March 10, 2018

An Evangelical Christian Discusses Struggles with Bias against Psychotherapy



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By Dr. Charles Marsh / 09.27.2017
Commonwealth Professor of Religious Studies
University of Virginia



On a night in my first semester at divinity school, I was lying in bed in my low-hung, overheated dorm room when a panic overcame me so complete that from that moment on my life would be divided into all that had come before and everything that followedtwenty-four years, six months, and three days of coming to feel at home in my body, changed in an instant.

This night of which I speak, I had set my oscillating fan to high and slipped into a shallow sleep. Sometime before sunrise I awoke, seized by a mental pandemonium, a sudden capacity to hear all things in their deepest repercussions Is this what it feels like to be omniscient? I remember wondering. I could hear my heart and its soft aortic murmur, my breath’s every exhalation and inhalation, the downward silences, the sudden laborious intake—would this be the last?—each its own reckoning, each all-consuming. How much noise the body makes when amped on fear I had never realized. I could hear the hiss of colliding molecules—and beyond the room, the compressors’ roar atop the nearby physics building, the sound of car engines and closing doors. All these things I heard as my own creation.

I wrapped my arms around my chest. Something truly terrible was happening, for no one is omniscient but God. My tongue coiled in my mouth like a serpent. A glint of steel speckled my vision. A hack intellect skulked in the spleen. I could not breathe. I arose to a gray dawn metaling against the modular window and no relief.

“Were you hospitalized?” a friend later asked me. I wish. Sadly, however, I knew hardly a thing about mental illness. I would never have thought that I had one. Anyway, I was pretty sure I knew what had happened: God had called me to a vocation of suffering. So no, I was not hospitalized.

Instead, I prayed. I prayed for the mercy to endure. For the strength of days. I also prayed to forget; and for the restoration of the years when I journeyed more or less unfazed through the particularities of me. For whatever it was I possessed the day before yesterday; for ordinary life. I prayed like an evangelical Christian is supposed to pray in troubled times. Without ceasing. The Holy Spirit indwelled my heart, I reassured myself repeatedly; whom then could I fear?

I feared everything.

Before the attack, I could lose myself in a book or warble merrily upon a theme. My attention might drift and stray. My comprehension skills, according to the answers I penciled in one summer morning, were just above average. I might realize half way into a book that the margin notes were my own—that I’d read it before, maybe more than once. I might ascend from a fifty-page submersion with little recall of what I had read. Of who had done what. But I loved reading, and I read a lot. I loved the feeling of disappearing, but also the thrill of increase and movement. With books I felt no shame.

The weekend before the attack, in fact, I had read Nelson Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking and Günther Bornkamm’s Paul with only a break to jog in the afternoons. A third, just for fun, was Graham Greene’s A Sort of Life, a memoir of the writer’s pastoral childhood in the town of Berkhamsted, through his student years at Oxford, flirtations with Russian Roulette, conversion to Catholicism and early difficult novels. Little did I know then that this melancholy triumph—three books devoured in blissful succession—would mark the final chapter in the era of immersive reading (even as I would muscle my way through two masters’ degrees and a doctorate).

Within a week, an ambient sadness had set the stage for my mind’s strange productions; and all early signs promised a long and successful run. This may have been the worst part of all: the sense of no end in sight. That the symptoms might even be permanent. I had become gruesomely present to myself, of this I was certain; a pinpoint of negativity and noise. I would never again lose myself in a book—or in a film, a song, a pleasurable diversion, a moment’s reverie. What lay ahead was a life sentence of compulsive self-monitoring, with only the spectral beings in my private spiritual asylum to keep me company. My Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whose tender voice, along with the celestial choir, I wished desperately to hear, remained as silent as the distant stars. That’s the thing about untreated anxiety: it’s an ever-giving energy. You think things, and sometimes say things, that make no sense to anyone else.

I looked for help in the only place I knew: my inner spiritual life, my personal relationship with Jesus. I kept a copy of Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest in my room, and I began turning to it most mornings, hoping for a remedy, or a healing word, in its severe admonitions.

