“You Are Gods”: The Satanic Version

The point of Jesus’ statement, “You are gods” (John 10:34) might be summed up as theosis or being found “in Christ” or being filled with the Holy Spirit. That is, the explanation is inclusive of the New Testament doctrine of salvation. Christians, as Peter says, are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) and so participate and are in union with God. The yeast that is integrated and assimilated into the whole batch of dough is divine. The union between a husband and wife marks the mystery of human and divine union (Eph. 5). As Irenaeus puts it, “For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God.”[1]  Or as Athanasius succinctly put it, “He became man that we might become god.”[2] This may sound demonic, or at least Jesus’ contemporaries thought so: “Many of them were saying, He has a demon and is insane. Why do you listen to Him?’” (Jn. 10:20). Isn’t this demon talk or a near reduplication of the serpent’s temptation in Genesis? 

The opposite of biblical deification, at least in the church fathers, is not what moderns might imagine post-Nietzsche, when we hear, “You are gods.” That is, we might think the satanic version is simply to say the same thing again, perhaps in a slightly different register (and without all the qualifications that have been made in order to help Jesus express himself better). The statement may conjure up images of Nietzsche’s superman, or of a completely autonomous individual – the captain of his own soul, churning out values and determining his world. We may imagine a kind of irreligion or atheism which gains freedom and power in throwing off all belief.

Even in the negative assessment of the statement we may be missing the original sense, as in, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” The supposed statement of Dostoevsky (it is actually Sartre misquoting The Brothers Karamazov) attributes a potency, hedonistic though it may be, to disbelief. Whether in its positive atheistic Nietzschean guise (“wiping the horizon clean,” etc.) or in its negative conservative ideological form (presuming religion and transcendental authority are necessary to set limits to human evil), there is a presumed freedom, either liberating or dangerous. In being god and displacing God, in this misunderstood demonization, there is a presumed empowerment that is fundamentally mistaken, and the error is exposed at multiple levels.

As Jacques Lacan put it, reversing Dostoevsky’s formula: “If God is dead nothing is permitted.” On its surface this may ring hollow, but the evidence Lacan is observing in the clinic is universally available. People are sick, twisted, and mentally ill. They kill themselves at almost the same rate they kill one another. People live under deadly constraints so that death is often the only option. Violence is not a choice but a necessity: there is random violence, national violence, religious violence, political violence, familial violence, or entertaining violence, but violence is the necessity that orders people’s lives. It may not be an overt physical violence, but simply a description of the life of the individual. Intrusive thoughts reduce many to marionettes controlled by their sick conscience which takes obscene delight in not allowing a moment’s rest. Of course, the conscience torturing them is their conscience – and any pleasure had in the sickness involves the ongoing suffering of the individual inflicting the pain. The more pain, the more divine satisfaction, so that one is continually working toward satisfying the god/voice in the head.

The source of this voice may be communal or individual, religious or irreligious; it matters not. The hedonistic command to enjoy is as deadly as the puritanical command to abstain from enjoyment. The command to sacrifice may come from the gods or it may come from the neighbor’s dog. The sacrifice may be the sacrifice of the first born, the sacrifice of a virgin, the sacrifice of the soldier, or the pedophile’s child sacrifice. People are sick, but they are not sickened by freedom but by enslavement. The gods they serve, personal or corporate, hedonistic or puritanical, demand constant vigilance, constant sacrifice, and human life is mostly spent in futile servitude to what is nonexistent.

Though Nietzsche railed against the slave religion of Christianity, he too succumbed to mental enslavement and ended his life a drooling idiot. The fact that his mental break came at the sight of a man beating a horse, indicates it was not freedom but human cruelty and evil – and perhaps the cruelty he inflicted upon himself – which he could not endure. The Übermensch turns out to be a pitiful wreck, and we live in the wake of this presumed freedom which induced an even heavier dose of enslavement. But the issue was never religion versus irreligion, or atheism versus theism.

In fact, one way of characterizing Jesus’ statement and the faith of the New Testament is as a form of irreligion (only a slight misnomer). The Romans presumed Christians were atheists, because they refused worship of the Roman gods. Judaism and Christianity are both characterized by their rejection of any form of idolatry (the only form of religion for much of the world). But Jesus statement gets at the fact that idolatry per se is not the root of the human problem (isn’t he guilty, one might ask, of the very idolatry Judaism condemns?). The Jews accuse Jesus of the worst form of irreligious blasphemy in claiming equality with God. Saul persecuted Christians for the same reason his Pharisee brothers accused Jesus of blasphemy.

Humans are enslaved, but what they are enslaved by is a deadly orientation, lust, or drive, which might take an infinite variety of forms. Paul characterizes it as an orientation to the law, in which the Jewish law is only a particular instance of the universal problem. His point to the Judaizers in Galatia is that a return to Judaism is the equivalent of a return to idolatry. The weight of the law might be felt in the inclusion/exclusion of the Jewish law, but this wall of hostility is not peculiar to Jews. It is not simply a “Jewish problem” or a “religious problem” but is the universal problem of suffering under the hostile condemnation of law.  

To imagine God is doing the condemning, in the case of Jesus (and otherwise), is to miss the obvious fact that the world powers of Jerusalem and Rome are doing the torturing and killing of Christ. The killing of Jesus – revolving around his claim to deity – marks the source of the problem and the victim. The necessity to kill Jesus arises due to their respective gods. In Roman religion and Jewish religion, God incarnate must be killed to preserve the religion.

Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor arrives at the same conclusion when Jesus happens to show up at the inquisition in Spain. After healing the sick and raising the dead, the Inquisitor has Jesus arrested and that evening enters his cell, so as to explain why the Church must burn him at the stake. Where Jesus had resisted the temptations in the wilderness, it is precisely those temptations which the Roman Church has utilized to steal human freedom. The Church will offer bread in exchange for worship: “give man bread and he will bow down to you, for there is nothing more indisputable than bread. But if at the same time someone else takes over his conscience – oh, then he will even throw down your bread and follow him who has seduced his conscience.” While freedom of conscience may be the lure, “there is nothing more tormenting” than this freedom. The Inquisitor explains to Jesus that his prime mistake was to imagine there were others like him, able to bear the weight of deity. In refusing the miracle of leaping off the Temple, you wrongly presumed “there are many like you” but “you did not know that as soon as man rejects miracles, he will at once reject God as well, for man seeks not so much God as miracles.” The Inquisitor explains that Jesus has expected too much of people, and luckily the Church has stepped in where Jesus failed. But now that Jesus has shown up, he must be silenced lest he presume to speak and interfere with the established religion of the Church. Everything has been handed over to the Church and now belongs to the pope, and “you may as well not come at all now, or at least don’t interfere with us for the time being.” [3]

The weight of freedom is too much so that enslavement to religion, to gods, or to human hierarchy, is the price most are willing to pay, faced with the responsibility Jesus places upon them. Better the self-binding enslavement of the common human condition; the condemnation Paul describes in Romans 7 and which the New Testament characterizes as both Jewish and pagan, which pertains to a human problem not a God problem.  

To call it a legal problem, with Luther and Calvin, or to simply say it is a problem internal to the law, misses the point. The problem of the law is not a problem contained in the law but in people; in those who imagine life, identity, salvation, and being are in the law. But this law may consist of corporate or individual dictates. It may be a corporate law, as in the Kara tribe in which all babies whose top teeth come in before their bottom teeth must be killed, or it may be an individual compulsion to be tortured or to torture kill, rape or maim. It may be another that is destroyed, or it may be that the fervor or compulsion is directed at the self. What law is not the primary concern and abolishing the law is not the primary concern, but suspending the punishing effects of a particular orientation to the law is the point of the gospel.

But at this point the Lacanian and Dostoyevskian dictates may fold into one another. Nothing is permitted and everything is permitted may simply be two sides of the same coin. The law, individual or corporate, from God or from the individual, touches upon a drive which knows no limits and yet must be served unto death. To call this a religious or atheistic problem in our present circumstance is to miss the point that religionists and hedonists may serve the same god. Or should we imagine that Catholic and evangelical pedophiles and sex perverts, saved as they are, consist of a higher quality pervert than those dirty hedonists?

