Freud and the Subjectivity of Inner Religious Experience

"I must now mention two attempts that have been made - both of which convey the impression of desperate efforts to evade the problem…The first is the Credo quia adsurdum of the early Father of the Church (“I believe because it is absurd”, which is attributed to Tertullian). It maintains that religious doctrines are outside the jurisdiction of reason - are above reason. Their truth must be felt inwardly, and they need not be comprehended. But this Credo is only of interest as a self-confession. As an authoritative statement it has no binding force. Am I to be obliged to believe every absurdity? And if not, why this one in particular? There is no appeal to a court above that of reason. If the truth of religious doctrines is dependent on an inner experience which bears witness to that truth, what is one to do about the many people who do not have this rare experience? One may require every man to use the gift of reason which he possesses. but one cannot erect, on the basis of a motive that exists only for a very few, an obligation that shall apply to everyone. If one man has gained an unshakable conviction of the true reality of religious doctrines from a state of ecstasy which has deeply move him, of what significance is that to others?” 

—Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (35-36).

Freud here brings up a crucial point that has dogged Orthodox Christianity for over two millennia: namely, what is a proper relationship between faith and reason?

First, a word on Tertullian (c160-225). He was a lawyer by training: he was a dogmatic, forceful individual who was also extremely rhetorical. What Tertullian disagreed with most was the dialogue between Christian faith and philosophy. He’s quite pessimistic about this synthesis, a la his famous dictum, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Tertullian’s (rhetorical) answer? Nothing. The Gospel goes against the grain of the contemporary world. It was a classic example of the rule of faith resisting human reason. His was an uncompromising antithesis in a time of persecution – sporadic and local, but also statewide.

(And as an aside, only a handful of scholars believe that Tertullian said “I believe because it’s absurd”; regardless, it’s not a far reach considering his sense for irony, discontinuity, and paradox. And not that Tertullian completely resisted the art of reasoning and logic altogether. In fact, he often used the tools of Hellenism to argue against it. Consider the following quip against Aristotle:

 “Unhappy Aristotle, who invented the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far fetched in its conjectures, so harsh in its arguments, so productive of contentions – embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything and really treating of nothing.” Tertullian, Prescription Against the Heretics 7)

What, then, is the relationship between faith and reason? Between Freud’s subjective, religious experience (which was aimed directly toward Christian religious experience) and what ought to make authoritative, binding claims on all human beings?

First, reason can (and should) be exercised in the service of faith. Any belief that rests upon an uncritical foundation should be suspect because religious faith cannot be exercised without reasoning. Orthodox Christianity attests to a God who addresses our minds via the linguistic structures we each find ourselves inhabiting. Reason must apprehend and apply this word; it must strive for understanding and rest upon at least some foundation of logical coherence.

Second – and this is crucial in responding appropriately to Freud - faith must show itself reasonable in order to commend Christianity as a fit option for thinking people (as opposed to its being a neurosis, wishful thinking, hallucination, or some other irrational phenomenon). As Freud notes, the statement “I believe because it is absurd” makes the point that God’s revelation is above reason and overstates it, suggesting that God’s revelation is irrational. This does not suffice as authoritative for non-believers because of its irrational character, nor should it be adequate for Christian believers, for it discredits the linguistic frameworks of reality in which we live, breathe, and have our being.

However, Freud’s enthroning of reason as the court above which there is no appeal must and can equally be challenged (for instance, Freud’s statement is a fine example of a religious doctrine based in one’s subject, inner experience, though he wouldn’t likely see it that way). The real issue is not the clean dichotomy one’s inner religious experience (which Freud labels an absurdity) and the authoritative, binding force of human reason…the real issue is plausibility structures altogether and the ways human beings make sense of our world. Is it reasonable, for example, to assert a closed universe in which human reason reigns as a tyrannical king? If so, why? What is the narrative history surrounding this high court of reason, and how have cracks appeared in the foundation of this story? Orthodox Christian believers might do well to study their history and find ways in which to discuss these plausibility structures in light of their own convictions for faith (which are, in fact, based in one’s subjective experience). They might find ways to dialogue with Freud and to assert that, contrary to his statement, one can erect an obligation that (might) apply to everyone based on a motive that exists only for a very few. 

In other words, the Christian alternative to the post-religious spirituality outlined earlier is not simply ‘religion’ as some sort of intellectual and moral system but the corporately experienced reality of the Kingdom, the space that has been cleared in human imagination and self-understanding by the revealing events of Jesus’ life. Standing in this place, I am made aware of what is fundamental and indestructible about my human identity: that I am the object of divine intention and commitment, a being freely created and never abandoned. Standing in this place, I am also challenged to examine every action or policy in my life in the light of what I am; and I am, through the common life of the ‘Assembly’, made able to change and to be healed, to feed and be fed in relations with others in the human city. Faced with the claims of non-dogmatic spirituality, the believer should not be insisting anxiously on the need for compliance with a set of definite propositions; he or she should be asking whether what happens when the Assembly meets to adore God and lay itself open to his action looks at all like a new and transforming environment, in which human beings are radically changed.
The Spiritual and the Religious: Is the Territory Changing? - Rowan Williams. I can’t imagine a more important paragraph for today’s Christians to meditate on. Seriously, this whole address is absolutely vital. (via ayjay)

Charles Taylor on the tension we moderns experience in articulating the moral intuitions that give shape to our moral responses:

"We are as ambivalent about heroism as we are about the value of the workaday goals that it sacrifices. We struggle to hold on to a vision of the incomparably higher, while being true to the central modern insights about the value or ordinary life”.

