud approaches “religious practices,” he is intelligent and helpful to the kind of scholar who is not interested in debunking, but rather in understanding man’s church-going history. The “petty ceremonials” of a given religion can, he points out, become tyrannical; they manage to “push aside the underlying thoughts.” He suggests that historically various “reforms” have been intended to redress “the original balance”—rescue beliefs from arid pietism. But in his concluding paragraphs Freud again makes a sweeping generalization, tries to join an analysis of psychopathology to social criticism. “One might venture to regard obsessional neurosis as a pathological formation of a religion, and to describe that neurosis as an individual religiosity and religion as a universal obsessional neurosis.”

This is a kind of naïve and gratuitous reductionism we have seen relentlessly pursued, these days, in the name of psychoanalysis. Freud himself was often more careful. In the wellknown essay on “Dostoievski and Patricide” he acknowledged the futility of a psychoanalytic “explanation” of a writer’s talent, as opposed to any psychological difficulties he or she may happen to share with millions of other human beings. When he risked social and political speculation (in the exchange of letters with Einstein or in The New Introductory Lectures), he could be guarded about using his ideas to interpret culture. Sometimes, even when writing about religious matters, as in Totem and Taboo or Moses and Monotheism, he was frank about being conjectural. In his first draft, completed in 1934, a book on the origins of monotheism was titled, The Man Moses, a Historical Novel.

But religion clearly excited him to truculence, nowhere more evidently than in The Future of an Illusion (1927). He starts out warning himself to be objective, to summon a long-range historical view, to be modest, restrained. Yet he quickly connects religious ideas to man’s obvious helplessness in the face of life’s mysteries. He then connects that condition to the child’s predicament—”an infantile prototype.” After pointing out that there is no conclusive “proof,” in the word’s modern scientific sense, of God’s existence, he refers to “the fairy tales of religion,” and indicates with a rising vehemence that religion is a mere illusion, “derived from human wishes.” His tone here is distinctly different from his other sociological writing. He contrasts his line of argument (“correct thinking”) to another (“lame excuse”). “Ignorance is ignorance,” he reminds us, and adds immediately, “no right to believe anything can be derived from it.” And then: “In other matters [than religion] no sensible person will behave so irresponsibly or rest content with such feeble grounds for his opinions.” He declares that “the effect of religious thinking may be likened to that of a narcotic,” and that religion, “like the obsessional neurosis” he had described so vividly years earlier, “arose out of the Oedipus complex, out of the relation to the father.”

To his great credit, he then pulls back, and acknowledges that “the pathology of the individual” does not provide a fully accurate analogy to the nature of religious faith, but he is soon referring to faith as “the consolation of religious illusion,” and expressing the hope that in some future, when human beings have been “sensibly brought up,” they will not have this “neurosis”—will “need no intoxicant to deaden it.” Then, at the end, he embraces “our God, Logos,” insists yet again that “religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis,” and makes an invidious distinction between his stoic adherence to science, and those who look with faith to God: “My illusions are not, like religious ones, incapable of correction. They have not the character of delusion.”

Philip Rieff, whose essays and books have been among the most learned and suggestive responses to Freud’s writings, has been harsh about The Future of an Illusion and the kindred writing which preceded it. Rieff refers to Freud’s “genetic disparagements of the religious spirit,” and finds his reasoning tautological: “he will admit as religious only feelings of submission and dependence; others are dismissed as intellectual dilutions or displacements of the primary infantile sentiment.” It is, Rieff says, “scientific name-calling,” though in the service of a sincerely held modern rationalism.

