The Conversion of the Imagination

I am convinced that whatever the field of endeavor, whether philosophy, psychology, theology, or whatever, that each field of study or form of discourse hits the same wall or encounters the same failure, characteristic of failed human thought. The failure will show itself through a full stop: conversation stops, questions cease, imagination is halted, because the form of thought is not alive, it is not dynamic. Movement ceases because it presumes or desires too much and ends with too little. The Western philosophical/theological project, attempting to say it all, ends in nihilism; a positive theological scholasticism (to think God) ends in a purely negative apophatic theology; an attempt to pin down the master signifier of the law ends in perversion (to be the phallic object of desire) or hysteria (despairing over the lost object).  In theological terms, God is turned into an object to be contained within human knowledge while human knowing is assigned, simultaneously, a God-like power to shed its finite bonds (Martin Heidegger’s characterization taken from Kant, “ontotheology,” describes this modern project). In this ontotheological mode of thought, one would think himself out of the world, which freezes thought as it locks onto a static, impossible, object.

For example, Anselm’s cosmological argument begins by comparing differences in the world (some horses are fast, but there is a fastest horse) so that his argument depends upon differentiation which works its way to the ultimate difference. The ultimate act of differentiating locates God in a category of incomparable difference (a denial of recognizable difference). Thus, at the same time God is proven, he is also put beyond thought. The ultimate difference, God, is an unthinkable or empty thought. All the world is reduced to nothing in comparison to the being of God, and the mode of differentiating thought is exhausted on the “nothing” side of the ontological divide.

His ontological argument, (the name for God is “something than which nothing greater can be thought”) starts where his cosmological argument ended and consists of the same move. There is a name or a thought of God but “nothing” serves to define the “something” in the name. Anselm would “see God” (the absolute “something”) and only “finds darkness” and “nothing,” in his own words, as God is beyond any normative thought. Rather than bring heaven and earth together, as in the biblical cosmology, the characteristic of natural arguments tend, like Anselm’s cosmological and ontological argument, to introduce a gulf of separation between God and the world due to the form of the argument. Each of the “natural arguments” for God, leave God on the other side of an ontological divide, but also posit an uncrossable division within reality, which will come to characterize modern thought.

Kant posits the ever illusive noumena (the unthinkable and unattainable thing-in-itself) and leaves us only phenomena, while Hegel presumes the process of thought is the thing, always on its way but never arriving. In one instance, the focus is on an unobtainable object (the thinking thing, the noumena, the subject of the law, the master signifier), while the other is focused on a frustrated movement of thought (the “I think” portion of the cogito, the Geist or spirit). Maybe this helps explain how, for many, virtual reality now serves in place of reality. At the least, the philosophical impasse illustrates the full stop disengagement with reality marking this cultural moment. It is not simply the beatific vision, the hope for heaven, but earthly reality that has gone missing.

While this displacement of reality with a delusion is peculiarly sharp in this cultural moment, it is precisely this simulacrum Paul equates with the dynamic of desire aroused by the law – the law is falsely assigned a fulness of reality. Lacan, in a more prosaic turn of phrase, describes this impossible desire as the search for the maternal phallus. The diagnosis might focus on the disproportionate desire: to be the primal father (having all the women), or to stand in place of the law, or to penetrate the final mystery. Or the diagnosis might focus on the impossibility of the object: God is either posited as a thing in the world to be known, like an object of sight, or is consigned to an absolutely transcendent unknown (inherent to Paul’s description of the functioning of the law).

 In turn, thought takes on the characteristic of a “totalizing vision” (with the emphasis falling on “vision”) in which experience (the senses, personal experience, historical experience, the experience of others, etc.) and dynamism (in other words, reality) are subsumed. What surreptitiously takes place, as Marx noted, is the privileging of a particular stance (a particular culture and a particular place in that culture) as if it is universal. After Freud and Lacan, this has been dubbed “phallocentric” thought as it reifies the (male) symbolic order (law, the superego, language, the father) as it drives toward mastery and represses absence and incompleteness (the feminine).