Evangelical survivors will appreciate my predicament. For the uninitiated, let me try to explain. Next to the Holy Bible, evangelical Christians revered no book more than Chambers’s devotional classic. My mother gave me the Dodd and Mead cloth edition the summer before I started high school. It was a handsome volume, small enough to fit into the pocket of my backpack, and I carried it with me everywhere. My fellow believers cited the book with near-canonical respect—as many still do.

But turning to it under these circumstances, something felt seriously off. The more I read Utmost under the constraints of the attack, the worse I felt—about my relationship with God, my body, my spirit; about life and how to live it. Chambers demanded that I barrel through every compulsion inhibiting Christ-like-ness. I guess I’d never fully considered what that involved, if you took him seriously. Becoming Christ-like. All the petty rebellions that God hated, and all the desires you thought were God-given, Chambers repudiated in painstaking detail in the 365 entries of his devotional. Every day was a life-or-death struggle for holiness, your own private Last Crusade; a full-on battering of your wretched self. He sounded like every creepy youth pastor I’d ever encountered, the kind who derives pleasure in ferreting out your most intimate longings, who calls you on the phone if you miss Tuesday discipleship group, who (you eventually realize) despises you as much as you despise yourself.

“If ever we are going to be made into wine,” Chambers said, “we will have to be crushed.” “Be careful”, “be more careful”, “be careful to see”, “be careful to remember”, “be careful about the treasure”, “be careful to remain strenuous”, “be careful to keep the body undefiled”, “be careful to keep pace with God”, and on and on and on. Depletion, ruin, your ash heap life, the filth exposed—I am shit, God be praised. And yet, Chambers further cautioned, you should not even think of your own admission of depravity as a positive; for that would require a power, a sad withered leaf of a power, which you don’t have. If you wish to be Christ-like, you must prostrate yourself before him and take whatever he gives. And with a prayer of thanksgiving. You must become his “devoted love-slave”. Anxiety, madness, the howling terrors—submit to it all with a glad heart. Whatever powers are wrecking your mind, you take them as signs of his pleasure. “There is no getting away from the penetration of Jesus,” Chambers said.

****

I grew up in houses filled with books. My father was a Southern preacher with cosmopolitan aspirations that often confounded his parishioners; he loved opera and classical art, read koine Greek, and could recite long passages from Longfellow and Browning. (Back in the day, he could preach a hell sermon with the rest of the natives, but his heart was never in it, and the fire and brimstone would pass.) I counted five summers in a Christian commune in the Swiss Alps; two tours of a Bible school in the Cotswolds; and Jesus Movement splashes in California. These were not typical destinations for red-letter Southerners, and my own curiosities surely prospered from them. Which is to say, as long as my priorities were properly ordered—I kept a quiet time, shared the faith and guarded my purity—I could explore, carefully, new ideas and unfamiliar worlds. Fortunately there were places in those days, and maybe some are still around, where the hermits and stargazers of the coastal South could find company. At a bookshop in Jackson not much bigger than a summer pantry, I was introduced to the novels of Robert Stone, Don DeLillo, and Jim Harrison. I placed their books alongside Graham Greene, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Harry Crews, and Etheridge Knight in my library. I wanted what these writers had; I wanted the strength to rage and howl and break on through. But I feared it even more.

Count it all joy when you fall into trials and tribulations.

Bear the scars of the Messiah, and rejoice.

Consider how great a gift is bodily affliction, in that it both cleanses and restrains.

Each time a believer is chastised by God and become sick, he should be glad.

Do not scurry around in search of healing.

Place yourself in submission to God.

Count it a privilege to suffer shame.

The father of spirits crushes us for our good, that we may share his holiness.

Cursed is the crown; chastening the winds; the lack becomes the Lord.

