Deep (?but not stuck) in the frozen wastes of winter faith: Brueggemann on Beck on Freud & James
Q regulars will be aware that issues related to depression come up here from time to time. One or two have encouraged me to be a bit more open about such things and to pick up a few things that others might find helpful, or at least a resonance.
So here are a couple of extended quotations from Walter Brueggemann’s most recent book, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks. These paragraphs jumped out at me from his middle section on the need for prophetic grief in the face of contemporary suffering, In this he echoes the mourning of Jeremiah and Lamentations in particular.
Here he quotes Richard Beck’s The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience (Abilene, 2012), which is itself an engagement with some of religious faith’s most influential critics. Beck’s is a slightly surprising use of language (whereby a “healthy soul” and “summer faith” are not exactly to be commended!) but stick with it. There’s a crucial point here.
In his remarkable book weighing the claims of Sigmund Freud and William James, Richard Beck considers Freud’s claim that religion is simply an illusion that offers consolation. Critiquing that reductionist claim that continues to dominate much secular thought, Beck considers James’s distinction between the “healthy soul” and the “sick soul.” But James’s labels require careful attention, else we might conclude that the “sick soul” is deficient and weak in contrast to the “healthy soul”, a judgment that James surely did not intend. Beck shows from James’s analysis that such a “sick soul” is theologically serious, does not seek easy consolation, and is able to go deeply and honestly into the darkness of divine failure and infidelity. Beck’s argument serves to refute Freud’s notion of illusion for consolation by showing that such religiously serious persons do not seek and do not find consolation in their faith. Rather, they find realism about their circumstance in which they linger with courage and in which they practice their faith in God. Thus Beck concludes:
In the face of a suffering and broken world, belief in divine solicitousness and special protection is hard to come by for sick souls. In fact, just the opposite seems to be the case; God is decidedly unhelpful and, rather than providing protection, is allowing suffering to continue, often in ways that leave us trembling in sadness, shock, despair and horror [my emphasis].
These experiences are difficult to face. They infuse life with a sense of existential despair. Even though it might be easier, simply as a matter of coping, to hide our eyes from life (as many do), the sick souls refuse to look away. They refuse the too easy retreat into existentially consoling beliefs. And the price they pay for this is allowing a painful tension to sit at the center of their existence,a belief in a God who is often not present and who often fails to rescue.
The implications of Beck on James is that serious practitioners of faith do not flinch from despair or seek easy consolations:
…The heathy-minded, according to James, will seek to exit this space as quickly as possible, usually by cracking the faith experience. However, sick souls, being less motivated by a need for comfort, are more likely to linger in this space, perhaps spending their entire lives within this experience. Sick souls would accomplish this by remaining rugged monotheists, refusing to crack God. Sick souls still try to shoulder the full emotional burden of monotheism.
This, I submit, is exactly what is found in the exilic laments of Israel, the haunting, wonder, and courage to go deep into the reality of divine infidelity and disregard. In its lament Israel dares to go to the null point of despair and linger in the abyss of abandonment. (pp97-98)
Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days? (Lamentations 5:20)
No doubt, people will be oh so hasty to leap to its surrounding verses – before allowing the reality of this felt abandonment to sink in. But that’s precisely the problem with what Beck (slightly bizarrely, to be fair) calls ‘healthy faith’ – it beetles over the pain too fast. And the aftermath is that this leaves those languishing in the dark caverns of depression far behind. Brueggemann is certainly not denying the possibility of hope (that’s the topic of his book’s final third after all).
So he goes on
Beck describes healthy souls as those who are “feeling queasy about the incarnation” and so flee to easier assurances of a gnostic type, hold to a “higher Christology” that skimps on the embodiment of Jesus, and hold a religion of solace that is without darkness. To that extent, Freud is right about religion. But Beck’s research shows that Freud’s reductionism simply disregards the “saints of darkness” who seek no such easy consolation and who are resolved to face the evident reality of loss, abandonment, and absence.
This is indeed exactly what we find in the laments I have cited. These are the faithful voices who refuse any easy consolation. In a neat syllogism, Beck characterises “winter faith experience” among those who engage in “high communion” and “high complaint.” His three other members of the quadrangle are:
- religious critics who are long on complaint and low on communion
- disengaged believers who are low on complaint and low on communion
- summer faith experience, healthy-minded who are high on communion and low on complaint. (p99)
I’ve adapted the quadrilateral diagram and its contrast with what Beck calls the polar model of faith on his excellent blog post here from 2007. Incidentally by communion here he means ‘engagement with God’.
The challenge then for those in ministry is to recognise that complaint and lament is not a sign of lack of faith necessarily… but the precise opposite. And that’s crucial. Because those in the cavern need all the encouragement they can get. With the psalmist and the prophets, they might actually need the encouragement, and indeed the permission, to complain to the one with whom they seek to be in communion. Isn’t God big enough for that? Otherwise drift into disconnected spiritual criticism is a real possibility…