"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).

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Two Jews Meet on a Couch Somewhere Between Damascus and Vienna: Debate Follows

Dear readers! How faithfully you have endured a good two weeks and more now without me mentioning psychoanalysis or capitalism! But fear not: this drought now ends. For I have in my hands the recent book of Paul Axton, The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation: An Analysis of the Meaning of the Death of Christ in Light of the Psychoanalytical Reading of Paul (T&T Clark, 2015), 220pp.

Here is the publisher's blurb:
Through the employment of the work of Slavoj Žižek and his engagement with the Apostle Paul, Axton argues that Paul in Romans 6-8 understands sin as a lie grounding the subject outside of Christ, and salvation is an exposure and displacement of this lie. The theological significance of Žižek (along with Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan) is his demonstration of the pervasive and systemic nature of this lie and its description as he finds it in Romans 7. The specific overlap of the two disciplines of psychology and theology is found in the psychoanalytic understanding that the human Subject or the psyche is structured in three registers: the symbolic, the imaginary and the real. These three registers function like a lie analogous to the Pauline categories of law, ego, and the 'body of death' which constitute Paul's dynamic of sin's deception.
Axton argues that if sin is understood as a lie grounding the Subject, the exposure of the lie or the dispelling of any notion of mystery connected to sin is integral to salvation and the reconstructing of the Subject in Christ. While the lie of sin is mediated by the law, new life in the Spirit is not through the law but is a principle unto itself, which though it accounts for the law, is beyond the law. 
Of all the books I've read over the past three years in the realm of theology and psychoanalysis, this is one of the most rigorous ones, closest in nature to what Marcus Pound did in his Theology, Psychoanalysis, and Trauma. (Indeed, Axton, explicitly borrows from Pound at several points.)

Your mileage may vary with both books depending on what you think of Lacan, who is the major interlocutor for both authors--along with Zizek, whom both also engage extensively. I have not read a great deal of Lacan, and what I have leaves much to be desired (!). Freud is more grounded, and a far clearer and more disciplined writer than Lacan seems to have been.

Still, Axton offers useful insights into the psychology underlying Paul in Romans, especially in Paul's grappling with the themes of death and self-defeating and often self-destructive behaviors. Axton begins boldly by claiming that "psychoanalysis has taken up what, rightly understood, is within the domain of theology" (17) and illustrates this claim by immediately going on to say that "no theologian has done more than Freud to explain Jesus' counter-intuitive statement, 'For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it' (Mt. 16:25)."

Much of the rest of the book is then an attempt to understand sin as death-dealing, and this puts him into close conversation with Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where, of course, the great analyst put forth his controversial (but, to me, patently obvious) thesis of the death drive. I'm using that book next semester in a course entitled "Sin, Evil, and Hope" where Freud will be put into explicit dialogue along these themes, offering one understanding of sin and evil even while, of course, eschewing such theologically freighted language.

Axton's contention--along with others, including Pound, Rizzuto, and many others discussed on here over the past few years, perhaps especially Adam Phillips--is that Freud could not escape theology, and that he remains enormously useful for Christians and Jews (inter alia) in seeing through many of our neurotic spiritual habits and idolatrous religious practices.

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