Such was the mark of my high calling—surrounded by clashing armies, whispering sweet nothings for the gift of my nightmare world; open to God for the taking, as autumn blurred into winter. It gave me no reason to hope if an armistice might have been reached the night before; any ceasefire would have been brokered only by alcohol and exhaustion.

December 23. Remedy: 1) less coffee after am; 1 cup + decaffeinated; 2) no tv at night (1 movie per week); 3) exercise: b-ball schedule; 4) more precise in daily goals; 5) meditation on the Word.

December 26. What is the metaphor of people who break down?

I think it was the rancid beast flanked nearby, knuckle-pacing, heavy and hoarse, smelling blood. Merry Christmas.

****

Had you known me in those years, you might not have seen the fear. In the tradition of the preacher’s kid, I had learned to strike the cynical pose. Orneriness became me as well, and impatience with small talk, and impulsive declamations on the televangelists and Christian kitsch and white supremacy, and stories, not entirely made up, of my father staring down the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, all of which left the impression, I truly hoped, that I had seen some shit. With a few adjustments for the scene in Cambridge—the no-nukes and the f-bombs, the obligatory Reagan-hatred and the occasional hash pipe—you wouldn’t take me for a holy roller. Welshing along in a rumble of ardor, I assumed most people knew, was the only child’s prerogative. But the only thing I knew was the difference that night had made.

The parallel lines of purity and discipline inevitably clash and collide into a flaming heap of shame. I filled my notebooks with anguished dispatches on “self-exaltation=pride=death”, “self-denial,” “subduing the flesh”, “restraining the appetites,” “the renunciation of all things for Christ”. “What does the Lord require but abasement,” I wrote shortly after my thirteenth birthday. I wanted to burn, burn, burn for Jesus, like one of the fabulous bottle rockets I launched from the church parking lot after our mid-week Wednesday prayer meetings. Each day I stood before the ultimate questions as if for the first time: was my soul right with God; had I surrendered all to my precious Jesus Lord and Savior, my friends and family, my pastimes and thought-life, my every burning desire? If you could test adolescents for zealotry, I would have certified genius. And then burst into flames.

I hope you can understand why it was so easy for me to impute the barrage of symptoms to the costs of growing in my faith. Salvation was a zero-sum reckoning with eternity. I knew this like I knew nothing else.

I took for granted that evangelicals lived close to the edge, fretful and trembling. I’d seen books around the house and in my father’s study with titles like Heaven Help the Home, How to Handle Feelings of Depression and Why Christians Crack Up. I gathered that there were Christians who sought the help of wise and godly men. But I was the son of a godly man and an even godlier woman (my father always said). Why would I need counseling? And what intensity could possibly compare to the radiance of the King but the sorrow of a million spirit-fires extinguished? I attributed a crack-up to straying outside the lines, which happened when you let down your guard and became too much in the world. When you forgot the Tenets.

But we did not do therapy. “Psychoheresy!” some would call it. Os Guinness, the popular writer and speaker and “thinking man’s evangelical,” dismissed Freud and his proselytes as “the modern equivalent of the first century Jewish and pagan exorcists.” Therapy loosens the fears and inhibitions that keep us unspotted from the world; the Christian should be grateful for repressed desires and a guilty conscience. Remember old Chambers and his masochistic pieties. The theory of spiritual warfare would finally be the only explanatory hypothesis you could mount against inner torment.

By the end of the semester, the hope for any cure seemed as long-gone as the days when I would read Camus’s “The Sea Close By” over and over on an empty trace of the Redneck Riviera, with a quart of Barq’s Root Beer to salve the heat. “We sail across spaces so vast they seem unending.” It would only break your heart.

“There is no grace in this night’s fall/Morning crouches slightly out of sight/Dreams dart like herons in the rustling light,” I wrote in a poem abandoned in disgust.

Survival depended on the perseverance that rouses the will to suffer and then breaks it. I had not asked for a blessing like this, but now that it was mine, I would give God the glory.

