Monthly Archives: September 2021

The super ego and some religious groups

Reading the ghastly account of John Smyth’s treatment of young men first in the UK and then in Zimbabwe in the name of Jesus (see Bleeding for Jesus) has led me to think about how powerfully the superego can become over-emphasised and perverse in certain religious contexts.

‘Sin’ is generally seen as an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law, but in certain cults and religious groups ‘the divine law’ is determined by the leader who is often narcissistic and mentally ill – Peter Ball is a good example of this and Bishop Stephen Neill. Similarly, John Smyth who asked his victims to write a list of their sins and administered the number of beatings according to what he saw as the severity of the behaviour. Masturbation being a prime candidate. These leaders are dominated by their own sadistic urges, often linked to repressed sexual needs and this is cloaked in theological justification both as a defence, and as a so-called reputable way to achieve a form of relief and satisfaction.

The superego seen as the ethical part of the personality can be over cultivated by critical parenting and added to by critical religious teachings – leading then to a strong overdetermined sense of guilt. The sense of guilt has endless gradations, but roughly can be conscious, preconscious and unconscious – using Freudian terminology. The origin of the superego lies in the child’s ambivalence and fear connected to loss of parental love and approval which is why such deviant leaders use grooming about punishment and reward so successfully.

The psychiatrist who saw Thomas Merton, Gregory Zilboorg, (and who rather unprofessionally and indeed unethically colluded with Abbot James Fox about Merton’s personality and who caused Merton much upset and soul searching) wrote a book called Psychoanalysis and Religion. Although dated, published in 1962, he sees a conscious sense of guilt as normal and an unconscious sense as neurotic or indeed psychotic. He also quotes Thomas Aquinas on the sacrament of penance where penance is performed with the hope of forgiveness.

However where ‘sin’, as defined by some religious leaders, becomes part of a training, a reprogramming and grooming then a deeper sense of guilt develops – not only about the so-called ‘sin’ in itself, but also the more powerful letting down the leader and his love and approval.

Zilboorg writes about: ‘an unconscious sense of guilt whose characteristic is a well-nigh insatiable desire for more and more punishment … which in its severer form has become known as masochism’. In other words, the conscious sadism of the leader who is the perpetrator of the punishment becomes over time mirrored in the inner world of the recipient.

On the superego Zilboorg, whose picture is below, writes:

‘It is the epitome of aggression and hatred … [and] cannot be quieted; it can only be pacified with direct or indirect “payment in kind”. Whilst using the language of conscience the superego is not conscience because it does not know forgiveness.’

Here is the root of the punishing god who demands more and more pain and sacrifices.

Making peace with ourselves and with God 4

If faith is a dynamic journey and not a static resting post then we are invited to know ourselves in our search to know God. Fowler’s next stage he sees as typically belonging to early adulthood up to late thirties, and he termed this ‘Individuative-Reflective Faith’. It is characterized by the difficulties of the person struggling with their own feelings and beliefs, and so there is space for greater nuance that will include angst and struggle as the individual takes personal responsibility for their beliefs or feelings.  Religious or spiritual beliefs can take on greater complexity and shades, and there is a greater sense of open-mindedness, which can at the same time expose the individual to potential conflicts as different beliefs or traditions collide.

The Stage 5 – ‘Conjunctive’ Faith in mid-Life Crisis continues into uncertainty where paradox and mystery linked to transcendence are acknowledged. Opening to this allows the person to move from inherited conventions and where a sort of resolution results from accepting different perspectives and the experience of ‘truth’ that cannot be reduced to a simple statement of faith.

Later adulthood at Stage 6 – ‘Universalizing’ Faith (or ‘Enlightenment’) is a stage that very few achieve where the person is characterized by seeing all people as worthy or compassion and deep understanding. Here, the kingdom of God is within you and there is no sense of being hemmed in by one tradition or another rather an openness to that of God within all beings. Fowler sees Thomas Merton as someone who reached this stage …

The process of Fowler’s stages is interesting as it moves us from a basic trust and mutuality out into the need for certainty and security, and then gradually allowing for our life experiences to transform and open us into new thinking. The growing and aging of our faith is about an increasing vulnerability and a return to something we once knew though unselfconsciously: innocence/experience/innocence to use William Blake’s sequence.

In his foreword to my book ‘The Only Mind Worth Having, Thomas Merton and the child mind’ Rowan Williams wrote about this breakthrough to a new mind.

‘When we were children we did not know we possessed it; now we must drop everything in order to find it. … The true mind of the child is found in an emptying out of the self that collects nice experiences.  The child mind is simply the mind that inhabits where and who and what it is, that lives in the world without the shadows of craving and fear and self-objectifying.’

Merton as one of the great spiritual guides of our age ‘gradually clarifies his understanding of this journey towards the present moment of inhabiting the place where life is happening.  Merton does this through his contemplative discipline, but also through his imaginative writing, especially his poems, and in his courageous exploration of other religious frameworks such as Buddhism.’  Merton invites us to that home … that is the simple present actuality where God lives and acts…  where we are and “know the place for the first time.”

