Escaping the Meaning that Kills

“For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep.” (1 Cor. 11:30).

We normally think of meaning in positive terms, as that which gives a narrative whole and goal to our lives, but what if the story that shapes our lives is killing us. A punishing, angry God, like a father who can never be pleased, a system of acquisition and consumption which can never satisfy, an isolated sense of self focused on autonomy and choice, may provide a religious, capitalistic, individualistic system of values but the system itself may be diseased. Meaning systems are necessary for survival, but they are also that which create the environment of life, potentially producing stresses and traumas as part of the system, which science is more and more linking with the increase of disease.

The first step in recognizing the role of culture, meaning, religion, and belief in physical health is mind/body holism, in which we instinctively and practically recognize that the body and mind cannot be split. What we believe, think, and experience, leave an imprint on our physical health. Physicians, such as Dr. Gabor Maté, are beginning to explore the relationship between trauma and repression and the increase of a variety of diseases. Rather than simply treating the physical symptoms (the physical disease) he began to recognize that the root cause of disease can be linked to stress or trauma. Maté realized, as coordinator of the Palliative Care Unit at Vancouver Hospital, that patients with chronic illness often shared an emotional history. “Similar dynamics and ways of coping were present in the people who came to us for palliation with cancers or degenerative neurological processes like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.” In his private practice the same pattern appeared in patients with “multiple sclerosis, inflammatory ailments of the bowel such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune disorders, bromyalgia, migraine, skin disorders, endometriosis and many other conditions.”[1]

There is even a new field of medicine, psychoneuroimmunology, tracing the link between the brain and the immune system. Emotional makeup and stress have been linked to diseases such as scleroderma, and the vast majority of rheumatic disorders, the inflammatory bowel disorders, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.[2] Maté cites a study of medical students under the pressure of examination, demonstrating that their immune system was suppressed. He notes that loneliness has been shown to have similar results in psychiatric inpatients, concluding: “Even if no further research evidence existed—though there is plenty —one would have to consider the long-term effects of chronic stress. The pressure of examinations is obvious and short term, but many people unwittingly spend their entire lives as if under the gaze of a powerful and judgmental examiner whom they must please at all costs.”[3] His description verges on the theological, with certain forms of Christianity and other religions, projecting onto God the role of examiner, making all of life a final exam. If the problem is not religion per se, it may be we do not have emotionally satisfying relationships which “recognize or honour our deepest needs.”[4] At the deepest level, the level of experience and meaning, we may not recognize that we are filtering the world through an understanding which is spiritually, psychologically and physically, sickening.

As has been widely noted, our culture is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. An article in JAMA journal of psychiatry refers to this epidemic of loneliness as responsible for the death of 1 American every 5.5 minutes due to suicide and opioid overdose. An annual mortality of 162,000 Americans is attributable to loneliness (exceeding the number of deaths from cancer or stroke), which is a term that, according to the British historian Fay Bound Alberti, did not exist in the English language until 1800.[5] It is not simply that people are not connecting with others, but the very notion of self is disconnected. As Charles Taylor describes it, “We are ‘buffered’ selves.” We conceive and experience the self, not as in traditional societies as porous and interconnected, but in an inner mental space.[6] This self-conception creates the condition for developing acute loneliness. The very concept of self, pits the self against others, and even within the self our mind is divided, with the inner self in conflict with the outer self or the “body.”

Meanwhile, theologically inclined psychologists have developed the new field called Neurotheology, which recognizes, not only does our understanding of God shape our mental health, it shapes our brain as well. Recent studies in this new field show that the view that God is angry, punishing, or loving, directly impacts the growth and shape of the brain. Andrew Newberg, a leading researcher in the new field, has scanned the brains of praying nuns, chanting Sikhs and meditating Buddhists so as to demonstrate the relationship between the brain and religious experience.[7] Timothy R. Jennings, a medical doctor, in The God Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life,compares the impact on the brain of an angry or loving concept of God.[8] As he notes, “Brain-imaging studies have demonstrated that the more time a person spends in communion with the God of love, the more developed the ACC (the anterior cingulate cortex) becomes. Not only that, the person experiences decreases in stress hormones, blood pressure, heart rate and risk of untimely death. Even in our mortal and defective bodies, love is healing. Conversely, the more time spent contemplating an angry, wrathful, fear-inducing deity, the more damage to the brain and the more rapidly one’s health declines, leading to early death.”[9] Not only does this demonstrate a mind/body connection, but implicitly, a God/human connection of expansive proportions (a point I return to below).

It is not simply one’s view of God, as religion may or may not enter in to our understanding and experience of reality. The tendency may be to project an image onto God, as an extension of the superego – the punishing father figure who personifies a retributive legal order, such that it is not doctrine or belief about God, but an inner bent or pattern which takes precedent. Getting rid of a punishing God, for example, through atheism may (and in my experience, often does) simply unleash an obscene superego figure which is beyond religious control. Ex-believers may continue to feel the punishing effects of the God they do not believe in. The law or father-figure of the conscience, is not subject to denial. The real issue is not so much God, but how to get rid of an oppressive experience of self and the world, which may or may not be experienced as religion.

Psychotheology, as I have developed the term, fuses Lacanian psychology with a (fuller) reading of Paul, so that psychoanalysis finds the completion of its categories and the resolution of the human predicament in theology. The Lacanian understanding develops what Paul calls “the body of death” which is the isolated, interior notion of the self, but Lacan does not counter this understanding in the way that Paul does, with being joined to “the body of Christ.” As a result, for Lacan, death drive or the superego is a constant factor in a person’s life. The only possibility is to manipulate this force for death, but there is no deliverance. As a result, the isolated sense of self, the inner dialectic between ego and superego, or between the law of the mind and the law of the body, is a permanent condition.

