Religious PTSD: Escaping Toxic Religion

Faith, my wife, is a supervisor of mental health workers so, though we live in a small town, we are continually aware of the suicides, child abuse, murder, spousal abuse, drug abuse, and all-around hellishness of peoples lives. The hard reality is that those who are mentally ill have usually experienced terrible trauma, the effects of which will consume much or all of their life. David, who is part of our community, works with those traumatized by their experience in the military. He is able to tap into a network of services for those suffering from PTSD connected to military service but his experience, like that on the national level (a veteran suicide every 65 minutes), is often a losing battle. In the past few weeks he has lost two friends to suicide. My previous work in Japan and then in the States, with Bible colleges, exposed the reality that there are many levels of mental illness that are not addressed by the usual theology and which are, in fact, aggravated by forms of the Christian faith. Various groups of former evangelicals have formed, like many of those who meet as part of Forging Ploughshares, that have been traumatized by evangelicalism.[1] People are sick and what has made them sick is usually quite obvious and very often the culprit is Christian religion.

 While it is certainly the case that religious meaning is meant to be therapeutic, Christianity often fails to address mental suffering and, instead, creates trauma which aggravates mental suffering.[2] The great exodus from evangelicalism is partly, informants and statistics indicate, because the religion can cause depression, obsessive compulsions, suicidal self-loathing, child abuse, and is giving rise to sexual abuse equal to or more pervasive than that in the general population.[3] The causes are not difficult to trace: notions of authoritarianism (male chauvinism/female subordination), perverse notions of child discipline (in the worst cases children are disciplined to death[4]), fear (e.g. fear of hell), and isolation and separation (e.g. children cut off from parents due to their choice of spouse or their sexual orientation). The misogyny and racism seem to have been made obvious in white evangelical support for Donald Trump and the recent election seems to be the catalyst for the exodus or public notice of the exodus in such groups as #exvangelical. People are sick and suffering and Christianity is aggravating the disease for many.

To put all of this in the third person, projecting the problem “out there,” may miss the shameful reality that I am personally acquainted with mental disease. I am never far from a rabbit hole of obsessive compulsion, which has motivated my particular theological focus.  It is important to begin with confession, as apart from the acknowledgement that disease grips me in a particular fashion and that I am aware of its grip, the case cannot be made as to the aetiologia of what, I would claim, is the universal human sickness and its cure. There is a force that can be named but the very process of naming it reduces one to a feeling of shame. The thing that I struggle with is banal repetition, such that if this force were personified it would make for the most insipid of persons.

What Freud calls the super-ego should not be mistaken for a healthy conscience as this creature only accuses of one or two things – endlessly repeating and through the repetition punishing its victims. It is obscene, not in some interesting diabolical way, but in its continual insistence of something lacking. As Adam Phillips has described it, “Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel.”[5] If embodied this creature would appear as damaged and needing to be euthanized. To mistake this thing for the self, certainly would involve self-hatred, but this seems to miss the point that it is the self that is traumatized by this obscenity. Better the world breaks out in all-out war, better that one is obliterated, then continue to be ceaselessly tortured by this unrelenting fault-finder. Indeed, Henri Bergson describes his great relief when world war broke out and the world matched his inner suffering.

The fault is not so much a moral failing as a failure to be complete or whole or substantial. In Hamlet’s soliloquy one is torn with whether to be or not to be. Is it nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of a punishing conscience or to find rest in death? As with the children’s story, “The Missing Piece,” in which a large circle, missing a pie shaped wedge, goes looking for what is missing, what keeps one rolling along is an aching search for filling in what is absent. The felt lack of being and the compulsion to attain it through endlessly running the maze of accusation is an unbearable form of life. It is death dealing, the drive to death, in Freud and Lacan’s depiction. Lacan is darker than Freud in that he acknowledges that there is no cure but only the possibility of momentary survival. The only way of filling in the missing piece is through death and then one will have achieved the perfect circle of nothingness that constituted his drive in life. Whatever the form of the taunt of this obscene superego, I am convinced it is precisely not morality but immorality and evil (a true banality).

