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The Narcissism of Small Differences: Freud, Anger, and What Matters in the End

By Dominic Robin

A central tenet of The Reuleaux is the idea of intersections: How does the overlap between what we do, what we think, and what we say change the way we view God? Often, our contributors write about their projects, hobbies, careers. Momentarily, I want to move in another direction. The intersection I plan to discuss here is that of anger. Anger, and its many subsets, is the emotion I am most in tune with; I feel it often and with varying levels of intensity. Rarely is it “righteous.”


Where I grew up, we call the discussion which follows “opening a can of worms”: less colloquially, this conversation may not be entirely pleasant. We at The Reuleaux believe this discomfort to be important. Another foundational pillar of The Reuleaux is our desire to create an interfaith conversation that is self-critical, one that does not shy away from freely discussing topics that are difficult and too often glossed-over. So, what comes next? Subsequently, I plan to discuss the Biblical creation account, ecclesiastical hypocrisy, and institutional pride. My conclusion is this: That at its core, humankind is full of narcissists (or perhaps, more accurately, humankind is narcissistic) and that we, the church, often display this same narcissism in the battles we wage and the conversations we embrace.


Perhaps the one thing that makes this essay worthwhile is that, rather than focusing on the faults of others, I present myself as case study number one. In doing so, I invite my reader to join me in real, honest self-reflection. This is not an essay about someone else. It’s about you and me and the Church, how we fail daily, and what we can do about this failure. Perhaps, in this way, this becomes a useful conversation, a “can of worms worth opening.” I certainly hope so.


Anger


Most recently, I felt the aforementioned anger rise up in response to a sermon given by a dearly beloved brother in Christ. Specifically, one of the pastors at my church was working through the first three chapters of Genesis, and doing so in a way that I believed to be not only inaccurate but distinctly harmful. Like many American evangelicals, he believed that the Genesis account must be taken literally, that the earth is roughly 6,000 years old, and that any other interpretation is a capitulation of Biblical exegesis to scientific pressures.

The specifics of this conversation are best left for another day, but suffice it to say that I have serious issues with this reading of the Genesis account. This disagreement, however, is not what I’d like to focus on. Instead, I want to dwell on that deep feeling of anger that welled up inside of me, primarily on that first Sunday but to lesser degrees on the two that followed. Here’s how it happened:


In the weeks that preceded the message, I prepared myself mentally. Although I didn’t know the extent to which my pastor would be dogmatic, I knew more-or-less what was coming. Still, when it came, the feeling hit hard and fast — surprisingly so. The message was less balanced than I’d hoped, the emphasis frustrating. At times, the sermon made me so angry that I could hardly listen to the words. I just sat there, eyebrows furrowed, trying my hardest not to hate.


It’s this sentiment, the “trying my hardest not to hate” that I’m interested in. Because comparatively speaking, disagreements on origins should hold little sway in the greatest schematic of Christian discourse, right? Intellectually, I know this. Clearly, the conversation has value, but what weight does it truly hold in comparison to topics such as human sex trafficking, murder, greed, and (most importantly) the Gospel of Christ? Compared to these, the specific number of years since ex nihilo seems less than consequential.


By this, I do not mean to suggest that the theology contained in Genesis 1-3 does not have value. In a very real way, this theology undergirds our view of the dignity of human personhood and by extension our care about topics like trafficking and murder. But the dignity of the human soul, God-breathed and God-ordained, is precisely what orthodox Christians agree on, regardless of their specific understanding of the literal nature of Genesis 1-3. Certainly, there are more worthwhile things for which one could hate. Yet, as he spoke, my heart was held captive by an anger that, if allowed to go unchecked, would have turned into precisely that: hate. Why?


At this point, I’d like to thread this conversation through a term credited to psychologist Sigmund Freud, what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” In the following essay, the term appears often enough that I’ll sometimes refer to it as the NSD. Before moving on, however, I’d like to dwell a moment on Freud.