In Pauline terms, the “body of death” pits “the members of my body” against “the law of my mind” and this makes “me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (7.23-24). The body of death does its work as the body itself, with its members, stands outside the law of the mind or the symbolic and this constitutes the work of death (the death drive, in Lacanian terminology). Meaning systems, as we have them, take effect within this system (translated into religion or economics or personal striving) between the ego and superego (or the law). One scores points, gets ahead, establishes themselves, according to the zero-sum game of the score-keeper (God, the superego, the cultural imperative). The symbolic of this body of death is the very substance of meaning, and to escape this system is to escape meaning as our world constitutes it.

As Paul Hessert has described, the encounter with Christ brings an end, or should, to meaning as we know it.[10] But of course, the opposite is also often the case, as Christ is made to support our meaning systems (be they legal atonement theories, nationalism, capitalism, or some other measure of success). These systems are “meaningful” according to the point or end toward which they take us. For example, education is only judged meaningful, if at graduation a job is secured – otherwise it may be judged meaningless. Christianity may be meaningful in this context, as it serves to bolster the goals of society – a good education, a good job, a happy family. What possible purpose for a faith that does not serve, or perhaps interrupts, the accepted pattern of meaning.

As Hessert notes though, the New Testament describes culture has having an “endemic flaw” summed up in the term covetousness. The greed or desire of culture is its shaping force and value system, which according to the New Testament is definitive: ”I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:9–10). The world is constituted by covetousness, and to be shaped by the world is to partake of this meaning system (see Eph. 5:3, 5; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 2:5, Heb. 13:5, 2 Pet. 2:3). This is what belief embraces and what unbelief cannot begin to fathom, as unbelief is founded in the meaning system immediately available. As Hessert puts it, “Covetousness names the dynamic of the meaningful life of self-realization, self-development.”[11] In Paul’s terms, covetousness (as in Romans 7:7) constitutes an “ethos” or orientation to the law, in which the I is ever striving and never achieving. The demands for attaining and improving are constant, as there is no achieving the illusive object behind the law. Paul calls it “the body of death” as the alienated individual in relationship to self is involved in a deadly struggle. The body or self is objectified, something one has, rather than what one is. The body is a means to fulfillment (or not). “There is no choice within the culture-body between self-fulfillment and non-self-fulfillment.” The choice is only “how self-fulfillment is to be –achieved and expressed” and the body provides the instrumentation. “In the ‘body of death,’ . . . the life of the body is only ancillary to its parts (‘members’).”[12] Modern medicine has taken this understanding to the extreme, picturing the body in terms of a mechanical apparatus (e.g., the heart as a pump, the brain as a computer, etc.,) and like much of theology, it does not address the root of sickness.

Paul’s other usage of “body” pictures not the individual, but the corporate body of the church, or the body of Christ. “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). This resurrection body exceeds the possibility of meaning provided in the body of death – “resurrection is not a possibility of the body of death, as though that body destined for death might have an entirely different order of life hidden within it. While from the standpoint of the body of death there may be renewed life, there is no resurrection, no other life. Even imagination, bound to meaning, fails at this point.” Paul (in Romans 6) pictures resurrection life as death. There is a dying to meaning. “This death is not the transition to another ‘life’ within the body of death, another set of possibilities (‘life beyond the grave’). It is not the death that meaning is able to encompass and transcend. The death associated with resurrection is total and final death.”[13] In this ultimate relinquishment of meaning, resurrection occurs.

As Christ describes it, this is a completely different environment: “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, but must remain part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5, JB). This different environing does not depend on its members, on the body, or on the branches, for life. In the body of death, the body borrows its life from its members. The members of the physical body or other members of the cultural body provide life, and delivers it to others. In Paul’s imagery, it is only through being incorporated into the body of Christ, that the eye, the hand, the foot, or a particular individual has access to life. “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

Thus, in the celebration and realization of being incorporated into this body, to turn to consumptive desire is a return to the body of death – which is quite literally, in Paul’s estimate, deadly: “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk” (1 Cor. 11:20–21). They have turned to a covetous biting and devouring one another. “For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep” (1 Cor. 11:29–30). They have traded life for death, and this impacts them bodily/spiritually/physically.


[1]Gabor Maté, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress (Alfred a Knopf, 2003) 57-58.

[2] Maté, 47.

[3] Maté, 54-55.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dilip V Jeste, Ellen E Lee, Stephanie Cacioppo, “Battling the Modern Behavioral Epidemic of Loneliness: Suggestions for Research and Interventions,” JAMA psychiatry, 77(6) https://escholarship.org/content/qt47n6790s/qt47n6790s.pdf?t=q7c0kj

[6] Charles Taylor, “Buffered and porous selves” https://tif.ssrc.org/2008/09/02/buffered-and-porous-selves/

[7] Andrew Newberg, https://scienceofmind.com/5-steps-enlightenment/

[8] Timothy R. Jennings, The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life (InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition).

[9] Jennings, 42.

[10] Paul Hessert, Christ and the End of Meaning: The Theology of Passion (Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Inc., 1993).

[11] Hessert, 190.

[12] Hessert, 194.

[13] Hessert, 197.


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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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