Tag Archives: Freud

Consider and reconsider the humanities: thoughts from Marilynne Robinson and Laura Skandera Trombley

My morning readings were connected on a fundamental level: the necessity of the humanities.

First, Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, in her book Absence of Mind:

The Freudian neurasthenic is not the Darwinian primate, who is not the Marxist proletarian, who is not the behaviorists’ organism available to being molded by a regime of positive and negative sensory experience. To acknowledge an element of truth in each of these models is to reject the claims of sufficiency made by all of them. What they do have in common, beside the claim to sufficiency, is an exclusion of the testimonies of culture and history.

Second, Laura Skandera Trombley, president of Pitzer College, in a speech adapted and published yesterday on The Huffington Post, drawing on a recent passenger jet flight:

It struck me that flying in a beige and white steel tube with nothing to occupy my time might be a reasonable analogy for what existence might be like devoid of the humanities. You’d live, but the experience would be decidedly lacking.

Do I need to explain how deadening and joyless it is to ride in that cylindrical tube? Do we really need to explain why poetry, art, philosophy and theater matter? Really, at what point did we have to start defending the value of knowing ourselves? Of human complexity? Of analysis? Of communication? Of meaning?

The sciences and the humanities have always been intertwined and one cannot prosper without the other. My favorite Greek philosopher, Aristotle, is properly recognized as the originator of the scientific study of life or, as we know it, biology; but he was also our first philosopher of art and theater. My guess is that Aristotle would be troubled by the way we have siloed our ways of knowing.


  1. Culture and history belong at the center of any account of being human.
  2. Genuine knowing must be an act of integrating not silo-ing.

Andy Crouch’s ideological alchemy: turning facts into abstractions

Edited Feb. 5, 2018, to combine original seventh and eighth paragraphs and to add a few words in that paragraph for clarity.

Updated at 10 p.m. (on original date) to include quotations from Robert Jay Lifton and Thomas Sowell, plus some rewriting and clarifying.

New allegations of plagiarism are dogging Pastor Mark Driscoll, but the way in which some evangelicals have defended him is equally troubling.

On December 10, Andy Crouch of Christianity Today wrote an article that gave readers the secret knowledge of what was really going on with the scandal surrounding Driscoll’s plagiarism.

The article, entitled “The Real Problems with Mark Driscoll’s ‘Citation Errors’,” revealed a frightening misunderstanding of plagiarism. I say frightening only because the misunderstanding was coming from Crouch, the executive editor of a magazine. He should know better.

The real problem, the article’s subhead told us, was not plagiarism. For the record, I have, and a far better scholar than me has, already argued that plagiarism is indeed a matter of fact in this controversy.

But that’s not the biggest problem, for me or for Crouch. Near the end of the article, Crouch says, “The real danger here is not plagiarism — it is idolatry.”

Stop. Carefully note this rhetorical move.

Crouch has moved us from a fact detectable by our senses (plagiarism) to an abstraction that can only be understood internally (idolatry). In this, Crouch also has claimed to reveal the inner motivations of Driscoll fans, but that’s another matter.

This quick, poorly defended move has historical and cultural precedent. It comes with the force of beliefs already firmly held by Crouch’s audience, and the force of assumptions long anchored in Western culture.

Like all good ideologies, evangelicalism depends upon its own special knowledge of inner motivations.

As the Brit historian Paul Johnson has noted, Marx and Freud (not normally heroes in evangelicalism) claimed special insight. Freud, Johnson wrote, “believed in the existence of a hidden structure of knowledge which, by using the techniques he was devising, could be discerned beneath the surface of things.”

Johnson continued to say Marxism “was another form of gnosticism claiming to peer through the empirically-perceived veneer of things to the hidden truth beneath.”

Or, as Thomas Sowell noted in Forbes magazine, Nov. 18, 1996, “Hannah Arendt said that the great achievement of 20th-century totalitarians was to turn questions of fact into questions of motive.”

Ever since, one-upping an opponent has never been easier.

Here’s a hyperbolic hypothetical example: “You don’t even know your own motives — but I do! Because I have the secret knowledge, the insight, the gnosis, and because you haven’t studied this or that theory, I can blindside you, throw you off balance, shut down your point of view with a dazzling insight that feels like argument and slays like hypnosis.”

Is Crouch completely wrong? I would not say so. Is idolatry a real danger? I would say yes, it is.

However, Crouch’s rhetorical move places, in text, evangelicalism’s observable problem of gnosticism.

You see, Crouch suggests the material reality of plagiarism isn’t the problem. To put it another way, the plain, obvious comparisons between the source texts and Driscoll’s texts are not the problem. Our darling young evangelical, our fundamentalist leader with a hipster wardrobe, certainly cannot possibly be the problem.

