The integration of psychology and religion is, I believe, an important direction for modern religion in general (and the Swedenborg Church in particular) to engage. The integration of the two fields heightens the meaning and the depth of each. There are many reasons for this, and they can only be discovered in time, but in my experience psychology deepens religion because it anchors religion in the particulars of experience, and grows our perceptions toward faith based on real issues and rational understanding. Religion deepens psychology because it tethers it to the source of meaning, purpose, and the ability to overcome. I have studied many aspects of this subject as a chaplain, and have recently been fascinated by the work of Earl Biddle who wrote a book called, ‘The Integration of Psychiatry and Religion’. I happened upon this book in the vaults of the Swedenborg Library at SHS. I believe Biddle’s work is valuable because he has developed a psychological system that explains our deepest psychological strivings, and how these are ultimately connected to God.
Earl Biddle’s description of childhood anxiety, imagination, and omnipotence offers deep insight into the inner life of a child, and into adult psychological development. I believe Biddle’s ideas meld well with Swedenborg’s. In this article I will correlate some of Biddle’s ideas with those of Swedenborg, and then venture to apply the ideas to two popular sports figures in the news today. Most of all, I hope that in studying these theories we will learn something about the integration of psychology and religion, and about the yearnings of our own souls.
Biddle describes the inner life of the child and the importance of the child’s phantasies. (‘Phantasy’ emphasizes creative imagination, whereas, ‘fantasy’, implies more an element of illusory day dreaming). This is a fairly long quote I pieced together. I think is worth reading the author’s own words. His sentences are compact with meaning.
Childhood is usually regarded as a period of life which is normally happy and carefree…But it is difficult to appreciate the extremes of anxiety and joy which the small child experiences throughout his everyday life. The small child dies a thousand deaths. Equally often he reaches the pinnacle of bliss…(These experiences) are very real to the child, but the adult says they are imaginary.
The small child under the age of three views his parents and other adults as gigantic, all-powerful people. They can do infinite good or infinite harm to him. But according to the logic of the child, a good person cannot do any bad, and a bad person can do no good… The child does not regard the gratifying father and the frustrating father as the same person. The same is true with the mother. Besides being real people the parents represent phantastic, illusory, or imaginary persons. The small child, then, has, in addition to his real parents, a phantastic father and mother who are preposterously good, and a phastastic father and mother who are preposterously bad.
Emotionally the child under age three experiences only extremes. When someone pleases him he does not simply like that person, but loves him with every fiber of his being. When someone displeases him he does not dislike him, but hates with murderous intensity (Biddle, 32 –33).
These feelings remain latent within us throughout life, but are worked out, and refined and gradually become unconscious as we mature. When we react to people and circumstances we tend to regress to these feelings. Biddle describes how the child learns to process and work out these feelings in his or her imagination:
The child cannot physically handle the parents. He cannot defend himself against them when they appear to threaten him. The problem is worked out by a natural process whereby the child makes inanimate objects, which he can handle, represent symbols of the parent. A match stick may become an imaginary bad father who can be chewed, broken into bits, and thrown away…By this process of imagination the child “really’ gets rid of the bad parents because he destroys a real object which symbolizes a parent to him. The child can also change his inanimate objects from bad to good, and thereby improve the phantastic parents, which the objects represent. The imaginary threats are thereby relieved. The child never attacks the phantastic parent with the intention of doing harm. He may do so simply to assure himself that he is not really causing harm. He may in imagination harm the parent he has clothed in destructive phantasies only to find the real parent does something good. When this happens the child must in imagination repair the phantastic damage he has done.
Paiget (30-33) has done a great deal of work concerning the child’s conception of real objects. He confirms the psychoanalytic observation that the child animates and personifies all material objects. When a leaf is blown the child does not think of the wind moving it. To the child the leaf is a little person who walks, runs and flies…All objects when reduced to their primary symbolic meaning represent father and mother figures. Freud’s “phallic symbols” then can be interpreted more correctly as father symbols, and receptive objects as mother symbols.
The imagination of the child is so vivid that he cannot distinguish clearly between what is real and what is imaginary.
The child uses the functions inherent in his own body as the means by which he exercises his imaginary omnipotence. In imagination he can annihilate the world by simply closing his eyes. Then he can recreate the world by opening them…His words have magic power. By calling Mama he can make his mother appear from ‘nowhere’. His tears, saliva, and bodily excrement are given phantastic destructive and creative power.
