Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and Modern Psychology
Due to the fact that I recently finished reading Spirit and Will by Gerald May, I find my perception of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus filtered through that book. May, a psychiatrist from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C., makes a rather courageous attack on a sacred cow, modern psychology. He asserts that "Psychology is fundamentally objective, secular, and willful whereas the core identity of religion is mysterious, spiritual, and willing" (10). He criticizes religion for having sold out to psychology in its attempt to remain "relevant." Like Dr. Faustus, we have pursued knowledge with a passion in order to master ourselves and our environment. Psychology represents just one of those areas of knowledge. Through a combination of drugs, behavioral conditioning and psychotherapy we have become relatively successful in altering behavior or even basic emotions and states of consciousness--so much so that religion seems only too happy to borrow psychological techniques to fill the pews of churches or to satisfy the hearts of its worshipers.
May targets three primary attitudes in psychology: the coping, happiness and growth mentalities (11-21). It is true that psychology can help us to cope with stress, to achieve a measure of happiness and to transform our difficulties into opportunities for personal growth and increased creativity. But valuable as this may appear, it cannot provide us with an ultimate reason for living.
In the past we believed that religion could solve all our problems (physical, mental or spiritual) if we turned up the piety level another notch; now we have swung too far in the other direction. As human beings we have been created with a religious longing, a search for the absolute. Pascal sees our ambiguous condition between the animal world and the spiritual world as the cause of a restlessness which helps to turn us eventually toward our Creator. But instead of yielding himself to God, Dr. Faustus dreams of godlike power; it is his way of responding to the religious longing within him. He is not satisfied to be a successful and famous physician; he would conquer death itself, enter into a world of absolute power. According to May, modern psychology also ignores our spiritual longing, believing that expanding knowledge can take its place.
Dr. Faustus turns to magic to satisfy his lust for power. I find it fascinating that May discusses in quite some detail function of magic in his chapter entitled "Encounter with Evil." Whereas superstition implies a kind of childlike pleading with God--an attempt at manipulation--"magic, witchcraft, and sorcery hold that assumption that individual human will can through various means actually control and manage supernatural power" (285). The root meaning of magic refers to mastery. It represents...