First in a series
EVERY SPRING SEMESTER two of the philosophy courses that I teach at St. John’s University are titled “Personalism” and “The Problem of God.”
I created the personalism course and in it, students and I read and discuss some famous and influential personalist philosophers, such as Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, Emmanuel Mounier and also a Thomistic personalist, Father W. Norris Clarke, S.J. St. John’s may be the only university with a course totally dedicated to studying personalists. Personalists center their philosophy on the mystery of God.
I did not create “The Problem of God” course, but I did restructure it when I began to teach it. The course is divided into three sections. First, we study some traditional proofs for God, such as those of St. Anselm and St. Thomas. Then we study some of the atheistic arguments against God, such as those made by Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Sartre. Finally, we study some ways of thinking about God as presented in John Haught’s book, “What Is God?: How To Think About the Divine” (New York: Paulist Press, 1986).
Some students take both courses in the same semester and I wonder if their experience is similar to mine. As the two courses progress, I find them converging in my mind. Insights from theistic personalists in one course influence how I think about God. In the other course, insights from theists and atheists influence how I think about the human person. In both classes, I tell students that a theme of the course is that how we think about God influences how we think about the human person, and vice versa.
I devote time to the atheists because these thinkers are some of the most influential philosophers of the last two centuries. Their thinking still influences people. I believe studying the atheists can help students purify and strengthen their images of God. I tell students that I agree with all the atheists in the sense that the idea of God that they are rejecting ought to be rejected. It is an idea of God that, in one way or another, dehumanizes human persons. Rather than nourish and help the human person to grow, develop and become more free, the idea of God that the atheists reject nourishes guilt, encourages blind obedience and promotes a legalistic morality.
I find the reflections of Sigmund Freud especially interesting. Like the other atheists studied in the course, he believed that there was no God, that belief in God was due to some neurosis, some emotional problem. Freud believed that people, instead of dealing with neurotic guilt feelings, projected an idea of God.
However, the projection does not work, because the idea of God that Freud attacks, is a God who increases our guilt. A person who tries to relate to an idea of God that has taken shape because of neurotic guilt, is like a thirsty person who drinks salt water. For a short time, the salt water provides relief, but eventually the person is more thirsty than ever.
In the book, “Religion and Atheism” (Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pa., 1971) written by William A. Luijpen and Henry J. Koren, the authors, in addition to criticizing Freud, try to point out insights that they have received from Freud’s view of religion and God. In my course, I take a similar approach, encouraging students to draw from atheistic thinkers any insights they can find.
Luijpen and Koren write the following:
“The psychologist who offers an explanation of religious phenomena may tell us many useful and interesting things, but a philosopher must ask himself what remains of the psychologist’s claim that religion is nothing but a projection if God really exists. For psychology as psychology can never prove that there is no God; psychology can explain psychical phenomena, but it can never establish that God is nothing but a psychical phenomenon.” (pp. 46-47)
Let me use myself to illustrate how Freud’s insights can help believers. In school, I suffered from scrupulosity, which is an anxiety neurosis that causes a person to worry about whether innocent actions are serious sins. My scrupulosity took a great deal of energy, but it did not help me grow closer to the God of love. Through wonderful confessors and spiritual directors, I was able to transcend my worries and became free to relate to the real God.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).