Luther, Augustine, Paul and Peter (no, not that one…)

In Robert Sapolsky’s lecture on the biological underpinnings of religion (which I strongly recommend), one of the cases he talks of is that of a young monk called Luder, who from his correspondence clearly suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  Luder is, of course, better known by us as Martin Luther, and Sapolsky goes on to suggest that Luther’s theology at least in part stems from his psychological condition.

It is reasonably easy to see that Luther’s insistence on “sola gratia” (grace alone) and his dismissal of any form of “works righteousness” could stem from OCD, which is characterised by never managing to do enough to meet the standards one has set for oneself. Luther was so against works righteousness, indeed, that he wanted at one point to remove the letter of James from the Bible (calling it a “gospel of straw”); James, of course, contains the statement “faith without works is dead”.

I open with Luther largely because we are remembering the 500th anniversary of him flyposting a church door. I would say “celebrating”, but that would imply that I thought highly of Luther; while I appreciate “priesthood of all believers” and opposition to the hierarchy of the Church and its failings, such as indulgences, there is far too much more about him which I shudder at, and what I think is his attempt to impose his OCD on the whole of Christianity ranks fairly high among them.

Luther followed in the footsteps of Augustine, who, some centuries earlier, had developed one of the concepts which Luther, as an obsessive-compulsive, would find so attractive, that of “original sin”. Luther appropriated the concept wholesale.

Augustine, of course, wrote at length in his “Confessions” about his problems with sex, notably his apparent inability to do without it, at least until his conversion. The first (and perhaps foundational) peccadillo he records is, however, stealing some fruit. “There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night—having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was—a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree.  We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden.”(from Confessions, quoted by Hugh Kerr in “Readings in Christian Thought”).  From this, he formulated the idea that we were all driven by an irresistible urge to “sin”, which could only be negated by conversion.

Now personally, I do remember my early teens, and the occasional impulse to do things just because they were forbidden – but then I grew up, and that urge disappeared. I fancy most of us are rebellious as teenagers, and have similar urges, but then again I fancy most of us do not regard a “do not walk on the grass” sign as demanding that we do just that once we have reached, say, 20 or so. Well, maybe 30 or 40 for some people I know… Similarly, teenagers frequently seem to be endowed with overactive sex drives; I hesitate to suggest that Augustine might have gone beyond that into an actual addiction, but similarly most people I know grow out of that.

Has Augustine, I wonder, formulated his “original sin” theology (and the Western Church’s fixation on sexual sin) out of his own psychology, rather than (for instance) out of a more general anthropology than that of the sex-mad teenager? I suppose he was encouraged in his direction of thought by St. Paul, and most particularly by Romans 7.

Paul there talks of an inability to do what he wants to do (namely follow the Law assiduously), and generalises from that, just as Augustine does later, to a concept of “sin living within him” (which elsewhere he suggests can be dispelled completely by faith in Christ or, on another reading, by the faith of Christ). Again, however, I ask whether this is a general problem. While Paul does elsewhere boast of being blameless in respect of the Law, he goes on in Romans to paint the Law as something which no-one can adhere to completely and therefore as something which actually, in one sense, produces sin.

This is however problematic; not only does Paul suggest in Philippians that he in fact is entirely Torah-observant, but I have discussed this at length with many Orthodox Jewish friends who say there is no real difficulty in adhering to the Law scrupulously. Indeed, they point out to me the principle of a “fence around the Torah”, so they add to the number of restrictions in order not even to come close to breaking one of the 613 commandments which the Rabbis have extracted from the text, and the ultra-Orthodox go even further, trying to be super-observant in every particular. As they comment, this is a way of expressing their gratitude to God for his covenant with the Jewish people. Peter Enns discusses Paul and Augustine (and Adam) in this recent podcast.

Judaism, of course, has no concept of “original sin”, but considers that everyone has within them a good and an evil impulse or inclination, the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra. This is a far cry from a fundamental inability to do good (or be law-abiding). One is tempted to speculate that the “thorn in his flesh” which Paul complains of elsewhere might have been OCD, though there have been many other speculations. OCD would certainly be, within Paul’s way of thinking which personified powers working against us as demonic, a good candidate, while physical ailments would not be.

That represents three giants of western theology who, I think, there are good grounds for suspecting of creating a general theology out of their own specific psychological quirks (to avoid using the term “abnormal psychology” with its pejorative connotations). Now, if (as Freud, one of the “masters of suspicion”, suggested) Christianity stems from a kind of pre-scientific attempt at therapeutic psychological intervention, these might represent valid but partial theologies; theologies tailored to particular psychologies. I have mentioned elsewhere, for instance, that while Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a theological device which I find deeply abhorrent, it is the only atonement theory which seems to resonate with a particular set of people, largely among the recovery communities, who have done things which they regard as fundamentally unforgiveable; I do not think it should ever be advanced to the more average believer as “the gospel”. However, we are not commonly offered the option of original sin and total depravity as being “special cases”; they are supposed to be universal theologies applicable to everyone. And they fail in this, as not everyone is a sex-obsessed adolescent, an addict or a sufferer from OCD.

