The psychologization of God

This is a review of The divine mind: exploring the psychological history of God’s inner journey (2018), by Michael Gellert. I see it as strange and implausible psycho-theology. Although the book is educational for people who don’t know much about the history of religion, it is fraught with unreason and sometimes downright absurdity. Gellert puts forward a grave misinterpretation of the divine plan and the nature of God. Readers are misled about important matters concerning divine and human nature.

The author holds that the historical experience of God was really a “primitive, personified form of our higher, innermost self” (p. 202). The collective image of God is a “projection” of the human soul, which has slowly retreated from history in order for the mystical God of “nothingness” to emerge. Curiously, although the deity emerges as a projection from the human soul, it exists both subjectively and objectively (p. 149).

Gellert psychoanalyzes Yahweh as an unconscious being at a child’s emotional level. He suffers from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), obsessive-compulsive disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder (which carries symptoms of self-aggrandizement, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy) (ch. 7). Yahweh was, deep down, wounded in the feminine. Yahweh’s neurotic traits stem from a lack of mirroring during an eternity of loneliness. As something went severely wrong in his early development, a dark side of personality emerged in response to his trauma. But the author never explains how it’s possible that mental illness, supposedly a projection of the traumatized Jewish collective, can afflict a deity before the creation of the world. In point of fact, he analyzes Yahweh as if he were a divine and preexistent “ego” with severe personal problems, distinct from projections deriving from humanity. So it seems to involve a time-loop, difficult to understand.

Not much of the cruelties attributed to Yahweh and his people happened in reality (cf. Wiki: ‘The Bible and violence’). For instance, the razing of Jericho took place hundreds of years before the Jews invaded the land (cf. Wiki: ‘Jericho’), and the walls fell as a consequence of an earthquake. Nor can we be certain that God condoned violent acts just because the biblical authors say so. Joshua might have said to his soldiers: “God wants us to be victorious”. But this serves to motivate the troops, and has nothing much to do with God. Mohammed used the same device; but how many non-Muslims think that his directives really derived from God?

This is of little consequence to the author. He treats the biblical texts as perfectly accurate documents about the psychology of Yahweh and the Jewish people: “What is important for our inquiry is not the factual history of the Abrahamic religions, but rather what they say is their history” (p. 15). This phenomenological mode of exegesis is also applied to the Book of Job. Job is understood as an historical person whose encounter with Yahweh had such a tremendous impact on the latter that he decided to mend his ways and become an entirely new person, and also change history by effectuating the incarnation (ch. 5). But Job is a literary figure, much like the “Man of Sorrows” in Isaiah. Job was, already in biblical times, a legendary figure. In Judaism, these fictional persons and their sufferings symbolize the travails of the Jewish people.

Modern people tend to think that the moral law is above God, as if also He must abide by the “eternal rules”. This was not how they thought in ancient times. What’s right is what God thinks is right. Augustine explains that this also applies to the logical truths and all the “Platonic forms” of existence. Two plus two equals four only because God entertains this truth in his mind. The Job story is for the education of the suffering Jewish people. As God wants this, it is good and right. Job never charges God with wrong. The Lord states clearly what is at stake; the divine monopoly of the moral prerogative:

Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? (40:8)

This is further emphasized in the Christian story. To the modern sentiment, it can’t be right to torture and execute an innocent man. But Jesus never questions God’s motives. He thought of his sacrifice as the ultimate good. Thanks to his unflinching faithfulness, he would be resurrected, which is also what happened to Job, in a sense. To understand the biblical stories we mustn’t think in modern psychoanalytic terms. Rather, we must reason like the ancient people.

Gellert, following Carl Jung, thinks that Job was more ethical than Yahweh and that the creature had thereby surpassed the Creator (p. 60). But it is this very misconception which the story aims to correct. Such thinking is reminiscent of the striving of Satan to outshine the Creator. In fact, in the text, there is not the slightest evidence of Job’s moral victory over Yahweh. Yet, Gellert says that

Job bowed to God not only out of deference and fear for his life but with irony and a defiant mockery of God’s limited understanding. With this, Job winks at his reader, quietly insinuating that, in truth, he had won the debate… (p. 61)

He gives no textual evidence, because there is not a hint of “defiant mockery” in the text. As a matter of fact, Job repents in dust and ashes. So it seems to be a projection of our modern hubristic and moralistic consciousness, presuming to be superior to God. Most of us suffer from this illness, to a degree. Perhaps the text is designed to make the reader fall into this trap, so that he comes to realize his sin. The author continues to psychoanalyze Yahweh. He went from being an irrational, amoral, erratic, and thundering force of nature, lacking self-reflection, to becoming a civilized God, now endowed with a super-ego.

