Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud's seminal student, wrote that "Bidden or unbidden God is present." This motto of his might well stand in for the ways in which Freud, St. Augustine, and Sallie McFague write about the ways in which they conceive God -- or rather the ways in which they conceive people conceive of God. Each of these writers describes how the idea of God is fundamental to the way in which many people experience their lives, even though not all people recognize a connection between themselves and the kind of personified God that Judaism and Christianity posit. This paper examines the ways in which these three different thinkers address the ways in which individuals understand (but do not necessarily accept) the concept of God and the implications of living in a society that itself clings to the idea of divinity.
The three writers concur on little other than the fact that religion meets a fundamental need in the experience of the individual and the nature of human society, but whether they see the fact of fulfilling this need to be a good thing or an unfortunate thing differs substantially. Freud, to begin with, saw one of his roles as a scholar, writer, and clinician, to reduce the influence that religion held over individuals, a topic that is central to his The Future of Illusion.
While Freud's book addresses the future and where humanity will find itself in future generations, he guides the reader to this future point via the past. Freud's fundamental modus operandi in all things was to look to the past to be able to understand the present and to predict the future, so it can hardly be surprising that he sought to understand the ways in which religion would influence human life in the future by looking back to its origins.
Freud argues that human culture and human social institutions arise as a way to control nature (a commonly held viewpoint both in Freud's time and in our own) but even more importantly (for Freud) religion was a mechanism that helped regulate relationships among people. In other words, Freud believed that humans are in fact likely to be reduced to a Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all without sufficiently strong social prohibitions against doing so. Freud summarizes this position of his (which is central to The Future of an Illusion) in this way: "It seems more probable that every culture must be built upon ... coercion and instinct renunciation."
Religion, Freud believed, is one of the most significant of all of the mechanisms of 'instinct renunciation' because it raises the bar for good behavior. Religion convinces people (or rather, individuals in social roles that interpret and support religion convince people) that not only will there be mundane punishment for any bad deeds but that there also be punishment lasting into eternity. ("Bad" here being defined in socially and historically specific terms.) Only when there is the possibility of spending eternity in hellish pits of bubbling fire (or however else a culture may imagine the afterlife of those who have sinned) is there sufficient internal restraint in most people, Freud argues, to prevent a continual state of bloody mayhem.
This need to suppress savagery among the earliest of human societies, according to Freud, was responsible for the development of religious concurrent with the development of the first human societies. Religious form has changed rather substantially since its initiation, moving from pantheistic and totemistic forms of religious organization and practice to polytheistic and monotheistic forms. However, while these changes are important to the study of the history of religion, they are relatively unimportant on a psychological level because the function of religion remains the same.
Freud throughout the book returns frequently to his assessment of the strength and brutality of human instinct, stressing that the central and enduring aspects of human nature are sexually-based destructive actions (usually linked to jealousy or attempts to ensure paternity) and anti-social-ness arising to the level of pathology on a frequent level. Freud summarized this idea on p. 10: "Among these instinctual wishes are those of incest, cannibalism, and lust for killing." It would take an extremely strong force and one highly reinforced on every level of social norming to repress this kind of dark psychological energy.
This dark, even murderous energy, had to be channeled in the form of religious leaders to ensure that there was enough restraint leveled throughout all strata and groups of society so that instincts were successfully suppressed to guarantee a minimum level of safety for all:
For masses are lazy and unintelligent; they have no love for instinctual renunciation, and they are not to be convinced by argument of its inevitability; and the individuals composing them support one another in giving free rein to their indiscipline. & #8230; it is only through the influence of individuals who can set an example and whom masses recognize as their leaders that they can be induced to perform the work and undergo the renunciations on which the existence of civilization depends. (pp. 7-8).
Religion, Freud believed, ensured (when it was most effectively integrated into society) provided the illusion that humans are different from other animals and that we are not likely to descend into savagery at any moment. Religious institutions were a form of police to dampen violence in the world, and religion was an internal version of that police force.
Freud's understanding of religion as an attempt to limit savagery was, of course, tragically optimistic: As a Jew he was forced to flee Europe on the eve of World War II.
St. Augustine, writing before the dawn of modernism (an era that was put to rest by Freud, among others), presents the importance of God and of human relationship to God in an almost entirely opposite way from Freud. While Freud did not go quite as far as Marx) his near contemporary in equating religion as an opiate designed to keep the poor in their place, this may simply have been because Judaism posits a much more complex relationship between divinity and humanity than Christianity does.
St. Augustine was one of the writers most responsible for the concept of the simplicity (and therefore purity) of the relationship between the worshipper and the worshipped. While Freud saw the relationship between both the individual and society on the one hand and God (or gods) on the other as one based in obfuscation and various other forms of direct or indirect deceit, Augustine saw this relationship in almost luminously pure terms. His Confessions was written in the fourth century, an era in which the monasticism of the medieval church had not yet become the central philosophical model of the Catholic Church. A few centuries later, Augustine would in all likelihood not been able to express his feelings about God in such a direct way, for styles in confessional works reflect underlying changes in the church.
Augustine was writing at a time when the direct address of subject to his God had not yet been yet become a marginalized form of writing, and so structured his description of the glory of divine connection in the form first of a description of the path that he himself took in coming to God, following this by a more conceptual model. This personal testimony will be paralleled in later Protestant writings and a direct line from mortal to the divine via personal prayer was one of the most attractive aspects of Protestantism by the time of the Reformation.
For Augustine, however, his confession was not one of different possible forms of relationships that he could limn between God and himself: It was the only possible authentic expression. For Augustine, prayer was an absolute truth just as for Freud it had been absolute falsity. For Freud religion was a mechanism that allowed humans to disguise the real nature of their relationships with each other. For Augustine, prayer (and the God to whom such prayers were addressed) was the only way in which humans could undertake to survive the many sufferings of earthly life. Human life is a the experience, Augustine wrote, in which we are constantly "rushing toward non-being." Because this is so difficult for each one of us either to comprehend or to endure once we have comprehended it, we reach toward divinity, Augustine writes, and the closer that a journey of faith takes an individual to a personal connection to God then the less terrifying death (and life) become.
It is often when confronting death, Augustine wrote in Book IV, that the individual becomes capable of engaging with the idea of the immortal and the eternal. Death allows the individual to understand its opposite: When a close friend of Augustine's had died, he realized that "everything on which I set my gaze was death." Once having completely absorbed the knowledge that everything but God was transitory and therefore something that he might lose, Augustine allowed himself to be…