The resolution to this form of thought, first articulated in the modern period as a conversion of the imagination by C. S. Lewis, is easier to describe than the various diagnoses (as illustrated in my abbreviated and hectic summary), but in order to understand the work this resolution is performing we need the diagnoses. The resolution offered in narrative or historical theology invokes a different standard (a call to justice, beauty, and love) and is relocating every element of the problem (God and Christ as object, the role of language, the adequacy of knowledge) but it is also giving rise to an alternative set of emotions, experience, and desire, captured in the notion of the conversion of the imagination. Lewis describes his conversion as “a baptism of the imagination,” by which he meant not merely the addition of God to a world already in place, but a transformation of every aspect of experience into a reworked world.

Following Lewis, we could picture the problem and solution in terms of types of stories. A failed or limited story, as with the failed imagination, might be said to engage a portion of reality, a level of experience, or form of thought. These stories are not necessarily untrue, though they may be, but they lack truth in the same way as some characters fall short of the truth. Lewis portrays failed characters as incapable of discerning the voice of Aslan or incapable, even when confronted with paradise (i.e. Narnia), of inhabiting it. Uncle Andrew only seeks magical power, Edmund wants Turkish Delight, and the White Witch, in her great beauty, is a type of the deceiver of Ezekiel, who would falsely proclaim herself Queen over Narnia. (Like the creature in Ezekiel, she has great beauty and cunning wisdom, both of which are deployed for deception and evil.) Each of these small or evil characters would use Narnia to fulfill their own unimaginative desires. They each order the world according to the shape of their desire and understanding, while we as readers recognize, Narnia is better, more complete, and differently ordered than these characters realize. They each make choices based on their failed understanding. As Stanley Hauerwas describes it, the moral life does not consist simply of correctly choosing but of being trained how to see. Moral notions expand character (and characters) so that they are up to the task of rightly perceiving reality. Through moral development the weak or small characters, such as Edmund, become attuned not only to the voice of Aslan, in Lewis’ world, but they come to love him. The development of moral insight comes then, with a training in the imagination which can only come about by being schooled in and initiated into an ever-expanding narrative.

If we only know one kind of story and are trained only to see a certain flatness, it may be that we are impressed with stick figure characters (and arguments). What we need (and I am not making an absolute claim as to how this might work) may be exposure to a fuller reality rather than more or bigger stick figures. Imagine trying to describe the music of Yo-Yo Ma to those who have never heard his music. You might use mathematics and a black board, but the medium would kill the message. Better let them listen to his music and experience it full on. True, there are those who may not have ears to hear or eyes to see: think of trying to illicit appreciation for Dostoevsky, or Wendell Berry, or even the children’s tales of C. S. Lewis, in a modern Trump-like character, devoid of any but the most insipid imagination. But to translate every tale into this world would reduce everything into idioms of power or variations on “greed is good.” Uncle Andrew, in The Magician’s Nephew, can only hear the roar of Aslan and cannot make out his talk, but maybe it is better to expose him to the roar and to let him see the comprehension of others.

As Tyler (who has young children) put it to me in conversation, Teletubbies may be perfectly adequate for a limited or constrained mentality but for developing and feeding a mature life and imagination they are inadequate and boring. The form fails to engage the fulness of reality and imagination (while it may be perfectly adequate for very young children (I don’t actually know, being unfamiliar with the show) precisely because of this failure). If we find ourselves in the midst of such a truncated story, we can only hope that it would end (setting aside the book, turning the channel, or committing suicide, depending upon the circumstance and our personal resources and investment in the story).