-Sources of the Self, pg. 24. 

Humiliation of the Word: The Curious Case of Ray Rice

Last spring, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice got into a heap of trouble after physically assaulting his then-fiancee in an Atlantic City casino. Video from the casino lobby showed Rice dragging an unconscious Janay Palmer (whom Rice married this summer) from an elevator after the incident. Supposedly, it was a two-sided affair — both Palmer and Rice admitted to striking each other in the elevator before Rice’s cold-cocking blow. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice a paltry two games, which in the eyes of public opinion measured up to a mere slap on the wrist. Goodell, attempting to make amends for what he admitted was a lapse in judgment, recently instituted a domestic abuse policy whereby one’s first offense merited a six-month suspension, and one’s second offense earned one a life-time ban from the NFL. Rice, seemingly contrite and embarrassed about the situation, said that his actions were “inexcusable” and would be “something I have to live with the rest of my life.” 

Today, released a grainy elevator security video showing the assault. It is viscerible and brutal, indeed: Rice — seemingly unprovoked — slaps Palmer, who responds by moving toward Rice in an attempt to strike him. She never makes contact, though, as Rice delivers a haymaker that would knock out even a trained prized fighter. Palmer, reeling from the punch, slams her face against the elevator’s railing and lands in an unconscious heap on the elevator floor. 

Rice’s employer — the Baltimore Ravens — and the NFL took little time to respond: the Ravens cut Rice immediately, and Goodell suspended him indefinitely. Via Twitter, the NFL stated, “Roger Goodell has announced that based on new video evidence that became available today he has indefinitely suspended Ray Rice.”

I find Rice’s case quite curious in that he was caught, admitted to the incident, received the punishment meted out to him, but was later punished further when video evidence of the assault surfaced. The NFL and Roger Goodell based its earlier suspension on its own investigation and drew its conclusions based on the testimonies offered by all parties involved. In this sense, Rice was given a punishment based on his infraction of domestic assault. It seems, then, that today’s video offers no new “evidence” — Rice, Palmer, the Ravens, and the NFL all know what transgressions took place in that casino elevator. And while there is room for discussing whether Rice is being punished twice for the same infraction, I find it curious that Rice was punished further when *video* images of the assault were provided.

I believe this is a great example of what French sociologist Jacques Ellul calls the “humiliation of the word”, which Ellul defines as the subordination of truth to the image. Ellul posits that truth is no longer verified in human testimony or language because the ethos of modern scientific inquiry has fooled humans into believing that truth can only be proven when it is “seen”. Thus the modern mind believes it sees true reality primarily in and through the image. This appears to be the case with Ray Rice: the most damning evidence against his assault was not the testimony of other human beings but the video image caught by the casino’s camera. And though he admitted fault and was found guilty by the league, he is indeed suspended and out of a job only because his brutality was seen and not simply testified to.

Stand (up desks) and (rendering a) Fight

I’ve seen a handful of the new NRA stickers on cars around Denver lately, the ones that read, “Stand and Fight”.

These stickers and this logo specifically may not differ from an implicit (or explicit) ethos that pervades the National Rifle Association, but having grown up around guns (I used to hunt and feel totally comfortable handling a firearm) and being the son of a father who once had an O.G. NRA sticker on his Chevy S-10 Blazer (seen second below), the new logo got me thinking how interesting it would be to see or read a cartographical history of the NRA that maps the organization’s philosophy via its public design. Because it’s interesting to wonder what internal decisions led from this public design…


…to this:

image this:


…to this:



"The wall of the burial ground had fallen in: one or two crosses had been smashed by enthusiasts: an angel had lost one of its stone wings, and what gravestones were left undamaged leant at an acute angle in the long marshy grass. One image of the Mother of God had lost ears and arms and stood like a pagan Venus over the grave of some rich forgotten timber merchant. It was odd — this fury to deface, because, of course, you could never deface enough. If God had been like a toad, you could have rid the globe of toads, but when God was like yourself, it was no good being content with stone figures — you had to kill yourself among the graves." 

—Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory, p. 102

"To insist upon the intemporal character of the religious act, to refuse to have it adhere to any form of social or political organization, is in no sense to relieve it from the demands of the present. It is, perhaps, to prepare it to be more faithful to them."

—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Christianisme et ressentiment, p. 297.

Contra Nietzsche, MMP suggests Christianity’s “other worldliness” can be understood as the means by which Christianity maintains its power to commit itself freely where it is needed here and now.