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.

Apocalypse as Overcoming the Deception of Misenchantment

It has been suggested (here), from a variety of sources, that the problems and solutions posed within an apocalyptic theology (hereafter “AT”) are either contradictory or ambiguous. The unified difference of AT with contractual theology or a salvation historical approach, focused as it is on cosmic bondage and liberation rather than personal guilt and payment, is clear but what, exactly, constitutes the cosmic element of this bondage and liberation? Is it literally demonic or does the demonic serve as a metaphor for the systemic nature of a humanly generated enslavement and, in either case, does the demonic serve in place of articulation and understanding? What role is there for faith or human agency in a system that puts the emphasis on superhuman agencies (demons and God). AT has been accused of being so cosmically minded that it is of no individual good? So, what role for faith and individual agency and precisely what power is it that Christ defeats and how?

I have suggested that the ambiguities and questions raised by AT might be addressed in development of the notion of self-deception, which, in the abstract, may seem either unlikely, or if duly considered, may seem inescapable. That is, to claim that we are fostered in deception and darkness might seem to be a religious abstraction of such magnitude that it is a sort of meaningless metaphor, but then descriptions of how we are captive to culture or to capitalism, nationalism, sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, might paint a picture of inescapable determinism. This parallels the proposal of the demonic in apocalyptic theology: it may seem unlikely that satanic forces (literal or metaphorical) control the world and if they do, best leave that mysterious predicament to an equally mysterious in-breaking of God. The recognition that this enslaving force consists of the elementary principles of the world, thrones and political powers, spiritual and human forces, the very way we think and are constituted in our thinking, might result in the counter-inclination to claim this matrix constituting the Subject is impenetrable and irredeemable. In describing the problem, however, isn’t there already the sense that we may have become enmeshed in a lie which does not have us completely in its grip, as we have named it and, by extension, through our own agency we may be part of its generation.

To illustrate how self-deception might help negotiate the problems posed in AT, let me propose the work of Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, as an example of the machinations of a cosmic-like deception and active human agency. McCarraher’s starting proposal is that the world is the “sacrament” through which the power and presence of God were meant to be mediated. This opening recognition simultaneously approaches how it is that a failed religion or a failed imagination might “misenchant” the world, as the power of God is assigned to subordinate or created powers (as in Paul’s description in Romans 1), and how it is that this failure is overcome only through rightly recognizing God.

McCarraher is following and refuting the story of Max Weber, in his supposition that capitalism and secularism have disenchanted the world, so that in ridding the world of spirits and deities, reason and science now rule. Haven’t we broken the shackles of dutiful worship, the subordination to the past, the slavish subjection to this vale of tears in hope of a future reward, so that now we are set free to fulfill the self? In the words of Michael Lewis, capitalists are “practitioners of liberty” who “do not suffer the constraints of their private ambition” and who “work hard, if unintentionally, to free others from constraint.”[1] Has capitalism evacuated sacredness from material objects so that the enchanted forces which were once revered no longer structure our devotion and desires?

McCarraher musters a long line of witnesses to suggest there is no difference between the enchantments of mammon and religion.  Journalist Naomi Klein writes of the “the contemporary religion of unfettered free markets” and claims, “corporate business has always had a deep New Age streak,” with branding as the most advanced form of “corporate transcendence.” These neoliberal totems of enchantment (the Nike swoosh, the Starbucks siren) indicate, in the estimate of Barbara Ehrenreich, that despite its reputation for focus on the bottom line, corporate business is “shot through with magical thinking,” inspired and mesmerized by New Age quackery and bunkum. Jesus Christ, Lao-tzu, Buddha, or Carl Jung, provide the keys to the “seven habits” or “four competencies” or “sixty-seven principles of success,” as arcane as end-times prophecy. According to David Brooks, acquisitiveness stems from a “sacramental longing,” a desire to enter “a magical realm in which all is harmony, happiness, and contentment.” Or as historian Steve Fraser puts it, in the stampede for consumer goods slumbers “a sacramental quest for transcendence, reveries of what might be.” Thomas Carlyle, speaking of 1840’s industrial England, perceived “invisible Enchantments” which left owners and workers alike, “spell-bound” by “the Gospel of Mammonism” in which money possessed and bestowed its “miraculous facilities.” Marx and Engels wrote of the capitalist, in The Communist Manifesto, as “like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world he has called up by his spells.” In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes of “the fetishism of commodities,” and of the attribution of human or supernatural qualities to manufactured goods. Even Weber, after tracing the supposed disenchantment which arises with the Protestant Reformation, writes that “many old gods ascend from their graves” avatars of the “laws” of the market animated by the spirits of “the gospel of Mammonism.” Capitalism, Walter Benjamin informs us, is a “cult” with its own ontology, morals, and ritual practices whose “spirit . . . speaks from the ornamentation of banknotes.”[2]