Sigmund Freud


Sigmund Freud is an odd choice, I think, for a conversation meant primarily for Christians. In my 28 years, I have met only a few Christians who truly read Freud. Granted, there are a large group of Christians who I’ve not asked about Freud, and a still larger segment who hold little interest in anything philosophical at all. But among the Christians who do read Freud, the act is often done dismissively, with a smirk ever present, as one approaches the newest cinematic adaptation of Cats. Few Christians read him on his own terms. This brand of “reading,” I submit, is not reading in any meaningful sense of the word. Rather, it’s a performative, collective scoff, an in-group signaling of brand loyalty. Freud, to many, joins Nietzsche, Dawkins, and Darwin in a category that Christian scholar Alan Jacobs terms the RCO, the repugnant cultural other. He is a member (one of the primary members, perhaps) of the outgroup, and for that reason, unworthy of one’s time or energy. In short, members of the RCO have no right to a fair trial; they’re hanged on the spot.


This tendency is unfortunate. While undoubtedly, there are segments of Freudian psychology that are incorrect and/or overwrought (of the Oedipal complex, I remain unconvinced), few people understand how truly revolutionary many of Freud’s ideas actually were. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to mount a genuine defense of Freud. Rather, with this short essay, I’d like to introduce you to a quick concept that claims only a few inconspicuous paragraphs in Freud’s Civilizations and Its Discontents, the NSD.

At first glance, the NSD seems fairly straightforward, inconsequential even. In a few short paragraphs, Freud seeks to explain why communities with adjoining territories “are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other.” Think of the Spanish and the Portuguese, Freud points out. Or the English and the Scotch.


Or, he might add, the Methodist and the Presbyterians.


Freud answers this question by invoking the concept of narcissism. As far as I can tell, Freud’s central thesis is this: That those who are near us, close to us, most alike to us — they hold the positions we most desire. So (and here’s where things get depressing) if we successfully tear down our neighbor, we secure for ourselves a position in the social ladder that is one rung higher than the rung we occupied before. Thus, we infuse our disagreements with these groups with rhetoric and anger, creating in the process a narrative that justifies the full force of our emotional (and sometimes physical) energy. In short, we create narratives that help us justify the battles we find most convenient. To Freud, humans are entirely selfish, even in the way we choose our battles. We are narcissists.


Not convinced? Perhaps a thought experiment might help.


A Thought Experiment


Currently there is, likely, no more hated a collection of figures in the United States than opposition party political leaders — the Nancy Pelosis and Mitch McConnells of this world. There’s a good chance many of us feel an immediate spike in our blood pressure at the mention of one (if not both) of these names. This spike would continue to rise proportional to any subsequent perceived defense of whichever of those names we dislike most. Notice that the response is both negative and reactionary. It’s negative in the sense that one feels a stronger emotion against one of those figures than one feels for the contrasted figure. It’s sparked by hate, not love. It’s also reactionary. The emotion does not simply appear, it’s summoned by the contrary position, one given by someone who you deem should “know better.” Now, I’d like to introduce another name. What happens internally when you hear the name Ayman al-Zawahiri. Anything? Do you recognize it?


You should. Al-Zawahiri is (or perhaps was; we’re not entirely certain he’s alive) an Egyptian-born terrorist, the current leader of al-Qaeda and the successor of Osama bin Laden, a name that only became household in the west after bin Laden successfully de-othered his existence by launching two 180 ton, aluminum alloy missiles into two New York City skyscrapers. Al-Zawahiri has not yet accomplished anything of that magnitude, but if his track record is any indicator, he would. Al-Zawahiri is reported to have been behind several attacks, including the 1998 US embassy bombings, a coordinated set of strikes on African US embassies that left hundreds of people dead. In a report from the US Airforce, Lieutenant Commander Youssef H. Aboul-Enein describes how al-Zawahiri would order the vicious executions of organizational members whom he suspected of collaborating with the enemy, forcing, on occasion, fathers to watch the execution of their own sons. Elsewhere, Aboul-Enein notes, Al-Zawahiri has called for “unstable and random acts of violence in American cities.”


By all accounts, al-Zawahiri is a much worse person than either Pelosi or McConnell. He is a demonstrated murderer, a radical jihadist who heads one of the most well-known terrorist organizations in the world. If there is anyone upon which we might band together to direct our anger, it’s him.


