In medicine especially in psychoanalysis, we talk a lot about the unconscious mind and the influences it exerts on our lives. As you may already know, our minds can be divided into the conscious and unconscious mind.
A lot of my readers care about their spiritual or inner life and some wonder how the unconscious is viewed in popular religious traditions like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism etc.
Today, I will focus only on the view of the unconscious in Christian theology by letting us hear from what two esteemed Christian theologians have to say about it.
Dr. John Piper’s views on the unconscious
Dr. John Piper, renown theologian and pastor, said this:
“I would say probably 99 percent of our lives is lived without immediate reflection upon a life principle. Rather, we just act. If you think about your day there are maybe a hundred big decisions you make in a day. And by ‘big’ I just mean ‘conscious.’
But right now, I am just talking to you. I am just choosing words. Before every word, I am not stopping and saying, “Now, what principle is going to govern this word, and what principle is going to govern this sentence?” They are just kind of tumbling out of me right now.
Well, that is scary. Right? Where did they come from? Most of our lives are lived spontaneously. Most of our lives are not lived after ten seconds of reflection on a biblical principle. So where do they come from? They come from being a kind of person.
And that raises the question, how do you become a kind of person so that you are a good tree that bears spontaneous good fruit instead of a bad tree that bears spontaneously bad fruit? And the answer is you soak in the Scriptures and you let your sight of Jesus and your taste of Jesus and his ways in the Bible affect and shape your soul. Your soul marinates in the sauces of grace until the soul is made soft and tender and supple and sensitive to the leadings of the Holy Spirit so that in a kind of spontaneous way, it responds.
Jesus said we will be called to account for every idle word that we speak. Now, idle words are words spoken before you have a chance to think on any biblical principle that you have gotten from your text in the morning. So I think people who are bent on trying to get three principles or three points or something and then try consciously to follow them during the day are trying to do something impossible that we were never designed to do.
I would put it like this. A godly life is lived out of a heart that is just astonished at grace — “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” So we go to the Bible to be astonished. We go to the Bible to be amazed at God and amazed at Christ and amazed at the cross and amazed at grace and amazed at the gospel. And when we are stunned and amazed and humbled, we walk out of our study or our chair or wherever we are having devotions, and there is a spirit and a flavor about us that makes us a better person at the kitchen table and when we go to work.
All that just to say I am not opposed to principles. Good night, I write books in which I am trying to do things so they are helpful to meditate on. But that is the key: meditating on truth shapes the soul. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says that we become what we behold. So my goal in reading the Bible is mainly to become a kind of person. Don’t amass a long list.”
At this point, the interviewer interjects and asks Piper a clarifying question:
Pastor John, do you think it is appropriate to talk about the subconscious here? Is it right to say we live out the Christian life through an informed, Spirit-filled subconscious?
Yes. That is basically what I was trying to say, that most of our life is lived from resources that are not presently reflected on in our mind. Our words are coming from inside — “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:18). And most of that heart is unconscious or subconscious and that is shaped day by day by what we are taking in. It is shaped by what we do with our eyes on the computer, and it is especially shaped by what we do with our Bibles and our prayer.
Whenever I pray I am pleading with God, “Work down deeper than I can get in my reading right now. Take your scalpel, and don’t just deal with the sins I am aware of: go be a surgeon.” Surgeons put you to sleep, and they go into places on your body you don’t know anything about and work on you. That is what God has to do with us. So, yes I think the subconscious is being worked on by the Holy Spirit all the time.
Dr. Dallas Willard’s views on the unconscious
The late renowned professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, Dallas Willard, –himself also a Christian theologian and minister–argued that the soul is the total person. In other words, a soul is a complete human being and is made up of 4 major distinct but interconnected parts: The body, mind, spirit, and social connectedness.
In his book, Renovation of the Heart,
Now, right on the conscious surface of our “world within” lie some of our thoughts, feelings, intentions, and plans. These are the ones we are aware of. They may be fairly obvious to others as well as to ourselves. In terms of them, we consciously approach our world and our actions within it.
But these surface aspects are also a good indication of the general nature of the unconscious “spiritual depth within,” of what sorts of things make it up. But the thoughts, feelings, and intentions we are aware of are, after all, only a small part of the ones that are really there in our depths; and they often are not the ones most revealing of who we actually are and why we do what we do.
What we really think, how we really feel, and what we really would do in circumstances foreseen and unforeseen may be totally unknown to ourselves or to others familiar with us. We may pass one another–even pass ourselves, if you can image that–like “ships in the night.” We do it all the time.
Christian theology is clear about the existence of the unconscious and the significant part it plays in influencing our lives. Jesus Christ went so far as to say our hearts reflect who we really are. You are a good person if you have a good heart and an evil person if you have an evil heart.
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Jesus Christ.
The heart as Jesus uses it and is Christian theology uses it is not limited to the conscious mind alone but actually mostly the unconscious mind. The word “kardia” is translated to mean the heart; mind, character, inner self, will, intention, center. It means the “seat and center of all physical and spiritual life and the vigor and sense of physical life.” It is also presented as the “seat of the thoughts, passions, desires, appetites, affections, purposes, endeavors”
In Christian theology, meditating on truth is how one renews the mind (conscious and unconscious) and develops the right perspective or paradigms for interpreting life.
John Piper, http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/must-bible-reading-always-end-with-application, Accessed 03/05/2014
Dallas Willard, “Renovation of the heart”