What’s the real problem? The unseen, abstract, volitional, arguable yet unprovable issue of idolatry in the “heart” is the problem. And it’s a problem we all could have.

And here’s how we could carry-on with that line of feeling:

Since we all could have this problem of idolatry, since we all really do, we cannot throw stones, we cannot situate the hard evidence, we cannot hold this leader accountable.

Now everyone is looking inward, everyone is considering what sinners they are because of these invisible, internal feelings — and no one is looking at facts or evidence or the law.

Gosh darn it, Andy Crouch, you’re right — we’re all sinners! How can I ever point out the evil in the world around me when I ought to be feeling the conviction of my own failings?

Questions of fact turned into questions of motive.

Abstractions are more easily managed than facts.

Consider Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s Criteria for Thought Reform, a tool that has been used to understand “brainwashing” regimes like North Korea during the Korean War, and to analyze groups that seem “cultic.”

A section of the criteria is entitled, “Doctrine Over Person,” and it is in this section that both Crouch’s article and Driscoll’s early handling of plagiarism revelations return a faint echo.

Consider these points from “Doctrine Over Person” (the boldface sections are my emphases):


  • Every issue in one’s life can be reduced to a single set of principles that have an inner coherence to the point that one can claim the experience of truth and feel it
  • The pattern of doctrine over person occurs when there is a conflict between what one feels oneself experiencing and what the doctrine or ideology says one should experience
  • If one questions the beliefs of the group or the leaders of the group, one is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to even question — it is always “turned around” on them and the questioner/criticizer is questioned rather than the questions answered directly
  • The underlying assumption is that doctrine/ideology is ultimately more valid, true and real than any aspect of actual human character or human experience and one must subject one’s experience to that “truth”


For example, go back and listen to the exchanges between Janet Mefferd and Mark Driscoll on the former’s radio show. Mefferd’s the one who kicked-off the big national fuss about Driscoll’s plagiarism. In fairness to Driscoll, he was caught off guard by Mefferd’s on-air confrontation. However, Driscoll certainly turned the questioning back on the questioner, saying she was grumpy and rude and not behaving in a spiritually appropriate manner.

Furthermore, “idolatry” has become a commonplace idea in evangelical and Reformed circles, to the point of becoming a thought-terminating cliche’. The idea has taken on a life of its own, has become everyone’s reflexive answer.

No, I don’t think evangelicalism is co-equal with Freudian thought or Marxism.

Except there’s one crucial way evangelicalism can be like other forms of ideology.

In Thank You for Arguing, Jay Heinrichs writes, ” ‘Ideology’ once meant the study of ideas; now it means a shared belief. Ideas become beliefs when people identify with them — when they help define the group itself.”

For a moment, consider a missionary ideology as a specific point of view held by a minority group that wants to convert the entire human race (it could be religious or political or something else).

Because of the lack of foothold this (or your or my) ideology has in this world, and because so few people have recognized The Truth, our leaders have to be right even when they’re wrong.

Our leaders have to be right, or else The Truth won’t go forward. It’s more important that The Truth carry on than the leader’s ethical lapse be properly adjudicated.

The end justifies the means.”

As many others have pointed out, the Soviet Union was for the people so much that it had to kill a few million people to make sure the people succeeded. (I know, right?)

The material reality of those political executions could not overcome the inner beliefs about The Truth of Soviet communism.

Inner beliefs overcame moral reflexes and basic human conscience and glaring, horrific evidence.

Beliefs were strong enough to allow atrocities to continue in the name of those beliefs.

Hey, I know, the Driscoll mess is just plagiarism and copyright infringement. Unethical, possibly illegal, but far from murder.

Crouch simply tried to draw attention away from plagiarism and to something he feels is more important.

Moral equivalence never was my point.

The move from facts to abstractions is treacherous — that’s my point.

Such a move can allow unchecked power to expand.

It’s an evil alchemy that takes place in the mind and causes people to submit, uncritically, to authority. The move from facts to abstractions is a treacherous move in little things as well as big things.

These days, you might argue, evangelicals are more likely to cut loose one of their own than to allow someone to get away with a moral lapse. You know what? You might be right.

(Although, so far, Tyndale House, and of course Mr. Andy Crouch of Christianity Today, and some mystical, so-called accountability bodies seem to be giving Driscoll a passport stamp and a big smile. “Write on, brother, write on!”)

Even so, big problems begin when alchemists turn facts into abstractions, when an iffy inner light, flicked on by presumptuous words, blinds the senses.

Should I read a book about my unconscious mind?

