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What About the Unconscious?

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast I’m excited that we get to invite Craig Rowe, one of our Fellows and a long-time certified member with ACBC, to join us to talk about the issue of the unconscious. This was an idea that was brought to us by someone like Sigmund Freud. It’s something that’s actually saturated the culture in which you and I live in the Western world. Today, Craig is going to help us to understand this a bit more fully.

Craig is retired from full-time ministry, but he still continues to teach in various capacities—one as an adjunct professor at Montana Bible College. He pastored for 33 years and counseled at the Biblical Counseling Center in Arlington Heights, Illinois for those many years. He received a Master of Divinity and Doctorate of Ministry in Counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He and his wife Sue have four grown children and now they reside in Bozeman, Montana. Today Sam Stephens, our Director of Training Center Certification, was able to sit down with Craig Rowe to discuss this topic that still has so much sway in our culture, even in our evangelical culture, this idea of the unconscious that was so prevalent in Freudian thinking.

Sam Stephens: Craig, thanks for joining us today for the podcast with this really interesting topic of the unconscious. I think probably many of our listeners have run into this term through their own reading in psychological literature, or maybe even different New Age concepts. As we kick off this discussion, help us understand: Why is it important to know about Sigmund Freud and his theory of the unconscious? Why is that important for biblical counselors to be aware of?

Craig Rowe: You don’t hear Freud’s name that often anymore, but it’s kind of like Darwin—you don’t hear his name, but evolution has permeated almost everything. There’s a number of psychiatrists who have stated that they think Freud completely changed the concept of who man is, what his problems are, what the origin of those problems is, and how to deal with those problems.

He completed changed our culture through that. People—while they might not be familiar with Freud and his specific concept of the unconscious—listen to TV, read magazines, watch movies, and have discussions, that are all impacted by his thoughts. I’ve had people call me and say, “I’m not sure you can help me with this, Pastor Craig. This is a really deep problem.” Deep is usually a code word for, “This is a problem of the unconscious.”

People have been tremendously influenced, even though they don’t realize it.

Sam Stephens: In counseling at large, how has the theory of the unconscious—this idea of this deep-seated, maybe mysterious knowledge about our inner self—impacted counseling and has it impacted biblical counseling?

Craig Rowe: As far as I know, it hasn’t impacted biblical counseling, but I think that probably most biblical counselors have to work their way out of it as they come to understand it. In general Christian counseling, people talk about doing archaeological digs. They talk about what’s going on underneath. They talk about repressed memories. They use methodologies like venting or imaging. Rorschach tests, dream analysis, hypnosis—all of that grows right out of Freud’s concept of the unconscious. It’s not neutral.

Sam Stephens: So for those of us who aren’t Freud experts, can you give us a quick recap of what his theory of the unconscious was?

Craig Rowe: Well, he didn’t originate the concept, but he formulated it. It’s his formulation of it that really began to permeate our culture and people’s thinking. He divided the unconscious first. He called this psychical topography, which in his terms is the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious. He didn’t like the use of subconscious. Think of those as the places, and then you have the players. This is what he talked about as psychical processes: that’s the superego, the id, and the ego. One of the major changes that he brought about in counseling was that for Freud counseling didn’t involve a relationship with another person or with God. Counseling involved the relationship between the id, superego, and ego in your unconscious, or the relationship between your unconscious and the conscious. You didn’t have to involve other people, you could deal with it all inside your head. That was a huge change.

As to authority, where biblical counselors would turn to the Scripture and God as their final authority, the final authority for someone being counseled by a Freudian counselor is the counselor, the therapist. [1]Click To Tweet [1]

Another change that he brought about occurred because he believed that you’re not aware of what’s in the unconscious. The concept of personal responsibility was erased. People used to talk about sin, faith, repentance, and redemption—none of that was relevant to Freud. The only thing relevant was what was going on inside your head.

As to authority, where biblical counselors would turn to the Scripture and God as their final authority, the final authority for someone being counseled by a Freudian counselor is the counselor, the therapist.

Sam Stephens: What do you think are some of the dangers in biblical counselors trying to employ some of these methods and some of the ideas that Freud popularized when it comes to the unconscious?

Craig Rowe: Methods aren’t neutral. All the methods I mentioned grow out of the unconscious. Your definition of problems is involved in where you start—sort of your presuppositional base, those basic beliefs that you accept by faith.

James says you can’t get good water out of salt water. It’s so true, but we fail to realize that. We think we can take the concept of repressed memories and deal with it in a biblical way. Well, repressed memories are a direct result of Freud’s concept where when something happens in a person’s life, the ego says, “Ouch that was really painful. We can’t handle that in the conscious.” So the ego represses it into the unconscious. The whole concept of trying to find out what’s going on in this person’s life is a process of using methods that try to bypass the ego. The ego is sort of the gatekeeper. For example in dream analysis, you know when you’re dreaming you’re sort of half awake, and the thought is the ego figures there isn’t much going on and can take a break, relax a little bit. Then things slip out undetected, or through what’s called sublimation, where it disguises itself as something else.