To confuse this punishing superego with the voice of God makes of religion the greatest possible evil as division, dialectic, and antagonism constitute the religion. There is a “Missing Piece Christianity” in which the true Jesus is hidden, the real kingdom is elsewhere, the final reality transcends us, and the true self alludes us.  The entire impetus is to find the truth “behind the text” in a higher critical analysis. The Constantinian divide separates us from access to the Kingdom, the Augustinian divide with its Neo-Platonism separates reality and experience, and the Anselmian/Calvinist divide posits an ongoing separation within the self. “Oh I’m looking for my missing piece looking for my missing Jesus, the missing Kingdom, the missing self, the missing life.”  There is a gap between us and God or within God himself and every effort is expended to close the divide. This accounts for major versions of the faith but is most clearly attached to notions of total depravity, penal substitution, and depictions of life as endless struggle with sin.  Rather than the religion healing, delivering, saving, it is geared more toward condemning, devaluing, traumatizing, and ultimately consuming life in mental illness mistaken for the faith of the New Testament.

The first step in any cure will mean ridding oneself of this God so that abandoning religion, for many, is the only alternative short of suicide. But as Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, atheism per se is not an answer as there are many authorities and stand-ins for the role of this perverse superego God. The lack in human life becomes the power that controls and orders life and perverse religion accentuates an already existing problem. What is ultimately lacking, as examination of Romans 7 indicates, is life itself, as giving oneself to the pursuit of life through the conscience or through the law is a kind of living death (Paul’s “law of sin and death”) on the order of the death drive. Theology often repeats the story of the missing piece and accentuates or even constitutes elements of the disease.

The key note to Freudian psychology shared with biblical Christianity is to recognize that conscience (the sinful orientation to the law) or the superego does not provide access to the truth about ourselves but obscures, deludes, and deceives in regard to self-knowledge. The guilt (Freud calls it unconscious guilt) that weighs us down and which is accentuated and formalized by perverse religion is that which obscures the truth. The law of sickness, sin, and death, functions in the unconscious (obscured by a lie) so as to produce a punishing self-consciousness.  

To imagine this deluded punishment is a necessity enacted by God and fulfilled in Christ is to reify the human disease as religion and to make of the cross the culminating point of the disease. Death as cure, punishment as divine necessity, trauma as healing, confounds the cure and the disease and it is precisely this confounded religion that is traumatizing so many. The great mental struggle is to nail this thing down, to get a handle on it and throttle it, as if it is an objective reality. The moment of supreme objectification, Jesus reduced to the objective body on the cross, is made to support a notion of salvation which takes death to be salvific. If the body of Christ is the empirical bearer of necessary punishment, Christians are made to revel in his death like those at the foot of the cross, fascinated by the torture that duplicates and satisfies their own pain. God himself is at war with himself and this somehow matches and legitimates inner suffering and turmoil. Here the cross is the sign that God himself is the origin of the human disease.

A healing faith begins by recognizing that mental suffering is addressed by the great physician. The therapeuo or therapy of Christ is precisely aimed at the experience of mental suffering. In Paul’s explanation, perverse desire gives rise to punishing suffering as the law is presumed to be a means of achieving the self and actually involves painful loss of self. The pursuit of life in the law enacts a loss in which the ‘I’ observes or sees (βλέπω) himself or his body (7.23) and finds there an alien force (another law) inducing evil works (7.20-21). Freud described it as the ambiguity between love and hate, desire and frustration. The same object gives rise to opposed feelings in which one is pitted against the self. As in Lacanian psychoanalysis the register of the imaginary (the ego) and the symbolic (the superego or law) are necessarily antagonistic as one revolves around vision (imaging) and the other around the auditory (the symbol system of language). There is no possibility of reconciliation between being and knowing, between the law of the mind and the law of the flesh. These registers are composed in opposition to the other. To imagine Christ satisfies this antagonistic law, as if this divide constitutes God himself, is to posit the sinful delusion as ultimate reality.