Walking across campus on a blustery night, my legs forked and angled with such confusion I didn’t know whether I’d make it back to my dorm without the strenuous effort to move them in that direction. My tongue slithered around my mouth like an alien seeking light. My brain was an incubator of moribund thoughts, marshalling fears hither and yon. My brain—where do I begin? Think of wizards and maskers, mufflers and puppets, whiffled like butterflies, if you’re able. (A list inspired by Burton’s Anatomy.) Nerves tarried on the edge of dark forests, tiki torches of the infinite.

I had to consider that I had hardened my heart, puffed myself up with knowledge, gone too far in my quest for novelty—even though I’d hardly gone anywhere. What I needed was the counsel of godly men. I should join a fellowship group, dial up a contact with the Family, and embrace the stupefaction of born-again congressmen and professional golfers.

I am speaking here of a time when I began to doubt the trustworthiness of everything that had held my life intact. Ten years is a long time to live in servitude to invisible forces. Yet I tried to appear a productive and amiable member of my generation. Genial and expansive. I went to parties and concerts. I volunteered as an English tutor at a community center in the inner city. I kept track of my study hours—6+ a day, 7 days a week, recorded in my journal—and turned in papers on time. I took copious notes in class and typed them up in the evenings for my color-coded binders. I paid attention to fashion as much a student budget allowed, but no poplin and plaid for me. I steered toward seafaring collegiate with a twist of Neil Young, not quite bonhomie academe, but not quite anything really. My chronic skin allergies did not blend well at all with the nautical woolens of the era. The Nordic pullover welted my neck; my wool-lined wallabies caused constant and embarrassing foot sweat. In my brown corduroy jacket I was always either too cold or too hot. I studied in places I hoped would keep my symptoms at bay and minimize exposure to other students: beside a bank of windows in a church refectory or an empty classroom. For our man of constant squirmings and weak bladder could feel heads turning his way issuing ultimatums. Clinging to whatever strategies of adaptation got me through the day, I tried to keep a steady face.

****

“You ascend the scale of erotic desire until you find God,” a Roman Catholic friend told me. Worldly phenomena are the glitter of the holy, he said; all truth is God’s truth. The two of us were sitting on a bench in the quad of the college where we taught. It was an afternoon in early May, a few days after classes ended, and the green trace outside the humanities building was spangled in sunlight. My colleague spoke with a gentle Irish lilt; he’d written ponderous but artful studies on selfhood and otherness (the word felt new and thrilling at the time), and I was delighted by his interest in my work, which I didn’t think amounted to much at the time. I told him I wished I’d heard the Gospel of the erotic scale in the churches of my childhood. “It’s never too late”, he said with a smile. Oh, but it was.

On Baptist Sunday mornings, in cream-brick classrooms, lust flailed beneath my polyester slacks. Best not to stand up in these languid hours. Keep the blazer buttoned. Wear a jock strap over tighty whities, if you must—and I must. “The Great Tribulation,” I wrote in my diary. “Earthquakes, hailstorms, 110 pound chunks of ice, sun will go dark, moon will not shine.” How hard it was to bring erections under the control of Christ. The only good news on the horizon was that Jesus was set to return any day now, according to most forecasts. But would I be ready? Or would I be left behind? It could go either way. I’d found a Playboy magazine in the woods one afternoon and not disposed of it properly. I might be stretched over a dead log, gaping at breasts, when the trumpets blasted, and the sun would go dark.

“You need Jesus Christ to give you strength in (1) purity (2) dedication (3) courage,” my parents wrote to me in a birthday letter. As further incentive for the journey ahead, my mother explained that premarital sex leads to psychic ruin. “All the girls I know who’ve lost their purity have emotional scars. Their thinking is somehow damaged. They’ve lost a precious something they can never get back. Their personalities are distorted, become one with that other personality.” They’d committed the Unpardonable Sin, the only sin that could not be forgiven. She didn’t say this directly. No Christian had ever been able to say for sure what that sin was. Until now. It seemed the logical conclusion to draw. So I equipped myself for battle like Saint Anthony in the desert—and lost my mind anyway.