The difference may be that the religious perverts, unlike the Harvey Weinsteins of pagan Hollywood, have the corporate protection of the church to keep their proclivities from coming to light. Who is more enslaved and degenerate, the lone individual driven to sexual violence under the obscene command to enjoy, or an institution that produces and protects such an individual? Nothing is permitted on one side of the coin, but underneath all things are permitted, but both arise from the same destructive obscenity. As Slavoj Žižek has put it in regard to the Roman Church, “You must not have sexual pleasure, but you may enjoy all the little boys you desire.” Or as mega pastor Ted Haggard put it to Larry King, though he had heatedly preached against homosexuality and was then caught in a homosexual affair, “You know Larry . . . Jesus says ‘I came for the unrighteous, not for the righteous . . .’ So as soon as I became worldwide unrighteous, I knew Jesus had come for me.” Nothing is permitted and thus everything is permitted, but the same oppressive force reigns on both sides of the coin.

All of this to say, the satanic version of “you are gods” is to blind one to the source of life available in God and Christ, and the inherent moral responsibility this entails. The satanic lure is bent on selling a mediating knowledge in place of knowing God directly. Partaking of the knowledge of good and evil results in hiding, shame and fear, with idolatrous religion emerging only many centuries later. The turn from God cannot be described as empowerment (even of the evil kind). It is not the attainment of agency and freedom, but the turn to murder, mayhem and uncontrollable lust. But religion or irreligion may consist of the same punishing gods, and the point of “you are gods” is to not only name the idol, but the deep grammar from which it arises. In the context in which Athanasius and Irenaeus explain divinization this is their point. 

In leading up to his succinct statement (“He became man that man might become god”) Athanasius notes, “The barbarians of the present day are naturally savage in their habits, and as long as they sacrifice to their idols they rage furiously against each other and cannot bear to be a single hour without weapons.”[4] He describes a fearful and enslaved people who are subject to gods of their own making, but these are not deities that empower but which enslave to warfare and violence. The turn to Christ and deification is aimed at relieving humankind of its impotency in the face of the demonic gods they have manufactured. “But when they hear the teaching of Christ, forthwith they turn from fighting to farming, and instead of arming themselves with swords extend their hands in prayer. In a word, instead of fighting each other, they take up arms against the devil and the demons, and overcome them by their self-command and integrity of soul.” They gain self-command by putting off their worship of idols and, in that wonderful turn of phrase, “they turn from fighting to farming.”[5] In realizing they are made for divinity they turn from demonic warfare to the creation care of the original dominion mandate.

Irenaeus, in his explanation of divinization and “you are gods,” points to the same impotency and enslavement. Those who miss the deity of Christ and assert, “He was simply a mere man” remain “in the bondage of the old disobedience” and “are in a state of death having been not as yet joined to the Word of God the Father, nor receiving liberty through the Son, as He does Himself declare: If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36). If they do not receive “the incorruptible Word, they remain in mortal flesh, and are debtors to death, not obtaining the antidote of life.” Irenaeus references both John 10 and Psalm 82, and explains that it is those “who despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God” who thus “defraud human nature of promotion into God.”[6] By refusing the Word of God and participation in deity they remain in the sickness unto death, and this constitutes subjection to the one who wields the power of death.

(To register for our next class “Reading the Bible in Community” starting the week of September 26th and running through November 18th register at https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.19.1.

[2] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54.3.

[3] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990) book V, 250-255.

[4] Athanasius, 52.2.

[5] Athanasius is commenting on Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles, and nation shall not take sword against nation, neither shall they learn any more to wage war.” 

[6] Against Heresies, 3.19.1

The Word as the Fulness of Divine and Human Personhood: The Implication of Lacan and Žižek in Barth’s Theology

Karl Barth concludes that the Trinity, or who God is in his essence, is who he is in the three-sided aspect of revelation. “God’s Word is God Himself in his revelation.” The revelation of God is not something added to who God is, but this revealing is who he is and what is revealed in the revelation is God’s self. “For God reveals Himself as the Lord and according to Scripture this signifies for the concept of revelation that God Himself in unimpaired unity yet also in unimpaired distinction is Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness.”[1] God is the one who reveals, and he is the content of this revelation, and is the means of this revelation being received. The work of the Father as revealer, the Son as what is revealed, and the Spirit in the reception and participation in this revelation is the center of the Christian faith.

Tied up in Barth’s doctrine of revelation and doctrine of God is his approach to epistemology and his stance toward modernism and foundationalism. Revelation is the foundation of the Christian faith (and not self-certainty); it is the objective reality and the subjective appropriation of this reality which constitutes the true. To limit revelation to a proposition, a fact, or reason (another foundation) may miss that what is being communicated is not separate from the means of communication. The revelation or Word is means, content, and appropriation. This is the sui generis point of departure. This does not stand under any other condition or criteria “but is itself the condition.” This is not a possibility to be realized by other means but is the “basis of all possible self-realizations.” “Above this act there is nothing other or higher on which it might be based or from which it might be derived unless it was from the transcendence of the eternal Word of God that came forth in revelation.”[2] Here is Subject, Object, and Predicate. Revelation is not a minus or plus: “it is not another over against God. It is the same – the repetition of God. Revelation is indeed God’s predicate, but in such a way that this predicate is in every way identical with God Himself.”[3]

Barth references and dismisses Cartesian certainty: “One might ask whether this Cartesianism is really as impregnable as it usually purports to be even on the philosophical plane.”[4] His point is to begin only with the certainty of the Word of God. This Word “does not receive its dignity and validity in any respect or even to the slightest degree from a presupposition that we bring to it. Its truth for us, like its truth in itself, is grounded absolutely in itself.” There is a sense in which this might describe the Cartesian or the modern project, but as Barth indicates the modern quest for certainty does not succeed. The procedure in theology, then, is to establish self-certainty in the certainty of God, “to measure it by the certainty of God without waiting for the validating of this beginning by self-certainty.”[5] Only subsequent to this beginning is there the possibility of self-certainty. But even to speak of a beginning, as if it is to be had apart from revelation, is mistaken. It is only in the knowledge of God’s Word that a beginning can be made.

As Barth explains, the movement is not apart from the revealing work of God, though there may be the continual drive to go beyond or below or above. “The position is not that we have to seek the true God beyond these three moments in a higher being in which He is not Father, Son and Spirit.” This would amount to a denial of – an objectifying of the one who is subject. “Here, too there is no Thou, no Lord. Here, too, man clearly wants to get behind God, namely, behind God as He really shows and gives Himself, and therefore behind what He is, for the two are one and the same.” This objectifying of God, making him something other than the subject he is would reduce God to a misconstrued human subjectivity. “Here, too, the divine subjectivity is sucked up into the human subjectivity which enquires about a God that does not exist.”

Barth does not spell out or relate how it may be a failed human subjectivity that tends to objectify and reduce the divine subject, but this is implied. It is only in a healthy human subjectivity that the fulness of the divine subject can be apprehended. “For man community with God means strictly and exclusively communion with the One who reveals Himself and who is subject, and indeed indissolubly subject, in His revelation.” Something less than Trinity would fall short of the divine subject, but would fall short of any form of what it means to be subject. “The indissolubility of His being as subject is guaranteed by the knowledge of the ultimate reality of the three modes of being in the essence of God above and behind which there is nothing higher.” God is relational as part of who he is, and this relationality is synonymous with his revelation and relation to us. Who he is as Father, Son and Spirit is inclusive of revelation and there is nothing beyond or nothing further than this Threeness. This is what it means to be a subject. “Our God and only our God, namely, the God who makes Himself ours in His revelation, is God.”[6]

This capacity for relationship, for self-giving, and for inter-mutual participation names not only the divine subject, but explains what a subject or person is (including what the human subject consists of) and was made for. The relational or personal core of revelation is inclusive of the rational or propositional but these are part of what it means to be personal. The experience of the Word involves a person-to-person relation, but the human side of this exchange is established in the process. “The determination of man’s existence by the Word of God is created thus; it is determination by God’s person.”[7] God with us is God for us in the full sense, in that this is the meaning of human personhood. “God’s Word is not a thing to be described nor a term to be defined. It is neither a matter nor an idea. It is not ‘a truth,’ not even the highest truth. It is the truth as it is God’s speaking person. It is not an objective reality, in that it is also subjective, the subjective that is God.”[8] God is present in what he says and this presence is the only form of self-presence we have.

