God is Unconscious


In the Four Fundamental Concept of Psychoanalysis Lacan famously says that, “The true formula of atheism is not God is dead – even by basing the origin of the function of the father upon his murder, Freud protects the father – the true formula of atheism is God is unconscious “(59). This is a peculiar definition. What does Lacan mean by the statement God is unconscious? The first potential trap to sidestep is the typical Jungian reading of God. Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious is perhaps his most well known contribution. Jung assumes that based on similarities in myths and religions across cultures that humanity has a universal reservoir of primal myths and images to which every man has access. Unlike Freud, Jung also had a desire for the depths dimension in life. In the depths of the unconscious lurks God. We all have the potentiality to access this depth dimension. Hence, our conception of God literally dwells within theses unexcavated recesses of our mind. Here, we can begin to grasp Barth’s absolute difference from Jung. The last thing Barth would ever desire for his theology would be to confine God to the depths of man’s psyche. I would encourage any curious readers to check out Jung’s bizarre reading of Job in his short work entitled Answers to Job. Here Jung discusses God as a being becoming more conscious of itself. Yahweh is jealous of Job’s self-consciousness. I’d rehash the argument more, but it’s obscurity and strangeness made the interpretation almost completely independent of any exegesis of the book of Job. In the Monstrosity of Christ, Zizek locates the ultimate difference between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Jungian depth psychology in the two formulas: for Lacan, “God is unconscious” and for Jung, “God is the unconscious”.

[Side note, as a good Freudian it is incumbent on me to dislike Jung. His perversion of psychoanalysis into this obscure pseudo-religious, esoteric practice will always make him a major target of my assaults. But seriously, he slept with his patients. Not cool.]

I hope I have made it clear that Lacan utterly rejects this insipid interpretation of God that Jung offers us. Lacan was a Freudian materialist through and through. The idea that God is unconscious means that even if the subject consciously denies a belief in God, his actions convey that he still unconsciously believes in such a being or ordering principle. Let’s consider subject A. Subject A consciously believes that the existence of God is untenable and attributes people’s naïve belief in God to wish fulfillment or to the fear of death etc. As Zizek notes the paradoxical situation of our modern times is that even if God doesn’t exist then why is it that everything is prohibited? We all want a God. If we cannot look to the church for our ultimate authority, then we begin generating our own set of prohibitions that can become even more authoritarian. Consider the modern liberal subject in America, what exactly is she allowed to do these days? Everything is so damn complicated. Let’s take the example of trying to decide on an occupation.

What principle regulates our decision in pursuing a specific career? I realize I don’t speak to the entire West with this question, but instead to a rather fortunate middle-class liberal subject who gets to exercise some sort of control over what career she chooses. Our entire university system is based on a single principle: explore many options, but ultimately what will make you happy in life is pursuing what you love. This seems simple enough as the agent has all the control. However, there exists a rather naïve assumption by positing such a principle. This assumes that we know what we want. I cannot count the number of conversations I’ve had with friends who have anxiously speculated over what they ultimately want to do with their life. (I shouldn’t count myself out of this group as I struggled with possibly studying religion and philosophy as opposed to clinical psychology. I ultimately opted for a specific skill-set that would afford me the opportunity to help out people on a more concrete level). Things are too complex these days. In the past one might have merely opted for a vocation in which one already had the necessary skills. If you’re good at math become an engineer, who gives a shit if you want to make films? In the absence of any authority we still function as if we believe, but in what way exactly? While some believers might believe God has a plan for their life, doesn’t the liberal subject also betray a similar providential belief except in his case the call comes resounding from the individual’s omniscient will? This subjective will now has usurped God’s place, however the problem is that just as we don’t know what God wants for our life neither can the subject decide what he secretly wants. We remain a mystery unto ourselves. In fact, this is Lacan’s understanding of love. It’s not that we first must love and accept ourselves before we can love the other, but rather love is truly embracing the very otherness of the other. That is to say I love when I love the parts of my beloved to which she herself remains unaware of, her very otherness. Here, we begin to grasp why Nietzsche understood the death of God to be such an ambiguous event. It’s so damn difficult to remove the God-structure from our lives. If God’s killed, something will gradually take God’s place. New values must be created. Until we get there we still remain enslaved to a God, even if that God’s dead. As Lacan also noted, “If God doesn’t exist, the father says, then everything is permitted. Quite evidently, a naïve notion, for we analysts know full well that if God doesn’t exist, then nothing at all is permitted any longer. Neurotics prove that to us every day” (The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 128).


6 Responses to “God is Unconscious”

  1. ericdarylmeyer Says:

    The last sentence of this post ( http://www.htlblog.com/?p=607 ) has been haunting my thoughts for the last few days, mostly because it’s a crystalization of an idea that I’ve been tossing around for the last few months. Namely, to use (what I understand to be) Lacanian language, that God is a structurally necessary position for human thought.