McCarraher maintains this is not hyperbole or metaphor but that capital bears similar enchantments to a world animated by spirits and deities. He proposes that that capitalism, with its perversion and parody of enchantment is not a disenchantment but a misenchantment. As he explains, capitalism is its own sort of cult with its own liturgical codes and high priests, or those who have mastered the arcane art of the deal.

 Its sacramentals consist of fetishized commodities and technologies— the material culture of production and consumption. Its moral and liturgical codes are contained in management theory and business journalism. Its clerisy is a corporate intelligentsia of economists, executives, managers, and business writers, a stratum akin to Aztec priests, medieval scholastics, and Chinese mandarins. Its iconography consists of advertising, public relations, marketing, and product design.” Capital is “the mana or pneuma or soul or elan vital of the world, replacing the older enlivening spirits with one that is more real, energetic, and productive.[3]

Though “secularists” imagine they are free of the enchantments of ideology, in Slavoj Žižek’s estimate, which accords with McCarraher, there is a very particular reason that the world, sacred or secular, glows with the same ideological enchantment. He maintains that in capitalism and not religion, resides the “archideological” fantasy, in that one might imagine he can simultaneously play this game and withhold commitment. Where the religionist may bow down in fear before his gods, the modern ideologue imagines that his is a voluntary consent to enchantment.[4] Žižek argues that the most successful ideology makes room for this “distancing” (even the religious sort). We all know money has no intrinsic value, but this supposed distancing allowing for an “inward conscious freedom,” is itself part of being fully interpolated into the ideology. In religious ideology there is an obscuring of the origins of the idol which closes off the supposed freedom of choice. Like Aaron’s explanation to Moses, the golden calf was not shaped by human hands, it miraculously emerged from the fire and all were forced to worship. Where religion played the role of obscuring the reification of the symbolic, capitalism proves the lie still works even when exposed.  Everyone may know that money has no intrinsic value but, according to Marx, “they know it, but they are doing it anyway.”

The fetishist knows full well that the shoe is only a shoe, but this does not dissolve the need or pleasure of the fetish. In the Matrix, Cypher knows that the Matrix is a computer-generated virtual reality but this does not subtract from the pleasure of his virtual steak or for his desire to “be someone” virtually important in the virtual world: “someone like an actor.” The Matrix is the big Other, and in the end, there may be nothing more satisfying than to be reinserted into a warm vat of embryonic fluid and to once again become part of its ordering of reality. To be “somebody” in the Matrix will mean being literally reinserted (interpolated) into its energy of enchantment.

In the Lacanian version of misenchantment, misrecognition (méconnaissance) of the self is engineered through the register of the symbolic order (the law, the father). One “sees” himself, the ego or “I” as an object through the matrix of the Other or the symbolic order. Whether this Other is God, the Party (as in Stalinism), the People (as in communist China), or the State, the Subject is only constituted in the struggle to be recognized by this agency. (The struggle before the law described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 7.) To be interpolated into the law or to find satisfaction through whatever “master signifier” one may serve, is the peculiar form of human enslavement. This master signifier works by holding out the glow of enchantment (its being, its significance) to its Subjects, but this god must be obscure, unknown, or mute as the master signifier works by simultaneously withholding and promising meaning.

