In Search of an Authentic Faith: Freud, Kierkegaard and Beck’s “New Apologetic”

In Richard Beck’s recent book, The Authenticity of Faith, he considers whether a truly authentic faith is possible. Freud had dealt a heavy blow to Christianity by offering up scientific explanations for what motivates religious belief. Believers are drawn to religion because it functions to repress our existential anxieties. Afraid of death? Don’t worry, there’s an afterlife. Need some meaning and purpose for your life? Christianity gives you plenty (God loves you and has a wonderful plan…). Feel insignificant in this big bad world? You are one of the elect! Struggling with the problem of evil and suffering? God’s in control and has a plan for everything. Christianity (and other religions too) helps you repress your fears and deal with your anxieties. That, said Freud, is the reason for religious belief.

Beck suggests that Freud’s analysis is the greatest apologetic challenge facing Christianity today. Not proving the existence of God (as if that were possible) or arguing for the perfection of Scripture or rationally explaining the mystery of the Trinity or solving the problem of evil. The new apologetic is to show that Christian faith is real, or authentic–it’s much more than a handy instrument of repression for weak souls. It’s hard to disagree with his analysis. As a fan of Kierkegaard, I’m already cognizant of the limitations of classical apologetics for eliciting beliefAnd for Kierkegaard, the problem of “Christendom” was precisely the lack of authentic faith. His entire project was aimed at the deconstruction of idols and the recovery of existential authenticity: the “self” before God.

Freud’s influence can be seen all over the internet, on blogs and discussion forums. Religion is a sham. It’s a prop. When are you going to wake up, realize your (self) deception, and own up to the existential meaningless of this world? It’s a material world, just like Madonna said. Critics don’t seem to be talking about errors in the Bible or contradictions in key doctrines anymore. They go straight for the jugular.

Beck does not see Freud’s challenge as a fatal blow to religion, however, but an opportunity. He asks, “What would religious faith look like, experientially and theologically, if it were not engaged in existential repression or consolation?”

Beck shows that there are people out there–believers–who do are not motivated to believe in Christianity because it gives them an existential prop. Rather, they believe in spite of their honest realization of the absurdities of life and they face up to to the intellectual and emotional challenges of the flux and flow of existence, while yet retaining belief in God. They are, in Beck’s term, “Winter Christians.”

These Winter Christians are akin to Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith,” in Fear and Trembling, who believes in God not because of what he gets in return, but in spite of–or even on the strength of–the absurd.

I’m wondering, though, if it’s possible to be a “fall” or “spring” Christian and still have an authentic faith? If the only way to be authentically Christian is to be a winter Christian (or a “knight of faith”), then my only option, like Johannes de Silentio (Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling), would be to simply “admire” the knight of faith or the winter Christian and go on my merry (summery) way.

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  • I think Paul Ricoeur is relevant to this. He called Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche the “masters of suspicion” and said that we have to integrate their scathing critique of religion into our faith. He goes beyond this, though, by talking about a stage of faith that he called that of willed, second naivete, in which we critically re-appropriate those aspects of faith critiqued by the masters of suspicion. We can’t simply return to a pre-critical faith as if the masters of suspicion hadn’t rocked our faith, but a post-critical re-appropriation recognizes that we need aspects of the pre-critical faith even though the masters of suspicion have unmasked the wish-fullfilment, etc., that may underlie said faith.

  • Good question at the end there. I love a lot of what Beck does with this stuff in this book and elsewhere, but I found myself wondering if he might have been a bit dichotomous in his analysis. It would have been nice to hear something about potential other and both-and construals (maybe more dynamic or dimensional than categorical approaches to these polar “diagnoses”).

    And though I don’t remember if Beck attended to it as such in the book, I think religious pluralism (called the “greatest apologetic challenge” to Christianity by many) contributes to this apologetic challenge particularly in that, despite doctrinal/confessional differences within and between different faiths, a lot of research in the psychology of religion (e.g., around conversion and transformation, belief preservation, worship, prayer, intra- and inter-group relational dynamics, etc.) shows the plurality to have an awful lot of similarity at the psychological level (as best as they’re able to measure the psychological dynamics anyway).

    I also thought it would have been nice to hear him address the possibility that anxiety can also fuel a person’s need to ascribe unilateral, omni-determining, or providentially meticulous sovereignty(s) to God (which Beck ascribes more to the Winter Christian who can better manage her anxiety and resign herself to the discomforting reality). Perhaps I shouldn’t psychologize, but I’ve both read and interacted with people of this providential “variety” who appear quite anxious in general and who appear to become even more anxious when someone (say, an open theist or process theist) challenges their conviction that God’s providence does or must work the way they think it does.

