Documenting Shifts In How People Perceived God

Freud's Paranoid Quest: Psychoanalysis and Modern Suspicion

By John Farrell

NYU Press

275 pp., $34.95

The modern age began for Western civilization when Europeans shifted their theological view of God, trading a "kindly Architect" for a "mighty King."

The God of medieval Europe was the kindly Architect who reveals Himself in His plan for mortals and for the world they inhabit. The Renaissance replaced this Mediterranean concept of God with the mighty King of the Hebrew scriptures.

Most of John Farrell's new book, "Freud's Paranoid Quest," is devoted to documenting such observations.

With the shift, human knowledge about God derived not from a preexisting, plan, but from the motives and actions of a King. The King reveals Himself only after the fact in His actions. Just as Isaac Newton showed us the modern way by reducing the regular action of the moons and planets to a mathematical system, modern man reinterpreted God based on empirically observed nature.

At first, it was just assumed that these patterns would carry their own meaning and reveal the divine nature behind them. By the time Sigmund Freud developed his psychoanalytic theory, it was clear that meaning is something humans add to the patterns of nature.

Medieval presuppositions were anchored inmedieval interpretations of man and the universe. But modern orientations annihilated these medieval certainties and put nothing in their place. Thus meaning became something continually negotiated by those who assert interpretations and those who accept or reject them.

Mankind now would gain knowledge, not by studying God's plan, but by finding what patterns they could in God's acts - that is, in themselves and the universe.

According to Farrell, no one is a better example of the search for new foundations based on humanity's examination of its own actions than Sigmund Freud. Freud sought to do for the study of man what Newton did for astronomy. Given the historical background, we are not surprised that Freud's theory classifies religion as delusion, a product of human illness.

Freud provides Farrell with a clear illustration of problems that affect every aspect of the age in which we live. It was Freud's view that his own system, and all such achievements, are equally delusive - the product of paranoia, a strange mix of skepticism and credulity that afflicts our age. In such a culture, confidence replaces truth as the power of persuasion.

No wonder, then, that Freud saw himself not just observing the inner workings of human psychology but also giving meaning to the patterns he observed and then establishing his interpretation, not by its truth but by the force of his will.

* David Nartonis is a former college administrator.

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