Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

The Role of Faith in Withstanding Trauma (Cont.)


Concerning Auschwitz inmates who were sustained by a faith either religious or political, Jean Améry, who survived Auschwitz with no such faith, observes that the believer “is both more estranged from reality and closer to it than his unbelieving comrade” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 14). By Améry’s analysis the two, estrangement from reality and yet a certain sort of closeness to it, go together.

What removes the believer “further from reality” than the unbeliever is what Améry calls the former’s “Finalistic attitude,” an attitude whereby the believer “ignores the given contents of material phenomena and fixes his sight on a nearer or more distant future,” whether that future is believed to lie at the end of time itself, in some religious eternity, or to lie at the end of a long historical process, in some political utopia.

However, it is precisely such reality-estranging conviction that also allows the believer in a certain important sense to be “closer to reality” than the unbeliever. For the very reason that the believer’s faith distances him from his horrifying reality, “he does not allow himself to be overwhelmed by the conditions around him.” In his very distance from reality, he is given the freedom to act in ways that more “strongly influence” his very surroundings than can the non-believer who is crushed by them: “For the unbelieving person reality, under adverse circumstances, is a force to which he submits. For the believer reality is clay that he molds, a problem that he solves.”

However, despite how much he and other “nonbelieving intellectuals were impressed by this bearing” among their believing comrades at Auschwitz, Améry writes (p. 15) that he is “aware of only extremely few instances of conversion” among such non-believers. “Only in exceptional cases,” he adds, “did the magnificent example of his comrades make a Christian or a Marxist engagé of the skeptic intellectual. Mostly he turned away and said to himself: an admirable and redeeming illusion, but an illusion nonetheless.”

Two different factors are in play in such turning away from the sort of “Finalistic” faith at issue in Améry’s remarks, despite how much survival value might lie in having such faith. The first is that such faith is not something one can just choose to have, as one might choose a product off the shelves. Actually to have such faith one must receive it, one way or another. It comes as a gift—if not from some supernatural power, then at least from one’s upbringing within such a Finalistic religious or political tradition as orthodox Christianity or orthodox Marxism.

The second factor barring the non-believer’s way into belief is even more crucial. It lies in the very thing that gives such faith its survival value in the first place, namely, in the very denial or distancing from reality that defines the “Finalistic” faith at issue, the faith the cause in which one believes will inevitably triumph in the end (whether that end be eschatological or historical), despite all the evidence to the contrary.

In such works as The Road Less Travelled, his longtime bestselling book from the late nineteen-seventies, popular psychiatrist M. Scott Peck defined mental health itself as the insistence on facing reality as it is, whatever the cost to one’s emotions and one’s sense of security. Whoever has a sound mind, by that criterion, must reject whatever denies reality, including any such faith as that from which Améry and others like him turned away. For them, such faith has to be rejected as just another childish security blanket, no matter how beautifully woven. No matter how “admirable and redeeming” the illusion of such security might be, it nevertheless remains, as Améry says, just that—an illusion.

Hence, not only did he or other non-believers “turn away” from such faith, but also sometimes even “rebelled ferociously against his believing comrades’ exclusive claim to the truth.” Especially in its religious variant, such faith even became offensive to the non-believer: “To speak of God’s boundless mercy appeared outrageous to him, given the presence of a so-called senior camp inmate, a powerfully built German professional criminal who was known to have literally trampled a number of prisoners to death.” At any rate, even aside from such outrage: “One could respect one’s believing comrades and still more than once mutter to oneself with a shake of the head: madness, what madness!”



Actually, such mad faith resembles—if it is not actually just one form of—the numbing that Freud long ago defined as one side of what constitutes the primary effect of traumatic shock, which is to say a shock that exceeds the organism’s capacity to process it. Faced by such traumatic shock, the organism itself “goes into shock,” as our expression has it, damping down its sensitivity. Otherwise, the organism simply would not be able to survive the impact. However, Freud also taught that the other side of the same trauma-effect, the one side of which is such numbing against a shock, is the compulsive need to keep on repeating the shocking experience in one form or another, until eventually the shock wears off, and one finally has to face the reality against which one has numbed oneself until then.

Insofar as faith takes the form of the denial or weakening of the impact of reality, then it too is subject to the same process. That in the face of which faith numbs the believer keeps on repeating itself in one form or another. What such faith denies will not go away. It keeps on coming back, ever more insistently demanding to be addressed. The reality such faith represses keeps on returning, until faith is finally brought to face that reality, however horrible. Then even faith itself is put in crisis and traumatized—a topic I will take up in my next post.

Published in: on March 7, 2016 at 1:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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