Do you have an open mind? Hell if I know…


So far in 2011, there have been two headline news stories from Christian leaders that have been  lightning rods for conversation among people of all walks of faith and life.

Just last week, we were bombarded with the anxiety and intrigue of Harold Camping’s prediction that the Rapture would come on May 21, 2011.  Family Radio, Camping’s home radio station, was often playing in the background in my home while I was growing up.  My parents were mostly interested in the wonderful music and and stimulating religious talk shows, shuddering a bit when Family Radio broadcasted Camping’s ever-increasingly controversial and fringe theology about the End Times.  Camping claimed that, through careful detective work of the hidden secrets of numerology in the Bible, he could predict that May 21, 2011 was the day that Jesus would return and the final judgment would begin.  Such a prediction—and its failure to prove true—gives us pause to think about the finiteness of life and what comes in the hereafter.  His prediction and interpretation of its meaning aroused fear, anxiety, ridicule, clever jokes, and more than one prompting to tell loved ones, well, that they are loved.

The other prominent news story is the publication of Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins:  A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Everyone Who Ever Lived.”  In this book, Bell—a pastor at the mega-church Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, Michigan—takes on the many questions that surround the Christian conception of hell.  With his common sense approach, he raises a whole set of important questions for us to consider.  He writes,

Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number “make it to a better place” and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life? This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God; it raises questions about the beliefs themselves.

For some people, these are fighting words, as they seem to threaten the very foundation upon which evangelical Christianity is built.  But Bell is an evangelical.  This means that, for other people, his book opens a door to thinking about traditional religious ideas in a new way.  To my mind, this is good news for both Christians and non-Christians alike.  And in actuality, he is simply bringing to the masses a distillation of the hundreds-year-old discussions of sophisticated theologians that have been reserved for progressive seminaries for far too long.

So you say, “Okay, Jen, all this religious stuff is interesting, but what is it doing in a blog about psychoanalysis?”  An excellent question.  Here is my response.  A main goal of psychoanalysis—as well as a main goal of life itself—is to develop a mind of one’s own.  And these two news stories are examples of how not to do that and how to do that.

Developing a mind of one’s own is not about developing a dogmatic certainty about life that is then put to others in a “believe it or else…” sort of way.  Camping’s model is one of omnipotence and omniscience—he knows all, sees all, and can predict all.  And he uses the Bible in the same way, as a kind of codebook to detect the hidden facts of life.  He rejects the main thrust of what the Bible is about, picking and choosing bits and pieces that support his narrow agenda.  And then he assigns ultimate authority to those bits and presses us to believe them as he does.  Without those facts and obedience to those facts, we are lost and doomed.  With those facts and obedience to those facts, we are saved.  At first blush, Camping may be thought to be a person who has a mind of one’s own.  But he neither draws from the wisdom of his own tradition nor encourages others to have a mind of their own.  He is a lone ranger.  And therein lies the rub.

There is a difference between being a pioneer and being a lone ranger.  A pioneer develops a creative, imaginative mind of his own that is built on the wisdom of his parents.  She stands on the shoulders of her parents to see farther than they could see, to be more than they could be.  By parents, I mean actual parents as well as wise ones from the past, history, science, tradition, culture, teachers, scholars, books, and all sorts of wisdom that gets passed down to us.  We take this in, process it for ourselves through the filters of our experience as well as our minds, and develop our own sensibilities.

Developing a mind of one’s own involves respect for tradition as well as the courage to question it.  It is humble not omnipotent.  It tolerates uncertainty rather than upholding dogma.  It has questions in addition to answers–and its answers are held lightly rather than tightly.  There is always room for growth, for differences, for revisions, and for other people’s separate points of view.

Rob Bell’s book can be criticized for all sorts of reasons but, I think, it is essentially a book in which he stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before him and reaches farther than they could reach.  In offering his own, unique message, he does not throw the baby out with the bathwater, but he is able to say that the baby is different than the bathwater.  For Bell, the baby is a loving God, the center that holds.  But the bathwater is all of the human conceptions—inevitable as they are—that blurr, distort, confuse, and tarnish the central truth that love is what life (and God) are all about.

If I have an accurate read on Bell, then I think he would be a great dinner companion—whether you are a Christian or not, even whether you believe in God or not.  Because the spirit of having a mind of one’s own really means respecting the thoughtfulness of others.  That is the kind of psychological culture that psychoanalysis seeks to develop—in the practice of the therapy itself as well as in everyday life.  My patients often ask me to answer their questions directly.  I ask them to answer those questions first themselves.  And I do my best to be open to their questions, to be fascinated by their unique answers, and to share what I am coming to understand about them in my own unique way.

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