The child’s omnipotent phantasies are of tremendous importance in his psychic development. One need not fear that the child will continue to believe himself omnipotent if his phantasies are not disputed. A brutal assault upon the phantasies of the child renders him helpless and insecure in a gigantic real world with which he cannot cope…The entire life of every individual is shaped by the impact which the real world makes upon the imaginary world of the child. The adult helps the child to distinguish between reality and phantasy, but the phantasies cannot be eliminated. Strangely enough, the desire for omnipotence, which caused man to lose paradise, is essential to him in early childhood if he is to regain heaven. Only the genius of the creator could change what appears to be intrinsically evil desire into an essential good.
The phantasies of omnipotence do not continuously sustain the child. The child constantly fluctuates between feeling omnipotent and annihilated. There are many times too, when he is afraid of his omnipotent destructiveness. For instance if he ‘blows up the world’ he will have no place to stand.
The child’s omnipotence is relinquished not because of the threat of reality, as the psychoanalysts claim, but because of the safety of reality (Biddle 43-45).
When reality is not safe, when parents are consumed with their own survival and cannot fairly perceive the child, the child is in danger of growing up to be self-centered, and have delusions about their personal power. If the child is made to feel overly fearful of his omnipotent power, then she grows up passive, shying away from life. This kind passiveness is not peaceful, but full of tension, and fear of conflict and anger, because the unresolved phantasies are stymied, and such a person feels diminished and destructive. As a chaplain one of my primary objectives when working with a person who suffered trauma and loss is to cultivate the kind of care and presence that helps people to feel safe. Appropriately, only when a person feels safe and can trust will they share their deepest issues, otherwise the conversation remains on the surface.
In the child ‘omnipotence’ is appropriate, because she is innocent and helpless. Objectively the child is born in ignorance, knowing nothing, can do nothing for her self, and must learn gradually. The creator clothes the child in innocence so that it is adored and taken care of; and the child’s actual experiences of love and loving are stored as remains in her soul. These remains of love connect her to God, and temper the hereditary evil in her as she grows. These remains are an essential means of reception of good from the Lord. The ‘omnipotence’ of the child is a reflection of the creator who is omnipotent and seeds us with this feeling for the sake of our protection and freedom. Remains are gifts of innocence and love married into the soul of the child from real feeling and experience. They are stored from experiences of pure love for parents, caretakers and playmates, and from utter enthusiasm for phantasy play with objects. Omnipotence is an appearance, but it is real to the child, just as every person that has lived appears to have life and freedom from themselves, but in reality the freedom we enjoy is entirely a gift from God. In the development of the child omnipotent phantasy is the seed that yields creativity and strength, but if held on to into older ages because of mistreatment and the need to survive, it becomes the cause of delusion, self-centeredness, and mental disorders.
Recently I went to eat out with my seven-year-old daughter. I had some books and other objects with me and she had some toys. She spent time organizing everything on the table the way she wanted it. This was her way of working out and taking charge of her feelings – a healthy phantasy impulse. On the other hand, sometimes when she is upset she has an extreme emotional reaction like the world is ending. It seems at these times she wants to control me, and her world with a big fuss. At the same time she does it only with someone she feels safe enough to do it with.
‘Omnipotence’ is the image of the creator in the child, because the creator is omnipotent. This is a psychological way of perceiving the spiritual truth that the Lord is intrinsic in the human soul. This psychological condition parallels the fact that freedom is the Lord’s nature, and the freedom we enjoy is a reflection of him and a gift from him. Omnipotence is the only form freedom can be expressed in an infant.
In this light the mission of life can be seen as working through the paradox of, on the one side, learning personal skill and competence; and on the other, returning fallacious omnipotent power to where it belongs – God.
The value of this principle is not so much theoretical and abstract, but it helps interpret what is always closest to us – our inner life. What could be more important? Our internal life eventually determines our eternal life.
In adults we see all the time that the less one has inner self-knowledge the more they claim omnipotence (self-centeredness). Evil delights in nothing more than getting people to believe that their greatest interest is self-interest. Once evil has that going it compounds that advantage by getting people to compete over who will one-up and humiliate the other. In the adult the extreme of feeling that he or she is omnipotent is a form of insanity. Swedenborg writes of witnessing that the deepest hell is for those who believe they are God himslef. This is the ultimate example of an unresolved omnipotent fantasy. He says the spirits there completely believe that they are God and all others are subjects.