I needed professional help. I was afflicted with an acute anxiety disorder. What could be more obvious? The mental upheavals of the midnight raid and so many convocations of dread, every lineament of my case, might have come straight from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (3rd edition, published one year earlier), of which I knew nothing. In its description of a Generalized Anxiety Disorder, the DSM noted such grim enumerations as: smothering phobias, hypersensitivity to noise, compulsive self-checking, and the belief that you were going, or had already gone, insane; to which I could have added: eyelid twitches, random bestartlements, nocturnal anomie, muscle aches, and all the elaborate rituals to avoid the feared object.

The onset of generalized anxiety disorder typically begins in late adolescence or early adult life. I was twenty-four the year of my first major attack. The DSM classifies an anxiety disorder as persistent symptoms lasting for at least one month. But it would not be until the spring of my thirty-first birthday that I finally stumbled into an emergency room, in another town, at a different university, and said to the attending nurse: “I need help. No ma’am, I’m not taking cocaine. I don’t know what’s happening. But it’s worse now than it’s ever been, and it’s been bad for a long time.”

That I survived the long ordeal—well, you have evidence before you. A man rounding sixty, the father of three grown children, a scholar of moderate renown. Last month, my wife and I rented an apartment on the Johannes Verhulstraat in Amsterdam and celebrated our 30thwedding anniversary. I did better than survive; I found solid footing. But the dark nights of the soul taught me nothing about God. Mental illness, benumbed and untreated, revealed only the ghost of a self. Please don’t believe it when the grace pimps tell you otherwise.

Call it the comedy of redemption, my dogged persistence, or the infusion of both; but my prayers for healing—which had long been unspoken, which had long been conjured mostly as an irrepressible quest for wholeness—were eventually answered by a psychoanalyst named Cohen, a soft-spoken and observant Jew, who, upon the referral of the emergency room physician, invited me for a consultation. To be sure, the physician’s first order of business had been to calm my wrecked nervous system, which required the intervention of anti-anxiety medications. The drugs did their good work; and by the time I met with Cohen, I was eager to hear him out on the prospects of psychoanalytic treatment.

He explained the basics: a complete analysis would take about three years. We should try to meet four days a week. The hospital’s usual rate was $150 for a therapeutic hour, but since this would be a training case, which he needed to fulfill a clinical requirement, he’d be willing to accept less. I should think about what I’d be willing to pay, a rate that seemed feasible. He would not be making any additional income on the analysis.

I told him a week later, “I was thinking I could pay five dollars per session.” Cohen said that sounded fine. He didn’t ask how I’d reached the decision or seem taken aback by my proposal. Though he thought we might agree to revisit the rates should my financial outlook improve. And that sounded good to me.

During the last of our three initial consultations, I told Cohen I really appreciated his kind offer and all he was doing to accommodate my limited means; yet I felt like I needed a little more time to think it all through. Three years of nearly daily therapy seemed daunting, even at bargain-basement prices. Cohen said he understood. I should take as much time as I needed.

At the time, I was carrying a 3-3 teaching load into my second year of a tenure-track job, which meant developing four new courses, in addition to research, student advising, and college service. My wife had taken leave of her ESL position to care for our two small children; and we had recently bought a two-bedroom house, for which we’d borrowed heavily. A thousand dollars a year seemed like a stretch.

I thought about it. Logistical complications woke me up some nights in a cold sweat. To get to appointments on time, I would have to rush out of my second class period, drive from Roland Park into the urban desolation of east Baltimore (at which point my fretful mind would replay the most horrific death scenes in the last week’s episode of Homicide, filmed on these same streets) and the oasis that remains Johns Hopkins Hospital, hope to God there was a free parking place in the Rutland Garage, speed walk through a labyrinth of hallways to Cohen’s office on the 10th floor, and wait in an outer office abuzz with the comings and goings of psychiatrists and med students; and then fifty minutes later, I’d have to do the whole thing again in reverse. And this would be my life; four days a week, with breaks for August, Christmas, and Hanukkah, for the foreseeable future.