Freudian psychologists have seldom challenged Freud’s views as Rieff has done. But in 1979 Ana-Maria Rizzuto, who teaches at the Psychoanalytic Institute of New England, published a major study of the relation between psychiatry and faith, The Birth of the Living God. “The cultural stance of contemporary psychoanalysis,” she begins, “is that of Freud: religion is a neurosis based on wishes. Freud has been quoted over and over again without considering his statements in a critical light.” Examining her own experience as a psychoanalyst, she finds herself rejecting Freud’s assertion that “God really is the father”; she also rejects his insistence that religion is a kind of oedipal offshoot—a “sublimation,” a means by which erotic and aggressive feelings toward a particular man, the father, are given expression. Such an explanation, she argues, takes an extremely complicated and still continuing emotional and intellectual process and “reduces it to a representational fossil, freezing it at one exclusive level of development.” And it incidentally denies mothers, grandparents, brothers, and sisters any substantial involvement in the emotional events that affect religious belief. Extremely preoccupied with “the father-son relationship” in his analysis of the psychology of religion, “Freud does not concern himself with religion or God in women.”

The English psychoanalysts D. W. Winnicott, Charles Rycroft, and Harry Guntrip have obviously influenced this American psychoanalyst. Like them, she puts strong emphasis on the texture of “object relations”: the mind as constantly responding to and reflecting involvements with a range of human beings, rather than the mind as a battlefield in which certain “agencies” fight things out with various maneuvers—in the hands of some psychoanalytic theorists, a kind of solipsism.

She seems especially influenced by Winnicott’s revisions of Freud as a result of his work as a pediatrician and child psychoanalyst. He emphasized the significance of early months and years, when babies begin to distinguish themselves—the mother is there, and I am here—and when babies begin to show the distinctively human characteristic of symbolization. The first instance of that lifelong habit is known to all parents—those so-called “transitional objects” which mean so much to young children: a part of a blanket, a teddy bear, a doll, a spoon, an article of clothing, and later on, a certain song or story or scene. To be sure, even in the nursery, history, culture, class, and caste determine what “materials” are available; but Winnicott’s work with infants casts a new light on their mental complexity and variability. Anywhere, any time, infants discover their very own world of word and thought, symbol and memory.

Winnicott did not find that adult ideas or inclinations were similar to a baby’s mental strategems. His point is that, early on, all children learn to carry with themselves ideas and feelings connected to persons, places, things—and these mental “representations” attest to nothing less or more than powerful human capacities. It would be foolish to equate a baby’s attachment to a part of a blanket with a poet’s use of synecdoche or a supplicant’s attachment to Rosary beads, but there is a connection—as in that between incipient and full-fledged humanity rather than early and later psychopathology. What analysts such as Winnicott or Rizzuto aim to document is a beginning effort at self-definition—through our thoughts and interests, likes and dislikes, fantasies and dreams, affections and involvements.

Dr. Rizzuto calls one of these efforts “God representation,” referring to the notion about God that most of us in the West acquire early in life from what we hear at home, at school, in church, in the neighborhood playing lots. Even agnostics or atheists, she finds, have had ideas about God, given Him some private form—a mental picture, some words, a sound. In the lives of children, as parents know in one way, child psychiatrists in another, God joins company with all sorts of kings, generals, superheroes, witches, monsters, demons, friends, brothers and sisters, parents, teachers, policemen, firemen, and on and on. Dr. Rizzuto offers histories of His presence in the minds of people who firmly call themselves nonbelievers. She points out that God may be someone rejected, denied, ridiculed as well as embraced, relied upon constantly—and that each of those psychological attitudes can be connected to the constraints and opportunities (and good luck and bad luck) of a given life. Her interests, in this regard, are not clinical or categorically judgmental. She is writing as a phenomenological psychologist.


Freud continually returned to the idea of God; he wrote about His origin in the minds of others, devoted numerous articles and three books to Him. Why? Not necessarily to work out a “problem.” As did Winnicott, Rizzuto sees religious ideas as part of our cultural life—like music, art, literature, or for that matter, formal intellectual reasoning and scientific speculation. They are all connected to our endless effort to place ourselves in space and time, to figure out where we come from and what we are and where we’re going. In a touching statement at the end of her book she arrives at the point where her “departure from Freud is inevitable.” Great as her daily professional loyalty and obligation are to him, she writes:

Freud considers God and religion a wishful childish illusion. He wrote asking mankind to renounce it. I must disagree. Reality and illusion are not contradictory terms. Psychic reality—whose depth Freud so brilliantly unveiled—cannot occur without that specifically human transitional space for play and illusion . . . Asking a mature, functioning individual to renounce his God would be like asking Freud to renounce his own creation, psychoanalysis, and the “illusory” promise of what scientific knowledge can do. This is, in fact, the point. Men cannot be men without illusions. The type of illusion we select—science, religion, or something else—reveals our personal history—the transitional space each of us has created between his objects and himself to find a “resting place” to live in.