Making peace with ourselves and with God 3

James Fowler’s useful stages of faith work as a spiral as we develop and change and gain from experience of life. Fowler calls Stage 2 ‘Mythic-Literal Faith’ and dates it around the chronological ages of 7-12 where there is a belief in justice and fairness in religious matters, it includes a sense of reciprocity where doing or being good leads to a good result, and doing or being bad will lead to bad things. God may be seen as a real figure – classically an old man with a long white beard living in the clouds.   And religious metaphors are often taken literally which can lead to disappointment. Religious thinking is concrete and lacking nuance and subtleties.

From the chronological ages 12 up to adulthood is Stage 3 – ‘Synthetic-Conventional’ Faith where the person is identified with a religious institution, belief system, or authority, and the growth of a personal religious or spiritual identity. It has been pointed out that conflicts with this identity and developing belief system are seen as a threat and so ignored or challenged.  From here on the person is able to let go of the particular physical image of God so able to perceive the divine as an abstract or formless manifestation.

The chronological ages Fowler gives are mere pointers, but it does seem as if those needing the certainty and literal readings of the bible – where things are so split into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ have decided to stay within this apparent ‘safety’ and choose to ignore anything that might threaten this (both in the world and within the inner world). This seems like a false being at peace with ourselves and God as it forces so much to be kept at bay, and the ensuing conflict will eventually lead to emotional distress. It’s a de-valuing of the God-given self and the complexity of feelings and life experiences through submission to an imposed belief system.

There’s an interesting piece of research found online by Christopher Lloyd – ‘Contending with Spiritual Reductionism: Demons, Shame, and Dividualising Experiences Among

Evangelical Christians with Mental Distress’ published this year 2021. Following an earlier study, he interviews eight evangelical Christians to gain their experience of the handling of mental ill health in their church communities. Perhaps none of the findings are surprising but nonetheless the ignorance about why mental illness arises and how best to treat it are still strange given it is 2021. The research took place in the UK and found that these church communities equated suffering with demonic or spiritual involvement – what the author calls spiritual reductionism, alongside the wider cultural expectation of healing. This meant that the church ‘often inappropriately used prayer to expel demons or to insist on prayer alone as the route to healing.’ If healing or deliverance from mental distress didn’t happen then the person’s lack of faith was questioned which led to feelings of guilt and shame and a questioning of their own faith. As one participant remarked, “A question that some people have asked is, ‘How’s your walk with Jesus going?’ They think that it correlates.”

Yet it is clear that the false peace that comes from denial, projection or repression is very different from the peace and acceptance of oneself that can come from integrating the shadow and holding the tension of opposing and sometimes difficult feelings.

Making peace with ourselves and with God 2

Making peace with ourselves and with God requires a belief and trust in a loving God but too often one can get caught up in the punishing god instead. The punishing god is an extension of the fear of parental rejection and punishment, and becomes consolidated into a critical superego. This superego means that we can then continue to punish ourselves, but may prefer to think instead that God is doing it to us because we are ‘bad’ or ‘sinful’ or others have told us that we are. Freud realised so many problems are caused by a critical superego … and this prevents any making peace with ourselves and with God.

I like James Fowler’s work on the six stages of faith – not that faith is necessarily a progression – more a spiral – but he well illustrates the development of trust and belief, and where one can get stuck. In the stage of infancy and what he calls undifferentiated faith (stage 0), he explains how trust develops from a loving and consistent relationship with the mothering person. As babies (if lucky) we develop trust in the caregiver and the environment which leads to trust in the self and in the larger world. If there is lack or neglect then our experiences of distrust and infantile despair can become strongly present. Our first pre-images of God have their origins here: ‘composed from our first experiences of mutuality’.

The first main stage (stage 1) he calls ‘intuitive-projective faith’ which is based on our development as we attain language. He quotes interesting research that despite our secularization, religious symbols and language are so widely present in our society that virtually no child reaches school age without having constructed – with or without religious instruction – an image or images of God. As children we can be powerfully and permanently influenced by the stories and examples we are exposed to, and these will include images and feelings of terror and destructiveness – there’s also a certain degree of concrete thinking – in other words trying to work out how things are and eventually what is real and what is not. There is also the internalization of ‘the taboos and prohibitions that surround and make mysteriously attractive things sexual and religious plus a fear of death especially the death of a parent. As Fowler writes: ‘The useful realism of both fairy tales and many biblical narratives – provides indirect yet effective ways for children to externalize their inner anxieties and to find ordering images and stories by which to shape their lives.’

The critical superego or the inner critic can become very well established at this point in childhood and it’s not far fetched to see how this stage encapsulates the use of the projection of their shadow by the most judgemental religious people in the quest for projection. Everything that is present in the shadow and that has to be disowned – usually to do with sex – can then be projected out onto those who can then be seen as ‘sinful’. It’s such basic psychology but accompanied by a terror of self-knowledge and a need for certainty and the absolute authority of the bible in the midst of a fear of death.