This self-presence of the Spirit of God, God’s revealedness, is “not so much the reality in which God makes us sure of Him as the reality in which He makes Himself sure of us, in which He establishes and executes His claim to lordship over us by His immediate presence.” Apart from this presence there is only a striving for self-presence and a striving for a real word. Only through the Holy Spirit can man “become a real speaker and proclaimer of real witness.”[9] Though Barth is not here drawing out the contrast between futile striving for and fruitful reception of personhood, the alternative is posed. “The Spirit guarantees man what he cannot guarantee himself, his personal participation in revelation.” Beyond this, this personal participation is a realization or fulfilment of the personal. This “Yes” to God’s revelation “is the Yes to God’s Word which is spoken by God Himself for us, yet not just to us, but also in us.” The fulness of faith, knowledge and obedience as they are realized in the Holy Spirit are nothing less than the realization of personhood. The implication is that apart from this Yes to God and revelation there is negation of the person.

As far as I know, Barth never develops a complete theory of language, or a fuller theory of the subject, beyond what he presents in this exposition of Trinity and revelation. Here is the word properly functioning, and the fulness of what it means to be a subject. However, entailed in his exposition is the implication of the dynamics of the subject apart from God. His sui generis notion of the Word points toward a similar sui generis structuring or attempt at structuring around the human word. His picture of the self-justifying and self-authenticating disclosure of God indicates the inward direction of human failure, in continual attempts at self-justification as means of having or being the self. The drive is not simply to do the right thing but to establish one’s existence. His depiction of God’s revelation as a repetition of God, indicates the prime human neurosis. The attempt to repeat the self or to have the self in repetition describes a key Freudian discovery. The compulsion to repeat is the drive to have life through a death-dealing process.  In his three-part picture of the Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness, he indicates that the attempt to go beyond this is to arrive at nothing and this circulation of nothingness or absence amounts to a three-fold displacement of the Trinity.

In short, Barth sums up the reception of the Word with prolonged appeal to Romans 8, among other Scriptures. If one would reverse engineer Romans 8 or reverse engineer Barth’s depiction of revelation, and take out Christ, the Holy Spirit and Abba-Father, what is left is the dynamic described in Romans 7 (7:7ff). There is law, the split I, and the dynamic of death and the individual caught up in this dynamic which has lost control of the body and will (being ineffective against desire), and there is an overall incapacity resulting from the compulsion to be interpolated into the law. This dynamic of death (in Paul’s summary statement), in the estimate of Slavoj Žižek, sums up the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan.

In Lacan’s summation of his theory, he claims to be doing nothing more than following the working of language as the structuring principle of the human psyche. The dynamic interplay stemming from the fact that humans speak (as opposed to God speaking in Barth) produces the three-fold interplay making up the two sides of consciousness (the symbolic and the imaginary) and the unconscious self (the real). In Lacan’s depiction, language becomes the structuring dynamic of the subject through something akin to Barth’s subject, object, and predicate. The order of language marks the interplay of the three parts of the human subject in its orientation to the word. The one who speaks is the superego, the law, or something like the conscience (in place of the Father or the Revealer). The object of this speech is the ego or I (in place of Christ), who would establish itself in regard to the law. This dynamic between the superego and ego is the taking up of death (the displacement of the Spirit). In other words, the Barthian project indicates something like the futility of the project of Lacan and Žižek. In turn, the disease, suffering, and despair of Freud from which they are extrapolating, point to the Barthian depiction of the resolution. The word as the displacement of the Word describes the human dilemma, and the Word lifting up and filling the place of the word describes the cure.


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, pt. 1, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975), 295.

[2] Ibid. 118.

[3] Ibid. 299.

[4] Ibid. 195.

[5] Ibid. 196.

[6] Ibid. 382.

[7] Ibid. 205.

[8] Ibid. 136.

[9] Ibid. 454.

Quilting Points Versus Being Clothed in Christ

Maybe it is, as Adam Philips has noted, that the most important fact about us is that we are born helpless, totally dependent upon others.[1] As Freud noted, the child’s experience of hunger, separation, and excitation is overwhelming and the drive to gain control marks all of human life.[2] We begin as helpless, overwhelmed by the chaos of uncontrollable emotions and desires, and we would hold together by attaching ourselves to defenses against this condition. Identity (individual and corporate) serves this purpose, and it is out of the web of associations (means of cohering), large and small that we attempt to ward off fear. Total vulnerability gives rise to pursuit of total invulnerability or total mastery. Being subject gives rise to the drive to subject. What the world offers is various means of quilting together the fabric of our lives so as to resist the continual threat of unravelling.

Jacques Lacan captures this process in his notion of the quilting point, which attempts to explain how the historical and social reality one inhabits become subjectivized. Contained within his explanation there is a picture of a two-fold process explaining how the social world becomes comprehensible and how I become comprehensible to myself, having an identity or unity as one experiencing the world. It is not as if the social world offers meaning that coheres differently than the individual, but both come to bear the semblance of coherence through the same process.

As Slavoj Žižek explains it, the quilting point sutures the field of the signifier (the sign, language, etc.) and the signified (what the word indicates), but in the Lacanian frame, these are not really two realms apart, as “the signifier falls into the signified.” That is the word or name seems to suture together a realm of disparate things by being included or counted as a thing itself. Žižek captures this in a series of jokes: “Socialism is the synthesis of the highest achievements of all previous historical epochs: from tribal society, it took barbarism, from Antiquity, it took slavery, from feudalism, it took relations of domination, from capitalism, it took exploitation, and from socialism, it took the name.” That is the name, in the old Polish anti-communist joke, stitches together things that should not be held together and do so only in sharing the name. So too with the anti-Semitic image of the Jew: “From the rich bankers, it took financial speculation, from capitalists, it took exploitation, from lawyers, it took legal trickery, from corrupt journalists, it took media manipulation, from the poor, it took indifference towards hygiene, from sexual libertines it took promiscuity, and from the Jews it took the name.”[3] The point of the joke is precisely the quilting point – these things do not really hold together but are contradictory and disparate and are given the appearance of holding together through the name.

Maybe it can be stated even more sharply in that the contradiction inherent to the quilting point is not simply conveniently covered over but is necessary (the force) to the internal (il)logic of the system. From out of the chaos arises unity, not because there is any actual coherence but because the world threatens and this very threat or violence must be tamed. The entry into a coherent or unified understanding, the ability to name and control the chaos, depends upon the continual threat of the chaos. That is, the unity that we would impose on the world is a desperate fiction in which our own survival is at stake. Whether it is the child gazing in the mirror and arriving at the imagined I by means of which it will hold all of the appetites, desires, and urges at bay, or the Nazi who needs the Jew to give a focal point to threat and control by which his world holds together.  

The Germans, for example, after the defeat of WW I arrived at the singular explanation which would give new life to the nation: “following their ‘undeserved’ military defeat, the German people were disoriented, thrown into a situation of economic crisis, political inefficiency, and moral degeneration— and the Nazis offered a single agent which accounted for it all: the Jew, the Jewish plot.”[4] So too the world of the white racist is given coherence through the black other, the post 9/11 American nationalist requires the Muslim other, but so too every identity depends primarily on a quilting point. Nothing new is added by the name, but now this nothing (the meaningless signifier) unites disparate features and properties into a singular thing – the name. So ultimately the signifier is the signified. The sign is reified so that it functions as an actually existing object, when in reality it is a forced fictional unity. But beginning with the child’s earliest reflexive identity, isn’t this always the role assigned to language?

