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.