To be a Subject in this order is to “make one’s mark,” to leave a legacy, to accumulate significance, whether that of zeros and ones or just the accumulation of numbers (Anselm’s doctrine of divine satisfaction makes direct appeal to both money and a heavenly calculus in which there is a limited space creating a quantifiable amount). Though they “do not know what they do” in a first order of belief or understanding, the significance of enchantment is that the Other (God, the heavenly calculus, the symbolic order) knows and sees. The worshipper presumes the priest understands the Latin of the mass/matrix, and if neither priest nor laity comprehend, the magic/enchantment still registers with God/the big Other. Every society depends upon this structuring symbolic order, whether it is presumed to be ordained by God or “secular” powers is not determinative of the degree of misenchantment.

If knowledge, whether self-knowledge or knowledge of God, is to be freed from ideology or misenchantment, it must be freed from the dualism between self and Other or between the ego and law/superego by knowing the unified Subject of God.  Where alienation is the structuring principle of the failed Subject and her world, knowing God as the living, personal Word, cannot accommodate this mute deity. Knowing God overturns this impenetrable Other and its alienated subjectivity. The true Subject, the self-communicating God, in the act of communication frees from the bondage of dualism – the servitude of striving to be interpolated into the law – as there is no distance between the subject and object of knowledge. God as the object of knowledge is also the Subject who knows, first in Christ but in all who are “in Christ.”

Do we learn this truth, Kierkegaard asks, as if we are constituted a learning Subject prior to the founding of this subjectivity? This knowing does not reason to the truth but from the truth. The truth determines the form of reason. The truth, Kierkegaard concludes is in the relation to God, who constituted the whole relation, and falsehood or the sickness unto death is to imagine that this one who relates would found the relation within himself. In Lacanian terms he would create a subject-object relation within himself through the Other of the law. Kierkegaard comes closer than any other thinker prior to Lacan, in The Sickness Unto Death, in laying out the empty death dealing nature of this relationship to an empty Other. At the same time, he points to the apocalyptic nature of knowing God. His so-called “fideism” is simply the refusal to subject God’s self-revelation to a method incapable of receiving knowledge of God. God has acted in his Self-revelation to make us (complete?) Subjects, so that this revelation is the act of reconciliation and this soteriology is an epistemology.

As Thomas Torrance describes a Barthian approach to AT, both “how God gives Himself to be known” and “how one receives and knows what is given” are revealed in Christ.

“In short Jesus Christ is Himself both the Word of God as spoken by God to man and that same Word as heard and received by man, Himself both the Truth of God given to man and that very Truth understood and actualized in man. He is that divine and human Truth in His one Person.”[5]

If, as Samuel Adams puts it, “we prioritize the theological sense of ‘apocalyptic’, then we (methodologically?) subject all worldviews and contexts to the freedom of God’s sovereignty over his own self-revelation. This event of self-revelation is the apocalypse, in subjectivity and objectivity, of Jesus Christ.”[6]

The alienated subject/object relation is a misenchanting lie, empty in both poles of the relation, and only overturned and filled out by Christ. This seems to clarify the hue of the supernatural (the seemingly demonic) in every form of human enslavement while tracking human agency in the generation and overcoming of the lie through the truth.


[1] Eugene, McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon (p. 3). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] McCarraher, 3-5.

[3] McCarraher, 5-6.

[4] But even this description is not entirely accurate or always the case. It is very doubtful that an upper-class Roman of the first century directly believed in the Roman gods, anymore than a modern-day Japanese directly believes in his religion. He does not believe it, but he does it anyway as it seems to work.

[5] T. F. Torrance, Theological Science, 50. Quoted from Samuel Adams, The Reality of God and Historical Method: An Examination of Theological Historiography in Critical Dialogue with N. T. Wright.

[6] Adams, 124.

