I don’t want to end up like Freud. On September 22, 1939, Freud pulled a copy of Balzac’s The Fatal Skin off his library shelf and read the entire book in one sitting. After completing the novel, he called in his physician, Dr. Schur, and with preagreement asked the doctor to end his life. My question: what was going on in his soul that compelled Freud to spend his last hours on earth reading that particular novel?
Balzac tells the story of Raphael, a young scientist who craved recognition and wealth that seemed consistently to elude him. Then he met the devil. Satan promised him everything his willful heart desired, but warned him that willfulness—“to will and to have your will”—would drain his soul of life. The devil made a deal.
Raphael would get his wishes, but on one condition. He must take on “the skin of a wild ass.” With every expression of willfulness, his skin would shrink and shorten his life.
In this Faustian story, Raphael abandons himself to satisfying whatever wishes he feels deep within him, and the devil, true to his word, grants every one. But the more he prospers, the more he feels the jealous resentment of others, even as his skin slowly shrinks. In his isolation, he becomes aware of a deeper desire for relationship, meets Pauline, and falls in love. But his strong craving for her shrinks his skin even more, and he begs her to leave the room to save his life. She does, but, unable to resist his desire, he runs to her and dies in her arms in a state of utter misery.
And that’s the story Freud chose to read as he prepared to die. Perhaps Freud was experiencing loneliness relieved by a figure whose despair resonated with his own. When he finished the book, he called Dr. Schur to his room and reminded his physician of a promise he had made earlier: “You promised me then not to forsake me when my time comes. Now it’s nothing but torture and makes no sense anymore.” After a heavy dose of morphine, injected twice twelve hours apart, Sigmund Freud died at 3:00 am on September 23, 1939.
I find the whole episode tragically fascinating. Whatever path it was that Freud followed through life led him to identify at the end with a self-centered egomaniac who died as Freud died, in abject despair. I’d like to find another way. Freud’s transformational theology carried him where I don’t want to go.
C. S. Lewis offers an appealing alternative. Earlier in his life, the Oxford don viewed suicide as a reasonable option if life became unbearable. But something happened to change his mind. He found a different path.
Years later, after recovering from a heart attack-induced coma, Lewis wrote to a friend, “Tho’ I am by no means unhappy, I can’t help feeling it was rather a pity I did revive in July. I mean, having glided so painlessly up to the Gate, it seems hard to have it shut in one’s face and know that the whole process must someday be gone through again . . . poor Lazarus.” To another friend Lewis later wrote, knowing he was again approaching the Gate, “When you die, look me up . . . It is all rather fun—solemn fun—isn’t it.”
If the value of a path can be determined by the desirability of where it takes us, I find myself wanting to know more about the transformational theology that guided Lewis through the last half of his life. I like where he ended up.
The obvious difference between Freud and Lewis, of course, is that Freud was a determined atheist and Lewis a devoted Christian. So I feel an immediate pull toward a Christian transformational theology.
But the immediate pull creates an immediate problem. I’ve been a follower of Jesus now for more than 50 years, and my testimony is that I’m disillusioned. What I have understood to be a distinctively “Christian” (read “Christ-centered, biblically informed”) approach to living does not seem to be transforming me the way I was encouraged to believe it would. What did Lewis know that I don’t? In ways I share with only a few safe friends, I’m appalled, after all these years, at how untransformed I remain. If there is a legitimate, exclusively Christian transformational theology that actually takes our “caved-in-on-self” energy and turns it inside out so that we’re meaningfully and consistently abandoned to God, then I have some more searching to do.
I contend, with the limited wisdom of hindsight, that nothing matters more in our efforts to come up with a true and workable paradigm for spiritual change than radical openness. Yes, I believe the Bible is completely, true in all that it affirms and I believe Christ is the only way to eternal life, and I believe the Spirit is here, in me, to nudge me along the path into the Father’s presence by awakening my supreme desire to know Him. But I must remain radically open to different understandings than I have held of what all those religious words mean.
And that’s tough for me. Raised in a strongly conservative, decidedly evangelical culture, I was too often taught that doubt and struggle were enemies of faith to be overcome by more believing. It never occurred to me that they might be friends of faith, opportunities to explore unseen realms of truth and to enter doorways into those realms I had not yet found.
