Tag Archives: Freud



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).



Flying over the desert of an evening, around Window Rock, over the Grand Canyon, the cool breeze a necessity for equilibrium and the star lit sky preferable for navigation; this was my singular capacity. With the veil of darkness, the arms pumping and as I gained confidence, the leap into a canyon or off a tall building (nearly absent in Page, Arizona) and I could just manage to obtain lift-off.

The ordinary family into which I was born had their abilities – special even – among mortals. I did not question their earthboundness, nor could I articulate the equation of flight with immortality, but this is how it functioned.   I was not grounded by the contingencies of bipedalism. Flight was incomparable with the local means of achieving immortality – throwing a fastball or running bases – it constituted an ontological difference. My apparent incapacities as the youngest and smallest were simply a foil. The three foot frame housed an ego temporarily fallen from the heavens. Though the slightest talent at anything might have tempered the necessity, but as it was, flying was my Kant and Plato – the equivalent of a philosophical proof of being – of innate immortality.

Freud claims, “There is no mortality in the unconscious,” and this translates into immortal capacities that seep through to consciousness. The newly minted ego is enabled by talent (as in the case of the celebrity never faced with mortality), or by religion and culture, to fly through life untouched by earthy realities. The University of Chicago sociologist, Peter Berger, pictures culture and religion as making possible an enduring identity on the basis of a manufactured “reality.” For example, the Babelites would “make a name for themselves” on the basis of an indestructible tower. To storm the gates of heaven on the ever ascending heights (cultural, national, or personal) is the human project. The temporal and mortal is “overcome” in an intensified effort to painlessly fly free from the bind of the mortal coil. Flying permits no equals, no true friendship or love, as the very point is to achieve the pinnacle of absolute difference – the oblivion of death. Freud dubs it the “death drive” as unwinding this mortal coil in the drive to life is to institute death as a way of life.

To imagine with Yeats that the soul is “Fastened to a dying animal” is to miss the Pauline notion that dying begins with the soul. Paul’s “soulish human” – the “psychikos person” is precisely the one that does not receive the things of the Spirit – life itself (I Cor. 2:14-15). In contrast to David Hart’s recommendation of the platonic idea that “rational freedom of the spirit “always strive “to subdue the brute,”[1] Paul describes this struggle as definitive of death. It is the result of the objectification of (the flight from) the body due to the alienation of sin (Rom. 7:7ff). The attempt to subdue the body through the “rational spirit” is the sign that the Spirit of life is absent, thus Paul terms this struggle as constitutive of “the body of death” (Rom. 7:24) – the equivalent of Freud’s death drive. In his cry, “Who will rescue me from the body of death,” Paul makes no mention of the rational spirit; rather, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8:2).

Christ’s refusal to leap from the pinnacle of the Temple to be borne on the wings of angels (Mt. 4:5-7) is the refusal of the disassociation of the flight of the death drive. His unwillingness to attain the kingdoms of this world, objectified from the perspective of a “high mountain,” by serving the “spirit, nous, or Geist” of this world is (contra Hart) to refuse to bow to this world’s prince. While he will not turn stones to bread, Christ will offer himself as the bread of life. He will be “lifted up,” but not “so that you will not strike your foot against a stone” (Mt. 4:6), but to be the stone that men stumble over. His broken body brings us to earth and it is only in this grounded mortal condition that we can be with one another. It is the means to draw the world into fellowship (“I will draw all men unto myself”) on the basis of an alternative Kingdom. Not a kingdom in the sky but the incarnate Kingdom of “God with us,” the New Jerusalem come to earth. The disassociation of flight, or the identity through difference achieved at this world’s pinnacles, is undone by the one whose body is the true Temple. This body, raised up and ascended, constitutes not flight nor absence but the sign that he is always with us.