In her view it is in the nature of human beings, from early childhood until the last breath, to sift and sort, and to play, first with toys and games and teddy bears and animals, then with ideas and words and images and sounds and notions. We never stop trying to touch base with significant others, to settle upon some satisfying idea of who and what we ourselves are, to build a world that is ours—with blocks or bricks or iron, with money and signatures of ownership, with acts of affirmation and loyalty and affiliation, with outbursts of meanness and rancor, with mental images, and not least, with theories saying the life we live should go one way or another. Dr. Rizzuto should be clearer about how we ought to analyze and evaluate the different “illusions” she refers to. The history of science is in large part the demonstration of illusion; and if “reality and illusion are not contradictory terms,” they are not the same, either. And, of course, some of us are willing and able to be more skeptical of the beliefs in which we’ve invested our hopes and wishes. With respect to the activities or beliefs in which we invest hope or feeling, we differ in the degree of skeptical scrutiny we may be willing or able to appy to them. Nevertheless, this book, one assumes, will not be smugly classified as evidence of someone’s “psychopathology,” a practice that has been all too much a part of the contemporary, bourgeois Western world, for which psychoanalysis itself has been so useful in establishing, interestingly enough, a version of the saved and the damned.

A psychoanalyst has wanted to demonstrate the universality of an element of mental function. She need not at all have summoned the polarity of “reality” as against “illusion”; and did so, actually, because Freud had repeatedly thrown that either/or gauntlet down to his readers and followers. What she means she states better when she refers to a “capacity” each of us has and indulges—”to symbolize, fantasize and create super-human beings”; or when she describes the role that fantasy has in the lives of people: a means by which they (meaning, again, every single one of us) “moderate their longings for objects, their fears, their poignant disappointment with their limitations.” A baby uses its eyes with the “longings” Dr. Rizzuto mentions, and we adults, babes in the woods of a universe whose enormity and mystery and frustrations are only too obvious, do likewise. The word “theory” is derived from Oewpía, which refers to the act of looking and seeing—as in the spectator at a religious ceremonial, or as in examining portents, or as in scanning the sky to figure out what is going on, what will happen next. Theorists assemble facts to help us look with a little less anguish at enigmas often enough impenetrable. Not because we are sick, or uneducated, or naïve, but in response to our nature as human beings, we elaborate upon factuality: “The objects we so indispensably need are never themselves alone, they combine the mystery of their reality and our fantasy.”

What does Dr. Rizzuto mean by that crucial statement? She is saying, in the tradition of Winnicott and others, that facts may be stated independently, as in a chemical equation, a physics formula, a finding by a psychologist about rat behavior on a maze, an observation by a psychoanalyst that people who do X have had, to a significant degree, a Y kind of childhood—but the matter doesn’t rest there. Skinner takes his behaviorist laboratory findings and constructs of them stories, recommendations on child rearing, Utopian suggestions—notions of how to live a life. And Steven Weinberg, in a lovely book, The First Three Minutes, uses his work in theoretical physics to give us “a modern view of the origin of the universe.” Wonderfully, he starts with an old Norse myth about that “origin,” yet ends up with his own candid surmise, his own effort to deal with the “uncertainties” he keeps on mentioning. “It is almost irresistible,” he tells us, “for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes” [when this universe may have begun, so his facts have prompted him to speculate or fantasize, the latter verb used nonpejoratively]. A little later on he observes that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

