"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Competition and Collaboration between Psychoanalysis and "Religion"

The stereotype of psychoanalysis as hostile to something called religion goes back at least 90 years to the publication of Freud's Future of an Illusion. But that book was met with an almost instant rejoinder by the Swiss Reformed pastor Oskar Pfister (whose correspondence with Freud I discussed here), which Freud himself made a point of publishing in the journal he founded, Imago. In that book, Freud made it very clear he was not dealing with theology as such, nor with what he called the truth-claims of "religion," which he never defined adequately. It was a book that Freud himself almost instantly came to regret writing, calling it his "worst book," the book of an "old man" and not of the Freud of the early period who, as Adam Phillips has shown, wrote much more vital and unsettling works.

Moreover, at the end of his life, in writing his Autobiographical Study (while also working on Moses and Monotheism) he further distanced himself by saying that "in The Future of an Illusion I expressed an essentially negative valuation of religion. Later, I found a formula which did better justice to it...granting that its power lies in the truth which it contains."

Since then, it has nonetheless remained true that most psychoanalysts have not been theists; and most have not been inclined to regard religious faith as anything other than a neurotic holdover from childhood, best dispensed with in those serious about adult freedom.

But that concern about freedom, especially from illusion and neurotic images, that so animated Freud admits of wider application, admits, even, of making alliances with theology towards the same end. As Erich Fromm was among the first to recognize, not least in his 1950 Terry Lectures at Yale--later published as Psychoanalysis and Religion--Freud and Jesus (Jews both!) are in agreement that "you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."

Other analysts were not so hostile, and a few were in fact strongly sympathetic in a variety of ways--Fromm is the clearest example here, but one must also count Winnicott, Erikson, Jung certainly (but not unproblematically), and more recent figures in Britain, including Phillips, Nina Coltart, and, as I hope to show sometime, Christopher Bollas.

More recently still, there has been a series of attempts to build bridges between psychoanalysis and "religion," usually broadly and vaguely defined. One such attempt is to be found in the collection I've just finishe dreading, Psychoanalysis and Religion in the 21st Century: Competitors or Collaborators?, edited by David M. Black and published by Routledge in 2006.

Like all collections, this one is uneven. It's fourteen contributors are mostly clinicians and mostly in Britain; one is a retired cleric of the Church of England and another has some theological background. Several have written interesting chapters, but all are pitched very widely.

One does not find, therefore, a good deal of substantial or detailed theology as such in a proper sense. Several contributors are manifestly uneasy with such a theological engagement, preferring instead to speak of "spirituality."

There is, however, in Michael Parsons chapter, "Ways of Transformation," some well-informed discussions of Western and Eastern theological sources, including Kallistos Ware and Nicholas Cabasilas. All these are marshaled towards arguing that "helping someone towards a more abundant kind of aliveness is...what a psychoanalyst is there for." Both good theology and good analytic therapy help, Parsons concludes, to free people from past ways they have thought about themselves which imprison them.

Rodney Bomford's chapter, "A Simple Question?" also makes reference to the "apophatic tradition," noting the importance of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Dionysius the Ps-Areopagite. But he does not really engage the tradition beyond saying that the mystical tradition as a whole often understands the spiritual world in the same five terms that Freud used to describe the unconscious.

There is, then, a good deal of work waiting to be done on a properly theological encounter between analytic thought and the apophatic theology of the East.

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