A profound story, however, such as The Brothers Karamazov, puts the full range of human experience and possibility on display. We can see the depths of depravity in the father, Fyodor Pavlovich. His sons, Dmitri and Ivan, represent the possibility of pure evil and greed, and raw intelligent skepticism, respectively, while Alyosha, guided by the good but worldly-wise Zosima, counters (though he may not answer) the darkness of the world of his brothers with a profound goodness and love. To be Alyosha, is to see the world lit up with beauty and goodness, though he is surrounded by and takes account of the depth of evil. Here is a story that enlarges the imagination by offering a picture of enslavement to the realities of darkness (every form of lust greed and wantonness), which only sharpens the hope for the alternative order and the longing for justice, beauty, and love, glimpsed in Zosima and Alyosha.[1]

In this artful presentation of reality, reality is assigned a depth of meaning, so that the story engages the reality of the world while providing a vision of God. It does not float free of the cosmos (as in the various arguments for God), but reads a depth of meaning into the world. The danger, in a less than true story, is that the world of the story falls short of reality, or in the language of theology, God and the world are made completely separate by the form of thought. According to Maurice Blondel this is the problem with neo-Scholastic arguments and reason; this form of thought made God extrinsic, rather than an intrinsic part of the natural world. As a result there is a depletion of desire for God, fostered by the very arguments which would prove his existence, as the form of thought is flat and boring.

To recover God must mean a simultaneous recovery of the world, a recovery of curiosity and participation, and an alternative deployment of language. We might picture it as a recovery of the language of Adam prior to the fall, in which Adam works with God in bringing order out of chaos by naming and assigning value as a co-participant in creation. Or we might picture it in terms of the Jewish Temple, as a microcosmos, with God and the world conjoined, and God emerging, through the mediation and work of his priests, from out of the Holy of Holies into the cosmos (see here for a fuller picture of this). Likewise, new creation “work” is a creativity assigned to human mediators and priests who serve in the Temple of creation to usher in, to represent, to witness to the movement of God out of the Holy of Holies into the Holy Place and into the created order.

 Do we not recognize this in the work of the artists we admire and would emulate? Or maybe we are not even up to admiring directly – but we learn to admire. I am thinking here of my good friend Jason’s fascination with Wendell Berry. Jason has been a priest to me of the beauty of an imagination of which I was not aware. I would like to think I was not a complete idiot but that I had been primed, and many of us have been so primed by Hebrew scripture, to the spiritual depth, to the fingerprint of God, or to the shining of the glory of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). This is not a language or speech that one recognizes “naturally,” as “They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (19:3-4). As the Psalmist explains, one hears this speech due to the working of Torah: “The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes” (19:7-8). The word of God resonates with the world, bringing it to life for the simpleton.

This is a different order of language from that which would divide off from the world and render all that is created a dead, cold, mechanical, system (Newtonian Theory, exploitative consumer economics, or simply “art” which renders the world a dead object). There is a “dead letter” which kills or there is a living word which animates, creates, and brings to life. The dead letter stops you in your tracks, turns you inward (“close the door of your room and close the door of your mind” Anselm advises, in order to conceive of his ontological God), while the living word calls you to quest further, to go deeper, to find the fulness, not in frustration, but in the joy of the unfolding and opening up of the conversion of the imagination.


[1] Thanks to Matt for the gift of a new translation I have undertaken rereading the story.

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.

Religious PTSD: Escaping Toxic Religion

Faith, my wife, is a supervisor of mental health workers so, though we live in a small town, we are continually aware of the suicides, child abuse, murder, spousal abuse, drug abuse, and all-around hellishness of peoples lives. The hard reality is that those who are mentally ill have usually experienced terrible trauma, the effects of which will consume much or all of their life. David, who is part of our community, works with those traumatized by their experience in the military. He is able to tap into a network of services for those suffering from PTSD connected to military service but his experience, like that on the national level (a veteran suicide every 65 minutes), is often a losing battle. In the past few weeks he has lost two friends to suicide. My previous work in Japan and then in the States, with Bible colleges, exposed the reality that there are many levels of mental illness that are not addressed by the usual theology and which are, in fact, aggravated by forms of the Christian faith. Various groups of former evangelicals have formed, like many of those who meet as part of Forging Ploughshares, that have been traumatized by evangelicalism.[1] People are sick and what has made them sick is usually quite obvious and very often the culprit is Christian religion.