Dr. Rizzuto knows, from her work with children, that they, too, struggle with just such a sense of things—and can be heard saying so again and again. Witches emerge from the desire of boys and girls to understand life’s cruel arbitrariness. Witches are discarded for Satan—and yes, for notions such as a “drive” called “aggression,” or what Freud called Thanatos. It is not necessarily “neurotic” for a child to talk of witches, nor is it necessarily “immature” or, again, “neurotic” for an adult religious person to summon Satan, or for Freud to talk of a “primal horde” or a “totem” or of Thanatos—examples of his move from fact-finding to the kind of rumination Dr. Rizzuto refers to: an exploratory play of the mind characteristic of all of us, though of course it varies in symbolic complexity and content, or too, in clarity or pretentiousness. (Freud himself once referred to his “mythological theory of instincts.”) From Plato’s Timaeus to Professor Weinberg’s essay, from Egyptian stories to the modern day notion of “black holes,” man’s cosmological yearnings have found in various facts, or in ancient geometry or contemporary physics, a means for—what? Not illusion, maybe, strictly defined, but a little help in knowing what this life is about, or as Winnicott and Rizzuto would have it, a little help in gaining a sense of greater proximity to the heart of the matter, namely, the particular “objects,” or symbols of them, which we have learned to regard, with good reason, as literally life-giving, then life supporting. The issue is not, though, a “regressive” tendency; the issue is the nature of our human predicament, no matter our age—and the way our mind deals with that predicament, from the earliest years (child analysts have observed) to the final breath.

That is why it is particularly ironic and dismaying to find both Freudian and Marxist thought so arrogantly abusive when the subject of religion comes up. True, religious thought, like everything else, has lent itself to tyranny and exploitation. But so has Marxist thought, Freudian thought. The clarity of Marx the economist and historian (the facts, or speculations tied closely to them) become the futurist “fantasies” of a supposedly (one day) “withering” entity called “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Talk about opium—and ingested not by gullible peasants but by all too theoretical advocates of “dialectical materialism.” The clarity of Freud the clinician and historian of lives became the “movement” called psychoanalysis, with special rings given to a few annointed ones, with sectarian argument, with “schools” and splits and expulsions, with references by analysts themselves to “punitive orthodoxy.” A century that has seen Lenin’s Mausoleum, pictures of Karl Marx waved before the leaders of the Gulag, Freud fainting in the arms of Jung, and postponing for years a trip to Rome, even as he immersed himself in accounts of Hannibal’s life, and turned heatedly on this, then that colleague, cannot be considered a stranger to what Dr. Rizzuto has described: among the most brilliant and decent of individuals, those most determined to explore “reality,” one or another fantasy, if not illusion, will take deep root, often getting worked into something called a theory.

* The political implications of that mental activity are obviously enormous. Even elementary school children use presidents and prime ministers and kings and dictators, and not least, the flag, in a continuing effort to establish loyalties, preferences, a sense of place, affiliation and purpose. And, of course, our political leaders reciprocate—try to connect themselves (their names, faces, messages and slogans) with the personal as well as material aspirations of as many people as possible.


Dr. Rizzuto’s understanding of Freud’s battle with religion is not quite that of the contemporary Catholic theologian, Hans Kung. In his recent Terry lectures at Yale, published as Freud and the Problem of God (1979), Father Kung deals with Freud’s religious preoccupations rather more gingerly than Dr. Rizzuto has done. He takes pains to acknowledge the Catholic anti-Semitism Freud had to contend with, and he spells out what he calls “ecclesiogenic neuroses”—the result of a prudish, overbearing Church. “Over the centuries,” he acknowledges, “the churches have acted like a superego: dominating souls in the name of God, exploiting the dependence and immaturity of poor sinners, requiring submission to the taboos of untested authority, continually repressing sexuality and displaying contempt for women (in the law of celibacy, in excluding women from church ministries).” His is a sweeping denunciation of Catholic rigidity rendered in the name of a late 20th-century (second Vatican Council) Catholic humanism. (This part of his book recalls his On Being a Christian, in which some of the same points were made at substantially greater length.)

