Category Archives: Christianity and Psychoanalysis

For Your Reading Pleasure…

I (Joel) have been invited to participate in a new blogging community called Flux of Thought. There you can find brief discussions on theology, philosophy, political theory among other related things.

You can read here: Flux of Thought

You can follow the blog on Twitter here: @fluxofthought

I’ll still be writing and posting at A Church Unbound as well since FoT is going to be made up of much shorter posts, and I can’t help but be long-winded sometimes.


Interstices of the Sublime

I’m part of a group at Fuller discussing the intersections of theology with Continental postmodern philosophy and psychoanalytic theory. We are currently working our way through philosopher Clayton Crockett’s Interstices of the Sublime: Theology and Psychoanalytic Theory. This post comes as a reflection on Crockett’s chapter on ethics and psychosis entitled “Desiring the Thing.”

God is in the interstices of the Real, the ruptures that disrupt our existence. God is not the patch over a wound but is instead the wound that we patch over with sublime symbolization.

Central to Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory is that the unconscious is structured like language. Continental philosophy of language is indebted to Ferdinand de Saussure who described three parts to language: 1) the signifier, 2) the signified, and 3) the referent. The signifier is a word (i.e. “god”) which describes something the speaker wishes to refer to (i.e. the speaker’s concept of god), which may or may not refer to an onto-metaphysical entity in the world (god as an actual being). Herein lies the crucial addition from the more commonly cited work of Frege, who divided language only into sense and referent, which the sense describes. Saussure’s categories are more nuanced in that his signifier precedes and includes Frege’s sense, and his signified lies somewhere between Frege’s sense and referent. What Frege confidently called the referent, the metaphysical reality in the world, is said by Saussure to be a metaphysical postulation beyond the scope of linguistics and is therefore uninteresting to him as a linguist.

Another way of describing Saussure is to think of a color. “Blue” is a signifier that represents a signified color which I mean to describe. I can describe colors regardless of whether or not colors actually exist in the world. In this case, “blue” does not actually exist as a referent in the world; color is not a physical quality, but merely the result of my occipital cortex processing the electrical signals from my optic nerve generated by incoming photons. But we still talk of color even though, as a referent, it is an illusion. This is also why rigorous theology is possible to conduct regardless of whether God-as-referent exists.

Now we come back to Lacan, who said the unconscious is structured like language. Lacan has a helpful triplet to describe how the individual engages the world: 1) the imaginary, 2) the symbolic, and 3) the Real. The imaginary is the way we imagine ourselves to be (which is a fiction). The Real is the objective self, represented by the unconscious. The symbolic is another fiction in which we prop up the imaginary self and mitigate the Real. A useful example is found in a 1938 Home and Garden magazine article telling of a wonderful aristocrat who loves children, doesn’t touch alcohol, is an animal lover and vegetarian, a connoisseur of art and history and political theory, and who is also Adolf Hitler. The Real Hitler is Auschwitz and WWII. The imaginary Hitler is himself as a cultured humanitarian. And the symbolic is the defense mechanisms of his water color paintings, handing out treats to children, and being a much-beloved host to guests.

To combine Lacan and Saussure, we could picture it as such:

Imaginary = Signified

Symbolic = Signifier

Real = Referent

What struck me in my reading of Crockett was not only the negative note of how disruptive for theology a psycho-linguistic theory could be, but also the positive possibility of identifying neurotic psychosis in a religious group.

The Real/referent is outside the scope of pure experience precisely because experience must be mediated by senses and mind. But our desire is nonetheless for something real. Freud called it the Thing (Das Ding), the primary object of desire, which is completely inaccessible. It is only semi-accessible via symbolization.

Das Ding is that which I will call the beyond-of-the-signified… and is constituted in a kind of relationship characterized by primary affect, prior to any representation.” – Jacques Lacan

The Thing we desire (in the case of theology, God) is outside the realm of symbols and signifiers. God exists in the Real. Which brings us to an interesting Lacanian definition of psychosis:

“Psychosis is the refusal to enter into the symbolic order, to cling to the Real, and, since this is impossible, it results in hallucinations.” – Clayton Crockett

Desire must include symbolization. Even the one I love exists for me in the realm of incomplete symbol rather than as one to whom I have direct, Real knowledge (this is why even an entire lifetime is not enough time to discover the whole person). If desire resists admitting symbolization and instead insists it directly accesses the Real, this is psychosis. This is similar to Derrida’s widely misunderstood maxim “the truth is there is no Truth,” which could be rewritten in psychoanalytic terminology as, “the Real truth is that symbolic truth is simply not quite the Real truth.” In Totem and Taboo, Freud describes how evolved maxims came to have religious language appropriated and canonized. Early in our domestication of animals, Freud argues, we would have quickly figured out that incest resulted in malformation; it was only later that the gods were said to have originally forbidden it. This after-the-fact appropriation obscures the original intent, and to obsessively claim the taboo originated with the gods is often to descend into this neurotic (obsessively focused) fiction. In the same way, to speak of the color “blue” is normal; but to become angry when the fiction disintegrates (i.e. someone points out to you that color is only an illusion in the mind) is to demonstrate neurotic psychosis.

If you are still following me at this point, it should be clear how theology can descend into this psychosis. It is a general danger to us all, but is particularly acute in religious varieties that rigorously hold to claims of literalism and absolutism. We are most prone to forgetting the nature of symbolism where it should be most obvious: the text (symbols) of scripture. Resistance to questions is always a sign of a descent into psychosis. All religious doctrine is a symbolic representation of the Real, but to claim that a doctrine represents a direct one-to-one correlate to the Real (i.e. a claim that my belief about atonement is not only helpful, but is how it actually works) is dangerously neurotic.

