Learning to Breathe: Is Your Religion Making You Sick?

John Cheyne writes of epidemics of insanity among Christians desiring to be more holy. Obsession with sin, blasphemy, and fear that one had somehow committed the unpardonable sin has been a prime cause of insanity.1 Pietistic melancholy, Methodist quests for perfection ending in mental breakdown, narratives of lives revolving in and out of asylums due to the disease of religion, seem to point to a literal aggravation of the human disease rather than healing. Scott Peck’s advice to many of his patients, though he was a Christian, was to shed their religion as it was making them sick.

Typical is the story of William Cowper who was in and out of a private asylum over a forty-five-year period due to “religious melancholy.” He suffered from feeling forsaken by God and during these times he would battle Satan and an “infinite despair.” He repeatedly attempted suicide. Toward the close of his life after twenty years of unbroken religious melancholy, Cowper writes, “I have had a terrible night— such a one as I believe I may say God knows no man ever had. Rose overwhelmed with infinite despair, and came down into the study execrating the day when I was born with inexpressible bitterness. And while I write this, I repeat those execrations, in my very soul persuaded that I shall perish miserably and as no man ever did.”2

There is a desperate breathlessness which is aggravated by sick forms of religion. It amounts to an intensification of desire. As Anselm would put it, “you do not deserve something which you do not love and yearn for in a way proportional to its importance… (CDH 1,20, p. 303).” What is owed is a proportional yearning. Heightened yearning reaching infinite proportion – it is after-all that important. This breathlessness is captured in the Hebrew depiction of Eve “breathing after” the forbidden fruit. She has turned from the “tree of breath” (or life) from which God’s breathing life into them is continually renewable. As she turns from the tree of breath to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil she begins, in Hebraic imagery, to lose her breath as she goes panting after (lusting after) life from another source.

The psychotherapist, Jacques Lacan, depicts human mental disease as arising from this simultaneous absence of life and seeking life in and through the very mode of its absence. The intersection in which life and death are confused he calls the “symbolic” and he equates this with what Paul refers to as “law” in Romans 7. The “law” or the “symbolic” is an “organ of desire” constituting a key part of human subjectivity. The disease which humans have contracted lies within this part of the Subject which goes breathing after life in the attempt to gain it through its absence. This “breathing after” sort of desire captures precisely the experience which Anselm sees as the mode of salvation. (The implicit complications of understanding Anselm may be worth the effort in realizing this is his argument leading up to his explanation of the necessity of the death of Christ.)

Anselm arrives at the conclusion that the essence of humans is an unvoiced word – a breath, through the assumption that man, being in the image of God, can, like God, arrive at his essence through his breath. As Anselm unfolds the meaning of the phrase “expression of the supreme Being is no other than the supreme Being” it will become clear that he means both that this is an expression of (supreme) Self and an expression constituting (supreme) Self. Accordingly, the rational soul that is in the image of the supreme Self enters into rationality as such, by coming to the “place” (the unvoiced voice – breath) of expression. Where being meets Being and itself or rather the manner in which it comes to itself is by grasping that it is in its own interior expression of itself. He has in mind the image of God speaking the world into existence, but this is itself only an image of a deeper reality of God having his Being in and through his expression of himself. In turn, the individual created in God’s image has his or her being in the same sort of dynamics of self-expression dubbed the word.

The psychoanalytic description of what Anselm is recommending is the attempt to be one’s own father by integrating the self into the word or place of authority (generative authority over life and death). In Paul’s language in Romans the attempt is to integrate oneself into the law, through transgression and suffering, and through this integration to establish the self (attain life) through the law. The manner in which life is gained is through the punishing effects of the law so that what Paul is describing is transgression of the law by imagining that there is life in and through the law. Paul notes this danger in his questions in Romans – “Is the law sin?” “Shall we sin that grace may abound?” Where the law is equated with sin the law is established through its transgression. Žižek refers to this as perversion as it results in perverse attempts to establish the law by servicing it through sin. For example, the exhibitionist puts himself on display so as to become the instrument of the Other’s pleasure and finds his enjoyment in being reduced to an object of pleasure (Ecrits, 320). The implicit claim is that there is pleasure to be had; there is an unlimited, infinite Thing whose power can be established and tapped by serving it. In Žižek’s description, “For the pervert, the object of his desire is Law itself – the Law is the Ideal he longs for, he wants to be fully acknowledged by the Law, integrated into its functioning” (Reader, 117).