  • Susan N.

    “His entire project was aimed at the deconstruction of idols and the recovery of existential authenticity: the ‘self’ before God…He asks, ‘What would religious faith look like, experientially and theologically, if it were not engaged in existential repression or consolation?’”

    Getting real with oneself and engaging with God in the journey of faith is a continuous act of courage to stay open, honest, and humble. A recovery of existential authenticity then invites one to welcome and be compassionate toward others who are “in process.”

    “I’m wondering, though, if it’s possible to be a ‘fall’ or ‘spring’ Christian and still have an authentic faith?”

    I think this is a very insightful question. Thank you. IMHO, if one self-identifies too strongly with a “summer” or “winter” type, there again the problem of “othering” can arise. If one type thinks he (or she) is better than the other, then — Lord have mercy on us all — no matter how “authentic” one’s faith, it will not produce fruit that will be a persuasive witness to those struggling to believe there is a (good) God in whom we can hope.

    I do confess that, though I have been a loyal follower of Richard Beck, I am not a huge advocate of typical evangelical “apologetics.” As I see it, the biggest problem that we have is a lack of faith in God’s love and the powerful witness that it can be…when we live as though we really believe in it — for ourselves and for others. For Beck’s treatment on that, see Unclean — my personal favorite of his two published works.


  • Rob

    I haven’t read the book, but I follow Beck’s blog where he developed some of the material in the book. As I understand him, Beck isn’t saying that “Winter” is better than “Summer”, but rather that both in fact exist. Further, if Winter Christians do exist (which I believe Beck and others demonstrate), their existence falsifies the critics’ hypothesis that the *only* thing religion is doing is easing existential anxiety and simultaneoulsy, in since, validates the Summer Chrisitian’s experience. In other words, just because your faith may be funtioning to ease your existential fear, it doesn’t necessarily invalidate the authenticity of the faith itself.

    To be sure, Summer and Winter Christians likely view and even practice their faith differently (which can of course lead to “othering”). However, isn’t that more of an internal issue?Again, if I understand Beck, he is primarily saying that the presence of both Summer and Winter Christians is a defense against the “outsider” criticism that religion is necessarily and only a crutch.

    • Susan N.

      Hi Rob,
      I appreciate all that you are saying. And I agree that The Authenticity of Faith did affirm, for me, the validity of a *variety* of faith experiences. I think that for “insiders” this validation can be a healing and freeing truth…a way to embrace different forms of religious expression.

      I know that apologetics typically functions to “defend” one’s faith to “outsiders.” My point is that insofar as the Winter/Summer Christian dichotomy brings to light the perfectly natural and understandable range of differences among Christians’ inner beliefs and outward practices, based on varied and unique personal experiences of faith, this *should* cause us to relax and be more okay with one another. Good initial move. Then, by extension, “outsiders” will reap the fruit of a faith that excludes or marginalizes absolutely no one and loves all.

      I guess that, personally, as a result of reading The Authenticity of Faith (and Unclean before it, and a couple of years logged in reading/commenting at the ET blog), I am working hard at being simultaneously fully engaged while letting go all my defenses (apologetics). Is it possible for love and embrace to be the best “defense” against outsider criticism?

      I read and valued the work presented in The Authenticity of Faith, by the way. Not to say that I absorbed everything in it. The material was very challenging for me, a layperson to the social psychology field… Probably still digesting much of the terminology — let alone application!

      I would probably describe myself, fwiw, as a “Four Seasons Christian.” I have been in different seasons of faith at different times of my life (sometimes all in one day). The ability to sit with ambiguity and the process of growth, and a willingness to be honest about that with others (insiders and outsiders alike), has helped me to be more compassionate, with myself and with others. Not simply describing the dynamic of faith, but going a step further (hopefully) in living a faith that isn’t just a crutch but an expression of love and care for others. ~Peace~

  • Josh de Keijzer

    I believe that in the genuine encounter with God, the Wholly Other, one never finds the fulfillment of one’s self-projected questions, nor the comfort that takes away anxiety and pain. Rather, God challenges the believer far beyond her own capacities to imagine, hope and dare, into either persevering or ground-breaking faith. If I understand your question correctly, one cannot be a Summer or a Spring Christian, because being a Christian depends on having an authentic encounter with God through Christ. And this encounter never allows one to remain confined to one’s own reflections and imaginations. And that is because God really exists.