Saturday, November 30, 2013

These Essays: Scripture Offers Us Psychological Resources

Wayne G. Rollins explores in Soul and Psyche the various psychological forces present in, and working through, all of Christian Scripture. Symbols, for example, are both conscious and unconscious, and their multiple associations play on both reason and emotion. This allows the mind which interprets them to work as an integrated whole.

The archetypical imagery which Scripture employs may be rich for precisely this purpose: the hero, garden, divine child, wise elder, trickster, mountain, tree of life, and divine king all resonate deeply through the minds of many people. And similar power may be at work in the cultic and ceremonial practices that Scripture encourages, such as the cup and bread that resound beyond the Greek New Testament. 

This dense and varied symbolic, archetypal, and cultic imagery of Christian scripture has been explored only partially. But Scripture also attests to a broad array of human personalities which have been studied since Freud and noted long before. Biblical characters such as Paul and David, Jesus and Moses, Ruth and Elijah, and Ezekiel and John not only resound with psychodynamic forces, but may also evince some mastery of them. Jung saw Paul as an individuated soul, while some Freudians have honored him as a keen symbolist and the skilled constructor of a mythological world.
It is not that one may find or “read into” the Bible the suppositions of modern psychological theory. It is that, when one reads the Bible with such theories in mind, one confronts the full range of possible results, from the tragic figure of Saul the king falling prey to his anxieties, to the fascinating complexity of Ezekiel, to the surprisingly admirable qualities of Christ and Paul. In Scripture, even by our contemporary standards, one may meet nearly anyone, and do so quite honestly. 

A third way that Scripture offers psychological resources is in the range of religious experiences it describes. The people of the Christian Bible encounter prophecy and ecstasy, visions, photisms, and auditions, glossolalia, dreams and dream interpretations, conversion and the slow work of ordinary religious life which encompasses the entire range of human emotions. They also perform religious rituals through circumcision, baptism, eucharist, foot-washing, prayer, fasts, festivals, and cultic law and sacrifice. They experience angels, exorcise and are possessed by demons, and heal and are healed by faith and miracle. 

The comprehensiveness of Scripture in this regard leaves little life uncovered. If one were looking for a religious experience outside its range, one would seem hard pressed to find it. So we should not be surprised that Scripture retains an ability to affect believers. Throughout its history, Scripture has engaged the hearts and minds of those who read it. It cannot be for nothing that John Wesley and Martin Luther both trace historically significant transformations to their experience of reading the Bible.

More, contemporary research speaks to the positive effect of biblical stories on the spiritual lives of children. And there has been a resurgence in adult applications in counseling which use Biblical texts as agents of moral realism, emotional catharsis, perceptual reorganization, diagnostic tools, and archetypal models for perception and behavior. 

Rollins concludes that we see such efficacy because of the constructive pervasiveness of the psyche in Scriptural composition and explication alike.Psychological readings of the Bible reveal that text and reader interpret one another in ways we have only begun to understand, and that a hermeneutical process which understands the Bible as therapeutically authoritative elicits a bevy of therapeutic results. 

Rollins implicitly takes up this persuasive sense of Scriptural authority as he describes the effects Scripture can have on readers. The unconscious forces operant in Scriptural composition manifest in Scriptural interpretation. Texts bear more meaning than the author could ever intend or the reader ever disclose. 

Unfortunately, much of this we read as negative, as in the critical suspicions of Marx, Freud and Nietzche, and the contemporary theories of feminist, Foucaultian and post-colonial thought. Biblical texts bear between their words the unspoken ideologies, systemic exclusions, and power dynamics of their compositional cultures.

But, in ways similar to the unconscious efficacy of the symbolic imagery of Christian scripture, these same “submerged” structures can become ways the text positively generates meaning for a reader. The persuasive nature of Scripture’s contents and unconscious forces can also contribute to its salutary force. Unconscious saturation prepares the text to respond to queries which neither text, author or reader anticipated, but that nonetheless further understanding at an almost experiential level.

The unconscious structures which operate in a text may make it more intelligible by lending it cohesion, making its meaning or meanings possible. And if there is any kind of collective unconscious at all, then the unconscious structures shared by any text with a reader would be precisely those through which the psyche’s positive energies could work toward inclusion, service, and empowerment. 

Finally, the unconscious “depth structure” of texts engages the imagination constructively, in order to organize disparate information and elicit the reader’s enlivened response to it. But I will explore that topic more fully in later essays.


Anonymous said...

Ben, I totally and completely agree with you (and with Rollins). Scripture has the ability to affect us and inspire us in every psychical (to use a Vollenhovian and Dooyeweerdian term) level. I dig it.

Anonymous said...

Ben, I totally and completely agree with you (and Rollins). Scripture is able to affect us on every possibly level, and you've done a wonderful job of bringing that out. This is why biblical hermeneutics must become an interdisciplinary activity - every field has a helpful hermeneutic regarding some aspect of Scripture.