At times Kung sounds like Freud. He describes the religion of many people as “a return to infantile structure,” or “a regression to childish wishing”; further, he calls attention to “the Churches’ misuse of power.” As a social and cultural critic, Freud was often right, Kung says: “How abundant are the examples of arrogance or power and misuse of power in the history of the churches: intolerance and cruelty toward deviationists, crusades, inquisition, extermination of heretics, obsession with witches, struggle against theological research, oppression of their own theologians—right up to the present time.”

Such thoughts are sweet music to the ear of many critics of the church, and they are not often heard from Catholic theologians. He thanks Freud for the very real help psychoanalysis offers ministers and priests in their daily work, is grateful to Jung, who deigned to grant us a “religious need,” and who generously declared God “psychologically existent”; and to Adler, who, seeing God as a handy ally in a theoretical battle with Freud, wrote:

The idea of God and its immense significance for mankind can be understood and appreciated from the viewpoint of Individual Psychology as concretization and interpretation of the human recognition of greatness and perfection, and as commitment of the individual as well as of society to a goal which rests in man’s future and which in the present heightens the driving force by enhancing the feelings and emotions.

The fuzzy and inspirational tone here—the opposite of Freud’s scientific pessimism—is shared by other psychologists. Kung summons as witness Erich Fromm, for instance, who reassures us that “the attitude—religious in the widest sense of the term—of wonder, of rapture, and of becoming one with the universe, is found also in psychoanalysis.” The psychoanalytic process, Fromm writes, is one “of breaking through the barriers of the conscious ego and of contact with the hitherto-excluded unconscious, advancing toward a surrender to a framework of orientation which transcends the individual, to an unconditional assent to life.”

We not only have a “religious need”; we have, again, a “need” to invest our observations, as did Jung his, with our various hopes and fears, with our mind’s associative and symbolic nature, its daily insistence upon our moment-by-moment trains of thought—and by night, our dreams. Kung calls upon psychoanalysis to help him criticize Catholic history, Catholic religious reality—forgetting that much of what he finds unacceptable in Rome was to be found not only in Freud’s Viennese world but Jung’s Zurich world: rigidity, arrogance, pettiness, or legalistic fractiousness. And when Kung starts using normative judgments (“maturity” or “childish wishing”), he is on dangerously thin ice. For just the reasons Dr. Rizzuto has made clear, it is sadly inappropriate for a Catholic theologian to use psychoanalysis as a means of name-calling. And we may have a clue, here, about what is now going on between Rome and Kung. He doesn’t like some of the meditative fantasies (again, absolutely no pejorative implication intended) that the Pope, the Cardinals, and millions of Catholics find congenial, and they don’t like his way of seeing things—regarding what they believe. In all such shared reveries or “beliefs” (political, scientific, religious) there are felt limits by those involved. At a certain point, for instance, it is possible for a psychoanalyst to shift thinking to such a degree (from, say, notions of “id” or “super-ego,” to those of “drive” and “conditioning and learning”), to the point that colleagues, as well as men of power in professional societies, begin to wonder about a particular intellectual commitment, and especially if a newly embraced terminology gets used invidiously—as in the phrase Kung uses: “childish wishing.” Needless to say, the point is not that Kung or anyone else ought to abstain from taking a tough critical look at the Vatican, its past and present shortcomings, its moral vulnerability—as well documented, actually, in this century, by such grave Catholic writers as Georges Bernanos and Francois Mauriac. But Kung is so busy criticizing the psychological development of his religious brethren, he seems to have lost sight of the feisty, theoretical possessiveness, narrowness or truculence that Marxists or Freudians, in their humanity, have demonstrated.