And most of us don’t even know his name.


Certainly there is a reason why many Christians will exclaim loudly at the mention of Barack Obama but wait expectantly for an explanation when confronted with the name Ayman al-Zawahiri. It’s precisely the reason we dealt with an entire news cycle frenzifying the deprintification of few hardly known Dr. Seuss books, while neglecting the roughly 10,000,000 people who will die of starvation in 2021. There's something about sheer tragedy—a tsunami on the other side of the planet, or holocaust outside our sphere of influence—that simply doesn't drive a news cycle, especially when there’s no one present and visible to blame. Humans, it seems, are hard wired to find an enemy, one that is recognizable and present — “punchable.”


If Freud is right, the reason for this occurrence is simple: at our foundation, our core nature, we are narcissists, driven to action not by genuine care for others but by a self-serving desire for status. Put more bluntly, we’re so self-absorbed that we’d rather go to war with our neighbor over a small grievance than confront a stranger over true injustice. With this framework in mind, the cost/benefit analysis becomes just a bit clearer. Freud’s connection to narcissism does as well. What more egocentric, self-serving act exists than the fixation of one’s mind and body on the destruction of those we see most often, and to do so with our own pathetic gain in mind.


This reality should be sobering.


In Connection to the Church


To connect this issue to the modern church seems rather too much like picking low-hanging fruit. Who among us with any experience in the church has not heard stories of church splits over carpets colors, heated arguments about music styles, or angry exchanges around fringe theological concepts. While these church foolishnesses are worth condemning, I would rather the conversation become local. How is it that you and I exhibit this narcissism within our own lives? More importantly, what can we do to guard against it?


Let’s return to the visceral anger I felt when confronted with the popular American evangelical interpretations of the creation account. For now, put aside which side of this argument is “right.” Rather, I’d like to focus on the degree to which my anger galvanized me into investing my time, energy, and emotion into concrete action, actions that were, in the end, of less than utmost importance.


The following account is by no means exhaustive:


After the first sermon, I immediately looked up a podcast on the topic and stumbled across a talk by Dennis Venema, a Christian biologist who (in my view) convincingly lays out the genomic evidence for common descent. That night, I checked out his book Adam and the Genome (co-authored by theologian Scot McKnight) and, over the following week, read through it entirely. I also revisited Tim Mackie’s breakdown of the historical context surrounding Genesis 1; it remains the best theological talk on the subject I’ve encountered. Midway through the week, I composed a letter to my pastor outlining my frustration with how the topic had been handled. The letter was several hundred words long, and went through many iterations: words were changed; sections were added and removed; ideas were reframed. At one point, I abandoned the letter idea entirely, deciding to record a video instead. Perhaps that might seem more personable, less aggressive? I recorded the video three times.


In the end, neither the letter nor the video was sent. Instead, I typed an email to my pastor asking if we could dialogue. He agreed, and Friday afternoon, we spoke for several hours. Both of us left decidedly unconvinced. That was week 1.


After the second sermon, something similar transpired. I downloaded podcasts by Tim Keller, N.T. Wright, and Tim Mackie. I watched debates on YouTube, read books, and browsed article after article from BioLogos. At my pastor’s request, I compiled a list of resources for him to look into. He sent me an article, and asked me a question about my belief. I recorded a video response. I sent off the video. I read another book. It was by RCO member Bill Nye. I thanked the Lord once again for Francis Collins. That was week 2.

This process was repeated in week 3.


Upon reflection, I find the sheer level of output, time spent consuming content and generating ideas to be telling. I was mobilized by anger, but not in the passive “mobilization” we so often feel in relation to things we feel like we should be doing. If I were similarly motivated to, say, exercise, motivated enough to pour hard hours into focused physical labor, I’d be more healthy now than I’ve been in my entire life. What I find most interesting is a fact that we’ve already discussed, one that I say that I “know”: that comparatively speaking, the anger that hijacked my motivation was tied to a relatively unimportant antecedent. Truly, the specific understanding we have concerning the creation account feels smaller once placed next to conversations about the violent persecution of Christians in places like North Korea, Burma, and parts of northern India. More locally, might time spent getting to know the neighbors across the street be a more practical use of 20 hours?