A New Ordering of the Body of Thought

We can trace three psychological types in the New Testament, which correspond to three psychoanalytic descriptions, in which the coordinates between the mind and the body are determinative of alternative perceptions of reality.  What might be called the inside out person is completely subject to the valuation of cultural norms, such that there is no interior conflict or alternative awareness, at least at a conscious level (here we encounter the most common type and the most frightening possibilities). The second type is someone who begins to question the order of things (the cultural norms, the symbolic order, the law) but the struggle with these norms is still determinative, as there seems to be no way forward or no escape. The third type has not exactly escaped appearances or phenomena arising from the symbolic or cultural order, but there is a turn to an alternative order of experience.  Deploying the work of the philosopher Michel Henry, it is this third type that I want to explore in depth, but a description of the first two orders of experience will indicate the way the third order of experience is constituted.

The inside out person, the individual who knows who she is based on the scale of values afforded by complete identity with the law or the symbolic order, is at one level the most transparent and the most dangerous. Paul, during the phase in which he is arresting and presumably aiding in killing Christians, is transparent in his identity. He describes this phase of his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free in which he regarded himself “without fault” in regard to the law. As he describes it in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6). Paul has a clear conscience.  No introspective guilt-stricken conscience here. By reason of his birth, his descent from Benjamin, his linguistic and cultural identity as a Hebrew, Paul considered himself faultless and head and shoulders above his peers. His status as a Jew is his identity. This is an inside out world, as we understand this Paul by the outward markers of the law and his Jewishness. Inside out characters must be the most predominant: the Adolph Eichmanns of the world, willing to find their identity in the bureaucracy, the law, the legal proceedings, making sure the trains to the death camps are running on time. Their ambitions, hopes, and desires, are determined completely by the particular symbolic world in which they find themselves. Perhaps we all come to age as petty bureaucrats, presuming the order of things and the scale of values are those set out by the social order.

In Lacanian psychoanalysis this type is dubbed masculine, not because it necessarily pertains to gender, but because of complete identification with societal authority or the father figures of a particular cultural order. As Paul describes this type, “the law dominates the man for whatever time he lives” (Romans 7:1 DBH translation). Paul will identify this type, according to his own experience, as ignorant of their own actions and an incapacity to discern evil. There is a fusion between sin and the law so that Paul, at the time he was doing it, could not discern the sort of evil in which he is engaged. As he describes, in a parallel passage in Galatians, his zeal for the law and his advancement in Judaism were marked by his persecution of the church and his desire to destroy it (Ga 1:13-14). For Paul, the law was not a marker of sin and evil but was fused with sin such that he could not perceive his own evil due to his zeal for the law. As he advanced in law-keeping and in Judaism he simultaneously advanced in his participation in evil. It did not occur to Paul the Pharisee that there was a reality which exceeded the measure of the law. Clearly, Paul is not imagining that in this understanding he has rightly perceived the law; quite the opposite, as he dubs this orientation as “having confidence in the flesh.” [1] The problem is, the flesh marked by the law, has become a principle unto itself.

The second type of subject questions the cultural symbolic order but this questioning and challenging become definitive of this individual. Paul devotes most of chapter 7 of Romans to describing this individual, continually tossed about by their orientation or disorientation to the law. While this person is perhaps a step-up morally and spiritually from the first type, this psychologically tormented individual is consumed with their personal struggles. Sometimes these folks bring a breath of fresh air into our lives with their willingness to challenge all the norms but ultimately, they are exhausting as we realize there is no end to this pursuit of freedom against the law.

 Ironically, in kicking over the traces, shedding all the shackles of culture, this person is oriented to a transgressive questioning of the law, but it is still the law that defines them. This radicalized freedom might express itself philosophically, politically, socially, or as is most often the case, sexually (e.g. democratic revolutions including the American Revolution in which freedom is enshrined as an end in itself, in Marxist and communist revolutionary movements, and in the gender revolution of the moment). The possibility of reconstructing, from scratch, what it means to be human unleashes a plague of possibility. Beyond good and evil, unchained from the worlds sun, not only describes a philosophical realization but a nearly unbearable psychology and a new form of personality or personality disorder. The two most common psychological disorders might be traced to this agonistic questioning. Where obsessional neurosis is structured around the question of existence (think here of the Cartesian cogito in attempting to establish being through thought), hysteria is structured around human sexuality: “Am I a man or a woman?” or “What is a woman?”

