The Athiest's Enigma
As an ancient African-American gospel song laments, life is filled with complications, sorrows and defeats for everyone. At times life can become an unmitigated horror as the world slowly but surely converts every plant that grows and ever creature that is born into fertilizer to feed future doomed generations.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen -- Nobody knows but Jesus.
We really are finite beings adrift in an dangerous world, beset consistently by the tragic human triad of suffering, guilt and death. George Santayana, the brilliant Harvard philosopher wrote;
Life is neither entertainment nor a feast but a predicament to be resolved in the face of enormous difficulties.
Most of us do indeed live out at least some portions of our lives in quiet desperation. As many as one person in five suffers from serious mental or spiritual health disorders at times. In addition, we are all caught up in the frustrations of life virtually all our days.
During my half century of psychospiritual research, this puzzle emerged from the writings of men and women like Soren Kierkegaard, Carl Jung, Karen Horney, Otto Rank, Laura Perls, Abraham Maslow Melanie Klein and many others. Some of them started as agnostics or atheists who like Sigmund Freud thought God was a security myth, religion a fraud, worship and prayer naively subjective and faith, hope and love meaningless illusions. I understand their skepticism. How could any serious scholar want anything to do with the state controlled churches of their day -- as the clergy pandered to the nobility and betrayed families into poverty and slaughter in religious and financial wars? Nevertheless, as they matured personally and professionally, when everything psychological had been researched, after they’d reached the limits of psychotherapy, the incredible insights in the following paragraph appeared regularly in many of my most influential scholars’ lectures, therapy sessions and books.
To mature beyond neurotic anxiety, to cope with existential alienation, to live purposefully and win consistent satisfaction, each person must develop a faith as if God were real. We scholars can find no God -- religion probably panders to human weakness, prayer and worship are frauds, Nevertheless, to avoid crippling our souls, we must pretend that God exists and offer devotion to this myth because doing so gives us a crucial sense of security in a dangerous world. We can then live with the illusions of faith, hope and love that are essential for a meaningful life.
Oh my -- how wondrously droll, how deeply self-serving, how terribly convoluted! Fortunately, there is a much better way, for according to William of Occam, with all factors being equal, the simplest solution to a problem is usually the best one. Soren Kierkegaard, the always brilliant and forever relevant godfather of modern psychology, the most equal of my score or so authors, along with Ernest Becker, saw life more clearly than most. The Danish philosopher of the First Industrial Revolution, when writing about satisfaction reported;
The only way we humans can find contentment in a commercial society is through a self-transcending faith in God that lifts us beyond a fearful, frustrated and meaningless existence. We must become Knights of Faith.
You must understand this;
In this seminar I examine aspects of human personality and experience that are filled with painful and self-defeating elements. It is worse than useless to ignore our problems when every newspaper exposes us to a flood of human disasters. Nevertheless, my approach is spiritual and positive when followed through to the end. I shall try hard to teach you how to peer into your souls, to balance knowledge and wisdom, psychology and philosophy and the earthy elements of psychotherapy with the cosmic elements of worship -- in order to deal with human suffering and to make life come out well along the way. I use the term psychospiritual with a full understanding of its dual implications of emotional and philosophical elements.
SECOND -- THE CONTRITE SPIRIT The next astonishing consensus to emerge from my brilliant psychological giants is the necessity of personal repentance in the deliverance of one’s soul.
To resolve our spiritual difficulties, to succeed in our quest for liberation, we must successfully pass through the major emotional crisis of human liberation. During this conflict, the soul with its unconscious scar tissue; repressed, anxious, subjective and frozen at the core of our being, must surrender itself. Selfishness must yield to generosity. We must mature beyond the immature attitude of I - MYSELF ALONE. The seeker after freedom, to use St. Paul’s concepts, must nurture a contrite attitude in order to regret and abandon personal selfishness. In psychoanalytic terms, the self must sacrifice the ego in order to become free of its tyranny. Only after we have removed our emotional armor, have matured beyond egoistic self-deception and often gone past the assistance psychotherapy can give us to connect consciously with God, can we find deliverance. We have too many primitive homosapien traits to break free in our own strength. We need assistance to mature beyond our posturing and pretension, past our repressed killer-ape paranoia and nagging anxieties, beyond our compulsive defenses. We must abandon such baggage to escape through the prison bars we ourselves have erected for ego protection against our anxiety and guilt. Only then can we find the courage, knowledge and wisdom to become spiritually and emotionally free as Jesus, St. Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther King and Sister Theresa among many others were liberated souls -- were Kierkegaard’s Knights of the Spirit. .
Our search for freedom via the repentance of our failures, with sincere contrition, creates several crucial questions to be answered as we seek liberation from our homosapien anxiety and rage through faith and self-awareness. We must ask ourselves;
How can I end my self-defeating ego defenses, remove my emotional and cultural armor to become the loving parent, supportive spouse and faithful friend I yearn to be?
How shall I courageously stand in my quaking and bleeding nakedness - my ego crying out for esteem regardless of who is abused, without being overwhelmed by the cruelties of life?
How can I, a mere mortal already living under a death sentence, in a prison of my own making, successfully make my way through this con- fusing maze of suffering, guilt and death that is the unavoidable tragic triad of existence?