From Fromm, Kung learned that there are two kinds of psychoanalysts—some “adjustment advisors,” but also another kind: “for them the primary goal is the “cure of the soul,” that is, the optimal development of a person’s potentialities, the realization of his individuality and of his moral and intellectual integrity in the unfolding of a fruitful affirmation of life and of love.” Such talk is not, alas, meant (by Fromm or Kung) in any sardonic, or even ironic sense. One can sense the glee in the Curia—this is what we have to gain from these secular liberal movements! Nor is Kung more convincing when he describes how “an authentic regression,” supposedly to “infantile” behavior or thinking, can be facilitated by faith. “A regression rightly understood, with the aid of certain religious practices (prayer, worship, examination of conscience, confession), can be supremely helpful for a healthy person and can smooth the path to progression and maturity, inasmuch, that is, as he reexperiences, positively assimilates, and reintegrates into his self-identification what has been forgotten or repressed.”

Kung is offering what Flannery O’Connor called a “stomach full of liberal religion.” Dr. Rizzuto, in contrast, wants to make it clear that hers “is not a book on religion.” The sociologist Peter Berger in his recent book The Social Reality of Religion similarly excludes “questions of the ultimate truth or illusion of religious propositions about the world.” They seem to be saying that psychological and sociological analyses are not meant to tell us whether or not God exists; are not meant to serve as arbiters on the nature of faith, grace, and transcendence. Everyone’s ideas and beliefs have a psychological and sociological history: the liberal’s, the conservative’s, the radical’s, the agnostic’s, the atheist’s, the convinced mystic’s, the half-believing, half-doubting churchgoer’s. To explore that history is one thing; to use the exploration as a means of insisting on philosophical, theological, or moral conclusions is quite another matter. Every psychoanalyst would presumably accept that there is a psychological explanation of his or her choice of vocation (voyeurism, narcissism, and on and on), as well as sociological ones—membership in one or another family, class, ethnic group. But what analyst would allow such explanations wholly to determine a judgment on the essential nature, meaning, and worth of his or her work?

Both Winnicott and Rizzuto connect our religious thinking to the kind of thinking we do, from the time of childhood to the time of old age, as the aware creature who hungers for an answer to the well-known question: what is the meaning of life? The history of philosophy and theology is, to a significant degree, the history of proposed answers to that question— even as psychoanalysts observe the nature of one person’s, then another person’s fantasies, connected to the “objects” that were once “incorporated” as enduring “representations” to which, directly or indirectly (symbolically), we continually appeal for reassurance.


In a recent book, The God of the Philosophers (1979), Anthony Kenny shows how certain ideas “propounded by scholastic theologians and rationalist philosophers” don’t fit the demands of logic—omniscience and omnipotence, for instance:

If God is to be omniscient, I have argued, then he cannot be immutable. If God is to have infallible knowledge of future human actions, then determinism must be true. If God is to escape responsibility for human wickedness, then determinism must be false. Hence in the notion of a God who foresees all sins but is the author of none, there lurks a contradiction. Omnipotence may perhaps be capable in isolation, of receiving a coherent formulation; but omnipotence, while capable of accounting for some historic doctrines of predestination, is inadequate as a foundation for divine foreknowledge of undetermined human conduct. There cannot, if our argument has been sound, be a timeless, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, all-good being.

But no matter what other religious philosophers would say, in reply, Dr. Rizzuto would simply point out that the attribution of those qualities (omniscience and omnipotence) is, obviously, something human beings have always done, in order to gain just the kind of mental and physical mastery those two words omniscience and omnipotence suggest. But we do so not necessarily because we are “superstitious” or in need of a psychiatrist. We do so as Steven Weinberg did, as Freud did, and yes, as plenty of ordinary human beings do all the time: “I’ll be standing there on that assembly line, and my mind will wander, and I’ll be asking myself why, a thousand why’s, about the reason things happen, and what the future has in store, and just about everything. I remember asking my mother and father how we got here in the first place, and damn if my kids don’t ask me, and I don’t know—but I still ask myself. I even picture my mother and dad sitting near our old Philco radio, and I’m talking with them; and then I’ll be out in our yard with my kids, and we’re talking—and meanwhile I keep up with that conveyer belt! I add my 25¢ to the Ford Motor Company!”

