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Painting depicting the conversion of St. Paul.

Sudden religious conversion may be a way of avoiding the much more rigorous process of self-discovery and self-acceptance. (Image: Wikipedia)

An Introduction

In my earlier post, “Outrunning the Hound of Heaven,” I described how repressed material in the unconscious mind might drive the religious impulse. I used (among others) the English writer C. S. Lewis as an example. Today I want to present the idea that religious conversion may be an evasion, a way of avoiding the psychologically rigorous journey of self-discovery. I have drawn the material from my diary. To show what an individuation diary can look like, I have left the entry in its original form and appended a more recent commentary to elaborate on the ideas.

The Diary Entry

August 22, 1998

From A Mind of Her Own, the Karen Horney biography: “Freud’s theories deprived man of his own interior house: powerful unconscious forces, according to Freud, could engulf ego and will.”

To my way of thinking, such a state of affairs would exist in the mind of a religious person who felt himself subject to the will of God. C. S. Lewis fell victim to just such a scenario. He described the engulfing event, which took place in a bus, as “melting like a snowman.” A further step in his conversion process involved the sudden realization that Christ was indeed his savior. Curiously enough, this second engulfing event took place in a car on the way to the zoo! Perhaps old C. S. would have fared better if he had bought himself a sound pair of walking shoes and stuck to pegging it from place to place.

Joking aside, one gets the distinct impression when reading of such experiences that they are entirely voluntary. Lewis mentions letting go just before he started “melting.” Jung said much the same thing about the beginning of his long confrontation with his own unconscious mind. But does this letting go occur for reasons that are, or could be, conscious, or are they a sort of surrender to relentless unconscious pressures?

We come back, with this question, to the value of mysticism and the error of overestimating whatever it is that the mystic or religious type believes he is sensing, either within himself or in the world around him. What he senses, of course, is a combination of his own repressed personality traits, his intuition, and his alluring set of nuanced themes [attractive moods]. If he senses something outside himself it is because he is completely unaware, or frightened, of his own mind’s inner workings and thus projecting [or externalizing] those workings beyond his definition of self.

To conceptualize one’s own unconscious psychic functioning in religious terms is a neat way of avoiding the journey, a psychological trick that obviates the need for self-examination and self-realization. Lewis was very definite on this declaring that introversion was unhealthy and introspection some sort of nasty business to be engaged in only when necessary. Comments such as these suggest fear of one’s own repressed ideas, thoughts, and personality traits. Becoming swiftly religious is preferable, in such people’s minds, to the long arduous process of becoming whole. Better to submit to the will of “God,” than to discover one’s inner destiny and live it out. And one must ask, in cases like that of Lewis, how much of this “God” is actually the disguised workings of the fearful ego itself.

Late in life, Lewis described himself as a novelist. In actuality, while he wrote many books, only one can be described as a serious novel, a fact which leaves one wondering if writing novels, a precarious means of earning one’s keep when compared with the tenured security of an Oxford don, wasn’t Lewis’s true calling, one he abandoned out of fear of the rigours of fiction writing’s tortuous road. Just how someone who stood foursquare against introversion and introspection could see himself as a novelist is beyond me.

Prompted by A Mind of Her Own: Horney noted that outside the Freudian tradition, “we worry less about symptoms …” than on exploring the unconscious in general. The idea is that the symptoms will vanish “as long as we penetrate deeply enough into the unconscious.” The psychoanalytic method involves gaining knowledge of the unconscious via associations, dreams, and symbols. Behind every anxiety, there is a repressed wish.

I find it interesting that patients resist the uncovering or exposing of the unconscious, in spite of having sought out psychiatric help. This sheds abundant light on C. S. Lewis’s flight from full awareness. Karen Horney likened the process of psychoanalysis to the release of ferocious animals, only dimly perceived, from behind a high wall. The patient hears the roaring of these beasts, and is disturbed by it, yet has no idea of what lies hidden beyond the wall.

The Commentary

July 15, 2012

At this point, I was still in two minds about whether unconscious forces could “engulf ego and will.” Yet, sudden religious conversion had always seemed suspect to me. Hence, my suggestion that being engulfed by the unconscious, in the form of abrupt religious conversion, may be a voluntary process in disguise, a sort of psychological subterfuge to avoid having to learn something disagreeable about yourself. Surely, Lewis’s adamant stand against introspection and introversion is a dead giveaway that this was indeed the case with him. Better a God-fearing Anglican than distressingly self-aware.

Notice that, in Horney’s way of looking at the question, ego and will are over here, while the unconscious is over there. She clearly believed that the will is a conscious process and as such a product of the ego. Right away, we understand why she would reject Freud’s overwhelming unconscious forces: to her way of thinking, they robbed humankind of free will.

The idea is not unique to Horney.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre saw things the same way, but went further in rejecting Freud. He denied the existence of the unconscious mind altogether. He was extremely clear on this point. If the unconscious existed, then he was not completely free. Therefore, the unconscious mind did not exist! The pattern – if not the logic – is clear. If will is associated with the conscious ego then resistance to the idea of unconscious forces quickly sets in.

My suggestion that a “road to Damascus” religious conversion is voluntary assumes that the will resides with the conscious ego. Just as Karen Horney and Sartre did not believe in overwhelming unconscious minds, I do not believe in the will of supernatural gods.

It had not yet occurred to me to question why everyone simply assumed that will was a product of consciousness.