"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).

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Psychoanalysis of the Living God (III)

In the previous two installments, we have been attending to the work of Ana-Maria Rizzuto, a pioneer in helping propel psychoanalytic thought beyond its prejudices about theology as an "illusion" born of infantile insecurities and neuroses.

Though her landmark book The Birth of the Living God has been in print for nearly forty years now, and though it enjoyed considerable and almost immediate engagement by pastoral psychologists and other counsellors and clinicians, its reception in the psychoanalytic world was very narrow in many ways. Her more recent book (1998) Why Did Freud Reject God?: A Psychodynamic Interpretation (discussed in my second installment), which is a remarkably careful, restrained treatment full of respect for Freud, and completely free of any "gotcha" tendencies one might expect in lesser hands, has finally shown to those with any lingering doubts that Rizzuto is a serious theoretician and clinician whose research demands to be taken seriously.

So we now have just such a serious engagement with Rizzuto in this new collection, Ana-María Rizzuto and the Psychoanalysis of Religion: The Road to the Living God, expertly edited by Martha J. Reineke and David M. Goodman (Lexington Books, 2017), 228pp.

With a helpful introduction and conclusion, the book features six chapters from various clinicians engaging Rizzuto, with each chapter having a response by Rizzuto herself. The book is a model of how to advance important discussions not in lockstep, but with gracious respect when people differ, as several commentators do with parts of Rizzuto's thought and work.

The first two chapters are extremely useful introductions to the wide applications of Rizzuto's work. The middle chapters are case studies. And the final two chapters challenge Rizzuto's work to go beyond its previous applications in looking, first, at the psychic constructions of various "monsters" and then at engagements with the so-called new atheists.

For those new to Rizzuto's work, the first two chapters will be especially useful in doing a lot of heavy lifting summarizing many of her main insights and methods.

The middle case studies are fascinating, especially in drawing attention to the VITA project at the Modum Bad Clinic in Norway, doing what from every indication sounds like fascinating and singular work today that far from fleeing a patient's religious imagery and language, or shunning it as nothing more or other than psychopathological, attempts to see where theological and spiritual language, metaphors, and insights may be useful either in revealing underlying disorders, or in contributing to a patient's healing, or both.

The final chapter is the only one that comes closest--and this only very briefly--to a theological engagement in the strict sense. But it has no sooner begun that task then it shifts focus, and one is left wanting further such engagement.

The editors, in their brief conclusion, note that there is a great deal of room for future creative adaptation of Rizzuto, and though they do not reference such a direction themselves, I take them to mean, inter alia, that one could begin to analyze not just an individual's psychic conception of God as a "transitional object" (Winnicott), but an entire culture or tradition. Rizzuto's work has been very much confined to individual-clinical experience, which is an absolutely necessary foundation from which to proceed. It remains to be seen whether and how her insights admit of wider application. Regardless, this is a valuable and insightful book with skillfully presented material. The editors and contributors are to be congratulated.


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