I felt completely overwhelmed but exhilarated too; it felt exactly like every prospect for creative growth had ever felt. What did I have to lose? What other better options did I have for my addled mental health? During a visit that happened to coincide with my considerations of Cohen’s offer, the psychiatrist and writer Robert Coles said the arrangement sounded too good to pass up. I’d long been an admirer of Coles’s remarkable career—read his books on Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor and on children in situations of crisis—so I took his advice as the voice of providence. And so, with my wife’s gentle nudge, and the reassurance that Cohen would be there if I lost my way, I phoned in to say I was ready to get started.

****

On a summer afternoon a decade after my first major panic episode, a thirty-four year-old anxious riddle of a man finally got on the couch.

“What do I talk about?” I asked.

“Whatever you want,” Cohen said.

“That’s it?” I said.

“That’s pretty much it,” he said.

It sounded like nothing so much as a testimony. Having learned early to share my faith with anyone interested (or not), to offer an spoken account, on demand, of my spiritual life, analysis was a fairly easy transition to make. So you might say an evangelical childhood brings certain advantages to the work.

I wanted to talk about my first image of heaven. It had come to me at a Jesus camp. I couldn’t remember which one. I’d gone to so many. It might have been the retreat on the Gulf, or the ranch in the east Mississippi lake country, or the weekend bivouacs on the banks of the Tombigbee River. Jesus camps angled over every sad body of water between Picayune and Dothan. But I recalled vividly how on an afternoon swim I had positioned myself by the ladder, and with goggles and snorkel, watched the older girls lapping in the deep end overhead. I recalled how their bodies flashed like pearls in the aqueous light. How I was hard enough to hold a tray of oysters. How later that evening at the worship service, I had sat in a folding chair and listened to my father preach one of his powerful soul-winning sermons, luxuriating in blissful wonderment.

Cohen responded with an “uhuh,” in what would be the first of a million uhuh’s and uhum’s gracing our sessions, signaling a thought well-spoken, a sorrow shared, an insight gleaned; who knew for sure. But I always appreciated the reassuring effect. After a brief pause, he said he’d be interested to hear about my first thoughts of hell.

Duly noted. Psychoanalysis would not lead me into paradise. But in the languorous flow of thought and speech, in the recollection of known and forgotten, buried and visceral, terrors, traumas and hopes, under the skillful direction of an analyst, psychoanalysis did free me from the tyrannies of self-unknowing. From cruel dogmas and debilitating fears. In analysis, I found the freedom to talk about anything, to follow the lines of the most outrageous desires—and the lightning didn’t strike. In a slow, steady turning, I learned to trust, for the first time, in the aptitudes of bodily life.

“Freud isn’t just desire’s advocate,” my friend Mark Edmundson wrote in one of his eloquent apologies for the talking cure. Freud teaches us to recognize that our “inner lives are in a constant state of civil war”; that we both wish and despise our own longings. He lets us know how we’re likely to behave when “desire slips loose from its reins”, but more importantly how much our lives are diminished from “too much prohibition”—“when the inner censor grows too strong.” The result is not only “listlessness, depression, despondency” but “in extreme cases the hatred of life that takes one to suicide…The death of desire is the death of the individual.”

Freud is a skilled diagnostician of sick theologies, I would add, and might be welcomed as the pastoral counselor every evangelical desperately needs. The un-analyzed God metes out punishments as harsh as the Christian body. Yet a mind chastened by the crash and burn of magical thinking may inspire a faith more alive to mystery. It did for me.

Evangelicals who rail against psychotherapy and pharmacology do so, in my observation, until they need them. When the protocols of biblical self-help fall short, as they will, evangelical anxiety becomes sin’s dark portal into which so many sick and needy people spiral out of control. We’ve all seen the reports: they leave the faith and/or their families, become addicted to drugs and/or porn, religiously and/or physically abuse their parishioners and the young, and commit suicide. (Children of ministers take their lives at a higher rate than their parents. Though the number of both has spiked, nearly a third of the subculture still believes that anyone who commits suicide goes to hell.)