As in René Girard’s scapegoating theory, the scapegoat is perceived to contain both the disruptive element to the culture or tribe, but then upon being sacrificed, the group coheres around the sacralized scapegoat/victim who has warded off danger (the very danger he bore) and brought about unity. The scapegoat functions as a master signifier, simultaneously containing and holding at bay a perceived chaos. In post Christian society, in which the scapegoat mechanism is no longer effective, the chosen trauma and chosen glory, in the description of Vamik Volkan, does not fold into a singular person or group but the same process is at work.

In a real or perceived past event, in which a group suffered loss or experienced helplessness and humiliation at the hands of a neighboring group, this trauma may become the “trauma of choice” – the shared traumatic event marking a people and linking them together. In Lacanian terms, the chosen trauma is a quilting point, inseparable from group identity, and leaders may call upon the trauma, reactivating it during times of conflict or crisis. For example, “Czechs commemorate the battle of Bila Hora in 1620 which led to their subjugation under the Hapsburg Empire for nearly 300 years. Scots keep alive the story of the battle of Culloden in 1746 and the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie to restore a Stuart to the throne. The Lakota Indians of the United States recall the anniversary of their decimation at Wounded Knee in 1890, and Crimean Tatars define themselves by the collective suffering of their deportation from Crimea in 1944.”[5]

The idea behind calling upon the trauma in times of conflict is to legitimate inflicting suffering on those (or their stand ins) who have caused the trauma. “Remember the Alamo” became the rallying cry for slaughter of Mexicans. On the other hand, September 11th is justification for the slaughter of a people that had nothing to do with the event. The Jewish Holocaust is justification for Israeli slaughter of Palestinians. The Serbs’ chosen trauma, the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, was the rallying cry connected to the atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The bombing of a military installation at Pearl Harbor, would result in the firebombing of Tokyo and the complete devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Likewise, the Nazi slaughter of civilians would result in the allies also targeting civilian populations. Through the twisted illogic of trauma as a node of identity, there is an intrinsic clinging to the perceived “necessity” of making the other suffer. In Girardian terms, a country takes on the look of its enemy in a large-scale mimesis.

By the same token, large groups have ritualistic recollections of shared success or triumph which function as chosen glories. According to Volkan, “Past victories in battle and great accomplishments of a technical or artistic nature frequently appear as chosen glories; virtually every large group (i.e., ethnic) has tales of grandeur associated with its creation.”[6] As with chosen trauma, chosen glory may be recent or ancient, real or mythological, but it also serves to bind groups together. Though chosen trauma and chosen glory cannot neatly fold into a singular scapegoat, nonetheless it is clear the two are tied together. The humiliation of Pearl Harbor and German aggression is integral to the notion of the “good war” and the “greatest generation”; “taxation without representation” is tied to the Boston Tea Party and George Washington triumphantly crossing the Delaware; the destruction of the Twin Towers and the killing of Osama bin Laden, are inextricably tied together. The chosen trauma gives substance and justification to the chosen glory.

This is not to suggest that character and personality are simply a by-product of this process, but the quilting point (a master signifier) or a shared trauma and shared glory provide the material (the quilt, or in Volkan’s terminology, the tent) from out of which we cover or clothe ourselves. We find ourselves as parts of large groups in which the nation, tribe, and extended family are determinate. Individually, we may think of career or artistic or athletic ability as unique to our identity, but what holds us together on a larger scale is incorporation into a shared core identity. While one might lose their job, their spouse, their talent or athletic ability, when one loses this core identity there is complete decomposition into what Volkan calls “psychological death.” The result may be schizophrenia, total anxiety and terror, or escape into a new core identity. One must be clothed with an identity, as to be unclothed is intolerable.

Genesis depicts this unclothed trauma, this shame, as an experience of death. The first couple deploy language (the knowledge of good and evil) as something like a quilting point (a new master signifier), deploying signs as if they could provide identity (God-likeness). So far as we know this is the condition of their offspring. Not that they bear some Augustinian Original Sin, but they pass on to their offspring the clothing problem and the language problem, as is evidenced in the psychopathic killers of the generation of Noah and the Babelites. This attempt to quilt a new cover gives rise, not only to their own experience of death, but to a series of murders and eventually to a chaos of signifiers.

The only resolution to this clothing problem and language problem, in Scripture, is the depiction of being clothed in the Word of Christ. In one of the final scenes of the Bible, the Messiah or rider on the white horse, comes with a new form of clothing.  “He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God (Re 19:13). The language problem, the clothing problem, and the inherent violence involved are addressed by the Word who provides each of his followers new clothing: “And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses” (Re 19:14).

Could it be that the story of redemption is this: the recognition of the failed quilting point, the chosen traumas and chosen glories out of which we would fabricate a violent identity, and that in the recognition we are simultaneously provided an alternative Word and identity so as to clothe ourselves in the garments of peace?  


[1] Joan Acocella, “This Is Your Life: A psychoanalytic writer urges us to just deal with it.” The New Yorker (February 17, 2013), https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/02/25/this-is-your-life-2

[2] See Simone Drichel, “Reframing Vulnerability: ‘so obviously the problem…’?” in SubStance, Volume 42, Number 3, 2013 (Issue 132), pp. 3-27. https://www.otago.ac.nz/english-linguistics/otago596051.pdf

[3] Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 13288-13300). Norton. Kindle Edition.

[4] Žižek, 13307-13311.

[5] Vamık D. Volkan “Transgenerational Transmissions and ‘Chosen Trauma’: An Element of Large-Group Identity” (Opening Address XIII International Congress International Association of Group Psychotherapy August, 1998),

[6] Volkan, Psychopolitical Concepts, Paper presented at the European Association of Transcultural Analysis Workshop, Budapest- May 25-28, 2006. https://www.academia.edu/24667252/PSYCHOPOLITICAL_CONCEPTS

Sarah Coakley’s Confusion of Sinful and Redemptive Suffering

Some conceptions (popular and academic) of Christian experience fail to distinguish between the suffering experienced due to sin (as depicted in Romans 7) and the prayerful groanings compared to childbirth (as depicted in Romans 8) connected to the redemption of all things. The former is a complete futility which gives rise to a living death, while the latter is a joyful, hope filled, experience of a new form of human subjectivity, no longer defined by the old order of oppression and suffering. Paul spends most of chapter 7 describing a form of suffering that is definitive in its all-consuming alienating agony. This suffering is the product of being separated from the love and life of God, and apart from the remedy of life in the Spirit, this suffering reduces one to complete wretchedness and death (7:24). There is suffering in chapter 8 but, in light of the hope of glory, this suffering is in no way definitive. Paul suggests it is not worthy of comparison to the hope of glory (8:17) and it is not a suffering of death but is likened to labor pain. Paul goes so far as to list the possible sufferings of the Christian – tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword (8:35) – but the point is that, unlike sinful suffering, this suffering cannot separate from the love of God. No matter the type of suffering or its source (death, life, angels, principalities, present and future, powers, height, depth, created thing (8:38-39)) this sort of suffering is not of the same order as that which can, indeed, separate from the love of God. Confusing the two forms of suffering can result in a practical misunderstanding of the normative tenor and experience of the Christian life, a misunderstanding of both suffering and redemption, and ultimately a misunderstanding of God.

At both a popular and academic theological level, the failure to delineate forms of suffering results in the valorization of suffering per se, such that it can be presumed one must continually contend with poverty of spirit, depression, darkness, or even abuse and oppression, so as to be spiritual. The compounding of the problem of mental illness and depression by well-meaning Christians (a common experience I witnessed with several friends and students in a Christian college) is bad enough, but more troubling is that the best of theologians (the very ones I admire and depend upon), are guilty of the same error. In both instances there is a tendency toward sacralizing suffering, as if suffering per se is redemptive.

