In last week’s column I tried to make the point that increasing numbers of people don’t trust traditional religion to give them reliable “intelligence” about what happens on the “other side,” i.e. what will happen to you after you die. In this column, I will encourage you to take a second look at the intelligence traditional religion provides.
Sigmund Freud has, arguably, been one of the key figures responsible for the erosion of the authority of traditional religion, but I’m going to use him to critique the assumption, held by many these days, that everyone is going to wind up living in peace on the other side.
The website Philosophy of Religion summarizes Freud’s thoughts on religion by saying, “For Freud … religion is wish-fulfillment … that the adoption of religion is a reversion to childish patterns of thought in response to feelings of helplessness and guilt. We feel a need for security and forgiveness, and so invent a source of security and forgiveness: God. Religion is thus seen as a childish delusion …”
So, Freud would answer the question “where do you get your information from” with the response, “From your subconscious. It’s really just a projection of what you wish were true.” Everyone wants Uncle Bill to be reunited with Aunt June after living for ten years as a depressed widower. Everyone wants those four little girls killed fifty years ago in the bombing of the church in Birmingham to be comforted in the bosom of Abraham until their parents join them. But as we all learn sooner or later, wishing on a star doesn’t make dreams come true.
So, Freud would respond to statements like “I can’t believe in a God who would do this or that” by saying, “What you can or cannot believe has nothing to do with whether the thing in question is real or not.” He’d also probably accuse people who receive messages from the other side as hearing what they want to hear.
I, personally, can sympathize with people who have a hard time relating to a God who would sentence people to eternal punishment. Those passages in the Bible scare the hell out of me (pun intended), but not believing in something doesn’t mean it’s not true or real.
Regarding Freud’s critique of religion in general, however, I have a suspicion that he never read the Bible. The problem with his “wish projection” theory is that for those who wish everyone will wind up on the other side, there are many biblical passages describing a final judgment. And for those who wish that all those infidels and terrorists would burn in hell, there are many passages portraying God as being merciful and forgiving. The God of the New Testament, the Qur’an and the Hebrew Bible refuses to be domesticated.
C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has Mr. Beaver tell the children that Aslan, a lion who represents Christ in the story, is coming soon. The children gasp, “A lion? Is he safe?” To which Mr. Beaver responds, “No, he’s not safe, but he’s good.” Librarians probably catalogue Lewis’s little book as a children’s fantasy. The story, however, is anything but a wish projection. It’s tragic and at the same time hopeful. Above all it’s real.
That’s one reason why I trust the intelligence of traditional religion regarding what happens on the other side, even though we can’t send a U.N. commission there to verify the accuracy of its intelligence. Traditional religion resists any attempt on our part to fashion a god in our own image.
Another reason is that my role models for living on this side of Jordan are the folks who have been empowered by traditional religion’s vision of what lies on the other side to live transcendent lives here on this side. King, Tutu, Mandela, Ghandi, Bonhoeffer, Romero—the list goes on and on.
Mother Teresa put it this way: “Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough; give the world the best you’ve got anyway. You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God; it was never between you and them anyway.”