Freudians and Theology

Alongside the very productive collision in the last decade between theology (particularly political theology) and a certain strain of Freudian theory/Continental philosophy, I’ve begun noticing that an increasing number of theologically trained folks are also carrying psychoanalytic credentials. I’d love to peg out the reason for this trend. It may well be due simply to the influence of Agamben, Zizek, Badiou, though I wonder if there isn’t another source of the interest—for example, in a sense that analysis is a better pastoral tool than the standard fare offered in pastoral education.

At any rate, I know that several of the folks regularly stopping through here are always looking for a good podcast to while away the hours at work. On the train from Albany this morning, I listened to a recording from 2002 of Eric Santner talking about Freud, Franz Rosensweig, and the intersection of psychoanalysis and theology. While it’s by no means intended to serve as an introduction, the Psychotheology of Everyday Life, is likely as good a place as any to start the arduous task of coming to grips with the technical language intrinsic to the larger conversation. Santner is good about both defining his terms and bringing in concrete examples.

I can’t remember where I found out about this recording, so I can’t tip my hat to [Jeremyanyone in particular. I’ll return my thanks by passing on the recommendation.

7 Replies to “Freudians and Theology”

  1. I’m pretty sure I posted a link to it on my blog. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    I think Lacan is mostly to credit for this transformation. Other than Freud, he’s the only real analytic theorist that consistently engaged other disciplines (linguistics, religion, philosophy, anthropology). His was a comprehensive system. Also, then remember that Badiou and Zizek are both heavily influenced by Lacan (especially Zizek). Of course, in recent years Zizek has allowed his Lacanian reading of Hegel to produce creative reading of Christianity.

    With Lacan one also is offered a reading of religion and theology that is less vulgar than Freud’s materialistic reading of religion as an illusion or delusion. Of course, I would argue as others have that already in Freud his rendering of religion is more complicated than is usually supposed.

    With regards to continental philosophers many of the big names such as Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault all grappled with Freud’s metapsychology (and Lacan to a lesser extent). Of course, they had their fair share of criticisms, but they certainly paid proper respect to his work.

    Theologians have mostly repressed psychoanalytic insights. Although, to be fair Tillich certainly saw the similarities between depth psychology and theology.

    1. Jeremy,

      You are likely the proper target for the hat tip. Thanks.

      So, if you are right—and I think you are—about Lacan being the point of connection between theology and psychoanalysis for all the reasons you list (i.e. Zizek and Badiou’s reliance on Lacan; Lacan’s robust engagement with religion/theology), I’m still left with a few questions.

      1) Why now? Lacan’s writings aren’t fresh off the press. Is it the case that the theological interest in psychoanalysis has been mediated primarily through the writings of Zizek, Badiou, et. al. in the last decade and is now gaining steam on its own? Or is there some other vector for the increasing interest? Or, for a more-than-plausible third option, have I had my head in the sand and there has been widespread theological interest in psychoanalysis for some time now? I suspect option #1, but that ascribes to these characters quite a bit more influence than I would have imagined them to have.

      2) Why get credentials? You’re in a good position to answer this one, but I understand if you’d rather refrain from posting autobiography on the internet. Perhaps it’s because of my own more theoretical bent (which is where my interest lies) that the idea is novel to me, but I’m just curious as to why folks would go into the practice of analysis, rather than simply benefit from the insights of the theory—and that particularly if there is some sort of pastoral concern involved.

      P.S. Tillich saw connections between depth psychology and theology, but I think that his anthropology was considerably more optimistic than a theological anthropology influenced by Lacan is likely to be. For Tillich, the unconscious represents something more like the passive element of being, it’s susceptibility to non-being and the attendant need for something like courage, than anything like Lacan’s notion of subjectivity itself as a symptom. Oddly enough, I’m actually more attracted to the darker vision.

  2. 1) I think I might hesitate to say that Lacan had a robust engagement with theology or religion. The level of sophistication with which Zizek engages theology is well beyond anything Lacan ever did or would have attempted (in my opinion). I really think the conversation between analysis and theology has been primarily mediated through Zizek because although Badiou engages St. Paul he doesn’t read it in psychoanalytic terms. Although Lacan’s been around for awhile, he had mostly been read by other postmodern theorists. Zizek’s brilliance was to read Lacan following the trajectory of Kant, Hegel, and Schelling. (Side note – Tomorrow I’ll be posting a review of a chapter on Schelling, Zizek, and Tillich for Crockett’s book).

    I don’t think there’s been a long term interest in psychoanalysis because it’s mostly viewed as a threat to orthodoxy, which is why I’m currently profiling a book that stages a sophisticated encounter between both disciplines. You’re also right that Tillich’s understanding of psychology is not near as realistic or profound as Freud’s or Lacan’s.