THIRD -- FOREVER BECOMING I wish I could tell you that my special scholars identified two shortcuts to soul liberation that shall sweep you into happiness all the days of your life. It would also be wonderful if each person could make a single emotional adjustment, like the religious experience called being born again that is expected by many to guarantee forever each believer’s spiritual liberation. I recall, during my youth in a fundamentalist revival meeting, an enthusiastic young evangelist begging us to come forward to shake his hand and accept Christ as our personal savior. That would, he assured us, take us straight to heaven regardless of where we strayed or what sins we committed later in life. He pleased some rebellious adolescents greatly but horrified our parents by saying;
Come and shake my hand, signifying your acceptance of Christ, and then it doesn’t matter whether death overtakes you drunk in a saloon or from the arms of a harlot -- you shall have been saved, you will go directly to heaven for an eternity with Jesus and with God our heavenly father.
I remember my father grumbling aghast to my mother;
What is that idiot teaching our teenagers -- that living a Christian life gives them license to immorality and sin, to drunkenness and adultery, if you first get saved? He’s a loony. Not only must you talk the talk; each Christian must walk the walk. You must run the race through to the end!
I shall elaborate more on this later but for now, let me say here that dealing successfully with life and its problems, with our secret yearnings, is much like following a twelve- steps program for drug addicts. It is never a one-time event such as being redeemed through a simple mental assent. Human nature is too complex for so simplistic a deliverance, although as an aspect of God’s grace, it must begin with contrition and a connection with the Cosmic Creator. Given the fact we are subjective and finite creature-selves, frequently in conflict in an imperfect world, our psychospiritual health is always a life-long project we must accept and follow through to the end. Of course that creates a problem for many because we are such impatient souls. We are indeed attracted to quick fix solutions whether in religion, industry, education or our personal lives. Even more, we really want to pretend nothing is wrong and then when we are forced to face some unpleasant reality, we usually call in a specialist, have the expert do the quick fix and write out a check. Psychospiritual healing doesn’t occur that way -- it is process that always extracts a price and often draws blood. Life becomes really satisfying through psychospiritual maturing and no one grows up in a few weeks or months. We mature and nurture ourselves in stages and while others can help, as with Alcoholics Anonymous, you have to very much want to rid yourself of your conscious and unconscious methods of avoiding personal responsibility before you get free.
Through this program I shall be dealing with some of the common defenses humans use to feel good about ourselves in a difficult world where life is often nasty, brutish and short. These include keeping secrets from ourselves (repression) -- pretending that unpleasant things didn’t occur or really are not that bad (denial) and keeping existence simplistic (avoidance). This leads to yet another paradox.
Given the difficult nature of life, while we cope with the tragic triad of suffering, guilt and death, we normally protect our egos in our search for satisfaction, Of course, we all need defenses to avoid severe anxiety that would render us unable to function well. On the other hand, when we use too many ego defenses, they play havoc in our families, companies, churches and communities. Getting along without falling into despair is somewhat like balancing along a tight rope. We live on a continuum between neurotic domination and crippling isolation and we must work every day to make life come out right. Much as a recovering addict must deliberately choose each morning to remain sober even as his or her insecurities are clamoring for counterfeit liberation.
Life in the raw is often too painful, too dangerous to face without pretensions, ego games and hidden secrets. In fact, we learn early in childhood that some very nasty things happen to everyone -- that life is fatal in the end with no one getting out alive. Just last week as I write this, a darling little second grade girl in our community slipped on ice while running after a school bus and was crushed in front of many of her schoolmates. It was devastating to them and I wept as I thought of the precious little life cut short in the terrible accident.
Amy my own ten year old red-headed, left-handed granddaughter with a mind of her own, recently revealed her anxiety about death to her grandmother. And while I probably would have overwhelmed Amy with my research, Roberta in essence told her that is why we are Christians. She recommended she keep her head cool, her feet warm, her diet modest and to always trust in the Lord. My, oh my -- I do have a bevy of strong women in my life. One wife, one daughter, one daughter in law, several granddaughters and a great granddaughter, who keep me honest and humble in our dealings!
To pretend that life is a rose-garden is nothing but self-deception and denial. Therefore we must learn how to cope with the reality of existence that is often very hard to bear without fleeing from reality by becoming neurotic. Unfortunately, reality is so terrible a burden to lay on us as children, while we are learning who we are, where we belong and what life is all about, we all use self-deceptive repression and denial. The key is to keep them from dominating our choices. We must learn how to cope successfully with life’s tragic triad and then work at it regularly.
It has become obvious that the great human problems of our era no longer come from the forces of nature but from within ourselves. Wars, hunger for half the world’s people and even global warming are human created conditions. As the great philosopher Pogo Possum (a k a Walt Kelly) said, We have met the enemy and he is us. We are finite beings who simply cannot find redemption and liberation through our own wisdom and courage. With our psychological unconscious scheming selfishly to dominate others, or conversely, yearning for some great, god-like figure to assume our responsibility for life, we lack the spiritual resources to pull it off in our own strength. Fortunately, we can find self-transcending liberation, as reported in the Atheist’s Enigma and a Contrite Spirit, while we are connected consciously with God. As Pope John Paul II said;
We cannot be good without God.
To which I add;
We cannot even feel consistently satisfied about ourselves and our achievements without a connection with God that lifts us beyond our own failures and insecurities.
Author* Jard DeVille has published more than a score of psychology books, seminars and psychological assessment instruments. His book NICE GUYS FINISH FIRST was a powerful best seller in English, Japanese and Spanish editions. THE PSYCHOLOGY OF LEADERSHIP was New American Library's offering in their Executive Development Series. For twenty years he was considered by many to be America's foremost leadership scholar.
About the Author
Jard DeVille; Psyc. Dept. Chair at Westminster College; leadership psychology at the University of Arizona at Tucson; published psychology books, seminars & psychological assessment instruments. NICE GUYS FINISH FIRST was a best seller. He’s considered by many to be America’s foremost leadership scholar. Visit http://www.fulfillmentforum.com for FREE EBooks & EBiz Tools.