Questioning and curiosity, radical openness to plunging into the mysterious work of a Holy Spirit I never much thought about—these were new to me. And I see now that this newness points to a second distinction between Freud’s way and Lewis’s way. Not only was one a biblical theist and one a Bible-denying atheist, but one embraced mystery, and the other fought against mystery. Lewis entertained questions that carried him into realms even his brilliant mind could not explain or fully understand. Freud followed his curiosity in order to master what he explored, with the aim of explaining and understanding everything that mattered to him, from one person’s neurotic mind to an entire discontented civilization, with the ultimate aim of gaining recognition for his ideas.
Balzac’s Raphael declared, “Thought is the key to all treasures. I have soared above this world where my enjoyments have been intellectual joy.” How very Freudian, how hateful of mystery.
Lewis embraced mystery. But doing so is humbling; it leads to imprecision, which robs us of control. But maybe that’s all to the good. Jesus taught mostly in parables. Why? To throw people off their mental balance, to rescue people from the seductive path of soaring thought that would impress others, and to plant their feet on the mystery-filled journey of faith and trust in an inscrutable God. He encouraged disillusionment with popular religious ideas that were so naturally appealing, that permitted a measure of independence, knowing that they blocked the path to union with the divine.
What I hear him saying is something like this: “You think you’ve got life figured out? That your religious ideas are all on target and will get you where you want to go? Well, listen to me. The Kingdom I lead, the Kingdom I am, is a radical mystery. It is not unreasonable, but it exists so far outside your tiny boxes of understanding that to enter it, you’ll need to stop depending so much on your comprehensive road maps, and, like a toddler who can’t yet read, grab onto my hand for dear life. How to do that requires instruction, but doing it requires passion.”
Now, let me get to my point. It’s this: I sincerely hope this section about transformational theology never lives up to its implied promise. When I hear the term “transformational theology,” I immediately (and wrongly, from the editors’ perspective) envision a panel of experts in theology and psychology diving together into the Scriptures and tradition and human experience, and surfacing with a clear analysis of what’s gone wrong and what to do about it. I’d like that. We all would— hence the popularity of Dr. Phil. Just make him religious and Christians would invite him to put on big shows in their churches.
But after 50 years of following Christ, this unlikely Messiah who can seem so uninvolved and hasn’t been doing what I expected Him to do, I’m disillusioned. I no longer believe in “experts of the soul” who can manage the Spirit into cooperating with our agendas. Give me an honest, struggling, sincere pilgrim to talk to any day. We’ll both be confused, but we’ll stir up trust in each other by how and why we relate. So what can we expect from a section in a Christian journal called Transformational Theology?
One of my favorite passages in all of literature comes from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith: “Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad, but chess players do.” Now, before you trot out a slew of crazy poets and some fairly sane scientists to disprove Chesterton’s thesis, read his own explanation of what he meant: “Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea and so make it finite.” Still later, he adds, “Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as there is mystery, there is health.”
I take him to mean that the demand for control fits life in this world rather poorly. We either abandon ourselves to mystery and trust the benevolent Person who is in control or, like Freud and Raphael, end up destroyed by unfulfilled desire that we tried desperately to fulfill on our own.
So, here’s what I hope for as I read this section of the journal. I am looking for open dialogue that de-rigidifies pet theories; humbles complacency; terrifies and sometimes disturbs defensive pride; shines light into the tiny, dark dungeons of our egos, where we are hopelessly self-preoccupied, self-centered, and self-reliant; and excites a lot of people with the possibilities of the freedom, hope, and love that following the real Jesus opens up.
A suggestion: If Christian transformational theology is what I think it is—an imaginative, mystical but still largely communerable, non-formulaic, biblically derived, Spirit-dependent, Christ-centered, and God-glorifying path to participating in Trinitarian life—then it must speak into real life, to where God knows we are even if we hide it from others or from ourselves. It must speak to the pastor who is running on empty, preaching what he wants to believe but isn’t sure he really does. It must speak to the scholar who is comfortable and competent in the library but can’t get close to her friends. It must speak to the teenage boy who feels sexual attraction to his male youth pastor and is too ashamed and scared to tell anyone.
If transformational theology is more than an opportunity for academic debate, if it is more than a chance to divide into opposing camps and huddle together with folks who agree they’re right, if it really is a vehicle through which the Spirit calls us to enter the messiness of life and emerge with hope for deep change, then this section of Conversations, though with no lack of scholarship or careful thought, will read more like poetry than a technical manual.
Careful analysis and precise method? No, that’s the sure route to madness. Life is not a chessboard. Strategize every move, and you’ll end up like Freud. Christian transformational theology, the kind Lewis discovered and wrote about, invites us to flow with the Spirit’s rhythm over the infinite sea of life. And to welcome death, as John of the Cross put it, as the opportunity to release love.