"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).

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Psychoanalysis of the Living God (I)

One of the most famous case studies Freud ever wrote was about the so-called Wolf Man. It featured, so we later learned, a Russian man who had grown up in an Orthodox household. (Freud's Russian connections are well documented in a book I noted here.) This patient's case was one of the early places where Freud wrote about "religion" and did so without any of the hostility he was later accused of, not least after the 1927 publication of Future of an Illusion.

That book has been wildly misunderstood, largely by Christians who were handed an over-easy excuse ever after to ignore or malign Freud, or worse still to malign him based on their ignorance of what he actually wrote. That book has also cemented the strong perception that all subsequent psychoanalytic thought and psychoanalysts themselves are hostile to Christianity.

In a lecture I gave this week in Iowa to the Mercy College of Health Sciences, and in a forthcoming short essay for the Catholic Herald of London, I have attempted to show not only that there is really nothing in Freud that is hostile to faith, but that there is a very great deal to be welcomed by Christians, not least, as Paul Ricoeur noted, in Freudian "iconoclasm" which purifies faith of false and neurotic idols so that we can have a fighting chance of seeing and believing in God as He really is.

Another figure in France who has also grasped this is Elisabeth Roudinesco, author of the short but important book Why Psychoanalysis (2001) where she notes, inter alia, that Freud, as the "father of doubt," should be welcomed by all those who are suspicious, as Christians ought to be, of the homogenizing and commodifying tendencies today of globalized capitalism with its many hidden illusions and idols.

In my lecture and forthcoming article, I noted a half-dozen analysts who were themselves Christian, including the Jesuit psychiatrist and analyst William Meissner, author of a number of very substantial clinical and spiritual works including, inter alia, Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience as well as To the Greater Glory: A Psychological Study of Ignatian Spirituality.

The "Anglo-Catholic" (Episcopalian) Stanley Leavy wrote a short and very moderately useful book, In the Image of God: A Psychoanalyst's View.

Karl Stern, whose life has been recently told in a good new biography by Daniel Burston, which I reviewed here, is almost totally forgotten now but was in the 1950s and 1960s the most important person to link Catholicism and Freudian thought in critical and helpful ways. Stern took a no-nonsense approach to Freud and God, dismissing Freud's atheism as a "tragic historical accident" and his attempts as philosophizing about God as "amateurish and contradictory." All this, and a great deal more, is discussed by Burston in great detail in his welcome study, A Forgotten Freudian: The Passion of Karl Stern.

A few years after Stern's death in 1975, Ana-Maria Rizzuto published her landmark work The Birth of the Living God: a Psychoanalytic Study in 1979. Rizzuto, who taught in Catholic parishes in Argentina after an upbringing there in a traditional Catholic family, came to Boston to complete medical and analytic training, where she has practiced ever since. Her research as a young clinician was with patients and their concepts of God, which she describes with great sensitivity in this book, drawing in particular of the insights of D.W. Winnicott to show, pace Freud, that "God" was not an infantile illusion born of a neurotic search for a protective paternal figure but, rather, a "transitional object" necessary to the mind as it is trying to understand the world and its relationship to the world beyond itself.

In 1998, Rizzuto published another very significant book, Why Did Freud Reject God?: A Psychodynamic Interpretation which treated Freud very respectfully and did not at all try to catch him out or subject him to an amateurish "turning of the tables" (or, perhaps better, of the couch) as she answered the question in her title.

Rizzuto's work has been only this year getting some overdue engagement in a new book the publisher sent me last week: Ana-María Rizzuto and the Psychoanalysis of Religion: The Road to the Living God, eds. Martha J. Reineke and David M. Goodman (Lexington Books, 2017), xix+207pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Ana-María Rizzuto’s groundbreaking explorations of the formation of God representations in early childhood and their elaboration throughout the life cycle have made their mark, enriching the practice of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, as well as scholarship within the psychoanalytic study of religion. Accompanied by illuminating commentaries by Rizzuto, the authors of this edited collectione essays in this volume underscore Rizzuto’s most important contribution to clinical practice: rather than assert that psychoanalysis is incompatible with religious beliefs and practices or with spiritual concerns that patients may bring to a therapeutic context, Rizzuto makes room for the coexistence of psychoanalysis and religion in the therapeutic setting. Demonstrating how Rizzuto’s work has enhanced connections within and among psychoanalytic theories of religion, established pathways for new developments in psychotherapy, and facilitated interdisciplinary conversations, this volume showcases the compelling power of Rizzuto’s work and its ongoing influence.
I'm about half-way through it, and it is a welcome and lucid study about which I shall have more to say in subsequent installments.


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