Authentic faith does not play into this “necessity” but exposes it as a delusion. Where this delusion arises through lack (lack of self, lack of life), the ground of faith is life in the Spirit, which has as its goal “conformity to the image” of Christ (Ro. 8.29). This image is auditory and, in Paul’s depiction, is not an object of sight (ego). So achieving his likeness is a dynamic process of hearing and obeying, of walking as he did (8.4), of setting the mind on things of the Spirit (8.5), of active submission (8.7,13), and patience (8.25). One works out this healing salvation as “the law of life in the Spirit” displaces the punishing law of sin and death.

The human tendency is to create an obstacle (an idol) that would serve to keep antagonistic desire alive.  The history of theology can be posited as a series of obstacles which have obscured an authentic Christianity. The trauma of perverse Christianity is doubly tragic in its displacement of a healing faith which eliminates the gap or divide in which we are traumatically pitted against ourselves.

“But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation”

(Ro. 10:6-10).


[1] The #exvangelical and Liturgist podcasts are hosted by several former evangelicals and focuses on evangelical trauma.

[2] Though it was not directly addressed at this year’s International Conference on Missions, from which Faith and I have just returned, Jeff Fife, the president of the conference, described his sexual abuse as a child and then his entry and traumatization in the military. The final talk of the conference was given by a hospice nurse observing that the manner in which people die, at peace or in turmoil, is indicative of the life they have lived.

[3] See my podcasts http://podcast.forgingploughshares.org/e/the-passage-beyond-complementarianism-in-restoring-the-image/, http://podcast.forgingploughshares.org/e/seromon-oppression-of-women-a-curse-of-the-fall-undone-in-christ/, and blog http://forgingploughshares.org/2019/10/17/salvation-as-freedom-from-sexual-abuse-and-oppression/

[4] In her book, Breaking Their Will, Janet Heimlich traces instances of child murder to notions of Christian discipline.

[5]Adam Phillips, “Against Self-Criticism” https://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n05/adam-phillips/against-self-criticism

The Mirror Stages in Psychoanalysis and the Apostle Paul

Paul distinguishes two uses of mirrors in his two letters to the Corinthians (Corinth is a center of mirror manufacturing) depicting the incomplete and fragmentary (I Cor 13:12) and the completion and fullness being brought about in Christ (2 Cor 3:18). His deployment of the mirror metaphor in I Cor 13, linked to the tendency among the Corinthians toward disunity and mistaking the present and partial for the complete and whole, aligns with the psychoanalytic mirror stage. In Jacques Lacan’s depiction, the mirror stage is the point when the child is able to recognize its image in the mirror while simultaneously entering into language. The formation of the ego, which occurs at this stage, requires the capacity to objectify and name what is seen: the presumption that “I” am the object in the mirror. The location of this mirror, outside of the self and reflecting back only a surface image, gets at the “enigma.” The problem is that the image, as with the gifts of the spirit, taken for the end in itself fragments the self. The visual image of the self, and the symbolic/linguistic “I,” creates the problem of the split subject described by both Paul and Lacan. The “I” of the body and mind, which cannot be coordinated in Ro 7, is like the uncoordinated body of Corinthians in that both depict a body in rebellion against itself. The parts (the two “I’s” or the various organs), in their misorientation and misfocus, would destroy the body (Paul calls it “the body of death” and for Lacan it is death drive).

In both the mirror stage and in I Corinthians 13, the fallacy is to take a part (me, mine, I) for the whole (the corporate), so that my gift or treasure (“my” spiritual gift or the treasure of the ego) is presumed to be an end in itself. For both Paul and Lacan the fundamental error is found in a static object-knowledge, which would reduce self-identity to the object (the mirror image or the spiritual gift). Paul deploys the noun form of knowledge (gnosis) to depict the Corinthian tendency to make knowledge an end in itself (knowledge without love). Paul’s law and Lacan’s symbolic consist of this same stasis. The Jewish mistake, to take the law as an end in itself (the source of life), illustrates the universal orientation in regard to the law or the symbolic order (a point Paul develops in conjunction with his second mirror metaphor in 2 Cor). The specific linguistic gifts Paul focuses on (prophecy, tongues, knowledge (13:8)), create the same exclusiveness and arrogance as the law where they do not serve love. The Corinthians are repeating this error (sin itself) by not recognizing the partial, dependent, fragmentary, nature of their knowledge or giftedness.