The evidence for this, says the author, is that God appeared to fall silent after his encounter with Job. He entered a period of introversion and melancholy, during which he questioned his former conduct. But these legendary events took place in a remote past, and were not prior to the Second Temple period, when the view of God changed. So the chronology doesn’t fit. However, on Gellert’s view, what people say about God is also the coincidental truth about God. What the psychoanalyst can glean from the authors’ narrative, reflects squarely on the psychology of Yahveh in those days. Such uninhibited psychologization means that the all too human psychologist places himself above God, but also the authors of the book. It is taken for granted that they had no conscious theology, nothing specific that they wanted to say. They only gave expression to unconscious projection.

In fact, what precipitated the changes, was that people had begun to view the world differently. The age of Greek philosophy had commenced, and people no longer believed that Poseidon was responsible for the earthquakes. They learnt what caused solar and lunar eclipses, and nature came to resemble more and more a great machinery. People also knew that machines sometimes break; so God needn’t be involved in every calamitous event. A change in collective consciousness was responsible for the gradual disappearance of the thunderous God. It had nothing to do with the latter going into self-analysis. It doesn’t make sense in the first place to pathologize Yahweh, but Gellert finds no other explanation:

The divine urge for mirroring explains a host of phenomena in the Hebrew Bible that otherwise cannot be easily understood. Most obviously, Yahweh’s fierce insistence on being worshipped and on ritual detail and perfection revolved around his need to be validated; this mirroring had to be unblemished. Less saliently, he was quite preoccupied with human fertility and procreation. This was really a preoccupation with his own immortality or continuity in the world. (p. 82)

Instead, let’s think along Darwinian lines. The societal authorities wanted people to procreate, as this was the only chance for the little Israeli tribe to survive. They needed many soldiers to do battle and peasants to farm the land. They required stern adherence to religious law, custom, and ritual; otherwise they would have been swallowed up by neighbouring peoples. In that case, we wouldn’t know them as Jews, today. We would call them Arabs, Egyptians, or whatever. If a little tribe wants to survive, they must keep together. Moses and Aaron knew this. So these oppressive religious and cultural patterns have a simple explanation relating to tribal Darwinism. It has nothing to do with divine pathology. Imagine if Yahweh hadn’t been so stern. Then Jewish culture and religion would have dissipated, precluding the birth of Christianity. History would have taken another course and things would be far, far worse. Jesus did indeed save the world.

Adam and Eve, says Gellert, remained in a childhood mental state, that is, they were unconscious creatures. The Fall was necessary, or else humankind would never have evolved. In this way they acquired a discriminating ego, capable of free will (p. 71). As God was severely wounded, he wanted Adam and Eve captive in childhood. He required unquestioning loyalty and companionship, to compensate for His own lack of mirroring during childhood. Although this might seem plausible to a psychoanalyst, it is not what the biblical authors meant. Again, we must avoid projecting our modern concepts on ancient narrative. Religious myths aren’t worldly means of expression, but portray things from the divine perspective. In a way, this would be how God and the angels experienced this catastrophic event. Not only Adam and Eve fell, but the whole universe became separate from God, which is why evil and suffering is now an integral part of existence. Nothing is perfect anymore.

It is necessary to read Augustine to get a grasp of ancient thought, to which the denaturing of mankind by sin is fundamental. Adam and Eve had spiritual intelligence and divine wisdom immediately through the mind of God. Man was endowed with truly free will, equal to God’s will. But the Fall made man incapable of willing rightly, and they lost their spiritual intelligence. We became slaves to our impulses, motivated by our selfishness. Today, we cannot choose in any way that is not motivated by self-love. To medieval man, anybody who follows his impulses is not free, but is become fettered by his desires. Today, we reason in the opposite way. A woman who actively lives out her sexuality is seen as “liberated”.