Sarah Coakley is one of the most nuanced of contemporary theologians and while avoiding the cruder forms of heterodoxy, she nonetheless reifies suffering, making it integral to salvation. She speaks of a “productive suffering” and “a productive or empowering form of ‘pain’.”[1] What we learn from John of the Cross, according to Coakley, is that “physical and spiritual pain are inexorably welded together” and the “subjective experience,” whatever happens to him “neurologically or physiologically,” is of “a progressive transformation into God, even if only retrospectively understood.”[2] While we might agree that suffering is a “necessity” in one sense, in that it is tied to human experience and Christian experience, the error is to speak of it as a positive necessity, integral to salvation and Christian maturity. As Linn Tonstad has put it, Coakley’s depiction of being vulnerable and open to God “continually, inextricably, and intrinsically involves suffering.”[3]  

I am presently using Coakley’s, God, Sexuality and the Self, as a text in a course on the Holy Spirit and am in enthusiastic agreement with her description of contemplative prayer as a point of entry into reflection on the Trinity.  Her innovative examination of Romans 8 and focus on the key role of the Spirit make her text one of the best of contemporary resources, and my critique in no way undermines the basic premise of her work. But the tone of her depiction of contemplative prayer and her peculiar attachment to suffering of a particular bent, bear the mark of not having delineated the two varieties of suffering Paul is describing. Even where one might completely agree with her description of Christian suffering, the question concerns the integral necessity and quality of the suffering and the fact that there is no counterbalancing joy, peace, or simply resting in God’s presence from which one might begin. Suffering seems to be, for her, the point of departure into the deeper Christian life.

Take for example her opening description of the work of contemplative prayer:

Such deepening of vision will eventually also involve at some point a profound sense of the mind’s darkening, and of a disconcerting reorientation of the senses – these being inescapable fallouts from the commitment to prayer that sustains such a view of the theological enterprise. The willingness to endure a form of naked dispossession before God; the willingness to surrender control (not to any human power, but solely to God’s power); the willingness to accept the arid vacancy of a simple waiting on God in prayer; the willingness at the same time to accept disconcerting bombardments from the realm of the ‘unconscious’: all these are the ascetical tests of contemplation without which no epistemic or spiritual deepening can start to occur.[4]

As she makes clear further on, she is not simply presuming suffering is part of growth, but she is positing a necessary dereliction of the sort which caused Christ to cry out in forsakenness on the cross. That is, every Christian will have to pass through the dereliction of abandonment experienced by Christ. If Christ’s Spirit is that which is “breathed out of his scarred body” then this “fire of purgation (T. S. Eliot’s ‘flame of incandescent terror’, if you will)” must be allowed for along with “the refreshment of the comforting dove.” She concludes by asking, “Could it be that the acceptance of Christo-morphic pain is part and parcel of the full acceptance of trinitarianism in the ‘church’ type of Christianity?”[5]

Though she does not describe the contrast and means of passage from sin (in Romans 7) and life in the Spirit (in chapter 8), Coakley recommends a prayerful life of purgation as the/a means of transition. She says as much in her appeal to St. John of the Cross, where she describes the necessity of “negative pressure, causing disturbance, deep uneasiness, the highlighting of sin and even the fear of insanity. Such are the death throes of the domineering ego.”[6] As Cha Boram describes it, she equates “dark experiential vulnerability,” such as that found in Christ’s cry of dereliction, with a turn to dependence on God. She simultaneously sets aside the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (suggesting it is not biblical) and turns to what she calls “noetic blankness” or “that-without-which-there-would-be nothing-at-all” as the point of ultimate dependence.[7] Jacques Lacan, an atheist, would concur as he too sees the subject as arising via a reified nothingness (an atheistic creation ex nihilo). His is a subjectivity circulating the power of negation (referencing Romans 7 in his argument). It is not clear how one would distinguish Coakley’s dependence on “that-without-which-there-would-be nothing-at-all” and Lacan’s dependence on a reified nothing. Rather than a recognition of dependence on next to nothingness overcoming or destroying the ego, Lacan, in his reading of Romans 7, sees death, nothingness and anxiety as the very substance of the ego.    

The ego of Romans 7 cannot be overcome by being starved, dissolved, dispossessed, or denied, as this defines the very energetics which give it reality. The “negative pressure, causing disturbance, deep uneasiness, and the highlighting of sin and even the fear of insanity” describes the power of this ego. It is anxiety, fear, and insanity by definition. Of course, this is not anything real or part of God’s good creation. It is the substance and dynamic of a lie that has the failed subject in its grip.

Coakley’s imagined defeat of this ego (through negation, disturbance, etc.) duplicates Paul’s description of the substance of the ego. Both are a description of the energetics of the body of death. The difference is, she lends a reality to this domineering ego which Paul would deny. In Paul’s description, one does not get rid of this lie by engaging its negative pressure but by being joined to the truth.

Coakley describes negativity as if it is part of the reality of being conformed to Christ, on the order of the agony in the garden, or the dereliction of the cross, making no distinction between the suffering of Christ and sinful human suffering. She concludes that the “all too human experiences of anxiety and desolation” are indicators of “the most powerful and active presence of God.” I fear this failure to discriminate pictures redemption in the language of Paul’s depiction of sin in its reification of suffering and death.

Coakley misses the stark contrast between the human subjects portrayed in the two chapters (Romans 7 & 8). The “I” split within himself, colonized by sin, in continual agony due to an oppressive orientation to sin, is deceived and this deception is definitive. This “I” does not arrive at life in the Spirit through intensifying his struggle, as this struggle is deadly and marks “I” as wretched and hopeless. The subject of 7 is without hope, without the Spirit, without prayer, without Abba Father, without Christ, and all he has is law and a desire which has overtaken him in deception with death. This subject is suffering, but this suffering is not redemptive but deadly. The intensification of the suffering seems to be its natural trajectory but no matter how intense, this suffering does not produce the Christian subject of chapter 8.

The only way to move from the deadly suffering of 7 to the birth pangs of 8 is through a change of subject. The passage from the subject of chapter 7 to that of chapter 8 has already been detailed in chapter 6 (verses 3-4): “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Paul’s call is for the Roman Christians to live up to their baptism and to the fact that they have been joined to the death of Christ. Having been joined to him they now have his resurrection power, so that they might “walk in newness of life.” They are not joined to the death of Christ through their own dereliction but through his. It is not their capacity to overcome sin but his which enables them to reorder their lives. Paul is calling them to act like who they are. He calls them to take up a cruciform and resurrected life because this is already the reality into which they have been inducted. “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom. 6:5-6). Their life is no longer defined by an alienating, oppressive orientation to sin and death. Certainly, their will, their practice, and their discipline are called upon, but this is not the point of departure but a reality enabled by Christ and the gift of his Spirit. “For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:10-11).

What we should learn in the contrast between Romans 7 & 8 is that the human tendency to valorize and reify death and nothingness induces the suffering originating in a form of failed human subjectivity, and to separate out this sort of suffering from the groanings of the Spirit and groanings of creation will put a different emphasis and tenor on prayerful participation in the Trinity depicted in Romans 8. Both 7 & 8 might be linked to different versions of creation ex nihilo, but in 7 the nihil and nothing serve as an abiding resource, so that the failed subject might be described as channeling the force of negation and death as if it is life. The gift of the Spirit depicted in 8 brings creation ex nihilo to bear directly on human subjectivity, so that the redeemed subject has life as a direct gift from God.


[1] Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 36.

[2] Sarah Coakley, “Palliative or Intensification? Pain and Christian Contemplation in the Spirituality of the Sixteenth-Century Carmelites,” in Pain and Its Transformations: The Interface of Biology and Culture, ed. Sarah Coakley and Kay Kaufman Shelemay (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 91.

[3] Linn Tonstad, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude, (New York: Routledge, 2016) 114. The above are quoted in Cha, Boram (2019) Suffering, Tragedy, Vulnerability: A Triangulated Examination of the Divine Human Relationship in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Rowan Williams, and Sarah Coakley, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/13372/

[4] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self (Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition) 19.

[5] Ibid, 180.

[6] Coakley, “God as Trinity: An Approach through Prayer.” In We Believe in God: A Report by The Doctrine Commission of the General Synod of the Church of England, 104–21 (London: Church House, 1987) 109-110. Quoted in Boram, 157.