Ultimately (even for theoretical physicists or psychoanalysts or proponents of dialectical materialism), what Kenny and others before him have called “The God of Reason” merges, in one way or another, with an imaginative, symbolic, fantasying life that becomes a kind of upheld “faith”; and the “reason” for that outcome is connected, as Kenny states, to our situation, rather than our personal “problems”:

There is no reason why someone who is in doubt about the existence of God should not pray for help and guidance on this topic as in other matters. Some find something comic in the idea of an agnostic praying to a God whose existence he doubts. It is surely no more unreasonable than the act of a man adrift in the ocean, trapped in a cave, or stranded on a mountainside, who cries for help though he may never be heard or fires a signal which may never be seen.

Such prayer seems rational whether or not there is a God; whether, if there is a God, it is pleasing to him or conducive to salvation is quite another question.

To which Winnicott and Rizzuto, not to mention the philosophical novelist Walker Percy, would add something like this: we are the creatures who recognize ourselves as “adrift” or as “trapped” or as “stranded,” or as in some precarious relationship to this world; and as users of language, we are the ones who not only take in the world’s “objects” but build them up in our mind, and use them (through thoughts and fantasies) to keep from feeling alone, and to use Kenny’s imagery, to gain for ourselves a sense of where we came from and where we are and where we’re going, lest we feel rudderless, at a dead end, or hopelessly out of touch.

Kung deplores “Protestant biblicism and Catholic traditionalism” for their attitudes toward science. He admires Freud’s “critical rationality.” He wants “dialogic cooperation” with 20th-century empirical minds. In case we want specific warnings, he offers this broadside:

For we can see in connection with Pascal, Jansenism, Kierkegaard, and Earth how often Christians and theologians have been in danger of devaluing the conclusions of reason, in order to revalue faith—a specific form of hostility to reason which does not seem in any way to be required by Christian faith. Must we cease to be philosophers and scholars in order truly to believe in God? Did not Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Earth allow faith to overwhelm reason in this way?

It is something of an irony that Dr. Rizzuto, a psychoanalyst who for the most part protests loyalty to Freud, has understood better how to criticize Freud’s view of religion than a theologian who expresses great admiration for what various psychoanalytic theorists insist on telling us about God. As for Kierkegaard, one could wish that Kung would confront his reasoning in the electrifying essay on “The Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle.” It is a “difference” that Dr. Rizzuto and Professors Berger and Kenny know well. It is a difference that has to do with the use and limitations of the intellect.

Kierkegaard says that a genius and an apostle are “qualitatively different.” The former is pursuing an intellectual or aesthetic inquiry with the greatest of distinction. The latter is on an errand: “No genius has an in order that: the Apostle has absolutely and paradoxically, an in order that.” Those last words of the essay (italics Kierkegaard’s) have to do with faith of the kind Kenny describes—faith connected to a perceived situation or predicament, whether localized at sea, in a cave, up a mountain. In matters of the meaning of life and death, some gather the best facts available—if with the imaginative elaborations mentioned earlier; others turn explicitly to prayer and stop talking about ideas or theories. Here is Kierkegaard saying it his way:

That is how the errors of science and learning have confused Christianity. The confusion has spread from learning to the religious discourse, with the result that one not infrequently hears priests, bona fide, in all learned simplicity, prostituting Christianity. They talk in exalted terms of St. Paul’s brilliance and profundity, of his beautiful similes and so on— that is mere aestheticism. If St. Paul is to be regarded as a genius, then things look black for him, and only clerical ignorance would ever dream of praising him in terms of aesthetics, because it has no standard, but argues that all is well so long as one says something good about him.

For Kierkegaard, the God of Faith is not availabe to us through factual analysis or presentation, however gifted the genius making the attempt. For Rizzuto, the “difference” Kierkegaard mentions is not so absolute; we successfully see larger and larger elements of the world (by means of rationality, logic, the work of various “geniuses”); but we also embark on quite other (subjective, existential, ideologically or cosmologically speculative) lines of mental activity. In any event, speaking of “aestheticism,” one can imagine the contempt Kierkegaard would feel for some of the stupid talk, the dreary banalities that have become the proud property of 20th-century “psychological man”—a contempt, one imagines, not unlike Philip Rieff’s, and perhaps a contempt Freud himself would feel, were he to be given a chance to take a look at what has happened in his name.

