The Cross as Spectacle or Model

Idolatrous religion, by definition, is focused on an image and is made for the eyes. In Buddhism, the size and sheer spectacle of the religion is key. We lived near the world’s largest Buddha in Japan– one you can walk in and which even has public toilets (in the Buddha). The power of the religion is to be felt in its visual presentation – bigger is better as the intent is to overwhelm the visual field. Idolatrous religion feeds what the psychotherapist, Jacques Lacan, calls “scopophilia.” The love of looking is definitive of a form of human subjectivity in which the libido or desire is set upon attaining an object in the visual field. The idolatrous and the pornographic play the same role in holding out a lure or object which can only heighten desire in the looking and can never satisfy it. Idolatrous religion, in its employment of the phallic symbol (or in Japan what is literally a “penis idol”) points directly to sexual empowerment. The sexual, though, in idolatrous religion, as in human desire, is a vehicle of a more basic desire which is the driving force constituting a form of subjectivity.

The key characteristic of this desire, as portrayed in Scripture, is that it is centered upon looking. The lust of the eyes and the pride of life, in John’s description, is not simply an occasional problem but is descriptive of a form of life and subjectivity. John seems to be referring to the Fall of the first couple in which Eve turned from listening to the word of God and saw that the fruit was good for attaining life and wisdom. The Hebrew, as I have previously explained, portrays her panting after (lusting in a breathless fashion) the fruit. The Fall is a move from a Subject defined by relationship to God and his word to a Subject dependent on sight. The self-objectification witnessed in shame at nakedness, Adam’s stumbling first sentence in which he repeats “I” four times, and the all-around alienation, points to the constitution of a subjectivity founded in the alienating mode of the visual. The writers of the New Testament will characterize failed humanity in terms of a covetous, desiring, lust of the eyes. The point of Christian salvation is the birth of an alternative Subject founded, not on sight, but on belief. Faith and hope, founded upon the Word, are a departure from what is seen, and believing creates a new way of being human.

The history of how Christian theology, and specifically the theology of the Cross, turned from privileging the auditory to privileging sight might be told as a turn to the metaphor of the “mind’s eye.” Martin Jay, in Downcast Eyes, traces the history of western thought as it became centered on this metaphor. It is his contention that Platonic thought, taken up into western philosophy, meant this thought was captured by the visual metaphor. Anselm of Canterbury sets out to systematically incorporate Platonic thought into his theology and it bears all the marks of the visual.

At the end of the ontological argument Anselm claims to have seen God, yet he also acknowledges that he has only seen darkness. However, with the accomplishment of this thought a name is attached to the darkness and with this name a new understanding of the void itself. That which has no being in the world, no multiplicity or difference, no contingency, change or movement through time, what one might once (in a moment of despair?) have identified as nothing, this we call “something than which no greater can be thought.” He seems to have removed the sting of death by embracing it under another name. The pursuit of unchanging static forms, the focus on the ahistorical, the attempt to attain an understanding which escapes time, change, and embodiment can all be linked to the Platonic privileging of the visual over the auditory. On the other hand, if the lust of the eyes describes a universal human failure, we should probably not blame Plato or Anselm for a mode of thought toward which we are all bent. The psychoanalytic aid here is to recognize in this theological proclivity to return to sight the psychological tendency.

Freud had pictured a primary narcissism in which there is an investment of libido in the ego; that is, the ego is taken as an object (a visual object) of desire. Lacan’s imaginary contains in the name the imagining (the mirror stage) in which language itself is directed by a visual image which can be equated to this primary narcissism. Lacan’s imaginary register or mirror stage is linked then, both with Freud’s primary narcissism and with the myth of Narcissus. As in the myth there is an erotic element or an element of desire, since the Subject is attracted to his image. There is also an aggressive element, as the wholeness and coherence of the specular image contrasts with the feeling of physical disunity. There is inherent in the alienation a masochistic drive (the death drive) to sacrifice the ego or the “I” before the punishing demands of the law (the superego, the symbolic, or the father figure taken up into the self). The fascination with bodily mutilation feeds a perverse eroticism bent on penetration, dismemberment, and fusion. Lacan puts particular emphasis on this move as it marks the birth of the ego as a product of the specular image but also as an investment of aggressive desire (Seminar III, 92).