Such however is the plight of the Evangelical Self: unaccompanied by respect for the mind’s intricate dramas, the salvation instant shatters. Its identity requires its perpetual unmaking. I recently heard a preacher in one of the numerous evangelical start-ups in my university town say to the audience that he prayed each of us would have a complete nervous breakdown; only then would we be made ready for God. The Evangelical Self is a never-ending experiment to determine whether all people can be brought to despair, made empty vessels, and then—please don’t mistake the self-loathing for passivity—redeployed in service to whatever authority has been certified the real deal for Jesus. The signs are everywhere. In hypomanic fears of extinction. In the narcosis of purity. In a massive persecution complex. In the constant hankering for authority. The Evangelical Self storms into the social order as a perpetually-aggrieved crusader against difference. The pitch for the ego broken for God is finally a grasp for power and control, and it must be resisted.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur, four decades after the publication of Freud’s Future of an Illusion, argued in a ponderous, largely forgotten monograph that Freudian psychoanalysis prepares the mind for a faith cleansed of idolatry—to the God beyond god. “The question remains open for everyone,” Ricoeur said, “whether the destruction of idols is without remainder.” The analytic dialogue exacts a meticulous, demanding, and expensive process (minus sliding scale) of disentangling the reality from the symbol; of freeing the transcendent mystery from the domesticated word. Freud may have exaggerated his conclusions, presuming he’d exposed faith’s essential naiveté: the natural history of an infantile obsession. You see aspects of caricature in his genealogy of religion, his simplistic reductions and quest for a theory of everything, his confidence in the morality of science—he was a child of the nineteenth century. (Paul Tillich is the rare modern Protestant theologian who grappled with anxiety and extolled the benefits of psychoanalysis. But his accounts linger amid ontological abstractions; you will not find any consideration of anxiety’s harsh somatic presences or clinical context—or his own tortured sexuality. ) Still, Freud’s critique of the idea of God strikes me as less of a “funerary sermon on religious culture”, as T.S. Eliot surmised, than a reckoning with the seductive power of illusion. Psychoanalysis offers a clinical procedure for disentangling symbolic conceptions of God from the reality symbolized. Such at least was my experience.

St. Paul’s prayer that Christians would be strengthened in their “inner being with power through his Spirit”, the Hebrew psalmist’s search for “truth in the inward being,” “wisdom in my secret heart”—affirm the habits of self-care and depth. St. Peter tells the resident aliens scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia to “adorn their inner selves with the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” The ascent to God, despite the portrayals by its cultured despisers, expands the horizons of worldliness. Faith is a difficult artwork: continually giving, ever unfinished. Might it not then better serve our battered selves (and our threatened earth) to imagine religion as something other than an avatar of shame or opiate against death? We might recall Tillich’s concern for the courage to be, “the power of creating beyond oneself without losing oneself,” to “enter into the fullness of life.” Doctrinaire reductions of religion to neurotic symptoms are silly and unhelpful. It must never again be said that God wills you or me to suffer depression and anxiety.

Our lives are a marvelous mystery. Under the direction of a competent analyst, Freudian analysis builds upon that mystery, in its thorough, respectful listening to the subject—to the suffering self, the analysand. Self-disclosure is “liberating and innovating and therefore creating,” wrote Stanley A. Leavey in In the Image of God: A Psychoanalyst’s View, the book that would open my heart’s door to analysis. We are free when we are open to what is real and disposed toward what is true. Sometimes even you must sin boldly to feel redemption’s joy. You have to give up on the messianic impulse for the sake of your body and mind; for the sake of who you are; of what you wanted to be all along. To go all the way, to feel the body’s grace, to ascend the scale of erotic desire until there’s nothing left to say but: “Here I am.”


Originally published by Killing the Buddha under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

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