And this dangerously neurotic psychosis is not confined to individuals; in many religious groups, it is a basic requirement for entry into the community. The psychosis may be perpetual, or it may be a weekly rhythm one descends into for an hour on Sunday before reentry into the more stable world of symbolization. I’m not sure which is more unhealthy.

As the Apostle Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly.” Our dimly mirrored purview may symbolically approximate the Real, but it is not yet the Real. Not yet.

by Tad Delay

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Why Westboro Baptist Church Could Be a Blessing (but won’t be), Why Batman is a Villain, and How Picasso’s “Guernica” Let Us Kill a Million People

On Thursday, March 3rd, the nation opened its news feeds and collectively wished we didn’t have a first amendment, as the Supreme Court upheld the free speech rights of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. These are the bastards that go about protesting soldiers’ funerals, holding colorful “God Hates Fags” signs, and reminding us why America sucks: we’ve let the lib’ruls and the gays and perverts corrupt our children, and now God has it in for us.

I don’t particularly care about this Supreme Court ruling, but Westboro hits the news cycle about every other month, and this month happened to coincide with my reading of Slavoj Zizek’s How To Read Lacan. This combination got me thinking about the great potential we have (but which will never be realized) in the Westboro klan.

Repression and the Return of the Repressed are One – Jaques Lacan

When Colin Powel made the case for the Iraq invasion before the UN, the US delegation demanded that Picasso’s Guernica, which depicts the catastrophic German bombing of Spanish civilians, be removed. The US claimed it was not statesmanlike given the occasion, but of course this was a farce. The funny thing is that nobody would have noticed if a big deal had not been raised over it. When you repress, your repression returns the favor by cropping up in other ways (like how teetotalers discharge stress by becoming enourmous gluttons instead of alcoholics like normal people do).

Unwritten rules are the most insidious to break. Zizek imagines a story in which you are listening to a state speech during the Stalinist purges. A man stands during the speech and cries out, “Comrade Stalin, the government is corrupt!” As the guards close in on him, you stand and shout, “Comrade, be quiet you fool! Don’t you know that we don’t talk about the corruption?!” The guards will be sure to shoot you first. In the same way, when you pull out your driver’s license for the cop that pulls you over, you experience true horror when the cop, noticing you have let a hundred dollar bill slide our of your wallet with a wink, exclaims, “You are trying to bribe me?!” Plausible deniability exists until we name the unwritten rule, which is why we never name the unwritten rule. The exception to this rule is twofold: alcohol and Facebook- two things that remove our better social inhibitions and allow us to truly express the unconscious (much in the same way that to truly know somebody, you should see how they behave in a virtual Second Life, where the social inhibitions of unwritten rules are removed). Unwritten rules are so sacred that when we speak them aloud, or God forbid, break them, we commit the highest social sin. This is why Westboro spooks us.

Westboro believes God hates homosexuality, that gays have made a choice to live in immorality, and that America has turned its back on God (who is now pissed) with its liberal rights. They put the logical extent of religious ultra-right-wing belief into practice, evangelizing to lost culture as they enthusiastically carry their message forward. Is this not, more or less, what at least a third of America truly believes? The horror of Westboro is not that they believe God hates fags, but that they say God hates fags.

Belief doesn’t matter much. You can believe whatever you want. But, we unconsciously say, for the love of all that is sacred, don’t act as if you believe it.

This is the gift I claim that Westboro offers us. Their blessing is that we have a chance to recognize the horror of these beliefs, see them in ourselves, and repent, but we won’t. We wont recognize the plank in our own eyes as we judge them because of a second, far more insidious psychoanalytic concept from Freud.

Fetish Disavowal, or Why Batman is the Villain and Westboro is the (Potential) Hero

I would love to rewrite The Dark Knight to the tune of reality, where the Joker gets his way as Batman murders him while ferry passengers blow each other up. Bruce Wayne has the resources to recreate himself as a private, one-man, high tech army, and nobody notices. He has so much wealth that all he must do is sleep through a board meeting once a week, resting up to beat up bad guys on the weekend. This is why Batman is the true villain; instead of beating up bad guys, how much more good would be done in Gotham if his vast rescourses were used instead to fund job training, education, and so forth? But no, in order to mask his true potential (along with his horror and waste), he plays the part of a hero. This is pseudo-activity. The true enemy of progressive activity is not passivity, but this type of pseudo-activity which is expressed by Disavowing the horror of reality by redirecting attention into a Fetish symbol.

Again, Westboro should be a sign of the weakness of this ultra-rightist, religiously oppressive belief, but fetish disavowal will save the day.

I notice that some of the most outspoken critics of the Westboro Baptists are people who share the gist of their political belief (if not their expression). So what does one do when feeling anxiety due to people (whom you agree with) breaking the unwritten rules about what is acceptable to say? You sacrifice them!

So while the Westboro Baptists should be taken as a critique of religious oppression and fundamentalism, it is instead a symbol for millions of Americans to say, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain (my unconscious which agrees with them)! Instead, look at those angry zealots!”

And thus, Westboro will continue to be in the news, because we continually need to sacrifice in order to justify ourselves. Let Batman continue to play the hero, and please don’t point out the Guernica!

by Tad Delay

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