THE RETURN OF THE PRIMITIVE: A NEW SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY OF RELIGIONWritten by Richard K. Fenn Reviewed By David Smith
This volume launches a new series of academic studies designed to explore theology and religion from the perspective of various disciplines. In this case the interface is between theology and psychology, the chief dialogue-partner being Sigmund Freud. In view of this, the subtitle could be misleading since there is little here that is purely sociological and in as far as the author does propose a new theory of religion it is psychological in character.
The term ‘primitive’ is used by Fenn to refer to an original, natural, pre-civilisational state which, assuming the evolutionary development of human beings, can be traced back ultimately to the animal world. The growth of civilisation involved the exclusion and suppression of certain primitive possibilities which then became stigmatised, but with the erosion of the line between human and the animal, the primitive is ‘returning in modern societies’.
The discussion is conducted at a high level of abstraction and readers who (like this reviewer) have only a passing acquaintance with psychoanalytical theology may find this book hard going. Along the way it includes fascinating excursions into the realms of Christian mysticism and the work of Dante, in the course of which there are important and unusual insights.
Richard Fenn’s attempt to establish a cross-disciplinary dialogue between religion and psychology is to be welcomed but, as so often with such exercises, the bridge constructed here seems to facilitate a one-way traffic in which the Freudian approach to human understanding is granted something close to normative status. Religion, far less theology do not speak here on their own terms, but are evaluated, critiqued and, ultimately, transcended. Thus Fenn is explicit: ‘the psychoanalytic tradition completes and corrects the Christian religious and secular, scriptural and literary, legacy’. From this perspective, not only must theology be radically reformulated, but we are allowed to speak of ‘conversion’ only in as far as this is reconceived to mean ‘a frank willingness to discard parts of the self that ought to be moribund because they are outdated and stand in the way of further growth’.
The author appears to write with a sincere concern for ‘a renewal of Christian thinking and aspiration in our time’. We share that desire and also recognise the importance of the interface between theology and psychology. However, if such ‘interdisciplinary perspectives’ are ever to be fruitful, Christian theology must be allowed to speak with its own voice and not be simply reduced to anthropology, or rather, as here, psychology. This is all the more the case when the theoretical proposals in this book rest upon a Freudian understanding of the origins of religion which is, to put it kindly, questionable. (Fenn recognises Freud’s use of discredited anthropological sources which he continued to exploit since they supported the theories he advanced on clinical grounds.)
While there is much valuable material in this volume and it displays evidence formidable learning, we may question whether the approach is, as intended, ‘interdisciplinary’ when the author explicitly declares his intention to offer a ‘psychoanalytic reassessment of the Christian faith’. It is to be hoped that further volumes in this series will allow Christian theology to speak with its own voice without being reduced to perspectives originating within the modern, secular academy.
Covenant Fellowship Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Greensboro, North Carolina, USA