    2) Why practice? Currently I’m getting a doctorate in clinical psychology in a program that’s Neo-Freudian. I’m not quite sure who this question is directed to? Lacan and Freud practiced because at the end of the day they were clinicians. They were wanting to help other clinicians understand how to treat patients. Let me clarify something. In my program (upon receiving licensure), I’ll be allowed to do testing and practice pscyhotherapy (1 day/wk, 50 minutes). To become an analyst one has to go through more training (including personal analysis) and classes so one can practice analysis (3-4 times/wk, 50 min). So, I can practice a Freudian-like psychotherapy. Presumably one would practice because one wants to help those suffering from distress. Also, the current forms of psychotherapy primarily practiced by those in America tends to cognitive-behavioral. This approach in my opinion is too simplistic and lacks the theoretical tools to properly understand psychopathology (e.g. a complete bracketing of unconscious processes). People are more complex, and I believe that Freudian psychotherapy can better help people understand themselves and also effectuate a long term personality change that other therapies cannot do (because they primarily focus on symptom reduction). That is to say these other approaches only attend to the manifest content of symptom X while completely ignoring the latent content.

    One last thing, while it is very useful to appropriate pscyhoanalytic insights, it’s important to remember that they were generated based on empirical data (i.e. actual patients). This explains why Freud and Lacan continued to adapt their theory to coincide with what they observed in analysis. So, for me, it cannot merely be a one-way street. Theory can inform practice, but ultimately the theory must upheld by clinical experiences and research.

    1. Thanks for the reply, and for your patience in explaining the landscape as you see it.

      I should have been more careful with my words. “Robust” should be translated, “something other than reductionist/dismissive.”

      1) Ok, that sounds like my suspicions were more or less correct. After I posted the questions, I did think about bringing up some of the political and economic shifts of the last decade; there are, perhaps, reasons why Zizek is a more compelling voice today than he was in the Clinton years (at least in the American context).

      So far as orthodoxy goes, my guess is that it will depend a lot on the standard of orthodoxy applied and on the level of appropriation undertaken. A somewhat selective retrieval of some Lacanian themes might remain within the bounds of some versions of orthodoxy. Boundary politics are endlessly frustrating, and I tire pretty quickly of attempts to define precisely who the “real” Christians are(n’t), but a wholesale grounding of a theological project in psychoanalysis is probably going to land outside most folks’ fences.

      As for 2), I don’t have much to say other than to thank you for a candid response. I wasn’t aware of the different levels of licensing, nor the concomitant limits on practice. I do, however, share your sense that most cognitive-behavioral clinical psych is more or less symptom management, and therefore misses the bulk of the actual issue at hand. To my mind, that superficiality goes hand-in-hand with a reductionism that brackets any theological dimension, but I’m out of my depth commenting on such matters.

      Again, however, I find the pastoral element in your response intriguing. When you say that you believe that

      Freudian psychotherapy can better help people understand themselves and also effectuate a long term personality change that other therapies cannot do (because they primarily focus on symptom reduction).

      it sounds to me like you are motivated by noble humanistic goals of helping people to better integrate themselves into some natural or societal harmony, or discover some deeper truer self that had previously been masked by pathologies. That’s a caricature for clarity’s sake. Part of what I find helpful and refreshing in the tiny bit of Lacan I’ve read, and moreso in Zizek (and, come to think of it, in Santner’s talk as well) is the anti-humanist element. That is to say, the acknowledgment that ideology runs deep, really deep, in all such projects of self-fulfillment or harmony.

      Clearly, psychoanalysis of the sort that Lacan practiced wasn’t totally meaningless, or worse, malevolent; but, as I understand it, it was not forthright in promising some straightforward “cure” either.

      And now, I really need to start reading something other than blog posts and comments, or I’m only going to get dumber. I will drop by and read through your summary of Crockett’s book in the next day or two though.

  3. 2) First, I’d say that Freud was very much in line with this notion that analysis possesses the keys to help people become more self-aware. I think it’s important to realize that Lacan is almost completely neglected by all American psychoanalytic psychologists. The current research has shown that analytic psychotherapy is more effective at affecting long-term personality changes as opposed to merely remove the symptoms of disorder X. So, I suppose I’m more humanist in the sense that I think people are often given the short end of the stick by only being allowed 10 sessions of therapy to explore their symptoms. Analytic therapy is more intensive and introspective. Self-knowledge is important.

    However, self-knowledge does not necessarily mean harmony, integration, and certainty. The truth may be much more unsettling. I agree with Lacan that the analytic cure is not some simple integration of the ego where the person is holistically cured. In fact, one of the best litmus test for therapy’s effectiveness is the exacerbation of the symptoms before progress is made. The patient comes in relating to the analyst as the subject-supposed-to-know the meaning of his symptom. While initially helpful to generate the transferential relationship, it ultimately must be refused. Lacan would argue that analytic cure is to divest the patient of the big Other. No substitute is given but rather responsibility is imposed on the patient to assume responsibility for their desire and speech. The subject must come to emerge where the unconscious speaks. The ego is imaginary, and any idea of complete integration is wishful thinking. The unconscious disrupts any static sense of identity.

    1. Thanks Jeremy, I hope that the Lacanian mode of analysis catches on more deeply within the American analytic community—precisely because of the insights within the second half of your second paragraph. I’m hoping that the very same vein of thought might bear fruit within a constructive theological anthropology, partly because I’ve seen some fascinating parallels in some early Christian thinkers—Gregory of Nyssa in particular. Only time will tell if that trajectory pays off though.

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