    Bizarrely, that idea could be spun into a version of Anselm’s proof for God’s existence. If it is impossible to not think of God, is it possible that God could fail to be? I don’t put much stock in proofs at all, it simply occured to me that a creative theological mind might take your last quote there, or the last sentence in Critchley’s piece linked above as the starting point for such a proof. The big leap, of course, is from necessary thought to necessary existence.

    I’m actually more interested in the idea that, minimally, we need God as a placeholder lest society, subjectivity, sanity, etc. fall apart—whether and how this might be developed constructively in theology. My hunch is that something like the early Barth is the best way to do it. God’s utter transcendence renders “God” as an empty category from our perspective, but a category that is impossible to avoid nonetheless. God approaches the line of our experience perpendicularly, etc.

    What is even more fascinating to me is that way that the image of God might correlate between human subjectivity and God.

    I recognize that this is not likely to make much sense, and that I’m free-associating a bit. But hey, crazy shit is what the internet is for in the first place!


  2. Jeremy Says:

    The God-structure seems impossible to destroy. Of course, Hegel’s God collapses such a structure by foreclosing such a position and becoming immanent in the community. I guess I don’t mind God, but I really hate the structure that God occupies in society. The structure is what needs to go (something Deleuze recognized explicitly). I’d refer you the the masculine side of Lacan’s graph of sexuation in which he states there is at least one who does not submit to the phallic function who is not castrated. One example is Freud’s primal father. Lacan understood that this was necessary. There has to be one who is not castrated. Of course, Lacan also understood that the process of the analysis ideally leads to the traversing of the fantasy where one comes to understand that the big Other does not exist, that the primal father was a farce. There is no big Other. This pushes back responsibility onto the subject, she must take responsibility for her desire. Lacan wants to relate to the symbolic order in such a way that we recognize its incompleteness. He tried to re-think a way in which we can relate to the symbolic order while still recognizing its hole.

    I think I would suggest reading Mark C Taylor for a relation between the death of God, the dissolution of self, the end of history, and the closure of the book. He talks about the relationship between Augustine’s autobiography, and then conception of God. It’s a whirlwind of Hegelian deconstructive a/theology. A fun, if maddening read.

    Goodchild’s work is also worth checking out where he talks about the relationship between the death of God and capitalism. I’d read Capitalism and Religion if you get a chance. He understands that money has now eclipsed God, and man directs his time and attention enslaved to mammon. It’s a fascinating analysis.

  3. ericdarylmeyer Says:

    I’ll add Taylor and Goodchild to the (ever-growing list). I saw Taylor speak at AAR a few years ago and was thoroughly unimpressed, so I haven’t been in a hurry to read any of his work. But Goodchild definitely sounds like someone I’d profit from. I just need to learn to read faster….

    That said, it seems to me that even for folks who see the social function of the masculine side of Lacan’s theory of sexuation for what it is—namely that God is what we call the big Other who anchors the “very important” structures of our society—God persists as an important character. God still shows up on the feminine side, but in a very different mode. The recognition that there is no big Other doesn’t seem to do away with God altogether. Am I wrong?

    So yeah, what do we say about God in the midst of incompleteness, as we take responsibility for the exercise of our own pathologies? Zizek’s most theological moments seem to point at something along these lines.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    I’m not surprised about Taylor. His earlier works like Erring and Altarity were my favorite.

    Let me go back and read Lacan’s chapter on Woman and God in Seminar XX as I believe there is a different conception of God offered there. This also has partially to do with the chronological development of his work. His more structuralist phase can be seen in the middle of his career where the Symbolic order is his primary area of study. This later work focuses more on the Real.

    I’ll read and respond more substantially in a little bit.

  5. Female Sexuation, God, and Cum « JRidenour Says:

    […] Sexuation, God, and Cum By Jeremy This post is a response to an earlier question posed by Eric. In Seminar XX, Lacan tries to map out a notion of God that is a “third party in […]

  6. Jeremy Says:

    This quote from Deleuze seemed pertinent

    “The third consequence is that structuralism is inseparable from a new
    materialism, a new atheism, a new anti-humanism. For if the place is primary
    in relation to whatever occupies it, it certainly will not do to replace God with
    man in order to change the structure. And if this place is the dummy-hand [la
    place du mort, i.e. the dead man’s place], the death of God surely means the
    death of man as well, in favor, we hope, of something yet to come, but which
    could only come within the structure and through its mutation. This is how
    we understand the imaginary character of man for Foucault or the ideological
    character of humanism for Althusser” (Desert Islands and Other Texts, 175).

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