[7] Coakley, Powers and Submissions, 56. Boram, 155.

Primal Desire: The Desire to be Recognized

O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, And are intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O Lord, You know it all. You have enclosed me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it.

Psalm 139:1-6

Desire is the primary concern of psychoanalysis but it is also front and center in the biblical portrayal of human failure and redemption. The web of experience, conscious and unconscious, symbolic and beyond, is woven into the ordering and structure of human desire.  In psychoanalytic treatment, the goal is to lead the analysand to articulate their desire or bring it into consciousness or into full existence – which is an unending process.

In biblical terms, there is an effort to channel or rightly order desire as there is the presumption that it can be misdirected and destructive. In both psychoanalysis and the Bible desire cannot be fully articulated as there is a fundamental incompatibility between desire and speech. Speech and cognition cannot fully grasp desire.

Unlike a need, which can be met and satisfied, desire is a constant pressure which both theology and psychology call eternal, but there is a crucial difference in these two eternities. In psychoanalysis desire is a relation to a lack and this is its eternality. Though the Bible and theology distinguish a failed desire – a covetous or exponential desire of lack – there is also the description of desire as it relates to God and is primarily God’s own desire. So desire in the Bible takes on a positive eternality.

One of Jacques Lacan’s oft-repeated formulas, confirmed in the Bible, is: “man’s desire is the desire of the Other” (S11, 235). This can mean that basic desire is to be recognized by the Other or it can mean that one’s own desire is an imitation of another’s desire. In the first case, all humans want to be “desired” or “loved” or “recognized.”[1] The second meaning is partially tied to the first, in that desire is learned or mimetic, arising from the Other. The subject desires what the other desires or she desires from the perspective of someone else. It is not the intrinsic quality of an object but the vested quality of its being desired by another which makes it desirable. In Alexandre Kojève’s explanation, this second possibility is tied up with the first, in that imitating another’s desire is still an attempt at being counted worthy of recognition. To desire what another desires, goes back to the former point about desiring recognition, as possessing what is desirable the subject becomes desirable.

This mediated desire however, can take on a bad eternality in several senses. There is no end of the objects to be desired or of the models of desire. Since this desire is for what one does not have it will always be desire for something else. To have it is not to desire it. The impossible nature of desire may be Oedipal, or desire imitating the father’s desire for Mother – the primordial Other. As long as desire remains unconscious it is likely to take on this consumptive tenor of lack or impossibility in which one is continually climbing a ladder of desire and never getting off the ground.

To get rid of the bad eternalization of desire, not a clear possibility in psychoanalysis, requires recognizing the nature of primal human desire. The Apostle Paul names desire for recognition and places it front and center – trumping even one’s knowledge of God: “But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” This is parallel to Galatians 4:9: “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world?” To be chosen, recognized, or loved by God speaks to a reckoning with desire which psychoanalysis never clearly approaches. Paul names this an alternative or resolution to the world’s elementary principle. Isn’t this the desire that drives the world, but in going unnamed it simultaneously orders the world and creates the consumptive drive destroying it?[2]


[1] This insight can be traced through Lacan to Alexandre Kojève and Hegel.

[2] The case could be made that this is the primary movement in redemption – to be known and recognized by God. 2 Timothy 2:19: “Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.’” John 10:14: “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me.” John 10:27: “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me,”

Philosophy with Paul and Freud

Before laying out the philosophical possibilities of Paul and Freud, it should be noted that both provide a peculiar impetus for engaging in philosophical discourse: people are sick and philosophy is a means of aiding the diagnosis. Philosophy is not a realm apart from what it means to be human but is a concentrated articulation of this predicament. The reason for taking up philosophy with Freud and Paul is not the reason with which philosophy tends to justify itself – as a quest for ultimate reality, the articulation of what is ontologically the case. Philosophy puts on display the failures we all experience but it also provides an alternative means of understanding the needed cure. So, the point of delving into philosophy in this instance (which is not every instance), is primarily theological. Philosophy provides alternative access, a well-articulated demonstration, a clear presentation of the human disease addressed by the Great Physician.  

The Apostle and the founder of psychoanalysis describe the human subject as consisting of three registers, which are simultaneously interdependent and antagonistic, and these registers not only pertain to the (sick) individual but describe the three possibilities of philosophy. This philosophy in three parts revolves around three facets or three surfaces created by language functioning as prime reality. Philosophy, like the human subject, consists of language as a medium, language as providing an object, or language as a mode of negation. Paul refers to these three parts as the ego, the law, and the body of death, and Freud references the same basic parts as the ego, the superego, and the id (or it). The English word “ego” is a transliteration of the Greek word Paul deploys to refer to himself, and he situates this “I” as an effect of its relation to law and death (thus he will speak of the dissolution of the “I” as a cure).

Freud, in his final period, arrives at his three-part construct with his recognition that Eros (sex, life, pleasure) is inadequate to explain the sickness of the subject, so he posits Thanatos or death as a second instinct, and with his positing of this death instinct he arrives at the tripartite subject. This would amount not only to a new topography of the Subject but a different understanding of the energetics at work in the Subject. No longer did Freud see mankind as controlled by one goal, rather man seemed bound towards death in and through the detour that is life. It was not that death as a force (independent of man) overwhelms man, but that man stands opposed to himself and brings about his own destruction. He takes death up into himself, all the time imagining that it is the means to secure or save the self (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 54). Jacques Lacan will note that with this positing of a second instinct, all of Freudian theory can be translated from the biological into a linguistic realm. He pictures the three parts of the subject as three sides of a primordial or founding linguistic construct (a lie). In this sense (and Lacan notes as much), it is a spreading out of the Pauline category of law, and the human problem with the law, to include language per se.

How we read Paul in regard to the law will determine the role accorded to language and philosophy. If we read Paul and the New Testament as primarily concerned with reconciling us to the law, this is an indicator of the philosophical stance that will result. It is no accident that it is Anselm, who posits the definitive nature of the law in our approach to God and in the meaning of the atonement, while at the same time incorporating Platonic philosophy into theology. The point is not to blame Anselm but to point to his founding of scholasticism (the fusion of theology with Greek thought) as the end point of a process in which language per se (in the law, in his description of the subject, in his description of reality) becomes primary. Thus, the philosophical/theological task is, like the job of every good lawyer, to describe/prescribe the law of the Father (Anselm pictures it as a zero-sum game in which there is a precise logic at work). This is the Aristotelian Philosopher king sort of philosophy in which there is an unquestioning wisdom attached to this order of knowing, not perhaps so much in the details as in its very authoritative status as an order of wisdom.

In this understanding, determining reality and how it is to be negotiated is the joint undertaking of philosophy and theology as both are engaged in the same discourse (law, logic). The law of the Father gives us metaphysics, Newtonian science, and consists of a singular (conscious) surface which prevails from Plato to Descartes. Anselm’s law of the cross is precisely a philosophical, legal, requirement and his approach to God is through a linguistic formula (the ontological argument). Everything is ontological, or in Freudian terms “phallocentric,” so that theology is an extension of philosophy (ontotheology) as language puts all things in our grasp. The law is the logos is the Logos without interruption.

On the other hand, if we recognize that Paul is actually suggesting that the law is in no way normative or even regulative but is, in fact, enmeshed in contradiction (due to sin), our philosophical stance will be a turn from metaphysics (concerned as it is, primarily, with how to describe a harmonious reality). Now we have to do with a discontinuity, a questioning of the law, and a turn to the human subject. Paul describes two contradictory laws at work in the mind and body and we are, according to Paul, ruled by a law that, by definition, we do not know. Sin has deceived us with regard to the law and we do not any longer have control or understand what law is at work within us. Now our concern is not so much with keeping the law, describing the law, extending the law, but there is a questioning of the law.