 While it is certainly the case that religious meaning is meant to be therapeutic, Christianity often fails to address mental suffering and, instead, creates trauma which aggravates mental suffering.[2] The great exodus from evangelicalism is partly, informants and statistics indicate, because the religion can cause depression, obsessive compulsions, suicidal self-loathing, child abuse, and is giving rise to sexual abuse equal to or more pervasive than that in the general population.[3] The causes are not difficult to trace: notions of authoritarianism (male chauvinism/female subordination), perverse notions of child discipline (in the worst cases children are disciplined to death[4]), fear (e.g. fear of hell), and isolation and separation (e.g. children cut off from parents due to their choice of spouse or their sexual orientation). The misogyny and racism seem to have been made obvious in white evangelical support for Donald Trump and the recent election seems to be the catalyst for the exodus or public notice of the exodus in such groups as #exvangelical. People are sick and suffering and Christianity is aggravating the disease for many.

To put all of this in the third person, projecting the problem “out there,” may miss the shameful reality that I am personally acquainted with mental disease. I am never far from a rabbit hole of obsessive compulsion, which has motivated my particular theological focus.  It is important to begin with confession, as apart from the acknowledgement that disease grips me in a particular fashion and that I am aware of its grip, the case cannot be made as to the aetiologia of what, I would claim, is the universal human sickness and its cure. There is a force that can be named but the very process of naming it reduces one to a feeling of shame. The thing that I struggle with is banal repetition, such that if this force were personified it would make for the most insipid of persons.

What Freud calls the super-ego should not be mistaken for a healthy conscience as this creature only accuses of one or two things – endlessly repeating and through the repetition punishing its victims. It is obscene, not in some interesting diabolical way, but in its continual insistence of something lacking. As Adam Phillips has described it, “Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel.”[5] If embodied this creature would appear as damaged and needing to be euthanized. To mistake this thing for the self, certainly would involve self-hatred, but this seems to miss the point that it is the self that is traumatized by this obscenity. Better the world breaks out in all-out war, better that one is obliterated, then continue to be ceaselessly tortured by this unrelenting fault-finder. Indeed, Henri Bergson describes his great relief when world war broke out and the world matched his inner suffering.

The fault is not so much a moral failing as a failure to be complete or whole or substantial. In Hamlet’s soliloquy one is torn with whether to be or not to be. Is it nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of a punishing conscience or to find rest in death? As with the children’s story, “The Missing Piece,” in which a large circle, missing a pie shaped wedge, goes looking for what is missing, what keeps one rolling along is an aching search for filling in what is absent. The felt lack of being and the compulsion to attain it through endlessly running the maze of accusation is an unbearable form of life. It is death dealing, the drive to death, in Freud and Lacan’s depiction. Lacan is darker than Freud in that he acknowledges that there is no cure but only the possibility of momentary survival. The only way of filling in the missing piece is through death and then one will have achieved the perfect circle of nothingness that constituted his drive in life. Whatever the form of the taunt of this obscene superego, I am convinced it is precisely not morality but immorality and evil (a true banality).

To confuse this punishing superego with the voice of God makes of religion the greatest possible evil as division, dialectic, and antagonism constitute the religion. There is a “Missing Piece Christianity” in which the true Jesus is hidden, the real kingdom is elsewhere, the final reality transcends us, and the true self alludes us.  The entire impetus is to find the truth “behind the text” in a higher critical analysis. The Constantinian divide separates us from access to the Kingdom, the Augustinian divide with its Neo-Platonism separates reality and experience, and the Anselmian/Calvinist divide posits an ongoing separation within the self. “Oh I’m looking for my missing piece looking for my missing Jesus, the missing Kingdom, the missing self, the missing life.”  There is a gap between us and God or within God himself and every effort is expended to close the divide. This accounts for major versions of the faith but is most clearly attached to notions of total depravity, penal substitution, and depictions of life as endless struggle with sin.  Rather than the religion healing, delivering, saving, it is geared more toward condemning, devaluing, traumatizing, and ultimately consuming life in mental illness mistaken for the faith of the New Testament.