There is, however, a strain of theology now popular in various flavours which (inter alia) often uses the psychological insights of Jacques Lacan, a controversial French Psychoanalyst of the last century. Peter Rollins is the exponent of such a theology (“Pyrotheology”) with whom I am most familiar, but Tad DeLay and Marcus Pound are two other well known examples. These insights, one might think, would be of general application. Psychoanalysis is, after all, supposed to analyse the psyche of all of us, not just those with particular psychological quirks…

Unfortunately, in much the same way as Freud decided that humanity was collectively obsessed with the penis (“A thing’s a phallic symbol if it’s longer than it’s wide, and the id goes marching on…”), Lacan considers that everyone is afflicted by the perceived loss of an original oceanic onness with one’s mother, which is not a loss at all, in reality, but a side-effect of the advent of the sense of self. This is always “self as distinct from the other”, because that’s how we think. To that extent, I think he’s right, though I also think that it is a real loss; the sense of self as radically connected to and without a fixed and immutable boundary with the rest of existence is something which is, to me at least, extremely desirable (though probably not to the exclusion of the sense of self altogether), but that is one of the gifts of peak mystical experience.

Where this line of thinking goes astray, I think, is to suggest that for everyone, everywhere, we strive to fill this perceived lack with other things, the something which will “make us whole again”. Rollins is particularly fond of this analysis, especially since going to live in Los Angeles, where everyone seems to him to be touting this or that meditative or contemplative practice, diet or exercise regime as filling the void, assuming for a moment that they realise that the pursuit of more money isn’t going to do that. Indeed, he criticises mainstream religion as proffering something to fill that lack – and much of Christianity would seem to agree with him, talking of the “God-shaped hole”. David Moffett-Moore says, in “Christian Existentialism” (Energion Publications, 2017) “It could be said that the psychology of Sigmund Freud is most relevant for us as young adults, when we are most strongly influenced by our hormones. Our sexuality is a strong part of our sense of self. The writings of Alfred Adler on the quest for power may be most appropriate for our middle years, when we are striving to pursue our careers and establish our families. Carl Jung says that every issue past midlife is essentially a spiritual issue, a question of meaning. So we can benefit by applying Freud to our younger years, Adler to our middle years, and Jung to our later years.” Psychologies are being applied there to those who fit the psychological profiles they are based on; I wonder whether a theology should similarly be based on individual quirks.

With Pyrotheology, I’m on less solid ground than in suggesting that theology for the OCD, for teenage rebels or the sexually obsessed is not capable of being a theology for all, because I suspect that a very great deal of human activity is exactly that, searching for something to fill a perceived lack in one’s own self. Again, that doesn’t well describe me; I wasn’t particularly looking for any magic solution to the problem of life, the universe, and everything (aside, of course, 42) up to my early teens, and when my initial peak unitive experience happened, that was exactly what I was looking to repeat – and unlike the Lacan/Rollins model, where the “lost thing” was never really lost, I knew full well that that particular gap could be filled, because it had been. However, I have not found very many people who testify to such peak experience (though many who testify to something rather less complete), and I concede that on that point, Rollins is probably talking of at least a majority experience (at least on the basis of the population of Los Angeles) and so may reasonably be advancing a theology of general application, even if it is not one which mystics can endorse.

That, however, is not the only major feature of Rollins’ Pyrotheology project. That carries the “lack” motif rather further, and proposes a theology of accepting a state of permanent unease, permanent dissatisfaction. He repeats with approval the Augustinian desire-as-created-by-prohibition (which I think Paul also preached in his theologising about Law and Faith), and carries that further in approving the rebel (who when asked “What are you against?” replies “What have you got?”) as against the revolutionary, who sees a fault in current systems and seeks to replace them with something better.

Now, I am much more a revolutionary than a rebel. I don’t believe in tearing things down unless I can propose something better to erect in their place, as a general rule, and I like to use the SMART system for tasks – they should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-limited. Some of my readers will be astonished at me advancing such apparently conservative (with a small “c”) concepts, but I have always identified as a centrist – it’s just that the world appears to have shifted around me while I stay sceptical and critical, but against destruction for destruction’s sake.

Most people, I find, can relate to this viewpoint. The more conservative among us like the reluctance to endorse change for the sake of change (and, to my mind, the world is already changing at a rate which is too rapid for human wellbeing), the not-completely-radical appreciate the scepticism and critical approach but can get behind my wish for concrete solutions and, to be honest, moving by small increments rather than vast leaps into the unknown. I’m not against paradigm shift in principle, but such changes should happen no more than once a generation, and my generation has, frankly, already had its fill.

So, on balance, I think Rollins’ Pyrotheology is also a project which has application only to a relatively small percentage of the population, namely those who have preserved the adolescent tendency to rebellion. That may be a good thing, may be a bad thing; I have a sneaking suspicion that with the pace of change in the world as it is, it may be more good than bad. It cannot, however, be an universally applicable theology.

But then, I would argue, neither can the theologies of Luther, Augustine or even Paul.

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