Desire is the key word here, describing the drive of seeking fusion or union with the self through suffering and punishment under the law (being integrated into the law). Lacan and Žižek refer to this desire, which is the pure form of evil and death drive, as jouissance. Žižek takes up Lacan’s illustration of jouissance, employing Kant’s example of the man given the choice of committing adultery if he knew he would suffer capital punishment as a result. Kant presumes that the building of a gallows outside the door where the girl of his dreams awaits would be enough to dissuade him. Žižek, following Lacan, notes, in contrast to Kant, that many Subjects “can only enjoy a night of passion fully if some form of ‘gallows’ is threatening him” (Reader, 289). (Think here of Paul’s indictment in Romans of those who know that these things deserve death but do them anyway.) Jouissance as the pure form of the death drive sets up a repetitive attempt to attain the satisfaction or enjoyment which can only be achieved with “the disappearance of this life” and “a return to the inanimate” (Seminar XVII, 51). The enjoyment held out in the death-for-sex scenario of Kant is precisely the requirement of jouissance, in which absolute enjoyment would achieve a final and full return to a perceived plenitude that involves dissolution of the Subject (a return to the inanimate). There is a desire that works against life in its attempt to secure a fullness of being.

Anselm’s description of a desire of infinite proportion aimed at getting beyond language seems to be this same desire. This pure locutio, “does not consist of more words than one, but is one Word, through which all things were created (M 30, p.91 D).” In its illocutionary form, words or the law (in their multiplicity) are emptied of “true” content, while the Word (the supreme Law residing within) is without any nameable content. To put it differently, this Word that is desired or which is the impetus of desire does not contain any propositional content (it does not say anything other than itself) and this saying, which is below (the ground for) sensuous significations of words and voice, is itself ineffable. So, when Anselm says, as he does in M 67 that “The mind itself is the mirror and image of that Being,” he is not suggesting that one can turn around and contemplate the self from a point outside the self (that one can get outside one’s own discourse of self). Rather, it is the mirror image itself, internal to itself that is desired. The mind, therefore, might be most appropriately called its own mirror. The mirror in which it sees the reflection of that which, famously, it cannot see ‘face to face’ (M 67, p. 73).

The mind as its own mirror, in Anselm’s description, speaks at once of a dual image fused into a singular thing. It is not like seeing the face in the mirror – a reproduction or reflection of the object (the self) mirrored back. This is something one cannot see ‘face to face’ because the reflection is what is sought. Rather, the singular image, in its reflective power (its own reproduction of itself) is self-production. It excludes the possibility of another in a ‘face to face’ encounter because it seeks to overcome otherness to be self-identical with itself. The obvious imagery here is Lacan’s “mirror phase,” in which the child’s ego takes form as an image in the mirror which he imagines (Lacan thus calls it the “imaginary”) is himself. He arrives at consciousness of himself through self-alienation and the drive to attain the ego (the object) in the mirror. The way that one achieves this self-identity with the self is to follow Anselm’s example, “in silent meditation by itself, as my mind does now” (M 32, pp. 94 95 D).

The desire giving rise to Anselm’s meditation seems to be to repeat the self so as to continually give birth to the self. Memory initiates remembrance and this action produces (a conscious self-presence) the word. “The Word is properly conceived of as the child, the memory most appropriately takes the name of parent” (M 48, pp 112 113 D). It is not clear if the human Subject can come to this full self-presence but the point is not success so much as effort. “What is more obvious, then, than that the more earnestly the rational mind devotes itself to learning its own nature, the more effectively does it rise to the knowledge of that Being, and the more carelessly it contemplates itself, the farther does it descend from the contemplation of that Being?” (M 66, p. 132 D). As Lacan has stated it, “Do not give way on desire” as desire itself (in his atheistic understanding) is life. All one can do is to strive to manipulate the death drive in the form of desire as a form of life.

Anselm is describing the death drive under the auspices under which it always makes its appearance, the compulsion to repeat. What would ultimately be repeated – given birth to – is the self. But all you really have in his description is the continual birth-pangs of attempting to give birth to the self through the self. The identity of the parent is the supreme Spirit and “his memory is himself.” “…he so remembers himself that he is his, own memory.” There is a perfect “resemblance” of his image in the Word and through his memory he takes up the image that he is. As Anselm has stated it earlier, “it belongs to the supreme Spirit most truly to beget, and to his Word to be most truly begotten,” and what is begotten is a repetition of self-cognition. As in Descartes’ cogito (“I think therefore I am”) the drive is to think the self so as to produce or establish the self. In Lacan’s description, the repetition is the insistence to be through language. To use the symbolic order (law) to establish the self is to set up a machinelike force of destructive compulsions to achieve being (the death drive) (Seminar II, 326).

The attempt to attain the self through the self describes the relation between what Freud called the superego and the ego, which he connects to religion and morality. This has to be understood in light of the fact that Freud considers religion a manifestation of the delusion of imagining life can be gained from the father (the law or what Lacan calls the symbolic). The superego passes judgment on the ego (a transliteration of Paul’s word in Romans 7) and through this punishing relation to the “I” takes unto itself a god-like stance. Mental illness arises as the need to suffer, to experience guilt as a moral factor, and through the punishment of this suffering to satisfy the “law” or to integrate oneself into the superego (The Ego and the Id, 49). This is seen most clearly in melancholia, where we “find that the excessively strong superego which has obtained a hold upon consciousness rages against the ego with merciless violence” (The Ego and the Id, 53). In Lacan’s description, the violence is aimed at reducing two things, the superego and the ego, to one thing so that there is not a split or a feeling of alienation and separation within the self. (The melancholic religious suffering of William Cowper captures the precise nature of the drive to fuse the self into the law.)