Paul uses the verb form, “knowing,” to capture the fact that knowledge comes bit by bit and is provisional, fragmentary, and only enough to get to the next step. If one does not recognize the condition of mirror knowledge, but takes an immature attitude, the present and partial will be taken as the goal. To seek integration, wholeness, and unity, through the fragmentary is, in Paul’s illustration, the equivalent of wanting to be all eye-ball or all ear, and in Lacan’s theory, describes the inherent frustration in wanting to fuse with, or obtain, the ego. The image in the mirror, the visual reference, the sign, the gift, taken as final is to confuse sign and signified. As with Narcissus loving his image in the water, absorption by the image, or in Paul’s depiction of giving the body to be burned in martyrdom, apart from love, amounts to nothing. Death by drowning or by fire, as a loveless self-absorbed act, sums up Paul’s point. Paul’s “body of death” (Ro 7:24) and his description of the body parts attacking and refusing to work in harmony in Corinthians, or loveless religion up to and including martyrdom, seem to be a diagnosis of the same condition. Struggling to find the whole in a part is the inherent frustration and agonistic struggle of a living death.

The difference between immaturity and maturity pivots on the issue of love. Love changes up everything in that all else falls into its relative, partial, temporary, momentary, place in relation to love. Love’s infinite endurance is the purpose of the temporary gifts and the substance of the gift of the Spirit. The difference between the two (gifts and their culminating point) is, as in Paul’s illustration, the difference between seeing in a mirror and seeing face to face. The key is passage beyond simply seeing. The dynamism of the two (face to face) is interpenetrating, so that before God, total vulnerability, total openness to the other, seeing and being seen, constitutes the self in the mutuality of love.

Paul here (in I Cor 13) provides clues to his second use of the mirror in that the mirror of 2 Corinthians allows for a present experience of elements of this beatific vision. Both get beyond a unidirectional seeing to a multidirectional relationship: “But all of us with face unveiled, mirroring the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory, as by the Lords Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18, DBH). The unveiled face is now continually absorbing and reflecting, taking in and being taken in, seeing and being seen. The mirror is still at work but the difference is it is in the image and is reflecting Christ. Reflection of Christ in the human face or human image produces an eternal change in contrast to the Mosaic reflection of glory.

Moses used a veil (we are not sure whose idea this was) to hide that his vision of God did not bring an enduring change. This same veil, Paul explains, prevents the children of Israel from seeing that the law is not an end in itself but has its end in Christ (3:14). The Jewish problem is the Corinthian problem, which is the human problem. The veil causes the Jews to imagine that life, God, glory, is in the law. Perhaps the veil serves its purpose, as it does in Paul’s explanation, of specifying the nature of human blindness. The veil hides the transitory nature of the symbolic order, but isn’t every cover up, every fabricated identity, beginning with the first couple’s cover up, aimed at obscuring what is passing or to be abolished. Pride covers this shameful condition and Moses veil marks precisely what is hidden.

If the veil functions in the Jewish heart to hide the transitive, partial nature of the law this explains why the letter, the gramma, the written document, or most closely scripture, kills (3:6). The letter or scripture kills as it is an object taken for the subject, a sign taken for the signified. “Death’s ministry” is by way of “scriptures engraved in stone” (3:7, DBH) as the words are stone cold objects. The law is an epitaph and not of the Spirit/life which brings about real transformative imaging (3:18).

Where for Lacan the mirror stage is irresolvable (it gives rise to the only subject possible), and I Cor 13 focuses primarily on a future resolution, here (in 2 Cor 3) Paul depicts the Christian as the mirror in which the face to face encounter is already begun (in a present progressive “being transformed”). The removal of the veil in turning to the Lord, is a turn from enslavement to death, and initiates the founding of a free subject (2 Cor 3:16-17). The transformation of this subject into Christ’s image, “from glory to glory” (3:18), is a dynamic and eternally ongoing process. It deals not primarily in one’s own image or dead scriptures, but the living Word, through the Spirit, who transforms us into his image.

