Tag Archives: psychotheology


110115-200910  The first three chapters of my book, “The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation: An Analysis of the Meaning of the Death of Christ in Light of the Psychoanalytic Reading of Paul,”demonstrate that psychoanalysis has taken up a task (the diagnosis of human suffering and even called ‘sin’ by Lacan and Žižek) which is the proper realm of theology. The specific overlap of the two disciplines lies in the psychoanalytic understanding that the human Subject or the psyche is structured in three registers, the symbolic, the imaginary and the real, which function like a lie analogous to the deception of sin. The historical development of this understanding from Freud (recounted in Chapter 1), through Lacan (the subject of Chapter 2) to Žižek (the subject of Chapter 3), demonstrate the ‘discovery’ of the importance of the unconscious as it relates to human consciousness as these realms are founded in an inner antagonism which Freud dubs the ‘death drive’. The key shift which Lacan introduces into his reinterpretation of Freud is to read what Freud took to be biological or cosmic, as having its origins and explanation within the realm of language, making it possible to explain the working of human interiority utilizing, in part, the resouces of linguistics.   The symbolic, as the medium of human reality, by its very nature fictionalizes or displaces the physical reality of things with their symbolic representation, which means that the physical body and its mortal condition are only realized as a gap or the negative force of an absence (the register of the real) or disturbance (the work of the death drive arising from the real) in the symbolic realm which knows neither death nor mortality. Freud’s ego or Lacan’s imaginary is assailed on every side by the other registers (by the oppressive superego or its Lacanian equivalent the symbolic, acting on behalf of the id or the Lacanian real) so that the ego is constituted by pure frustration and fear.[1]

The unique vantage which Žižek brings to Freud and Lacan is that his theory fuses Lacanian theory with German Idealism and particularly the thought of Hegel, and from this perspective the problems of the psyche and its identity become the solutions. The frustration, negation and alienation inherent to the Freudian/Lacanian picture of subjectivity are subsumed into a larger picture in which the gaps and absences are taken as the formative ground of the Subject. The goal is not to overcome the gaps but to conceive them as the origin of the Subject. As in the example of Cartesian philosophy, the failure of the cogito to account for the subject and the object of the sentence accounts for the rise of the Subject. The passage into subjectivity involves the necessity of withdrawal, madness, and failure that opens up the space for its symbolic reconstitution (The Abyss of Freedom, 8-9). The fundamental fantasy names this capacity to transform the problem and reify it into the solution because, in Žižek’s analysis, it is clearly a deception or lie but it is a necessary lie as it allows for the formation of the Subject.

The fourth chapter shows how Žižek reads Romans 7.7-25 and how he sees his theory as a development of a Pauline understanding of the Subject. Žižek locates the fundamental fantasy in Paul’s depiction of the deception of sin (Rom. 7.11) and he recognizes that the Lacanian focus on desire as primary is matched by Paul’s picture of covetousness as giving rise to the sinful Subject (Rom. 7.7). Žižek reads Romans 7 as exposing the problem of the pervert, who would fuse the law (which Žižek understands as the equivalent of the symbolic) with sin (breaking or transgressing the law). So the perverse understanding of the law (as in the forbidden desire of Romans 7.7) is synonymous with, and gives rise to, sin. Where the pervert does not question the status of the law, the hysteric questions this perverse understanding and in questioning it has already moved beyond it. Paul, according to Žižek, provides the question and answer of the hysteric which amounts to a questioning and displacement of the perverse approach to the law: ‘Is the law sin? Certainly not!’ (Rom. 7.7).[2] Hence there is the possibility of reorienting the Subject (from the pervert to the hysteric) through their becoming aware of the fundamental lie (there is life in the law or in the symbolic). Only in ‘traversing the fantasy’ or in ‘dying with Christ’ (which Žižek takes as the Pauline equivalent of traversing the fantasy), the subject of Chapter 5, does one arrive at the limit experience of destitution where the contradiction of the law is exposed (promoting what it forbids), opening the possibility for a new orientation. Those who ‘were made dead to the law through the body of Christ’ no longer serve the letter of the law. That is, they no longer serve the obscene superego supplement to the law (the negative force of sin attached to the law) which causes the law to be equated with sin.

The claim in Žižek’s reading of Paul, that the Žižekian and Pauline understandings of the Subject are largely the same, is tested in chapters 6-10. The two readings, Žižek’s and Paul’s (as interpreted by New Testament scholars) are compared and I conclude that the diagnosis of the human Subject Žižek finds in his reading of Paul is analogous to the problem of sin Paul describes in Romans 7. In Paul’s description, the deceit of sin, like Žižek’s fundamental fantasy, deludes the Subject to imagine that following desire is the source of life and this desire becomes the animate force of sin. This alienating force is expressed as a split within the self and as alienation from the body is indistinguishable from the real/symbolic divide. This dynamic is summed up in Paul’s phrase ‘the body of death’ which is analogous to Žižek’s notion of the dynamic of death drive. A key difference is that Žižek sees this alienation from the body (along with the death drive) as necessary to human subjectivity where Paul views this form of subjectivity as an aberration.

