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.


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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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