As I have demonstrated, Anselm’s entire theology is geared to fulfilling this desire for self so as to attain the self. If one thinks of the gap between the idol and the idolater this gets at the gap within the self between the subject and his image. The image that one would attain is a static object – or in Anselm’s language a “rational object.” Anselm’s purpose is not merely to establish the existence of God but to posit God as the ultimate rational object. His purpose concerns the status and power of thought and its ability to attain to God, not on the basis of faith (without sight), but through reason (which attains to seeing God). His goal is to get a firmer “vision” of God so that the rational mind, unaided, might ascend to a point beyond faith (as he makes clear in his description of his work). He is seeking a categorical elevation of thought, which requires that all existing things (and their ontological status) be subjected to a vision that can see through them to God.

The imago in the mirror sets up a gap in which the ultimate desire is an exponential desire for the self. The aggressive or violent element arises in the drive to make of the two things one thing in which alienation is overcome. As Anselm describes it, “Pain is required because of sin’s pleasure. Great difficulty is required because sin is so easy. Death is required because sin distances from God and death makes a gift of oneself to God.” To be subsumed by the law (annihilation and obliteration) in death is to achieve the oneness of the desire.

There is an obvious narcissistic tone to Anselm’s mode of thought – the self-sufficient thinker thinking only of himself after having achieved a thinking away of the world. Anselm is describing a pattern not merely of rational necessity but of psychological and emotional necessity. What is required “rationally” is synonymous with what is required psychologically or emotionally. The ego desiring itself stands at the center of his argument. All else must be obliterated to make room for this self-sufficient thought which only thinks itself. But this is made possible only through the death of Christ.

Christ’s death serves to close the gap which Anselm has located in the project of attaining one’s own image in the mirror of the mind. Human guilt is constituted by the alienating gap existing within the self. Man is guilty, as is clear, in his incapacity to attain self-sameness (ipseity – in which “I think therefore I am” can be reduced to “I am” devoid of thought). As Heidegger has put it, the idea of the guilty lies in the character of the not (Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 285). The failure is to not attain fully to being or the failure to attain the absolute. Through the death of Christ, the absolute is achieved and the power of the rational thinker who can clear his mind of all else is set to achieve a vision that duplicates the divine self-absorption.

Ironically, the God that reason requires is also the God that reason would displace. The death of God is integral to this form of rational thought as the entire point of the thought is to be in the place of the Father. The proof of God’s existence, the necessity of the death of Christ, and the manner in which this works itself out in Nietzsche’s death of God, is a steady stream of necessities. The death of God is required at both ends of the rational necessity. First, he dies to establish reason and then he dies at the hands of this reason. The inception of a rational necessity which would see God already meant his obliteration.

To define the self in such a way that the self has not lived up to its “absolute” obligations, which amount to obtaining absolute being, and then to assign guilt to this condition, is to say that humans are guilty of finitude and mortality. Anselm points out (in chapter 4 of Why a God Man) that the rational nature, simply because it is a rational nature, must be granted immortality. So, it could be said that Anselm has created a context in which human immortality is an ethical necessity due to human rationality. An absolute knowing creates an axiological necessity for an absolute ontology to exist within humans. Or more simply, if man is to “know” in the same manner as God, he must in some way attain (to) the being of God. In Freudian terms, he must be his own Father.