The first step in any cure will mean ridding oneself of this God so that abandoning religion, for many, is the only alternative short of suicide. But as Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, atheism per se is not an answer as there are many authorities and stand-ins for the role of this perverse superego God. The lack in human life becomes the power that controls and orders life and perverse religion accentuates an already existing problem. What is ultimately lacking, as examination of Romans 7 indicates, is life itself, as giving oneself to the pursuit of life through the conscience or through the law is a kind of living death (Paul’s “law of sin and death”) on the order of the death drive. Theology often repeats the story of the missing piece and accentuates or even constitutes elements of the disease.

The key note to Freudian psychology shared with biblical Christianity is to recognize that conscience (the sinful orientation to the law) or the superego does not provide access to the truth about ourselves but obscures, deludes, and deceives in regard to self-knowledge. The guilt (Freud calls it unconscious guilt) that weighs us down and which is accentuated and formalized by perverse religion is that which obscures the truth. The law of sickness, sin, and death, functions in the unconscious (obscured by a lie) so as to produce a punishing self-consciousness.  

To imagine this deluded punishment is a necessity enacted by God and fulfilled in Christ is to reify the human disease as religion and to make of the cross the culminating point of the disease. Death as cure, punishment as divine necessity, trauma as healing, confounds the cure and the disease and it is precisely this confounded religion that is traumatizing so many. The great mental struggle is to nail this thing down, to get a handle on it and throttle it, as if it is an objective reality. 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 to be salvific. If the body of Christ is the empirical bearer of necessary punishment, Christians are made to revel in his death like those at the foot of the cross, fascinated by the torture that duplicates and satisfies their own pain. God himself is at war with himself and this somehow matches and legitimates inner suffering and turmoil. Here the cross is the sign that God himself is the origin of the human disease.

A healing faith begins by recognizing that mental suffering is addressed by the great physician. The therapeuo or therapy of Christ is precisely aimed at the experience of mental suffering. In Paul’s explanation, perverse desire gives rise to punishing suffering as the law is presumed to be a means of achieving the self and actually involves painful loss of self. The pursuit of life in the law enacts a loss in which the ‘I’ observes or sees (βλέπω) himself or his body (7.23) and finds there an alien force (another law) inducing evil works (7.20-21). Freud described it as the ambiguity between love and hate, desire and frustration. The same object gives rise to opposed feelings in which one is pitted against the self. As in Lacanian psychoanalysis the register of the imaginary (the ego) and the symbolic (the superego or law) are necessarily antagonistic as one revolves around vision (imaging) and the other around the auditory (the symbol system of language). There is no possibility of reconciliation between being and knowing, between the law of the mind and the law of the flesh. These registers are composed in opposition to the other. To imagine Christ satisfies this antagonistic law, as if this divide constitutes God himself, is to posit the sinful delusion as ultimate reality.

Authentic faith does not play into this “necessity” but exposes it as a delusion. Where this delusion arises through lack (lack of self, lack of life), the ground of faith is life in the Spirit, which has as its goal “conformity to the image” of Christ (Ro. 8.29). This image is auditory and, in Paul’s depiction, is not an object of sight (ego). So achieving his likeness is a dynamic process of hearing and obeying, 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). One works out this healing salvation as “the law of life in the Spirit” displaces the punishing law of sin and death.

The human tendency is to create an obstacle (an idol) that would serve to keep antagonistic desire alive.  The history of theology can be posited as a series of obstacles which have obscured an authentic Christianity. The trauma of perverse Christianity is doubly tragic in its displacement of a healing faith which eliminates the gap or divide in which we are traumatically pitted against ourselves.

“But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation”

(Ro. 10:6-10).


[1] The #exvangelical and Liturgist podcasts are hosted by several former evangelicals and focuses on evangelical trauma.

[2] Though it was not directly addressed at this year’s International Conference on Missions, from which Faith and I have just returned, Jeff Fife, the president of the conference, described his sexual abuse as a child and then his entry and traumatization in the military. The final talk of the conference was given by a hospice nurse observing that the manner in which people die, at peace or in turmoil, is indicative of the life they have lived.