The problem of the first two subjects is that their life is defined by the symbolic order. This order might be associated with law, culture, normative values, or simply language. The problem is how to suspend this order so that a person’s life is not spent in service to an artificial construct. Slavery, bondage, deception, and exodus, redemption, and truth, are the motifs under which the Bible poses the problem and solution. The passage is described as new birth, recreation, adoption into a new family, or citizenship in an alternative kingdom. At its most radical it is depicted as an exchange of one cosmic order for another or one sort of body (the body of death) for another (the body of Christ). The movement is not away from embodiment but towards a different sort of body, constituting a different sort of world. 

The way that Paul pictures this as happening in both Colossians and Ephesians is in and through Christ’s flesh. “He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body” (Col. 1:22) “by abolishing in His flesh the enmity” (Eph. 2:15). The enmity with the symbolic order is taken up in the sickness of the self that is definitive of the human disease. To state the reversal of this state most succinctly, the Life that is God (as opposed to death under the law), revealed in and as Christ, is communicated to us through the incarnation, in which we can become participants (through the body of Christ). At a basic level, this is to give absolute significance to embodiment. Where the human body is written over with the law, it appears as a medium for the true significance of the symbolic order.  But the body is not a medium but a source of significance in itself, and this distinguishes it radically (substantially) from other things (which are lent their significance symbolically in language).

As Wittgenstein put it, “The best picture of the soul is the body.” It is because there are human bodies that there is a world of communication and it is by my body that I belong to this world. But there is a profound sense in which we are dispossessed of ourselves, of our bodies, as the flesh becomes symbolic of something else. The first two sorts of subject inhabit a world controlled by the flesh and the desires of the flesh, not because they occupy their bodies, but because the flesh is written over with a significance in which it takes on an alien principle. Paul describes it as giving rise to hostility as it pits the self against the self, the self against God, and the self against others. Paul’s “confidence in the flesh” speaks of an objectifying and distancing from the center of life. There is a sense in which we are restored to ourselves, to our own bodies, without interference, only through the incarnation of Christ. That is, we become incarnate (peace is restored, the dividing wall of hostility is broken down) as we become as he was, incarnate, truly inhabiting our bodies, and this is definitive of true life.

The philosopher Michel Henry begins with the realization that experience of life, pure subjective experience from within, contains the only direct phenomenological access to life. Life reveals itself in itself through the flesh. Everything else presents itself from a distance and poses a gap between the perceiver and the perceived. In his exposition of the Word become flesh in John, Henry points out that if this is the way the Word becomes human, then relationship with God is to be had in and through the flesh. The flesh is not an obstacle but is the locus of our identity with God.[2] This explains why the Word becoming flesh is revelation (John 1:14). It is not that another body among many has appeared, but the flesh of the Word is the revelation. To say the Word became flesh is not to add something else to the Word. This is the cogito as it should be, without any gap between the subject and object of reflection, but pure revelation. There is not, as with ordinary human words, the possibility of duplicity or misrecognition. As Henry puts it, “Because the Word has become incarnate in Christ’s flesh, the identification with this flesh is the identification with the Word—to eternal Life. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.’”[3]

The danger is that we might reduce the body of Jesus by allowing a symbolic significance to reduce it to a sort of mystical writing pad. So, step one is to acknowledge the primacy of the incarnate Jesus. The story of Jesus is the story of Trinity. The mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal generation of the Son. There is nothing secondary, shadowy, or even analogous about Jesus. Jesus is the reality of God incarnate. Jesus is the absolute truth and an absolute morality. The mystery of God revealed as Trinity does not unfold from a fleshless (asarkos) heavenly realm but from an embodied earthly realm. In turn, all human bodies are accorded their full meaning as they participate in this fullness of incarnate significance.