With the passage through Luther and the philosophic shift from Kant to Hegel, philosophy as psychology comes to this second element of the subject. Prior to Kant it was just a matter of looking into the mirror of nature and allowing Being to disclose itself but now the categories of perception receiving the phenomena of the world are removed from the thing in itself (the noumena). Just as Kant notes that Descartes’ “I think” in no way discloses “the thing that thinks,” he notes that there is a necessary obscuring in perception of the reality which stands behind it. It is not that perception is an illusion but it contains apriori categories (the ontic) which do not coincide with the ontological. This difference is illustrated in a series of unresolvable antinomies: time and space are limited by a perceived beginning and yet are infinite and necessary categories; the world is composed of simple parts and yet these simple parts are nowhere in existence; spontaneity is part of the causality of the universe and yet the world takes place solely in accord with the laws of nature and without spontaneity; there belongs to the world a being that is absolutely necessary and yet this being nowhere exists. Where pre-Kantian philosophy would mark this up to the illusion of false appearances, which it is the task of philosophy to get beyond, Kant does not denounce this appearance of reality as secondary but he raises the question as to the very possibility of appearances.

With Hegel there is the presumption that the Kantian antinomies are not mere gaps in understanding but pertain to reality. Reality itself is incomplete, built on antagonism, and dependent on death and absence. God himself, in Hegel’s taking up of Luther, is made complete only in his dying on the cross. Sin and salvation, or good and evil (among other contrasting pairs), have the same ontological ground (to which there is no alternative), so the same structure and categories inform each. The goal is not to overcome the gaps or difference (to defeat evil) but to conceive the gaps, which seem to keep the subject from arriving at full self-identity, as the origin of the Subject (and thus to reorient the Subject).

Philosophy up to Hegel is seeking to harmonize reality, presuming that the gaps or antinomies can be explained or covered over. Kant posits the impossibility of this overcoming while Hegel begins with the necessity of this difference. Hegel too is presuming a comprehensive program for philosophy, but he presumes it is just a matter of counting in the antinomies, gaps, death, and nothing, as not only part of reality but productive of reality. The antagonism at the heart of identity through difference, the dialectic, is at the very center of the negative force generating reality.

In Lacanian terms, we pass from the masculine identity with the law to a feminine questioning of the law. The masculine-superego-metaphysical attempt to say it all is ruled out of court as the thing that thinks – the subject herself – eludes us. Thinking of Richard Rorty, nature turns out to be a mirror that excludes us from its reflection. The history of philosophy might be mostly reduced to one long gaze in the mirror, and with post-Kantian philosophy the mirror comes up for examination. The philosophic mirror stage was a long time in coming but now the phenomena of knowing becomes the primary concern as “taking a look” turns out to be inadequate.

Between this masculine, superego, law-based register and the feminine, ego, contradictory and inaccessible law-based register there stands the id or the real or the third phase in philosophy.  Here the focus is upon what underlies the difference between the masculine and feminine – the pure absence or nothing.  The Freudian, Lacanian place in philosophy would assign this idic or real the primary role.  If there is a positive unfolding of nous or spirit in Hegel, here there is no question that primacy is given to death and the power of death taken up in the negating power of a lie. Thus, this third phase is the necessary pointer to that which lies beyond the subject and the powers of philosophy. The atheism of Lacan and Žižek is a full-blown Pauline sort of recognition of the necessity of suspending the law and the God associated with this sinful orientation. The punishing effects of the sinful orientation to the law, or the disease of being caught up in the antagonism of dialectic, is the domain of this idic third phase in philosophy. Here philosophy becomes most theological as this diagnosis of the human condition is the proper realm of theology – a realm relinquished by theology and which thus made room for and gave rise to psychoanalysis.

I do not mean to suggest these three possibilities are exhaustive of the relation between theology and philosophy. This clears the ground though, for a different sort of exchange, neither masculine nor feminine nor idic, between philosophy and theology. This fourth way begins where Romans 7 and where Žižek and Lacan leave off, in that it proposes a dissolution of the real and a suspension of the power of death as the controlling third term in the subject and in philosophy.

The Immoral Argument for God

In philosophy of religion and apologetics the moral and religious arguments for God proceed from the universality of religious beliefs or morality to the conclusion that God must exist. As C. S. Lewis describes the moral argument, there must be a universal moral law, or else ethical or moral disagreements would make no sense, all moral criticism would be meaningless, promise keeping would be unnecessary, and no one would think to make ethical excuses.  From here Lewis extrapolates to a moral Law Giver who made us like himself, instilling a universal moral law within us. The religious argument proceeds along the same line, extrapolating from a universal or perhaps sui generis religious experience to the existence of God.  This presumption is taken up in modern religious studies in the positing of a sui generis notion of religion (all religions can be traced to the same source) and the presumption behind the moral argument is taken up in modern ethical studies in the notion that the primary work of an ethicist is to study ethical quandaries in an effort to arrive at correct decisions (reducing ethics to human decision and will). In both instances there is the presumption that the impetus to morality and religion can be extracted from the particulars of culture (in pure reason or transcendental experience), as if there is a universal reason and experience not mediated by culture.

An inherent problem to both of the arguments concerns, not just their legitimacy (which might be preserved), but the mode of argumentation or reason undergirding the arguments, which more or less reigns in both secular and religious studies. In theological studies, for example, there is a common presumption that universal understandings of religion and morality are parallel to the religion and morality of the Bible and that there is no need to challenge either the impetus behind religion or morality as they are universally experienced.  This strikes me as false at several levels: it is not true to the deadly nature of religion and morality on display all around us and it is not true to the biblical depiction of human morality and religion. What seems obvious (and we do not need atheists to make the argument, as this is the biblical picture) is that human religion is foundational to humankind and that foundation is murderous (the working premise of the theory of René Girard and of various apocalyptic theologies). In turn, morality may indeed be instinctive and innate, such that the human sense of justice, morality and law, whether corporate (giving rise to war) or personal (giving rise to murder) is directly connected to the worst forms of evil, justified as part of a righteous cause (which is not to reduce all morality and justice to immorality and injustice but simply to indicate the human bent).  

Kant’s moral argument demonstrates the potential problem with every moral argument, in that it does not conclude to any specific or definitive moral content and it has been deployed in the name of the worst sorts of evil (see here).  A specific result of the Kantian notion that ultimate moral duty is accessible through reason, is the presumption that knowing the right and recognizing evil need not be informed by Christian faith. Human reason and moral sensibility are presumed sufficient to arrive at the truth, and Christ is a prototype of what can be otherwise known by reason, though we may still need rescue from out of the world, even in Kant’s understanding.  The general result (of Kant and the Enlightenment) is a division between theology and philosophy of religion, in which certain topics, such as the problem of evil, have been partitioned off from theological explanations of the Cross, and theological explanations of sin have not engaged the possibility (which I presume is the biblical explanation of evil) that human morality and religion are (potentially?) immoral and evil. This is rather odd, considering that we live at a point in history in which it is nearly universally recognized that the worst of human atrocities, the Holocaust, was carried out by the heirs of the Enlightenment. Given the realities of history and the actual arguments which were set forth in the wake of Kant, the alternative to the received religious and moral philosophical arguments for God might begin, not from a presumed positive moral and religious understanding, but from the opposite. What I will call the “Immoral Argument” is a partial indictment of the traditional arguments but also a suggestion that the inverse of these arguments points directly to the specifics and necessity of the work of Christ.

To lay the groundwork for the immoral argument, the two notions of evil, privation theory and radical evil (a term coined by Kant), have to be considered in light of the Cross. Assigning evil, either to privation of the will or to the necessity endured in order to have a free will, as has been done in philosophical theology, precludes grappling with evil as radical or diabolical (the biblical picture of what the Cross defeated).  Rather than pit these two theories against one another, radical evil (the notion that evil is its own ground) might be equated with the lie of the serpent in Genesis, the covenant with death in Isaiah, and with the prominent role of the diabolical in the Gospels. It is not simply a theory to be judged true or false, but in the Bible it is a false possibility, as it is a lie that is posed and acted upon as part of human reality. Interestingly, Kant hits upon the notion of radical evil as part of his depiction of human freedom and autonomy, which fits with the biblical lie of sin (the drive to human autonomy and an alternative knowledge).