The very point in Anselm’s text when he seems to be verging on rational ecstasy and fusion of the self with the self, he arrives at the subject that gives him the greatest pleasure. “But, while I am here considering with interest the individual properties and the common attributes of Father and Son, I find none in them more pleasurable to contemplate than the feeling of mutual love” (M 49, p. 113 D). The ecstatic self-union in which the Word is conceived is synonymous with the “production” of the Spirit of love. “The supreme Spirit, then, loves himself, just as he remembers himself and conceives of himself.” (M 4.9, p. 114 D) As he explains, remembering himself and conceiving of himself are the reason he loves himself (M 49) and this internal divine movement is also how man loves himself. Anselm rejects the notion of a union between Mother and father and their love as an inadequate analogy, not because of its suggestion of sexual union, but because it contains too much differentiation. He turns again to the analogy of breath to describe the achievement of self-love through self-sameness.

The singular Word does not consist of the phonetic differential of ordinary language (or the differences of the created order) but is expressed in an unarticulated breath. “Breath” captures the holistic immediacy of a cognitive embrace. What is sought is an immediate consciousness of self, fused together in self-love. “For if the mind, alone of all created things, can love, understand and be conscious of itself, I do not see why one should say that it is not the true image of that essence which, in its love, understanding, and consciousness of itself, constitutes an ineffable Threeness” (M 67, p. 73). His Trinitarian form here is like Paul’s and Lacan’s tripartite self of “I” (ego) the flesh (the real), and the law (the symbolic). When immediate consciousness (memory) is conscious of itself (remembrance) there is a fusion (love) that makes of the three an ineffable oneness as one becomes his own unified trinity. The drive is to make of the tripartite alienation a fused singularity in which the self becomes self-identical.

What Lacan and Anselm are both describing is an experience of language which passes beyond any particular locution to an underlying force. This sola tacite disputando (solitary, silent, self-argument) is an experience containing an immediate temporality. He is prescribing a self-remembrance, which one grasps in the repetition of the experience. The Spirit that expresses itself and has itself in its expression is the same dynamic as the thinker doing what “my mind does now.” Unfolding this ontological utterance of “I am” is Anselm’s project. The point of following the meditation that is the Monologion, and most particularly that pertaining to the Trinity, is the explanation or attempted reproduction of this “what I am doing now.”

The self, thinking itself or arriving at its essence, will entail a separation from the world – a thinking away of the world. Remember that what he is describing is ultimately salvation and he is leading up to explaining the reason Christ became a man. Christ did not die, in Anselm’s estimation, to achieve a particular relationship to the world; rather his picture of rectitude or righteousness is a departure from the world. It must be a pure thought freed from the constraints of all else to begin to express itself as the self in an unadulterated form. The self must express the self to be a self and nothing else must be taken up in this self-expression. Keep doing it so as to rightly remember yourself into existence. Anselm’s final point in this argument, that apart from Wisdom he could not do what he is doing at this instant, is his argument in a nutshell. “I am doing it now” (sicit nunc mens mea facit) is itself an indication of the continual repetition he is recommending. The fusion of self with the self, or the closing of the gap within the self, is his explanation for why Christ died. Christ’s death enables the will to achieve a self-sameness which would seem to reduce to death itself. Yet this achievement is the ultimate satisfaction – divine satisfaction which is experienced in the satisfaction of arriving at the self.

This divine satisfaction is perverse in that it imagines satisfying the law is a means of establishing the self in the law. Far from being moral or religious this coincides with Žižek’s understanding of radical evil. The desire to suffer or to project suffering on another (sadism) to satisfy the punishing demands of the law (or to satisfy the father) is the human disease. Serving this obscene super-ego as if it is God is the end point of a religion which has confused the problem with the solution. This obscene superego God will require ultimate suffering and evil and will never really be satisfied.

The point of Christianity is not to serve this obscene superego produced through a perverse orientation to the law. Neither is the point to rescue the ego or to engage this death dealing dynamic as if it contains the resolution. This drive to destruction and death is not the answer but the problem. As Lacan recognized, the ego is the obstacle to mental health as it is a false construct constituted in fear and frustration before the superego. The Apostle Paul announces the cure when he proclaims in Galatians that the dynamic itself is undone in Christ – the “ego has been crucified with Christ.” The dynamic of suffering under the punishing effects of the law are finished – not by meeting the law’s requirements but by suspending the punishing law (the law of sin and death).

1 Jeffrey Williams, Religion and Violence in Early American Methodism : Taking the Kingdom by Force, 2010, 6.

2 Ibid


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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