This reconstituted world through the flesh is determined by the incarnate Christ. This world is not a symbolic order pointing elsewhere but meaning inheres in it. There is a world where law might reign or where it has not yet been determined what one should do or can do. In Christ’s embodied life what we should do is determined and what we should not do is determined. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). What we are to do flows from the absolute which is the body of Christ. Notice that it is Christ Jesus – the incarnate Christ. His human body is the source of significant behavior. His body and our body and human embodiment is the place from which the absolute flows, not from a transcendent law, or a vague situational principle, or a symbolic order utilizing the body and the world as its medium. The body is not a tool or a medium for writing, or a megaphone for the voice, such that we are inside of it, manipulate it, and “have” it. The flesh of the body is our incorporation into the world, community, communion, and communication.

The hostility of the flesh written over by the law is undone in Christ. Living significance (as opposed to a dead letter) is restored as “now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). As we inhabit his body, we are no longer divided in ourselves, from one another, and from God. “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Eph. 2:14). Entering this peace is synonymous with life and meaning and is a first order experience which serves as its own ground of meaning. This is a self-validating and self-evident truth and not a truth that refers elsewhere or mediates something else. This truth is without the gap between signifier (I think) and signified (I am) as the life is in this Word of truth. There is no gap in this order, as it is a Word enfleshed, a direct access to life and the realization of life as a first order experience.


[1]  Žižek, Ticklish Subject, 247-51 Lacan dubs this most common human a “pervert.” Perversion does not refer so much to abnormal sexual practices as to a structure in which the subject sides with the law in the attempt to escape its punishing effect and to partake of its surplus enjoyment. Every individual, religious or not, who presumes to sit in judgment and to punish others in the name of the law, God, Jesus, the Nation, etc. is acting out the simple formula Paul epitomizes as the sinful orientation: the law is completed or established through sin. There is a denial of sexual difference and of death in what Žižek describes as giving oneself completely over to the symbolic without regard for finitude and mortality: “Perversion can be seen as a defense against the motif of ‘death and sexuality,’ against the threat of mortality as well as the contingent imposition of sexual difference.”

[2] Michel Henry, Incarnation: A Philosophy of Flesh (Northwestern University Press, 2015), 124.

[3] Words of Christ, 124. I am following John Behr’s exposition of Henry in, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 296 ff.

I Kissed Dating Goodbye as I am no Longer Human: Curing This Sickness Unto Death

Total freedom and the possibility of total destruction are not simply global phenomena (the “free” possibility of ending organized civilization through nuclear warfare or global warming) but are conjoined in a “despairing” Subject. Progress toward attaining the self, whether it brings down the world or simply destroys what is, marks the present world order but also the despairing, fear bound Subjects emerging at the end of late modernity. This despair, in Søren Kierkegaard’s depiction of it, might be despair at not being conscious of having a self, or despair at not willing to be oneself, or despair at willing to be oneself, but all three reduce to the same predicament.[1] There is a disease of the spirit (the spirit of the age or the individual human spirit) a dividedness and fear in which unity is sought (becoming or attaining the self) in negation of the self. Kierkegaard calls it “the sickness unto death.” Continue reading “I Kissed Dating Goodbye as I am no Longer Human: Curing This Sickness Unto Death”

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 Origin of Evil: The Perverse Personality

This week Christopher Watts was sentenced to three consecutive lifetimes in prison for the August murders of his pregnant wife and two young daughters. He explained that he had hoped to start a new life with his girlfriend. After strangling his wife and smothering his children, Watts
buried his wife, Shanann, in a shallow grave and put his daughters, Bella and Celeste, in containers of crude oil. The Washington Post reports that neither prosecutors nor the surviving relatives of Shanann, Bella and Celeste Watts who spoke at Monday’s hearing expected to ever understand how a seemingly normal person could annihilate his entire family. Watt’s parents, Cynthia and Ronnie Watts, could not believe their son had done such a thing but in light of his confession they asked only that Watts one day explain himself.   Continue reading “The Origin of Evil: The Perverse Personality”

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”