In his latest book, “Subliminal,” Leonard Mlodinow, a theoretical physicist who has been developing a nice sideline in popular science writing, shows how the idea of the unconscious has become respectable again over the past couple of decades. This development has been helped by rigorous experimental evidence of the effects of the subconscious and, especially, by real-time brain-scanning technology that allows researchers to examine what is going on in their subjects’ heads.

From a review of Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, by Leonard Mlodinow, in The Economist, April 28, 2012

Pastoring, philosophizing, and analyzing require gnostic insight

A portrait of Karl Marx.

Karl Marx (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Note: Very little of what I write on this blog is aimed at the pastors at my church. For that matter, relatively few of this blog’s readers go to my church! My target is broader.

Read British historian Paul Johnson explaining the gnosticism in Freud and Marx:

Freud was a gnostic. He believed in the existence of a hidden structure of knowledge which, by using the techniques he was devising, could be discerned beneath the surface of things….

Gnosticism has always appealed to intellectuals. Freud offered a particularly succulent variety. He had a brilliant gift for classical allusion and imagery at a time when all educated people prided themselves on their knowledge of Greek and Latin….

Marxism, now for the first time easing itself into the seat of power, was another form of gnosticism claiming to peer through the empirically-perceived veneer of things to the hidden truth beneath…. Marx had pronounced, ‘The final pattern of economic relationships as seen on the surface…is very different from, and indeed quite the reverse of, their inner but concealed essential pattern.’ On the surface, men appeared to be exercising their free will, taking decisions, determining events. In reality, to those familiar with the methods of dialectical materialism, such individuals, however powerful, were seen to be mere flotsam, hurled hither and thither by the irrestible surges of economic forces. The ostensible behaviour of individuals merely concealed class patterns of which they were almost wholly unaware but powerless to defy….

Marx, Freud, Einstein all conveyed the same message to the 1920s: the world was not what it seemed. The senses, whose empirical perceptions shaped our ideas of time and distance, right and wrong, law and justice, and the nature of man’s behaviour in society, were not to be trusted. Morever, Marxist and Freudian analysis combined to undermine, in their different ways, the highly developed sense of personal responsibility, and of duty toward a settled and objectively true moral code, which was at the centre of nineteenth-century European civilization.     (Paul Johnson, from Modern Times, revised 1992 edition)

Think about this for a moment. Johnson makes his case that Marx and Freud were two men who persuaded people with their thunderclaps of well-articulated, special insight into how things really are. The senses cannot be trusted. Motives and forces are at work, and they can neither be helped nor stopped.

When you say things and do things, special people have insight into what you really meant and what you were really doing and why you were doing it.

Isn’t all that very, very similar to the claims of many pastors today? They know exactly how your (rarely defined) “heart” is bent. They have knowledge of hidden workings of your mind, your will, and your emotions.

You work hard because you worship money — it’s this internal idolatry, hidden within your external pretentions of providing for your family and being responsible.

Isn’t this exactly what people fallaciously do when they “read” assumptions and presuppositions “into” what others say?

It’s an assumption if the insight does not match with the gnostic theory.

It’s an insight if the assumption matches with the gnostic theory.

Well, perhaps Freud and Marx have won the day. I find it very difficult not to think in the very ways that Johnson describes.

Now think about this from another angle: Could it be that Christian thinkers, from Augustine to the “heart doctor” Puritans, set the foundation for Freud’s and Marx’s gnostic mode of thinking?

I admit — thinking of Augustine and Puritans in gnostic terms seems a little unlikely. However, looking inward, to motives, rather than outward, to actions, is essential to Christianity.

Maybe Johnson isn’t entirely accurate with his use of the word “gnostic”? But then again, I find it hard not to think about any available school of thought without some reference to a “hidden” structure of what’s really going on with and within humans.

I’m still thinking this through. What do you think?

Related articles ↓

Augustine, the former gnostic, and his many heretical views (bjorkbloggen.wordpress.com)

What Is a Gnostic? – by Stephan A. Hoeller


Agnostic and Gnostic


Wrong having Gnosticism?


(A)theism and (a)gnosticism


Christopher Hitchens on the soul — and love

Atheist Christopher Hitchens’s interesting comments on the soul:

It’s what you might call “the x-factor”—I don’t have a satisfactory term for it—it’s what I mean by the element of us that isn’t entirely materialistic: the numinous, the transcendent, the innocence of children (even though we know from Freud that childhood isn’t as innocent as all that), the existence of love (which is, likewise, unquantifiable but that anyone would be a fool who said it wasn’t a powerful force), and so forth. I don’t think the soul is immortal, or at least not immortal in individuals, but it may be immortal as an aspect of the human personality because when I talk about what literature nourishes, it would be silly of me or reductionist to say that it nourishes the brain.

That comment comes from this conversation between Hitchens and a Unitarian minister.

Thanks to Treading Grain for posting excerpts on the conversation.