Archive for June, 2010

A Nietzschean Critique of Psychoanalysis


“Man, as the animal that is most courageous, most accustomed to suffering, does not negate suffering as such: he wants it, even seeks it out, provided one shows him some meaning in it, some wherefore of suffering” (On the Genealogy of Morals, 136).

Nietzsche was right: man is hungry for meaning. Man will go to the furthest extremes to deny the meaninglessness of life. I think here we can begin to offer a critique of a certain way of conducting psychoanalysis. I read a paper the other day by a psychoanalyst who apparently cured a psychotic person suffering from schizophrenia without the aid of neuroleptics. According to the analyst, it is imperative that analysts attend closely to the babble of the psychotic individual in search of meaning. From his perspective, the psychotic anticipates that the analyst will not discern the meaning amidst the garbled signifiers, which will only serve to confirm the psychotic’s previous experience with parents and professionals who did not and could not understand his speech. The psychotic person intentionally distorts their speech believing that the meaning behind the nonsense will in fact be missed. Here is where I take issue. According to the analyst, psychoanalysis posits that beneath the chaos lies meaning. But perhaps psychoanalysis is the culprit here. Perhaps, psychoanalysis cannot deal with the meaninglessness of the psychotic’s speech and embrace the sheer contingency of biological determinism. In the company of the psychotic, the analyst herself feels anxiety about losing her mind. The analyst knows that psychosis is something, which seems to be heavily determined by genetics (50% heritability rate in identical twins). Ultimately, the analyst guards against her own anxiety about losing control by positing meaning amidst the chaos of nonsense. She cannot ever imagine being totally isolated by herself cut off from the Symbolic order.

Nietzsche knew man would die to believe in meaning. Sometimes, psychoanalysis seems willing to die to confirm its own biases. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve read works by analysts and been simply shocked by their utter laziness and lack of creativity. Some analysts seem absolutely stricken with the illness of reductionism. Given any situation they can bring it back to a couple of trite metaphors. Another problem exists when someone offers a psychoanalysis of X (let X = religion, politics, sociology). So many times we have the same boring results offered to us without the least bit of insight. Recycled metaphors and boring symbols continue to dominate. In the end, it might just be anxiety. They’d rather believe that these cute ideas and theories could completely explain the universe, rather than embrace that some things lie beyond the scope of psychoanalysis. Fortunately, I believe there does exist a psychoanalysis that does not chain the unconscious down and control its movement. The unconscious is wild and fluid constantly manifesting itself in a multiplicity of ways. It refuses to play by the same old rules.

Barth on Eschatology in the New Testament


In CD III/2 Barth addresses eschatology and time in the New Testament. He has two major opponents he wishes to attack. First, we have those whose views underestimate “the majesty of Jesus in this intervening time in consequence of an underestimation of the origin of the community in His resurrection” (CD III/2 509) by advancing the idea that the early apocalyptic hope of the first church quickly faded away. That is to say many scholars believe that Jesus and Paul were apocalypticists preaching God’s imminent arrival on earth to establish his Kingdom but soon the early church recognized the inaccuracy of such opinions. In fact, this generation would not pass away before all these signs would come true. Unfortunately, that generation did start dying out and second return was in sight. Hence, this “view is thus adopted that early hopes quickly gave way to disappointment and disillusion; that a lofty but impractical expectation was replaced by a clever adaption to realities” (CD III/2, 509). According to Barth, this view is mistaken because it “fails to take account of the Holy Spirit as the driving force behind the community in the time between the resurrection and the parousia” (CD III/2, 509). Barth goes on to admit that the expectation of the parousia is undoubtedly part of the early church, but he denies that there was any such anxiety for the early believers worrying when Christ would return. He argues against this view and ultimately asserts that to find this view, the theory must be read back into the New Testament to substantiate the position. If we let the New Testament speak for itself we find this view is directly challenged again and again (although, I think the evidence he advances is somewhat weak, e.g. 2 Peter 3:8 – with the Lord a day is like a thousand years).