Baptism (Fully Realized) as the Resolution to Pedophilia and Sexual Abuse

The violence of “Christian” pedophiles, sexual abusers, and whore-mongers – or to state it differently the characteristic forms of perversion found in Roman Catholicism, evangelicalism, and fundamentalism, respectively – on Walter Benjamin’s scale of violence (per his “Critique of Violence”) amounts to “law-maintaining” violence. That is, these systems consistently churn out characteristic forms of sexual transgression as part of the necessity of maintaining the status quo of these forms of belief and their institutional structures. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is obvious that these systems structure desire, through law or doctrine, in such a way that the transgression supports the desire and the belief attached to it. Fundamentalism gives us a steady flow of Jim Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggarts, and evangelicalism churns out its endless Bill Hybels, in the same way that Roman Catholicism seems to manufacture pedophiles. By not coming to grips with the characteristic nature of sin these systems reconstitute it. To state succinctly (what I expand upon below), the object of desire is that which is relinquished or lost and this loss is definitive of the identity produced. This identity produces a split within the body (the self or soma) such that the law of the mind (be it that of Roman Catholicism or of fundamentalism) is established through the transgression of the flesh.  The law always has its transgressive support – doing a particular form of evil so as to produce a particular form of the good. This is Paul’s definition of sin – which indicates that these forms of faith may perpetuate, rather than identify and dispel, sin. Continue reading “Baptism (Fully Realized) as the Resolution to Pedophilia and Sexual Abuse”

The Necessity of a Liberation Theology: Slavery is Sin

The humor of Slavoj Žižek continually makes the singular point that the law or the symbolic realm is an oppressive force, so pervasive in its power, that it is inescapable. A man who fears chickens thinks he is a grain of corn and likely to be eaten. He is institutionalized and undergoes years of therapy. On the day of his release he runs back into the hospital as he has encountered a chicken. His doctor patiently insists that he must now understand that he is not a grain of corn. The man readily agrees that the years of therapy have paid off, he says, “I know I am not a grain of corn. “But,” he asks, “does the chicken know this.” Is escape from the “big Other,” God, the law, or fate, possible? For Žižek, the category may be subject to manipulation but ultimately the mind of the chicken cannot be changed. Continue reading “The Necessity of a Liberation Theology: Slavery is Sin”

Neurotheology Versus Psychotheology: The Deception Behind Experiences of Enlightenment

Part of the attraction of neurotheology, with its focus on chanting, prayer, meditation, and various spiritual exercises (rapid movements of head, body, arms, etc.) is that this a direct route to interrupting negative habits of thought without having to deal with the particulars of belief. Those who achieve “enlightenment” experience a shift in consciousness that seems to open up their world beyond everyday consciousness. They report feelings of greater peace and compassion that pervade every part of their life. The feeling is so intense that it exceeds belief, or at least any particular form of belief, so that it may result in the suspension of belief. Andrew Newberg (the leading researcher in the field) equates the experience of enlightenment with a “shaking up” of cherished beliefs. He maintains, “Beliefs are principles that you formed in the past, and enlightenment — going by the dictionary definition — means ‘to bring new light to ignorance.’”[1] Add to this the hard science of brain scans and the literal reshaping of the brain by means of “intense ritual,” and the recommendations of Newberg seem irrefutable.  Experience trumps belief such that the experience contains the truth that will bend or shape belief accordingly. Isn’t this precisely what is needed in this moment in which Christian belief is proving to be one more degraded ideology subject to the manipulations of the most recent demagogue?  Do not belief and doctrine simply serve as justification for cruelty? While every religion may be effective in describing a particular portion of reality, as with the story of the five blind men and the elephant, error enters in when one imagines that his description precludes the description of the others. The wise man can see what the blind religionists cannot, the various religions affirm a common core of reality (they all have hold of the same elephant) they simply approach it in different ways (the trunk, the tail, the leg, etc.). Is it not the case that the various religious traditions are more or less “true” to the extent that they have a piece of the elephant and help human beings overcome self-centeredness and become open to love?  But when religionists insist upon particular doctrines and beliefs it is like a blind man claiming an elephant is all snake-like trunk. Continue reading “Neurotheology Versus Psychotheology: The Deception Behind Experiences of Enlightenment”