In defending perfect freedom, Kant requires both a will acting without constraint or contingency (so as to be free) and reason, which is self-evident and self-grounding. It is this combination of free will and reason which gives rise to his categorical imperative: “It is there I discover that what I do can only be unconditionally good to the extent I can will what I have done as a universal law.” The will contains the possibility of the good as it enacts the universal moral law uncovered through reason. His concise formula of this imperative, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” is the compelling force behind duty and morality.  He concludes that “If one finds the right and acts on it from the motive of a purely good will this is to walk the path of perfect moral duty.”

Even in Kant’s own explanation, the possibility that one is committing evil, under the compulsion or conviction that he is doing the good, poses itself. Given the moral maxim that one should always tell the truth, he can find no exception, even when it might mean the death of an innocent person (a murderer asking after a hidden victim must be answered truthfully, according to Kant). “I must not lie – confronted with the temptation to do so, I sense the categorical imperative as the claim upon my will. I ought to tell the truth for the truth’s sake. With that pure motive, without self-interest, I decide to tell the truth; morality has prevailed.” Kant is prepared to let the chips fall where they may on behalf of moral duty.

 The truth for truth’s sake seems to have taken flight of any earthly consideration or particular contingent circumstance. As Stanley Hauerwas has noted, “Only an ethics based on such an imperative can be autonomous, that is, free of all religious and anthropological presuppositions. Only by acting on the basis of such an imperative can an agent be free. Such an ethic is based on reason alone and can therefore be distinguished from religion, politics, and etiquette.”   Jacques Lacan claims, in his critique of the Critique of Practical Reason, that Kant displays “a respect for something entirely different from life, in comparison and contrast to which life and its enjoyment have absolutely no worth. [Man] lives only because it is his duty, not because he has the least taste for living. Such is the nature of the genuine drive of pure practical reason.” 

To arrive at a non-contingent necessary reason, the basis for true freedom, reason cannot be grounded in anything else; it must be its own ground. But this self-grounding reason also poses the possibility of a self-grounding evil. His imperative does not specify any particular context or content but poses itself as a self-evident and absolute duty. Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem and the Marques de Sade both appeal to the categorical imperative to justify genocide and murder, which coincide with their sense of moral duty. That is, much like Kant, they arrive at radical evil through the categorical imperative, with the difference that they choose to act upon it.

So, what we call the “moral law” may be nothing more than the superego or the law of sin and death. What Kant calls the categorical imperative can and has been read as a form of moral masochism in which one would serve the father, which could be mistaken for God or God’s law, but which is nothing other than one’s own father image (Freud’s superego, the source of the drive to masochism and sadism). Kant’s moral imperative (or something like it) has been taken up by societies and individuals as a pure form of deadly desire, which Paul sums up as the dynamic of the body of death.

The incapacity of the will Paul describes (doing what he does not want and not doing what he wants) is not due to a lack of a sense of duty or an ignorance of the law. There is no one more duty bound or more steeped in moral and legal imperatives than Pharisaical Paul, but this duty drives him to arrest Christians and consent to their death. It is precisely the Pauline categorical imperative which makes him the chief of sinners, but Paul assumes everyone is subject to the same desire and the same law which give rise to universal immorality. So if we were to make a moral or religious argument of Paul’s theology of salvation, it would be an argument beginning from immorality: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world” (Eph. 2:1). The exposure of universal moral and religious failure in the Bible would seem to weigh against appeal to an an innate positive moral capacity but this also seems to pose another possibility.

Something is displaced in both the moral and religious experience of most people, but this displacement or negation also points to what is hidden from the understanding. When the Hebrew prophets confront idolaters, this is depicted as a lifting of the covers or an exposure of something hidden, which is meant to shame them and bring about repentance. This means the hiding must include repression or hiding from the truth which the prophets bring to consciousness. The hiding of the first couple, the hiding of the Jews behind false idolatrous religion (or ancestor worship and necromancy in Isaiah), or what Paul describes as a hiding behind the Law in Galatians, is dependent upon the repression and negation of what must be available at an unconscious level. Paul’s argument is not that this is a peculiar experience, as all are called to repent from what at some level, they must know to be a falsehood.

Neither the typical religious or moral intuition point, in and of themselves to God, but in their positive form they constitute a self-grounding system (on the order of the categorical imperative and the presumptions behind radical evil). The experience of Paul in Romans 7, for example, depends on the negation and absence of God. God the Father is negated by an orientation to the law (the law serves in place of Abba); the experience of life in the Son is negated by the “I” or the ego; and life in the Spirit is negated by the dynamics of “this body of death.” This trinitarian negativity constitutes an identity in which God is unavailable but indicated, even in his absence. Trust in this system, in Paul’s explanation, is exposed in the agony (Ro. 7) and evil (Ro. 3) it produces. To stick to the law, to the categorical imperative, or to the lie of radical evil, ensures that one will never encounter the God of the Bible, but the danger which Paul warns of and implicit in the moral and religious argument, is that one will mistake the absolute of the moral law for God.

Perhaps this pertains to the legitimacy of the moral and religious arguments only to the extent that they depend on the notions that there is universal access to the moral law and a universally positive religious experience from which one can extrapolate by means of a neutral, objective, and universal reason to an understanding of God. This may not be a wholesale invalidation of some form of the arguments (a weak form?), but it would seem to call for an alternative understanding of reason, and a relinquishing of the notion that there is access to a universal and definitive moral law.

Maybe all my argument amounts to is that there is access to God only through Christ but even this understanding contains its own moral and religious argument as even in his absence, in immorality and false religion, God leaves his trace.

(Registration will be open from Friday the 16th for the next class with Ploughshares Bible Institute, “Imaginative Apologetics,” go to https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/about)

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.

Beyond Hysteria: From Frankenstein’s Monster to Hegel, Freud, and Paul

For most of human history people lived out their lives in the codified cocoon of traditional societies in which the cosmic order was presumed to dictate immutable laws determining every aspect of human life. One might respond by submitting or transgressing, but the laws were held in place by divine dictate. To change up the world order was not a possibility and was made a possibility only by one who would claim to be the way, the truth, and the life. Changing the world order is a possibility introduced by Christianity but the notion of freedom, even among the first Christian heretics, is perverted to mean an absolute freedom from all constraint.  Freedom from the law combined with the revolutionary notion of recreating the world, apart from the specifics of the work of Christ, created a stream of thought already developing in the Corinthian Church but famously represented by such key figures as Descartes, Hegel and Nietzsche. Beginning with doubt and constructing from the foundations up (Descartes), with death and nothingness itself as foundational (Hegel), philosophy marked the turning to a radical freedom in which no values hold (Nietzsche). Continue reading “Beyond Hysteria: From Frankenstein’s Monster to Hegel, Freud, and Paul”

The Biblical Personality Spectrum: 1. The Masculine

Paul, in his depiction of the various stages or possibilities for the human subject (building on the Old Testament), depicts four primary ways of being human or four ways for ordering human subjectivity. The primary poles around which he arranges these four possibilities are desire, language, and death. Each of these elements are interrelated, as desire has to do primarily with lack (lack of being, mortality, death, finitude, sexuality) and language or the symbolic order (law, authority, culture, religion, etc.) is the medium through which desire is channeled in dealing with lack. Each of the primary poles is linked (not exclusively but primarily) to an embodied cognitive capacity so that the auditory, the spectral, or the sensuous, are either privileged or subordinated in the four subject positions. In turn, the emotional spectrum (which is inclusive of all three poles and is not simply “feeling”) can be ranged from the root negative emotion of shame (in which lack or death holds sway through the spectral and sensuous) to guilt (in which the symbolic dominates) to love (in which the punishing effect of the symbolic is suspended).  For Paul, it is not simply a matter of being a Christian, as he will locate Christians in several places along the spectrum, but he does trace a developmental progression. In this short piece, I will describe the first of Paul’s four subject positions: the masculine. Continue reading “The Biblical Personality Spectrum: 1. The Masculine”