Both Jesus of Nazareth and Sigmund Freud were Jews who employed the analogy of family systems in their critique of religion. Obviously they didn’t agree in the way they used the analogy, but each regarded it as perhaps our best model for appreciating the strategic role of theism in human experience.
In Freud’s theory, the infant and young child develops complicated relationships with its father and mother, which he formulated into the Oedipus and Electra complexes. Psycho-sexual obsessions and frustrations ultimately compel the (male) child to harbor resentment towards the father, who blocks erotic access to the mother. Freud proposed that the origins of religion are here, as a mutinous band of vengeful siblings succeeded in killing the father, dismembering and cannibalizing him, and then instituting a ritual of remembrance where his memory could be honored and their guilt alleviated.
That’s all very bizarre, and no scholar of religion gives Freud’s theory any serious respect. But his focus on the family as the formative system of early relationships that deeply shape a child’s self concept, attitude toward others, and general view of reality was right on. Mother and father do indeed operate as archetypes (first forms or prime models) in a youngster’s developing personality and orientation to life. The family system probably isn’t as sexually charged as Freud assumed, with its juvenile jealousy, sibling rivalry, and the secret conspiracy to overthrow father’s authority in order to take possession of mother. But it is a powerful incubator where much about our personal destiny – as well as the destiny of our species – is assisted to flourish or comes to ruin.I have promoted the idea that the family system is our first experience of theism. Our higher powers – literally our taller powers – protected and provided for our needs during those critical years of dependency. In addition to serving as archetypes in our emerging sense of reality as provident (maybe threatening or indifferent, as the case may be), our parents legislated a morality of rules and expectations, enforced by a disciplinary system designed to conform our behavior to the way of life in our family.
If our higher powers were sufficiently conscious and deliberate, the rules of morality were also demonstrated in their conduct and demeanor. The “spirit” of law was thus embodied and modeled for us to imitate. Most importantly, the behavioral directives (i.e., the set of rules we were expected to obey) of our family’s moral code were translated into living values that we could see and feel. In this way, our moral development steadily shifted from obedience to aspiration, less about following rules and more about becoming a certain kind of person.
“Don’t take what isn’t yours” (a behavioral directive) merged into the aspirational ideal of respecting others and being kind (as living values). Our higher powers personified such living values, setting the example and encouraging us to do the same. Obviously no family is perfect, and no parent is perfectly consistent in practicing what is preached. But hopefully the match between moral command and personal example was close and consistent enough that we got the message.
A healthy family system will progressively release control to the developing child. We were allowed to feed ourselves and dress ourselves; we were expected to carry our own weight and not rely so passively on our higher powers. By slowly forcing us into our own resourcefulness and self-control, our parents were preparing us for life as responsible adults. We should all agree that successfully reaching the point where we no longer depend on the provident supervision of our parents is a strong sign of maturity and creative authority.
As morality is concerned, the process of internalizing rules in the formation of conscience enabled us to make moral decisions without constant supervision. And as the living values embodied by our parents were gradually awakened in us and strengthened into enduring character traits, our need for their objective example diminished accordingly. Just as we were able to take responsible control of ourselves and thereby advance in our development to greater autonomy and freedom on the other side of the parent-child relationship, so too did our aspirational journey take us beyond a reliance on our higher powers in living a virtuous life.
That other Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, seems to have had a strong concept of god as father – not only for himself or even just his kinsmen, but of all human beings. For Jesus this metaphor, clearly anchored in the analogy of a family system, provided a way of honoring our human connection, one to another. If we are all children of the same parent, then the spirit that binds us together must be deeper than the differences that frequently push us apart. As we might hope for any family system, our conflicts and betrayals of trust can be resolved if we can just remember that we are essentially manifestations (or progeny) of one reality.
If reality is provident – and there’s no arguing the fact that the universe has conspired, intentionally or accidentally, to make the emergence of life, the ignition of consciousness, and this very observation possible – then we, as manifestations of this reality, have the potential (and once awakened, the responsibility) of extending this providence into our relationships and the greater community of life. “Be merciful as your father in heaven is merciful” is thus shown to be deeply equivalent to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
But Jesus went further still. If god’s love is infinite, then it must generously flow out to all beings without limit, without end, and completely independent of all conditions by which human beings segregate themselves. This love is so radical, in fact, that even forgiveness – extinguishing anger, releasing guilt, refusing vengeance, and working for reconciliation – is not a response to an enemy’s heartfelt repentance, but rather the creative initiative of loving-kindness that inspires it. Even if repentance never comes, love persists. If we are faithfully rooted in a provident reality, then love will flow through us unselfconsciously.
For Jesus, the application of this radical notion of unconditional forgiveness to the orthodox concept of god urged a revolution in religion. He demonstrated for others what such a love looks and feels like, and in so doing he “outperformed” the god of orthodoxy, who apparently was incapable of forgiving an unrepentant sinner. (We might have said “unwilling,” but the theology was clear that god is constrained by a reluctant obligation to condemn sinners.) In striving to live by the principle of boundless love and calling others to do the same, Jesus effectively stepped beyond god.
It’s not accurate to say that a child who has shifted more into an aspiration-morality is superior to, or better than, a child who is still oriented on obedience. On the other hand, an individual whose moral development ought to be opening in aspiration but who remains fixated in fear, shame, or guilt, obsessing over right and wrong, is very likely a prisoner of pathological theism – regardless of whether he or she ascribes to a formal religion.
And where, you ask, does this notion of “ought” come from? Who’s to say where human beings are evolving? My answer ultimately remains something of a profession of faith, not of belief but of my trusting intuition regarding what is deepest in us. We are social beings. We need relationships. We become conscious in the crucible of family systems. Hopefully we develop our own center of self-responsible authority and take our place in the world alongside others. Our evolutionary aim is to become creators of genuine community, provident higher powers on behalf of the young, the helpless, and those in need.
A worldwide community of liberty, justice, peace, and goodwill – on the other side of god.
My reader will no doubt have noticed an important discrepancy between the higher powers in family systems and the higher powers of theistic religion. The former are flesh-and-blood personalities, whereas the latter are literary figures of myth, art, and theology. Just because god isn’t an actual being in this sense doesn’t detract from his or her principal role in orienting devotees in reality and serving as the focal exemplar of virtue in their moral development. Whether literal or literary, however, these higher powers are ultimately something we need to progress beyond. Again, not atheism but post-theism. Just because you have taken up life after god doesn’t mean that god is no longer a valid and useful construct for others.