Herman van Praag: Religion and Religious identity


Hector Warnes’ comment 


        Professor van Praag, in an auto-biographical outline, takes us on a historical, imaginary and mind opening journey of discovery of his Self.

        In his imaginary journey Professor van Praag invents a protagonist named Amos, a wanderer in search of truth, meaning and Identity. Since the time of the creation of the Jewish Religion when Jahve delivered to Moise the 10 commandments  (around 13 centuries BC) Amos underwent a journey of discovery.  In his historical  narrative he encounters countless sectarianism  "beyond the limits of reason," in other sects that were imbued with skepticism and doubt, and others that expressed  dogmatism or fanaticism.

        Not unlike Judaism, Christianity, Mohammedanism and Zen-Buddhism underwent several hermeneutical splits throughout the centuries. In this long journey Professor van Praag tells us that he is looking for his own Identity: "the person who would like to be, hopes to be and ultimately will be" and perhaps not in the sense of a collective identity but in the quest for his innermost authentic sense of Selfhood. From this point of view, he writes: "do not let yourself be overawed by authority, religious or social status or by knowledge." The protagonist, Amos, "ventures into a spiritual labyrinth." Professor van Praag shows a profound understanding of the marketplace of ideologies and the Babel or Apocalyptic preachers. In his willingness to defer Amos tells himself: "I'll be a wandering Jew. I'll never get there".

        Gabriel Marcel, a French philosopher born of a Jewish mother and an agnostic father,  called himself a neo-Socratic philosopher. He wrote in 1962, Homo Viator: Introduction to the Metaphysic of Hope, in which he underlines Professor van Praag’s point that life is a quest for meaning and identity, is a pilgrimage or a never-ending journey between the actual and the ideal, the latter which can never be reached. Marcel elaborated on the sense of being versus the sense of having and had a sense of "communion" just like Martin Buber described (1923) in his classic I and Thou (Ich und Du): "Judaism is a process not a conclusion, a religion of presence and not simply an historical religion." For Buber God is the ultimate Thou (Du) and meaning of life.

        Paul Tillich, in his The Courage to Be (1952), brought us closer to the psychology of Angst: the anxiety of fate and death; the anxiety of emptiness and meaningless and the anxiety of guilt and condemnation; each could be the source of psychopathology or of a spiritual rebirth in the sense of individuation, self-realization, self-transcendence, self-actualization and even a mystical peak experience. Abraham Maslow has amply written on this subject: “a desire to become everything one is capable of becoming." Maslow (1968) wrote of basic needs such as physiological, safety, love and belongingness, esteem (self and status) and self-actualization but he went further describing cognitive (epistemophilic drive), esthetic and transcendence needs.

        William James (1929) described the sense of meaning and religious "illumination" that were experienced by Saint Augustine, Leon Tolstoy and John Bunyan. Baruch Spinoza broke away from his Jewish family and orthodox Jewish education in Amsterdam. He was expelled and was declared to be a heretic by the Rabbinic council on account of his writings. Spinoza distanced himself from orthodox life and in 1656 he was judged to be a heretic and expelled from the Synagogue. He went as far as to identify nature with God (Deus sive Natura). But he went further identifying evil with privation. He would be considered a pantheist, monistic and rationalist philosopher (Damasio 2003).

        From a psychobiological point of view Karl Kleist (1997) considered the Ego (or Self) to be located in diverse functional circuits of the brain: at a hierarchical lower level he located the Trieb-Ich, Körper-Ich, Gefühls-Ich and at a higher level the Selbst-Ich, Gemeinschafts-Ich and the Welt-Ich (in the sense of Cosmic or religious Self).

        Walter T. Stace wrote (1960) the most lucid book, Teachings of the Mystics, regarding the ultimate reality, the unity of the cosmos, nature and mankind in a holistic view and the experience of timelessness (time standing still) or ecstasy (being outside oneself, Doppelgänger). The sense of connectedness and sacredness, the "expansion of consciousness" or peak experiences are sometimes associated with sudden and or persistent changes in behaviour, in meaning, in the perception of the self and of the other, in a sense of unity with the universe and with the ground of being, the ultimate reality. Barret, Johnson and Griffiths (2015) devised a mystical experiences scale which was validated while Barret and Griffiths (2018) went further in finding the neural correlates of mystical states. William A. Richards (2015) specifically wrote a book on psychedelics and the religious experiences.

        I very much enjoyed joining Professor van Praag in his fascinating journey through an unpredictable labyrinth in his quest for Identity. I must add that Identity means sameness although he is forever changing in time. In the psychoanalytic literature Identity, Ego and Self are sometimes not clearly distinguished. The Self is probably the whole psychic world including the body while the Ego is only a part of it. Erick Erickson (1959) is the psychoanalyst who has most clarified the issue of Identity.



Buber M. I and Thou. Leipzig: Insel Verlag 1923. 

Barret FS, Johnson MW, Griffiths RR. Validation of the Revised Mystical Experience Questionnaire in experimental sessions with psilocybin. J. Psychopharmacol. 2015;29(11):1182-90. 

Barret FS, Griffiths RR. Classic Hallucinogens and Mystical Experiences: Phenomenology and Neural Correlates. Curr. Top. Behav. Neurosci. 2018;36:393-430. 

Damasio A. Looking for Spinoza. Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. William Heinemann, 2003. 

Erikson EH. Identity and the life cycle: Selected papers. Psychological Issues, 1959;1:1–171. 

James W. The varieties of religious experience-A study in Human Nature. (37th impression) Longmans, Green and Co. London, New York, 1929. 

Kleist K. Sixth lecture 1931 translated from the German by Prof. Diego Luis Outes. Introduction Prof. Helmut Beckmann. Publisher Editorial Polemos, Buenos Aires, 1997;  p. 168. 

Marcel G. Homo Viator: Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope. Transl Emma Craufurd. Harper and Brothers, 1962. 

Maslow A. Toward a Psychology of Being (2nd ed). Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1968. 

Richards WA. Sacred knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences. Columbia University Press, New York, 2015.

Stace WT. Teachings of the Mystics. New American Library, 1960. 

Tillich P. The Courage to Be. Yale University Press, 1952.


October 22, 2020