Catharsis and Salvation


This semester I’m taking Social Psychology, Assessment II (focused on the Rorschach), and Group Psychotherapy. Today in my Group Psychotherapy class, we talked about how empirical research has demonstrated that catharsis is a necessary but not sufficient condition as a curative factor in group therapy. Of course, this is something Freud had discovered over a century ago when he found that re-experiencing repressed memories in and of itself would not facilitate change for his patients. My professor asked us to define catharsis. I started thinking about it, and the best definition I was able to come up with was that catharsis is a repetition with a difference. Catharsis is all about re-experiencing an affect-laden memory. It is a highly emotional experience. Its etymology indicates that it derived from the Greek words for pure and cleanse.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud began to rethink his metapsychology because of the problem repetition compulsion posed to his system. Essentially he ran into this problem: why do people continue to re-experience painful memories if man’s desire is to seek pleasure? Here Freud posits the death drive. I’ll hopefully return to Lacan’s revision of the death drive in a later post.

I think we begin to approach the relationship between the freedom of the psychoanalytic cure and Christian salvation. Catharsis is a repetition with a difference insofar as the subject revisits the traumatic event, but this time with a difference. This time the subject rewrite this event with the help of the analyst, and through this process the subject learns to confront and integrate the trauma. This inevitably leads to a subjective cleansing; the subject has been released from the compulsion to repeat the trauma. Here we see the psychoanalysis can help the subject re-experience the trauma, but this repetition is creative because it leads to a purging of the trauma.

St. Paul writes in Romans 6:2-6, “How can we who died to sin yet live in it? Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection. We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.”

Obviously, here original sin should be understood as the traumatic event that the subject cannot integrate. All Christians have been baptized into Jesus’ death. This event allows Christians to experience a new life, a life that is freed from the chains of sin. As Jesus tells Nicodemus, we must all be born again. However, this birth is simply not a repetition of the same, but a repetition with a difference. We are reborn in Christ’ death except this time we are no longer enslaved to oppression of sin and the desire to repeat. We undergo a subjective purification through the salvation offered by Jesus. However, here we must keep sight of the differences that separate Christianity and psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis lacks the eschatological dimension of Christianity. Although we are baptized in death with Christ and released from the powers of sin, we are yet to be resurrected in Christ at the end of time. This explains why although Christians might be free of sin, many still find choose to re-enslave themselves to sin. Bonhoeffer could only understand this subjective position as one of cheap grace. Obviously, psychoanalysis cannot make such promises.


One Response to “Catharsis and Salvation”

  1. Sin as OCD « JRidenour Says:

    […] Sin as OCD By Jeremy In a similar vein, I’ve already touched on the relationship between catharsis, repetition compulsion, salvation, and sin here […]

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