John M. Perry

Date of Award


Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Christian theology has assumed traditionally that its idea of God is inadequate in some sense, since all of man's knowledge of God is negative knowledge. We read in the New Testament, for example, that God "dwells in light inaccessible, whom no man has ever seen or can see" (1 Tim. 6:16). This passage reflects the Christian experience that when man is confronted by the mystery of God he comes to the realization that he never can know clearly what God is like. Man can only know clearly the world of finite objects which God is not like. The finite mind of man cannot comprehend the infinite mystery which is meant by the word~- And yet, man must use finite words and symbols when he thinks or speaks about the divine reality, even though he knows these words and symbols are not equal to the task for which they must be employed.

Sigmund Freud was a creative thinker who arrived at a profound understanding ,~of human psychological processes. And since these psychological processes are necessarily involved in any human attempt to formulate an understanding of God, Freud's insights can be of special significance for Christian theologians. Dialogue between representatives of Freudian psychology and Christian theology is still complicated, however, by some uncertainty. While it is true that Freud was a brilliant observer of human psychological processes, it is also true that he wandered at times from the path of his proper competence and made pronouncements that flowed from an atheistic interpretation of reality. Consequently, his well-known and controversial ideas about the psychological factors involved in the origin of religion and the idea of God are disturbing to many Christians and rejected in their entirety.

Paul Tillich, among other Christian theologians, has pointed out that it would be wrong to refuse to listen to what Freud had to say about psychological reality, simply because we know in advance that we will not agree with some of his conclusions about ultimate reality. Tillich, who has been called the most psychoanalytically-oriented of modern theologians, has worked out the solution to a number of problems in his theological system, with an eye on what he considered the valid observations of Freudian psychoanalysis. At times he described with theological language some of the same problems that Freud had spoken of in psychological terms.

An illuminating parallel exists between the thought of Freud and Tillich when it touches upon the way in which the idea of God is conditioned by complex psychological and cultural factors. Tillich was able to agree with Freud's psychological insights about the limitations inherent in the human attempt to formulate an understanding of God. But he differed completely with Freud about the nature of the experienced reality which underlies such formulations.

Tillich saw clearly that when Freud wandered from the path of his acknowledged competence, depth psychology, and made assertions of a metaphysical and theological nature, 0 he spoke with no special authority. As a Christian theologian whose interpretation of reality was quite different from Freud's, Tillich predictably rejected Freud's atheistic conclusions. And yet, the most significant thing that will probably occur to one who experiences the mind of Freud and Tillich being brought together in dialogue for the first time is not the predictable measure of disagreement, but the impressive measure of agreement-not the fact that Tillich said an expected no to Freud, but the extent to which he also said yes to Freud.

In attempts at rapprochement between psychoanalysis and Christianity, the thought of Freud about God and religion constitutes a particularly sensitive area. If those Christians who are still hesitant about venturing into the deep water of Freud's thought could be shown clearly how to circumnavigate the sharp rocks of his atheism, undoubtedly more of them would explore his thought and profit from it. Consequently, a detailed consideration of the explicit and implicit elements of Tillich's response to Freud in this sensitive area should contribute significantly to the clarification of the issues and to the continuing growth of dialogue between Freudian psychology and Christian theology.



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