Those concepts, those methods, grow directly out of his concept of the unconscious.

Sam Stephens: You’ve mentioned responsibility and how this theory really diminishes that and erases it completely. Talk about how that really conflicts with the biblical perspective, especially regarding counseling.

We're responsible for our sin, we're responsible for what comes out of our heart. [2]Click To Tweet [2]

Craig Rowe: Mark 7 says that sin comes out of the heart. Proverbs 4:23 says to guard your heart carefully, for out of it flow the issues of life. We’re responsible for our sin, we’re responsible for what comes out of our heart. Freud taught that the real you is your unconscious. Your unconscious is what directs you. Your life is simply a manifestation of what’s going on underneath the surface, but you don’t know what’s going on underneath there. In fact, you can’t even be sure what’s been repressed into there, simply because it’s the unconscious.

I remember one young couple came in, and they were talking about their 7-year-old child, very concerned. They had gone through some rough times in their marriage when their child was around 3-years-old. Their child had witnessed them fighting. I asked, “Are you concerned that what he witnessed was deposited in his unconscious and you’re not sure how that’s going to express itself later in his life or when?” They said, “That’s exactly right.” I was able to teach them how that’s not how it takes place. If something is taking place in your unconscious and you don’t have access to that, how can you be responsible for it?

We saw this in our legal system. All of a sudden we stop talking about, “What did the person do?” And we began to talk about, “What’s their experience? Where did they grow up? What did they go through growing up?” Those things became the focus of attention.

Sam Stephens: How does all this rob people of hope? There’s not any real responsibility, but now they’re are seated with all these problems and have no direction, they need a professional to help them delve into the depths of their heart. It’s very mysterious. How does that rob them of hope?

Craig Rowe: Freud taught that what was repressed into the unconscious is virtually “immortal.” Whatever is down there is pretty much there. In his view, you are your past and you’ll never be anything more. Where in Christ, you are who you will be, and you never will be who you were. That’s hope.

If I don’t know what’s down there and I can’t get to it, I can’t have victory over it. Then the language we hear today is: We have anger management. We hope that we can learn enough about what’s going on in the unconscious that we can get to the place and learn techniques to manage it. I tell people, “If I have a rattlesnake in the house, I’m not interested in managing it. I want to kill it.”

In Freud’s view, you never know what’s going to pop up tomorrow. He said things repressed into the unconscious can come up 20 years later just as vivid, and just as real as though they just happened. That’s like walking on thin ice, and you never know with your next step if you’re going to go through. There’s no hope there, it’s management, where in Christ we can have victory.

Sam Stephens: As a final word to for some of our listeners, maybe they have a counselee who’s using a lot of that language, they’ve been introduced to it. What kind of helps or encouragement can you give our listeners to help them navigate some of that language and point them back to the Scriptures?

Craig Rowe: Stick to biblical concepts: faith, repentance. Scripture doesn’t talk about the ego, the id, and the superego. It talks about the conscience. It talks about personal responsibility. It talks about the depraved man. To navigate the language is hard unless you do a little bit of study. People say, “Man, that was right was really cathartic for me. I cleansed my soul through that experience.” Or they may say, “I just need to blow off some steam.” That’s Freudian to the core, if you think of it. For Freud, life was like an inner tube. If you’ve ever blown up an inner tube to go swimming, you’re pumping and pumping, it’s getting bigger and all of a sudden a bubble pops out on the side. That’s Freud—the pressure has gotten too great and now you have an aberration, so we just release the pressure in the tube and eventually that bubble will go down.

It’s hard to learn the specific language unless you’ve done a little bit of study, but just think in terms of concepts. That’s easier because people read their Bible and you can say, “Well, the Bible talks about controlling your emotions, not blowing them all over the place. The Bible talks about how I’m responsible for my sin, not my environment.” If they can approach it that way, I think it’s helpful.

Sam Stephens: Craig, thanks for helping us think practically, but also biblically about a concept that could seem mysterious to some of us and how to engage people with the Scriptures even though they may be thinking about the unconscious and these terms. Thanks a lot for your help.

Craig Rowe: Thank you.

Recommended Resources

Lecture Notes [3]

PsychoBabble: The Failure of Modern Psychology and the Biblical Alternative [4] by Richard Ganz

Competent to Counsel [5] by Jay Adams

The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry [6] by Gary Greenberg

Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America [7] by Robert Whitaker