Beyond “Thou Shalt Not”

A few weeks ago, when I was feeling particularly worn down by the stresses and sorrows of this pandemic year, I turned to my favorite book of contemporary spirituality, The Discerning Heart, by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au.

In the Introduction, they talk about why they feel spiritual discernment is more important today than ever. One of their reasons always jumps out to me: “the developmental challenge of adult Christians to make decisions in a way that reflects their full stature as adults” (2). They later explain:

Adult Christian decision-making also entails making decisions that are increasingly based on conscious factor rather than on unconscious, internalized parental ‘shoulds’ from childhood, what Freud calls the ‘superego.’ … The superego represents remnants of childhood training that guided our behaviour prior to our acquiring the cognitive capacity to make proper choices on our own. Not meant to be a permanent mode of directing our choices, the superego is developmentally intended to be supplanted by conscience, which is our adult mind’s ability to make independent judgments based on reflection (9).

This is an important point. Whatever one thinks of Freud’s contributions to the study of human behaviour, his threefold understanding of human personality remains at least conceptually helpful. Freud saw human personality as made up of three parts: the id, which is our instinctive drives; the ego, which is our reasoning mind and sense of self; and the superego, which is made up of the rules laid down by our parents and society.

If we think of how this interacts with the life of faith, people spend a lot of time thinking of how our religious traditions engage with and challenge the id and the ego, but far less the superego. I think this is probably because many people conceive of religion as a kind of superego: One’s faith provides the set of external rules which govern behaviour and provides the content of what it means to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’. This religion-as-superego mentality is reminiscent of what Friedrich von Hugel called the “institutional” model of religion. While this stage is important and necessary because it hands down the tradition to the next generation, it must also be transcended. If we don’t move past this institutional stage, von Hugel says, religion “inevitably degenerates into more or less of a Superstition, — an oppressive materialization and dangerous would-be fixation of even quite secondary [matters] … and a predominance of political, legal, physically coercive concepts and practices ….” Essentially, what he’s saying is that if we don’t transcend the institutional phase, we reify it — that is, we turn it into the substance of faith itself — and lose genuine faith in favour of rigid fundamentalism of one kind or another.

We can think of the superego, or von Hugel’s institutional model of religion, as being a falsework, a temporary structure built to support a building as it’s being constructed until it can support itself on its own. Critically, however, it is not the building itself, and must be dismantled for the building to function as designed. This is precisely Paul’s point when he talks about the Law having been our tutor or governess (Gal 3.23ff). It was necessary while we were immature, but now that a new and mature path has been opened for us, we no longer need it. A fully constructed tower does not need falsework. A grown up does not need a nanny.

And this brings us back to what the Aus are saying about spiritual discernment. True, mature, Christian decision-making is not a rejection of our desires (id) or sense of ourselves (ego) in favour of ‘faithfulness’ to the ‘Thou shalts’ and ‘Thou shalt nots’ of a received tradition (superego). This would be a rejection of our adulthood and lead to a perpetual childhood. Nor is it simply a perpetual reaction against the superego. That would similarly be a rejection of maturity and lead to a perpetual adolescence — not living our own life but living in rebellion against our parents. Rather, we are called to a conscious engagement with what we have received, making it our own, and living from our own (Spirit-led) conscience rather than in conformity with or rebellion to external rules.

This is the path of true maturity, as human persons, and as people of faith. It isn’t an easy path, certainly, but it’s unquestionably the best path, and it’s the path we are called to take.

4 thoughts on “Beyond “Thou Shalt Not”

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