[3] See my podcasts http://podcast.forgingploughshares.org/e/the-passage-beyond-complementarianism-in-restoring-the-image/, http://podcast.forgingploughshares.org/e/seromon-oppression-of-women-a-curse-of-the-fall-undone-in-christ/, and blog http://forgingploughshares.org/2019/10/17/salvation-as-freedom-from-sexual-abuse-and-oppression/

[4] In her book, Breaking Their Will, Janet Heimlich traces instances of child murder to notions of Christian discipline.

[5]Adam Phillips, “Against Self-Criticism” https://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n05/adam-phillips/against-self-criticism

Christ Against Salvation

In attempting to comprehend the “semantics of desire,” as Paul Ricoeur has put it, do we need to read Scripture as addressing an unconscious register to which we would otherwise not have access? Could it be that what compels, what distracts and lures, what would destroy, follows a logic which has us in its grip precisely in that it only achieves speech or consciousness by the same semantic loop which blunts access to consciousness? If desire and death are dealt out and marked by what cannot be said, then what is denied or repressed, what is unspeakable, requires a counter-hermeneutic or an alternative means of comprehension so as to follow and counter it. I presume putting this interpretive frame into place is the point of reading the Bible. It is not only that we are to meet Christ or learn about Christ but we are to put on the mind of Christ and this mode of thought must expose in the world and ourselves the matrix of death muting love and life.

The content of this hermeneutic of life is specifically summed up as a counter to a “salvation system” which kills. In various pithy sayings, so succinct that we tend to overlook their import, the point is conveyed that the mortal attempt to put on immortality is the juncture at which death becomes definitive of human identity. Jesus warns in all four Gospels, the human project of saving life ensures its loss. Taking the perishable for the imperishable posits life through means of death.  Mortality, per se, is not the human problem but the positing of an immortal essence as part of mortality.

In Paul’s description, the ego would establish itself through the law of the mind and, in this way, death becomes a definitive force in the self. The “I” is involved in a struggle for life which kills – this is the human sickness. More accurately, this “I” is a being of and for death in that the dynamics which first give rise to this speech formation (in Gen. 3 and Rom. 7 and in Lacanian psychoanalysis) is a dynamic of death. Life is not in the law nor in the symbolic order of language and the sign of the turn from life to death, in Adam (“I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” (Gen. 3:10)) Paul (“I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law” (Rom. 7:14-16)) and every human, is the attempt to inscribe the self into being through this order.  In Cartesian terms, the declaration “I am” (that is “my being is established by virtue of this statement”) would attribute being to a symbolic order without ontological ground and thus signals a being of death.

Paul sums up the problem in another phrase which, again due to its familiarity, we tend to reverse or misread: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (I Cor. 15:56). Doesn’t Paul have this exactly backwards? Isn’t death the sting of sin – that is, we sin and then we die – and this is according to the law? In this understanding sin gives rise to death and death is an outworking of the law. The problem, given that the law is the first principle, is death (due to sin). One must pay off his guilt for sin, according to the law, and then death is avoided. This is religion as we have it in contractual theology and in pagan religion. But what Paul says is a reversal of this: law is the power of sin, not because it is the first principle but because, in sin, we would make law (the symbolic order) primary.

Sin is the sting of death because sin is the taking up of death so that one’s life is a living death. Law is the opportunity of sin, as sin misuses the law as the source of life to escape death, and thus death is taken up with the law. This moral masochism, in Freud’s phrase, inscribes itself into the law – or the identity provided by the law. The human project of gaining life through the law is the premise of a contractual theology which depicts Christ as meeting the requirements of the law by paying off the penalty of sin (a misreading of Rom. 8:4). Every pagan sacrifice follows this logic – the god is angry because his law has been broken and requires death or sacrifice. Death is the means to life through the law. This formula, summing up the sin problem, precisely sums up human religion, even in its various Christian misconstruals. The profound tragedy is this reinstitutes the problem as if it is the solution.

Resurrection annuls the power of sin in death and the law (the law of sin and death), not because God works in this economy, but because this human economy is displaced by the divine reality of life. Through resurrection we conceive of God and reality differently, as it is clear death does not constrain God but only our conception of final reality. God does not deal in death and has nothing to do with death.