Earth, also, was not one to need a defense. Like Kung, he visited America to give university lectures, in 1962, and thereafter put them into a book, Evangelical Theology, at the beginning of which he made the following observation—not to dethrone reason, but simply to describe what happens time and again, and may even happen to the work of Hans Kung:

Ever since the fading of its illusory splendour as a leading academic power during the Middle Ages, theology has taken too many pains to justify its own existence. It has tried too hard, especially in the nineteenth century, to secure for itself at least a small but honorable place in the throne room of general science. This attempt at self-justification has been no help to its own work. The fact is that it has made theology, to a great extent, hesitant and halfhearted; moreover, this uncertainty has earned theology no more respect for its achievements than a very modest tip of the hat.

Pascal, the physicist and mathematician, struggled hard and knowingly with the issue of science and religion. Freud’s The Future of an Illusion can be read as a footnote to his Penseés and Provincial Letters, and it is a scandal that Kung doesn’t choose to recognize the power of Pascal’s analysis of religious faith. What Kierkegaard and Barth knew, what Pascal, before them, made preeminently clear, is the difference between a consideration of man and nature (scientific inquiry), and a consideration of God: intellectually through theology, but also through the various mental motions of a life—not just the awareness of prayers or the commitment of energy to rituals of church attendance, but a day-to-day attentiveness (including the fantasies and reveries, the symbolic work Rizzuto and Winnicott describe) that touches all spheres of activity, and is best characterized, with regard to its nature, by the Latin phrase sub specie aeternitatis, Pascal puts it this matter-of-fact way: “Therefore, those to whom God has imparted religion by intuition are very fortunate, and justly convinced. But to those who do not have it, we can give it only by reasoning, waiting for God to give them spiritual insight, without which faith is only human, and useless for salvation.”

Such a comment, part of the 282nd pensee, is a recognition that for some men and women there comes a point at which the issue is not knowledge, not even asserted and analyzed belief, but really, what Pascal calls “spiritual insight,” a quite distinct kind of psychology, put in the service of a particular exertion of love; maybe in Dr. Rizzuto’s words, a love for “a living God”—for, that is, a particular “representation” which (Who) rescues us, so we fervently hope and pray, from our otherwise absurd condition. For Hans Kung, one assumes, that God was the one who entered history, Jesus of Nazareth. For Hans Kung, one assumes, the earthly institution, for all its flaws, entrusted to give that love a continuing setting, so to speak, is the Holy Roman Catholic Church. It is a Church for whose thousands of priests and nuns it comes surely as no great surprise that we all work facts into our imaginative constructions; that reason can turn to faith, be it religious or secular; and that part of our love life is a cosmological passion connected to no small measure of felt (existential) desperation.

Dr. Rizzuto, one suspects, would find Pascal’s Penseés more congenial than Kung seems to; they would be, for her, yet additional examples of the kind of rapt and suggestive contemplation she has seen so repeatedly in the lives she has studied—lives that belong to particular boys and girls, men and women, who are all on a decidedly perplexing journey, and who, as they plunge on, are trying to figure and sort out, the way Pascal tried to do, the various requirements of the head and heart.

* Simone Weil struggled long and hard with her own mind’s considerable capacity to speculate about the world. The sections on “Illusions,” “Idolatry” and “Decreation,” in Gravity and Grace show her shrewdly aware of how anxious we are to use reverie and fancy in order to catch hold of meaning—and not only, she insisted, the uneducated or the overly emotional. Her fierce espousal of “decreation,” awesomely severe and frightening even to many of those who love her ideas, can be regarded as an all but impossible attempt to remove what she felt to be the barriers of the imagination from her contemplation of God. She is, in contrast, much more relaxed about her (and everyone else’s) imagination when she writes about science and its connection to our fantasy life—in, for instance, “Classical Science and After.”


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