Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Parable of the Prodigal Son – A Parable of our Anglican Struggles

This parable of the family of a father and two sons is remarkable in many ways. One of the most remarkable is the way it reflects the ongoing emotional and spiritual struggles within each one of us – and, as we shall see, the current struggles within the Anglican Communion as well as other denominations.

The Freudian take on human personality is that it is an expression of the struggle amongst three elements of the human psyche – the id, the super-ego and the ego:

- The id represents biological forces or the life-force and is governed by the pleasure principle or a form of hedonism. It is marked by instinctual urges of sexuality, aggression and the desire for instant gratification or release. In the parable, this is the Younger Son, breaking free from the constraints of the family, wasting the early inheritance from his father on pleasures of the moment, living an unfettered life with (by his brother's description) whores and then, in a surge of self-destruction, ending up sharing life with the religiously forbidden pigs of their Gentile owner. Freud's notion of the id caught up in the Oedipus complex is not far from the Younger Son's challenge to his father to "drop dead." The Younger Son could easily serve as the proto-type of the id.

- The superego, from the German "Uber-ich" ("over me") serves to inhibit the biological instincts of the id and to enforce moral standards. This is the Older Son in the parable -- dutiful to his father, but resentful of his younger brother who dishonored his father and has violated the most basic moral codes of the family's religion. When he learns that his younger brother is being honored in a loud celebration rather than summarily punished, the Older Son experiences an enormous crisis, as the very basis of his being has been to oppose and restrain the immorality of his brother. It is bad enough that he has failed in his mission – it is far worse to watch as his father seems to be celebrating his failure.

- In Freud's world, the ego is our link to reality (as different from the drives and the standards of the id and superego) and is the moderating force between the two opposing forces of the id and the superego. The work of the ego/Father is to hold the personality/Family together. Thus, while the id may be crying out for gratification as the superego counters with moral precepts and the accumulated wisdom of a developing conscience, the ego/Father works to resolve the conflict, balancing and moderating both id and superego. In the parable, the Father is attempting to fulfill this function by embracing the unrepentant Younger Son in a welcome home party while also embracing the rejecting Older Son as he resists joining the party.

As the party is in full swing, the two sons remain independent forces – and all bets are off on what will happen at the breakfast table the next morning! But that is the nature of the human personality: as Doug Adams was fond of saying, nearly every good parable and most miracles in the Bible end in chaos.

Both the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Sower have enormous possibilities in addressing our lives at a multitude of levels, but particularly the psychological struggles that happen deep within us. This is true in a more limited sense in the Parable of the Leaven, with the woman creating the bread from the wild energy of the leaven (denoting "corruption in the rest of the New Testament) and the passive purity of the flour. All three parables have within themselves powerful possibilities for framing, understanding and then transforming the struggles faced by our church communities and each of us as individuals within them.

What we are experiencing in the Anglican Communion is just this struggle, with the Progressives committed to their desire to do what is necessary to achieve a fully inclusive community -- even if that involves overturning long established order and tradition.

Within the Christian church this same struggle has appeared and reappeared in countless forms through the centuries most recently as we have come to terms with the evils of slavery and the exclusion of women. One of touchstones of the Anglican Communion has been our commitment to being governed by the role of the ego or adult dealing with the forces of id and superego in ordering the life of our family.

What we are lacking now is a common commitment to living within the struggles of the human and religious community. From my perspective, what we are experiencing now is a Father demanding to act, not as a force within the personality of the whole, but as "The Decider" who has, by ruling for one Son against the other, abdicated his role as the ego. The recent letters from the Archbishop of Canterbury and Canon Kearon declaring agains the Episcopal Church are clear examples of the abdication of the Parent in our family – and no good thing can come from that.

Like a healthy human personality, our Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion and world-wide Christianity are best when, in the language of the Parable, the Father, the Younger Son and Older Son are in a dynamic relationship. With decrees, scurrilous attacks and shunning the energy of the Younger Son, we are not saving anything – only our own destruction.