As Christ demonstrates, an understanding grounded in death cannot begin to comprehend God: “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God? . . . have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken” (Mark 12:18-27). According to the thought of the Sadducees (who do not believe in resurrection) God, not seeing fit to keep his once living creatures alive, is indeed the God of the dead. The Sadducees understood God was not subject to death, but in their imagination, if God would deal with humans death would factor into the equation – he would, indeed, be the God of the dead. Jesus’ point is that mistaking death as an anthropological absolute is not simply to misunderstand humanity but is to misunderstand God.

Resurrection destroys this dialectic with death and every dualism, in that with God death is not.  As James Allison sums it up, “If God is not the God of the dead – death is nothing to him – it is not to be taken into account.” Death is not the controlling factor for God, and where it is imagined he finds death satisfying, or that he reigns over a vast host of creatures consigned to death, this marks the thought as human or sub-human. As Jesus puts it, “You are greatly mistaken.”

Every human economy circulates around death as its standard of exchange (this is obvious in idolatrous religion in offering up death to the gods but this is the Marxist critique of ideology and capitalism) and the human subject, in the attempt to possess life (the “I”) through the law is possessed (λαβοῦσα) by the law of sin and death. Paul describes the process as one of being reduced to a cadaver as this alien force found an opportunity or opening (ἀφορμν), and “came upon me” (λαβοῦσα) and reduced me to a site of production (κατειργάσατο) for desire and death.  The law of sin has colonized “my members” (7.23), and “I” is at war with himself in a losing battle.  “Sin came alive” as an animate force displacing life and “I died.” In this economy we need guilt, we need to make ourselves sick, we need to extract the sacrifice so as to pay off the law – the law we institute, the law we enact, and the penalties we require.

People are neurotic because they live in an economy where the pain of neurotic sin, of neurotic religion, is paying the dues required by guilt. Our morality is our immorality in that in this “moral factor,” this sense of guilt, satisfaction is found in an illness which refuses to give up the punishment of suffering (The Ego and the Id, 49). Jesus just becomes an extension of the human neurosis where it is thought he is paying off the guilt – suffering for the pleasure of God.

Realization of resurrection breaks open history and human knowing displacing death as the necessity determining human reality and perception. Where sin transforms death into a personal, cultural and religious reality, resurrection relegates death to a biological reality, and opens personhood and human community to the dynamic of life. In resurrection a new order of humanity, the 2nd Adam humanity has commenced, in which the perishable has put on the imperishable.  The resurrection inaugurates the conversion of the imagination calling us to expand our categories and to reconceive our humanity according to a new order of understanding we could not otherwise know. This salvation stands over and against salvation conceived in the first Adam.

The Blindness of “Masculine” Biblical Interpretation and the Cure of a “Feminine” Orientation

My theological journey is not very flattering in that I am not a quick study.  I have come to insights such as nonviolence through a long process which, from my present perspective, look obvious and essential.  I have to wonder why it took so long. If I were naturally a sweet-natured, kind, gentle, soul, learning of the biblical mandate for peace would, perhaps, not have been such a theoretical hurdle and a prolonged personal struggle.  The same is true of my understanding of the role of women.  If I were naturally chivalrous and loving, I suppose I would have paid more attention to a reading of Scripture that promotes these qualities. Continue reading “The Blindness of “Masculine” Biblical Interpretation and the Cure of a “Feminine” Orientation”

Gender Restoration

In the creation of humans in Genesis, male and female are the mode in which the image bearing capacity of God is conveyed to humankind.  Gender and embodiment seem to function for humankind as part of the essence of who we are in imaging God.  The ontological nature of gender is affirmed by Paul when he references Genesis and the mystery of marriage as referring to Christ and the Church.  The mystery of sexual union between male and female is on the order of the union and oneness between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:32).  Gender is not something we set aside in being joined to Christ but is taken up even in this ultimate of relationships.  Whether Paul is speaking literally or metaphorically, gender seems to carry enduring metaphysical importance. Continue reading “Gender Restoration”