I show that Žižek’s attempt to find his theory of a solution to the problem of sin in Romans 6 is inadequate and that Paul’s solution would displace the Žižekian registers. Paul’s picture of the death to sin in baptism is not simply one of symbolic or subjective destitution since it involves being ‘joined to’ Christ and is an ontological participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. By being joined to the body of Christ, the Žižekian real or the Pauline ‘body of sin’ (6.6) or ‘body of death’ (7.24) is displaced in the resurrection life of the Spirit (8.10-11). Paul’s resolution of the alienation of the Subject of the law is to become a child of God through the power of the Spirit. The ἐγὼ or imaginary is crucified or dies with Christ and the life in the imaginary or Paul’s ‘I’ (ἐγὼ) is displaced by the corporate identity in the body of Christ. Paul’s resolution to the fear and frustration of the ἐγὼ is life in the Spirit (8.2), experienced and conjoined to the categories of hope, adoption as God’s children, and participation in the Trinity. Žižek’s work, though an inadequate understanding of salvation, supports and accentuates the contrast between Romans 7 and 8 in which Paul is demonstrating how Christ overcomes and displaces sin.

The development of sin and salvation set forth above suggests a different focus than is sometimes found in a theology influenced by the peculiar emphasis on the individual, such as that which Gregory Schufreider describes as developing with Anselm of Canterbury’s adjustments to a basic Augustinian theology.[3] As Derek Nelson argues, hamartiology and soteriology have tended to either focus on individual salvation or on the social and structural notions of sin,[4] with two different understandings of the function of the law and of human nature.[5] The claim I would make for the book is that due to the focus on sin as a lie distorting the law it accounts for the role of the individual and the law as well as the structural and social aspects of sin.[6] If the analysis of Paul and Žižek above has any value then, at the least, we need to reckon with the explicability or the systematic nature of sin as it is exists in society and the individual, and to think of atonement less as the repayment of a debt and more as a transformation of the Subject. Also, because of the social nature of the Subject, neither individual nor social emphases in the doctrine of sin should be prioritised but we should attend to the dynamics which underlie both. The suggestion made in the conclusion is that part of what it means to overcome sin is to dispel the mystery which is accounted for by its deception and that this dispelling of the mystery opens the possibility of examining the depth and seriousness of sin in both its social and individual aspects.

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[1] Both Lacan and Žižek continue to use the Freudian names of the registers (i.e., ego, superego, and id) as near parallels to the Lacanian registers (i.e., imaginary, symbolic, and real).

[2] Where Paul would completely separate the law and sin Žižek’s hysteric can only raise the question of a difference. The Subject can question the fundamental fantasy and the reality of the symbolic but he cannot survive their dissolution.

[3] Gregory Shufreider claims the key figure in the transition from an Augustinian understanding of interiority to Descartes’ cogito, the one who in fact lays the necessary ground for the transition and transformation of Augustinian thought, is Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm’s adjustments to a basic Augustinian theology created a new emphasis in the doctrine of sin and salvation and in how knowledge of God is appropriated, but all of this flows out of the particular emphasis he puts on human reflexivity (see Gregory Schufreider, Confessions of a Rational Mystic: Anselm’s Early Writings (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1994), 18. See also Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity, Translators Karen Pinkus and Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 25). Augustine, employing Platonic categories, but fusing them with the Johannine Logos and Light and the biblical Trinity, would locate the Platonic truth, not in the forms or transcendent universals but within the self. He directs us toward a radical interiority: ‘Do not go outward, return within yourself. In the inward man dwells truth.’ Plato had employed visionary imagery, but Augustine will turn this imagery on itself to examine the very possibility of seeing. Where Plato would presume to find the ‘highest principle’ in what is seen, Augustine will focus on what enables us to see in the first place (Augustine, De vera Religione, XXXIX.72, Quoted in Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 129).

[4] Among Derek Nelson’s many examples of this tendency is the individualism of Charles Finney who defined sin as the individual choosing to break God’s law, which fails to take into account that it is only in concrete relations with other Subjects (in family, church, and state) that one could come to know the law (Derek R. Nelson, What’s Wrong With Sin: Sin in Individual and Social Perspective from Schleiermacher to Theologies of Liberation (London: T & T Clark, 2009), 181). Finney’s understanding also overlooks the reality that breaking the law has concrete effects in the relational spheres in which selfhood is formed (Nelson, What’s Wrong With Sin, 181). On the other hand, the focus in liberation theology on structural or corporate sin tends to blur the difference between human nature and sin and as a result the agency behind social structures (the importance of the individual choosing) is sometimes lost (Nelson, What’s Wrong With Sin, 180-187).

[5] Derek Nelson traces the shift from Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin to a Lutheran notion that sin is against God’s word as either law or Gospel to Schleiermacher’s exclusive focus on human interiority. He then examines the strengths and weaknesses of several liberation theologies as examples of the most developed and best of corporate notions of sin and salvation (Nelson, What’s Wrong With Sin).

[6] Žižek’s theory, as with the argument above, in positing the Other and the symbolic as part of human interiority does not abolish a distinction between the individual and the social realm but explains how they overlap and are necessary to one another. See Adrian Johnston, Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations: The Cadence of Change (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2009), 85-91.