In the Garden of Eden, man’s will was unfettered, and they had only a desire to do God’s will. So the whole picture is the obverse of Gellert’s view. Adam and Eve were not unconscious creatures, but had by divine endowment recourse to perfect wisdom. Man was complete in the beginning, but is now corrupted by Original Sin. We are lesser men, as we are half-blind and have an impaired will, invariably motivated by selfishness. Eating the forbidden fruit made Adam and Eve aware of their own inferiority, as they were no longer divinely endowed. They realized that they were mere human beings, separate from God, which is why they hid from God in shame (cf. Dyson, 2005, ch. 1).

Modern people reason biologically. That’s why the events in the Garden are again and again misconstrued as portraying the emergence from animal unconsciousness unto the human “discriminating ego”. In fact, it depicts how mankind got its own delimited, fickle and narrow consciousness, disconnected from God. Before this, Adam and Eve were like two limbs on the divine body. As such, they were guided by the highest wisdom. They unquestioningly did God’s will, equal to their own will. Although they lacked a separate intellect of their own, they had direct recourse to the divine intellect. Prelapsarian Adam and Eve mustn’t be seen as unconscious pre-humans, despite the fact that they lacked a separate discriminating ego. The event when their “eyes were opened” must be understood as a downgrading, not an upgrading. At this moment, the limbs became separate from God. They now had recourse only to the narrow and error-prone human consciousness. Adam and Eve went from above down to the human level, not upwards from the animal level.

The joint process of maturation of God and mankind means, says Gellert, that all images and ideas of God are cast off, and what remains is Divine Nothingness — the God of mysticism (ch. 13). Contemplative mysticism aims to attain a union with God by the emptying of ourselves. It is all about getting the ego out of the way by focusing entirely on the empty mind. But Gellert cannot get this to square with Jungian psychology, to which the extinction of the ego is insupportable. Instead, the ego must enlarge its domains by the integration of the unconscious archetypes. Gellert tries anyway. Citing Meister Eckhart, he makes a spurious argument:

“The soul must stand alone in absolute nothingness” again brings to mind Jung’s comment, “The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation.” (p. 171)

What Jung means is that a period of introversion leads to the activation of the unconscious archetypes. On this foundation the patient may acquire a new foothold. It has nothing to do with kenosis (self-emptying) on lines of Eckhart. It is for this reason that Jung repudiates the mystic path and says that it has nothing to do with individuation (cf. Jung & Adler, 1976, p. 159).

Anyway, how can such a way of salvation work for the average working man? Mystics and Zen monks, who have devoted themselves entirely to the discipline of ego-abandonment, say that it’s excruciatingly difficult and extremely demanding. According to Fr. Thomas Keating, many contemplatives have made an enormous effort, yet have seldom attained the ‘night of spirit’ (cf. Keating, 1994, ch. 1). Zen master Bankei (1622-1693) dissuaded his pupils from following the austere Zen practices: “The Unborn, he told them, is not something to be reached for or attained by discipline; it is not a condition of mind or religious ecstasy; it is right where you stand, perfect just as it is” (Besserman & Steger, 1991, p. 100). It sounds much like theology’s teaching of the “mind of Christ”.

Gellert says that, “[e]ven with the mystical Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus in the third century CE, [nothingness] would remain an intellectual abstraction and not an experience” (p. 202). This is a major error. In his biography of Plotinus, Porphyry recounts that in his contemplation, Plotinus reached a union with God (“the One”) four times in his life. Central to Neoplatonism was the soul’s movement back towards its source, towards the One, through virtue, contemplation and/or prayer. Since the union with God is found in solitary contemplation, ultimately it does not lend itself to description (vid. Remes, 2008).


© Mats Winther (June 2019)


Besserman, P. & Steger, M. (1991). Crazy Clouds – Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers. Shambala.

Dyson, R. (2005). St Augustine of Hippo – The Christian Transformation of Political Philosophy. Continuum.

Gellert, M. (2018). The divine mind: exploring the psychological history of God’s inner journey. Prometheus Books. Kindle Edition.

‘Jericho’. Wikipedia article. (here)

Jung, C. G. & Adler, G. (ed.). (1976). Letters, Vol. 2: 1951-1961. Princeton University Press.

Keating, T. (1994). Open Mind Open Heart – The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel. Continuum.

Remes, P. (2008). Neoplatonism. Acumen.

‘The Bible and violence’. Wikipedia article. (here)

See also:

Winther, M. (2014). Complementation in Psychology. (here)