Perhaps these conversations do not motivate me because I do not see the faces of my “enemy.” I have trouble imagining myself intervening on behalf of people I cannot see, "performing" for an audience I can hardly imagine. There’s no hero narrative in it for me to inhabit.


With the creation debate, I can imagine my adversary clearly. I sit across from him. In my imaginary world, he attacks me with vitriol, spitting hateful comments, some illogical, others patently false. I wait in silence. He speaks longer than the time he is allotted. He is condescending, arrogant, and emotional. When he finishes, I stand calmly. People wait expectantly. My arguments are clear and succinct. My evidence comes to mind effortlessly. My voice does not waiver. When I am finished, there is no applause. The room is simply silent, stunned. They need time to process what just happened. Slowly, people exit, one at a time, but gradually more quickly. I have won.


In my worst moments, this is the scenario I imagine. When I am most angry, I play this scene on loop. Note, if you will, that this scenario is imagined — removed. Too often, we attack our perceived enemies when they aren’t present. They are either imagined or we discuss them within the safety of a group of people who “get it.” But to what end do I win this debate? Status, surely. With every battle won, we have climbed the ladder of social appeal one more rung, perhaps even two. But again, I am forced to ask: To what end?


Perhaps I am alone in this weakness, but I think likely I am not. Too often, we as Christians join the world in inventing enemies so that we can vanquish them for our own glory. Here, I am forced to conclude that Freud was right. We obsess over small details because, at our hearts, we are selfish, bitter creatures. We, like the devil, glory in the beauty of our own imagined acts, fantasizing internally our ascensions to the throne of the Most High. We want to be like God, so we construct social towers and we dedicate our time, our energy, and our vitriol into climbing.


This practice of tearing down our neighbor is truly antithetical to the message of Christ. Here, I reflect on Jesus’ response when he was approached by a man simply referred to as “the expert of the law,” he whose specialty it was to wield the particular as a hammer, to assert his authority through the weaponization of minutia. His job, in other words, was to assert authority through his knowledge of specific information. His question was deceptively simple: “Which,” he wanted to know, “is the greatest commandment in the law?” His goal, we are led to surmise, was not simple at all. Likely, Christ would choose one of the 10 Commandments. For any such response, this “expert of the law” likely had 100 replies. He was informed, practiced, and deadly. Likely, the confrontation happened in public because this Pharisee’s goal was not conversation, it was public humiliation. He wanted the exchange to go viral, to tear down this pop-prophet in the presence of so many witnesses, and to do so convincingly and with ease. Perhaps the video would go up on YouTube the next day with a wonderful tagline: “Expert of the law OWNS false prophet.” From this exchange, he saw an opportunity for prestige. This setup makes Christ’s response all the more powerful. He does not take the bait; he refuses to descend into the pedantic at the expense of that which is truly important.


It’s worthwhile here to note that he could have done so. His response might have been particular, harsh even. Christ may have been the only person in all Israel who could have gone toe-to-toe with this expert of the law and come out not simply on top but decidedly so. No amount of preparation prepares one for a theological exchange with the Son of God. But Christ does not do so. Instead, he centers his answer on the unity we find in the Gospel. I find the following response deeply convicting not simply for its wisdom but also for its restraint:


“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Then he adds this, that the second commandment is like the first: “Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”


If we aim to be a truly healthy church, we must follow Christ’s example. We must learn to identify and reject the narratives that stir anger and hatred in our hearts. We must recognize that, often, these narratives are manufactured personally or by institutions for self-gain. This realization must be internally focused. As fallen beings, we must also realize that this impulse resides within our own hearts, the residual effect of a fallen taxonomy that identifies self-worth with self-gain.

This taxonomy must be rejected daily, emphatically and thoroughly and entirely. Then, and only then, can we have substantive and meaning-filled conversation about these secondary or tertiary concerns.


Lord knows, I want to have these conversations. I find joy in them. There’s a gentle peace that can be found in civil disagreement, done kindly and without hate. This reality is, I believe, an ideal worth striving towards.


Who among us wishes to live in a world gone tribal?



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