In the little tin church in Page the desert sand serves as the floor. Bert Layman , the iron-worker cum preacher who built the church, prays over the rough hewn communion table he has crafted in his own rough hewn image. Grandma Yakashigi, Nakagawasan, Nishikawasan, from Japan are there. Cecil, who baptized me when I was 13, the most gentle of souls, is kneeling up front. Some way Pastor Sheets from the Baptist Church has strayed in – Bert will not be happy. The ordinary folk, the only kind I know, fill the little house of worship.  The journey from dust to dust does not seem so far in this dusty crowd melding into the sand floor. Roy, the local prison guard, comes bearing the emblems and as he bends down he brings me fully awake, I look at Roy who is silent but I hear the question from the emblems: “Paul, are you one of us or not?”[2]

[1] David Bentley Hart, “Roland on Free Will,” In First Things (February, 2015).

[2] The title and ending are from a Fred Chappell novel with a different meaning worked out here.



Walking is not something you can hire someone to do for you. You have to go through the effort of preparation (good shoes, loose clothes, a little water) and then set out. Once the walk begins the rhythm of the walk sets in and mind and body begin to work together as the discord of the day is somehow suspended by the present effort. The repetition of putting one foot in front of the other fulfills the deepest instinct to do the same thing over and over – yet this repetition delivers to a new place. Think here of the journey that constitutes Tolkien’s trilogy which ends where it began:

“At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap. He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

Sam has returned home and yet the familiar is now profoundly different. His old home is now seen through the re-imagined world of his long journey. Every walk is a holistic reworking, bit by bit, perhaps even monotonous in the particulars, which constitutes the recreation or renewal of the mind.

The journey, the movement, even if it is a journey back home, is not the compulsive journey of the neurotic or the addict, compulsively repeating, hoping for a different outcome. There is no shame in repetition; the problem is in its substance. As with Tolkien’s ring, the compulsion to repeat turned in upon itself, would destroy the compulsion by continually reinstating it. Gollum destroys his life in pursuit of the ring which he would rid himself of if he could. Freud’s death drive is the drive to be rid of the death drive – which is why he ties it to the compulsion to repeat.

Walking or taking up the word and walking continually repeats, but with a difference, while the sickness unto death compulsively repeats the same. The former suspends the latter just as in Paul’s notion of the suspension of the law through faith . The walk of faith suspends the law of sin and death in the same manner that every walk puts repetition to its proper use. Taking up the Word and walking is the repetition with a difference. It is the very substance of life, the breath of God breathed continually through the Word or through the journey that is the walk.

The desire to be done with faith and to move on to first order vision employs the logic of one who would hire someone to walk on his behalf. The Jesus made to walk for us is, in Kierkegaard’s description, a kind of false worship:

Christ comes to the world as the prototype, constantly insisting: follow my example. . . . The apostle imitates Christ and insists: follow my example. Soon the apostle (like Christ) was turned around, people worshiped the apostle. Thus the slippery slope. . . . The divine invention is one thing, that the only kind of worship God demands is imitation, the one thing man wants is to worship the prototypes.1]

The objectified faith, reducing Christ to an object to be received as a material substance, would continually consume Christ without reception of the sustenance of faith. With the apostles and saints reduced to the Christian version of Buddhist bodhisattvas in the theology of the blessed (theologia beatorum) faith is abolished in the name of the compulsion to repeat.

In Tolkien’s world this would amount to the deification of the ring rather than its destruction. Sam, Merry, and Pippin reduced to a Gollum like existence would only have the power of the ring – the power to be saved by being destroyed. This is the power of the living dead.


As Smeagol says to himself as Gollum: “I hate you, I hate you.”

Gollum: “Where would you be without me, gollum, gollum? I saved us! It was me! We survived because of me!”

The power of the ring or the compusion to repeat has become a cause in and of itself:  “It cannot be seen, cannot be felt, Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt, It lies behind stars and under hills, And empty holes it fills, It comes first and follows after, Ends life, kills laughter.”


[1] Kierkegaard, Papirer, XI A 158, from 1854 (Papers and Journals: A Selection, p. 585