What Lacan missed and what Paul provides is passage beyond the mirror stage into mirroring the glory of the Father in the image of the Son by the Spirit. This is not merely a psychological analogy for the Trinity, this is identity through the Trinity.

I AM ONE OF YOU FOREVER

Flying over the desert of an evening, around Window Rock, over the Grand Canyon, the cool breeze a necessity for equilibrium and the star lit sky preferable for navigation; this was my singular capacity. With the veil of darkness, the arms pumping and as I gained confidence, the leap into a canyon or off a tall building (nearly absent in Page, Arizona) and I could just manage to obtain lift-off. Continue reading “I AM ONE OF YOU FOREVER”

Mindhunter and Theology: Serial Killers, Mass Murderers, and the Death of Christ

The Netflix series Mindhunter dramatizes the beginnings of FBI profiling necessitated by, what would come to be called, “serial killers.”  Based largely on the work of John E. Douglas, who recognized that seemingly random murders often follow a pattern traceable to particular “psychological types,” the series illustrates Douglas’ application of psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis to crime. Douglas brings psychology, and specifically the Freudian theory of masochism and sadism (death drive), to bear upon criminality so as to both identify the psychological make-up and experience of the killer and to predict future behavior. In the broadest terms, psychoanalysis is built upon the presupposition that the human disease (Freud was a medical doctor) is subject to prognosis because it follows regular patterns with identifiable causes and effects.  The more the disease – neurosis or psychosis – has a grip on an individual the more their behavior, thought, and personality, will follow a predictable (almost mechanical) pattern (the more the disease will “present” itself). In terms of destructive behavior and murder, the more the individual is given over to compulsion the more destructive and thus the more predictable their behavior. In this sense, a serial killer presents the perfect object of study as they have relinquished control (in their own description and as the series abundantly illustrates) to compulsions which are totally destructive.  Those who are most “out of control” better demonstrate the nature of the cause and effect power which animates their actions. The perfect presentation of the disease is to be found in pure death drive and destruction.   Continue reading “Mindhunter and Theology: Serial Killers, Mass Murderers, and the Death of Christ”

Deconstructing “Absolute Truth” to Arrive at the Truth of Christ

The NT understanding of the meaning of the death of Christ, reflected in the earliest theology, is that humankind exists under a delusion or a lie from which the truth of Christ redeems.  This is an understanding largely abandoned with the turn, worked out by Anselm, to the law as the final and full explanation of the meaning of the death of Christ. An aspect of the shift surrounding the atonement (from Christus Victor or its near equivalents to divine satisfaction) is that Christian truth was no longer counter to the truth of the principalities and the powers of this world. The era of Constantine, through Anselm, Calvin, and the modernist era are characterized by the development of a notion of secular truth which parallels the truth of Christ. The NT depiction of the truth of Christ is that it challenges the truth offered by this world and constitutes a new world and a new order of truth. Continue reading “Deconstructing “Absolute Truth” to Arrive at the Truth of Christ”

The Heart of Darkness: The Appeal of Donald Trump

Organized acts of evil, such as those witnessed over the weekend in Charlottesville, demonstrate the unleashing of ethics turned on its head. Organized evil driven by an ideology endorsed (with a wink and a nod) by the Commander in Chief means evil serves in place of the good. This is not the lawless evil of a random act; rather it is “radical evil” in which a perverse moral law is officially endorsed.  The drive toward a pure race, the perfect socialist revolution, or making America great again, may not overtly promote genocide, mass murder, and white supremacy, but the latter is implicit in the former.  The walls must be built, the foreigners expelled, and the “inferior races” subdued in a world in which the ultimate good is a moral law constituted in the reigning ideology.  The neo-Nazis and the white supremacists are at the service of an ethic that has now been voted into place and which indeed hearkens back to an earlier era.  The American electorate has created the space, through the election of this administration, for these groups to do the dirty work of maintaining the very atmosphere which we breathe[1] – the implicit presumption of white supremacy which is at the foundation of the American idea. Continue reading “The Heart of Darkness: The Appeal of Donald Trump”