Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

FREUD: Civilization and Its Discontents (Abraham and Freud)

A large portion of the book of Genesis focuses on the story of Abraham, who has long been considered the father of faith for generations of Jews, Christians and Muslims.  They hold him in great esteem because of what Sigmund Freud calls his “religious sentiments.”  Freud suggests that men like Abraham may be suffering from a form of mental illness.  As a psychiatrist Freud is interested in probing the mental state of believers and tries to analyze “the true source of religious sentiments.”  A question arises.  Who is best qualified to identify “the true source of religious sentiments”?  Psychiatrists?  Theologians?  Scientists?  Philosophers?  Ordinary people?  We have two texts.  What insights can an ordinary reader can gain by comparing them?

Freud thinks the true source of religious feeling is found in “a sensation of eternity, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded; as it were, oceanic.”  He admits that “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself… From my own experience I could not convince myself of the primary nature of such a feeling.  But this gives me no right to deny that it does in fact occur in other people.  The only question is whether it is being correctly interpreted…”  Did Abraham experience this ‘oceanic’ feeling in himself?  We don’t know.  The text doesn’t tell us how Abraham felt.  It just says the Lord told him to “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee.”  How Abraham felt about leaving his home and moving to an alien land is left to the reader’s imagination.  All we know for sure is what the text tells us: “So Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him.”  One insight we gain from this reading is that we can’t get into Abraham’s mind.  We can’t know all the nuances of his thinking or the deep psychological foundation of his motivations.  And this is precisely what Freud is interested in knowing.  All we can know for sure is what Abraham actually did.  The rest is conjecture.  Whether we have “correctly interpreted” the story is open for debate.  Which brings us to a second insight and another question.  Who should participate in this debate?  Is a man who has never personally experienced this “oceanic feeling” qualified to talk about religion?  Or does that very fact make him uniquely qualified to objectively interpret religion?  For his part, Freud says he’s “concerned much less with the deepest sources of the religious feeling than with what the common man understands by his religion.”  Does Freud think Abraham was a common man?  In a sense Abraham is not one of the common herd.  He’s immensely wealthy for one thing.  But he might be considered a common man in the sense he’s as mentally healthy as most normal human beings are.  He’s not perfect.  He shares the fears, aspirations and needs we all feel and he made mistakes.  What separates Abraham from most of us is this.  He doesn’t want to debate religion.  He wants to do what God tells him to do.  Maybe that’s the reason he was chosen for his mission.  Understanding God is his whole purpose in life. 

And that’s a third insight we can gain by filtering our reading of Genesis through Freud’s lens.  Freud says “the question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one… One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be “happy” is not included in the plan of “Creation.”  For Abraham God provides not only a “satisfactory answer” to the question of the purpose of life, it’s the only answer that brings peace of mind.  We don’t know if Abraham had an “oceanic feeling” but we do know he had a purpose in life.  This is simply unacceptable for Freud.  He says “by forcibly fixing them in a state of psychical infantilism and by drawing them into a mass-delusion, religion succeeds in sparing many people an individual neuroses.  But hardly anything more.”  Thus Genesis and Freud present two very different views of religion.


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