Sigmund Freud converges with the Apostle Paul in tracing the diagnosis of the human disease to a masochism that would annihilate the self and bring down the world in an attempt at self-salvation.  Freud had first assumed that sadism was the primal cause of the human ailment, but his work with hysterics and neurotics led him to conclude that sadism was simply masochism turned outward.  The ego/superego split brings about a self-antagonism (death drive) that creates a sacrificial relation within the self – or a self-punishing relationship that would destroy the self to save the self. As explained below, Žižek’s concept of the death drive, arising through the real of the body, and Paul’s concept of ‘body of death’ or ‘body of sin’ both describe a Subject engaged in a struggle for life which kills.  In this system, in Paul’s phrase, evil or sin is the means to cause grace to abound (to which he responds, ‘God Forbid’).  

As Žižek points out, the symbolic or the soul ‘has to be paid for by the death, murder even, of its empirical bearer’, the body (The Žižek Reader, vii).  In this antagonistic self-relationship turned outward one needs the ‘Other’, the foreigner, alien, or stranger, as the body to be sacrificed, so as to establish the self (the soul or symbolic).  Building walls to keep the Other out, or carpet bombing the foreigners, describes the split within the self and the need to annihilate the Other – (literally) to establish one’s immortal soul.  Just as shedding the body, in a perverse Christianity, is the means to the salvation of the soul, so here, the foreigner becomes the empirical marker of the body to be separated out and destroyed.

Paul, in the phrase ‘body of sin’ or ‘body of death’, seems to not be referring to only the physical body but to the Subject, with sin and death describing the orientation or existential reality of the Subject – (though the Subject is split in Paul’s description).  Body (sῶma) for Paul, in James Dunn’s description, denotes not only the physical body but the full reality which comes with it: ‘It is man embodied in a particular environment, the body being that which constitutes him a social being, a being who relates to and communicates with his environment. It is as an embodied entity that he can act upon and be acted upon by his environment.’[1] What needs to be added to Dunn’s description is that this capacity involves the ability to disrupt itself so that it is not just a permeable exchange with the environment.

Bultmann emphasizes that what is included in the term sῶma, in addition to the body, is a capacity to objectify or split the self (to reflect on the self), witnessed most often (particularly in its negative or fallen state) in the capacity for self-estrangement or self-alienation.[2]  He describes the resulting self relation as an experience between the ‘I’ and the ‘not-I’ and this dynamic of alienation constitutes the sῶma. As Paul states it, ‘It is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me’ (Rom. 7.20). This ‘body of sin’ or ‘body of death’ (Rom. 7.24) may be perceived or experienced as the physical body getting ‘out of hand’ or out of control, but Bultmann’s point is that it is the self in its experience of the self that is out of control.  The notion that one has a sῶma rather than that one is a sῶma is itself an occurrence within the parameters of self-reflective identity provided for in Paul’s use of the term.

Žižek describes the process as giving rise to two bodies. That body which one might think can be reduced to the biological dimension is refused: the ‘subject turns away from her biological body in disgust, unable to accept that she “is” her body’ (Organs without Bodies, 93). As Žižek describes it, the original sacrificial relation is established within the Subject (with passage through the mirror stage in which the child identifies with its reflection in the mirror) between the imaginary (the ego or ‘I’) and the symbolic (the superego) which establishes the alienated distance from the real of the body. The passage is from being a body to establishing a symbolic distance from the body (and having a body): ‘The body exists in the order of having – I am not my body, I have it’ (Organs without Bodies, 121).

Žižek’s and Lacan’s focus is on the turn of communicative capacity against the self in an antagonistic self-relation. The failure of the Subject in its self-antagonism and dis-community is at the same time a corporeal failure. In the Lacanian formula ‘there is no sexual relationship’ (Seminar 20, 17), as the register of the symbolic (language) cannot be coordinated with the reality of the body.  This serves to explain Paul’s ‘body of death’, which is also a failure of communication (communion) and a failure to achieve corporate or corporeal identity (resurrection life).

The qualifiers added to body, such as sin (σῶμα τῆς ἁμαρτίας) or death (σώματος τοῦ θανάτου), identify the psychoanalytic understanding as it overlaps with Paul’s. Rather than being in relationship with God, the Subject in these modes has a primary relationship to sin and death (or to law, which is in the end definitive of the Žižekian Subject and of Paul’s fallen Subject). From within the economy of the law (the law of sin and death), the excessive superego injunctions (giving rise to perverse questions such as, ‘Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound’ (Rom. 6.1)) ‘no longer imposes specific, determinate, prohibitions and/or injunctions. . .but just reverberates as an empty tautological Prohibition: don’t’ (The Puppet and the Dwarf, 104). This absolute law requires infinite payment and even this infinite payment does not satisfy the continual pressure of the law’s demands. ‘Christ’s death cannot but appear as the ultimate assertion of the Law, as the elevation of the Law into an unconditional superego agency which burdens us, its subjects, and with a debt we will never be able to repay’ (The Puppet and the Dwarf, 103).

The God of penal substitution or in need of infinite propitiation is split against himself in the manner of the Pauline/Žižekian Subject.  Christ is the empirical bearer of the body given over to an infinite death to which the Father subjects Him out of the demand of the Law.  The very means which God employed to defeat evil, in this understanding, becomes the foundation of a religiously prescribed evil.

‘Penal substitution’, then, describes the establishment of the law of sacrifice as a form of subjectivity within God.  A Christianity given over to the demands of this law will enthrone violence, as God – the model – demands infinite payment for his own satisfaction and this is the order of all self-satisfaction.  In this form of Christianity, the Donald Trump/Ted Cruz form of diplomacy (divide and destroy) is an extension of satisfying the demands of God.  From an orthodox Christian perspective, it is the enthronement of evil under the guise of the necessity of the law of sin and death.

[1] James Dunn, Romans, 320.

[2] It is also from this apparent duality that the ‘naïve’ or Gnostic understanding can be accounted for, as the physical body is assigned the role of ‘not-I’ (Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament: Volume I,199).



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