Lacan likens this conflict within the self to the life of the slave “whose response to the frustration of his labor is a desire for death” or an escape from existence (Ecrits: Selection, 46). No matter what his accomplishments, no matter what changes the individual may undergo in the course of his life, the ego is this inert presence which lies outside of one’s capacity to attain it. The ego is not subject to growth and change as it is an object fixed as part of a formal structure, which in Anselm’s depiction – if the ego is understood to be the god which he would attain – is the object of desire. The effort expended in establishing the self and attaining god, leaves the imago, that primordial static image, untouched as it is an object beyond reach. The fixed nature of the ego refuses not only temporality but the instinctual impulses that come with natural growth. The mirror stage inaugurates a “primordial jealousy” in which desire is an unsettled lack, longing for a being or cohesiveness that Anselm equates with attaining an image of God.

Toward the conclusion of the book Anselm has Christ himself say “Take me and redeem yourself (CDH 11, 20 p. 354).” The notion of self-redemption, by means of the logic of self (as worked out in the Monologion) is the logic behind Anselm’s depiction of the necessity of the Cross. The need for Christ’s death is a straightforward kind of salvation that follows the logic of those who killed him (this man must die so that we might live). To take him and redeem themselves in a violent sacrifice would indeed be the sort of redemption they could grasp because it is exactly the sort of sacrifice the world’s religions institute. For Anselm, his death does not prove the wrongness of the deed or expose the nature of sin, rather it works according to the logic of sin and pays the price of guilt experienced in the incapacity of the will to attain its own vision of itself. The act itself and the death itself, to say nothing of the life of Christ, are disengaged from any immediate or practical effect on things as they actually exist in the world, so as to address the interior vision of the Subject.

The moment of supreme objectification, Jesus reduced to the objective body on the cross, is made to support a notion of salvation which takes death itself to be salvific. The body of Christ is the empirical bearer of the symbolic vision so that Christ’s death (either continually in process or in isolation from his life) is the ground for the final refusal of the body (or a life of obedience in the body) and the means by which the soul or the symbolic can have a first order ecstatic encounter with God or with the self. The melding of self with self or the overcoming of the obstacle which the self poses to achieving final harmony is simply another way of describing death – and the necessity of the death of Christ.

Where Anselm (and later, Aquinas) presumes that desire is for the beatific vision, Paul pictures the Subject of desire as a Subject of deception. In Paul’s explanation, desire makes the law a means of achieving the self and so enacts a loss in which the ‘I’ observes or sees (βλέπω) himself or his body (Ro. 7.23) and finds there an alien force (another law) inducing evil works (7.20-21). The desire is a desire for self and the pursuit of this desire through sight exasperates the problem of the loss of self. Paul sets forth a two-part resolution to the spectral self-relation; hope and faith.

Hope, in Paul’s explanation, directly counters the spectral self-relation of the imaginary or the fleshly ἐgὼ. “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is not hope at all” (8.24). Hope, by definition, falls outside the static spectral relation (the bodily image or the image in the mirror) as it reaches forward to that which does not appear. Where the superego/ego split focuses on fulfilling or finding the self in and through a misrecognition or deceived self-relation, hope does not misrecognize the mortal body but presumes that through the Spirit the body is resurrected (8.11).

Where desire arises through lack (lack of self), the ground of faith is life in the Spirit, which has as its goal ‘conformity to the image’ of Christ (8.29). His image is not an object of sight (ego) so achieving his likeness is a dynamic process of walking as he did (8.4), of setting the mind on things of the Spirit (8.5), of active submission (8.7,13), and patience (8.25). This sort of faith is not that of Anselm (or Aquinas) which is primarily an objectified faith in Christ. This is the enacted, embodied faith of Christ. Where self-consciousness arises simultaneously with the realization and refusal of the body and its mortal contingencies, the consciousness of resurrection faith (8.11) displaces the static orientation to death (the negation of death and the body) in the acceptance, rather than the visionary refusal, of the mortal body (8.11). Resurrection faith does not need the continually crucified Christ nor does it tolerate the isolated Christ on the cross. Christ bids us come and die and it is only in sharing in his death and suffering that resurrection life begins.

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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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