Science in Christian Perspective



by LARS I. GRANBERG, President, Northwestern
College of the Reformed Church in America,
Orange City, Iowa

From: JASA 19 (September 1967): 89.

Some months ago in a letter to the editor, a biblical scholar denounced an article that appeared in this journal written by a member of a mental health profession. The focus of his vigorous protest was the strong psychoanalytic flavor of the article. To demolish the article, the writer charged that no Christian could be Freudian in orientation.

Let it be clear that I am not psychoanalytically oriented! In my lectures on personality theory I am hard on what seems to me to be serious weaknesses in Freud's thinking. But I was appalled by this ex cathedra excommunication which stated, in effect, if one is a Christian he must abjure all Freudian thinking; if one thinks in a Freudian pattern he can in no way be a Christian unless he repents and repudiates this thought pattern. My first impulse was to ignore this as an intemperate pronouncement made by a good scholar outside his field of special competency. Further thought called to mind that over the years I had heard this in one form or another from other evangelical Christians. Moreover, it troubles me that in a journal established to serve as the voice of evangelical Christians in the sciences we should meet this demolition-by-excommunication response to a fellow Christian's effort to set fortb what be regards as a Christian treatment of an issue within his professional discipline.

Usually global repudiation such as this is triggered by Freud's uncomplimentary comments on religion. He spoke of it as the gigantic obsessional neurosis of mankind. He declared that its roots are the wishful hedonism of the infant, especially the desire to escape or gloss over the stem realities of life; hence Freud tended to treat religious beliefs as be would other neurotic defenses. Freud also had ill-considered ideas about Moses, about the origin of monotheism, about religion and culture, and about the function of guilt in the human personality. Since these have been adequately dealth with by Jewish, Roman Catholic and Protestant apologists, we need not review them at this time.

To pounce on Freud's efforts to derive a comprehensive history of culture by extrapolating his clinical insights and therapeutic techniques using these as the basis for absolutely rejecting his work is a mistake. When assessing Freud's contribution we do well to bear in mind that his key insights emerged from the struggle to heal a psychic disorder, hysteria, common in the Western world of his day. If today we think that his insights into personality and his therapeutic procedures are limited rather than universal-better designed to help over-structured monuments to propriety than today's victims of an over-permissive "rearing7 and a nihilistic outlook-let us not overlook multitudes, including many evangelical Christians, whose rearing is psychologically more akin to Freud's early patients than it is to the alienated products of overpermissiveness. Among others, Freud's emphasis on anxiety, the defense process, unconscious aspects of personality, the value of a non-judgmental relationship in encouraging a healing self-confrontation, are fundamental to psychotherapy and to the understanding of personality. The greatest tribute to Freud's work is that many of his best insights have been detached from his work and have become so axiomatic that a rising chorus of his critics are convinced they can do without him even as they tacitly assume many of his insights.

What I'm trying to say is that Freud's work is complex. It is not isomorphic. His views on anxiety and defense should not be set aside because we find his dismissal of religious belief for the mature man irritating and untrue. In Freud's condemnation of the religion of escapism and of infantile ease and pleasure he joins the Hebrew prophets and the Apostle Paulto say nothing of our Lord. One regrets that Freud never learned to distinguish that form of religious faith used to support neurotic defenses and to perpetuate infantilism from the religious faith which provides a springboard to personal maturity. But to ignore him or dismiss him on this account readily encourages one to remain ignorant of the many subtle ways we Christians delude ourselves through self-justification and flight from responsibility.

Let it be conceded that the writer of the offending article may have demonstrated an epistemological naivete. If so, a considered critique which addressed itself to specific errors could have furthered our search for truth. The comment received merely closed the discussion. Perhaps the lasting contribution of the ex cathedra letter is to turn us once again to John Milton's Areopogitica to consider these words:

Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for
opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making
...A little generous prudence, a little forebearance of one
another, and some grain of charity might win all to join, and unite in one general and brotherly search after truth.