Barth is even more critical of the second position that argues for a realized eschatology. From this position, there is a “failure to recognize the criticism of the Holy Spirit, whose work keeps the community towards its Lord in dissatisfaction with its present condition, preventing it from regarding its conditions as absolute” (CD III/2, 510). This strong ecclesiology fails to recognize the Christian hope for the parousia by setting up an institution that continually asserts itself as the true, sole witness to Jesus, “instead of bearing witness to the authority of Jesus, it invests itself with His authority” (510). From Barth’s perspective, “there can be no place for a Judge who will control the Church itself in sovereignty and whom it is bound to fear” (511). Since the church is such a self-satisfied, well-run organization does it really even need Jesus’ return? Wouldn’t it be better off continuing business as usual without an expectation of the Son of Man returning to judge the living and the dead? (I wanted to make a quick side note. He spends the majority of this section ridiculing the Roman Catholic Church, although he makes the concession that it can also be found in some Protestants and Anglicans. His critique reminded me of the Grand Inquisitor)

At the end, the first view is problematical because Christ “is absent because there is no recognition of the consoling power of His resurrection for the present life of the community” (CD III/2, 511). The realized eschatology position falters because Christ “is absent because no serious account is taken of His future and its critical power for the present life of the community” (CD III/2, 511). The first view errs insofar as Christ’s presence is denied in the community whereas the second view fails to take seriously the future of Christ and its effect on the community. To stay true to the witness of the New Testament, Barth believes we must resist both tempting errors.

Barth on Nietzsche and the Crucified


According to Barth, Nietzsche never gave a damn about God’s existence; it was by instinct Nietzsche declared that God is dead. He would never bother offering arguments. At the end of the day, the most important thing to Nietzsche was ethics. He absolutely detested Christian morality. While Nietzsche favors the “lonely, noble, strong, proud, natural, healthy, wise, outstanding, splendid man, the superman, a type which is the very reverse, and so far has managed to do this successfully with its (Christianity’s) blatant claim that the only true man is the man who is little, poor and sick, the man who is weak and not strong who does not evoke admiration but sympathy, who is not solitary but gregarious – the mass-man. It goes so far as to speak of a Crucified God, and therefore to identify God Himself with this human type, and consequently to demand of all men not merely sympathy with others but that they themselves should be those who excited sympathy and not admiration” (CD III/2, 239).

Barth believes Nietzsche envisioned the true threat of Christianity, which “confronts him with the figure of suffering man. It demands that he should see this man, that he should accept his presence, that he should not be man without him but with him, that he must drink with him at the same source. Christianity places before the superman the Crucified, Jesus, as the Neighbour, and in the person of Jesus a whole host of others who are wholly and utterly ignoble and despised in the eyes of the world…the hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and captive, a whole ocean of meanness and painfulness. Nor does it merely place the Crucified and His host before his eyes. It does not merely will that he see Him and them. It wills that he should recognise in them his neighbours and himself” (CD III/2, 241).

Finally Barth writes, “[w]ith his discovery of the Crucified and His host he discovered the Gospel itself in a form which was missed even by the majority of its champions, let alone its opponents, in the 19th century. And by having to attack it in this form, he has done us the good office of bringing before us the fact that we have to keep to this form as unconditionally as he rejected” (CD III/2, 242).

Debates on Barth’s Doctrine of Election and Trinity


As someone who has arrived late to the debates amongst different Barthian interpreters, I’ve spent this weekend reading the different positions. On the one hand, we have scholars like Molnar and Hunsinger who continually affirm that Barth’s doctrine of the election is entirely grounded in the Trinity. Or to put it another way, although God’s being and act cannot be formally distinguished (insofar as God’s being is only known through his act), it is inappropriate to say that God’s essence is determined by his election. On the other side of the debate, we have McCormack who believes that there is seismic shift that takes place in Barth’s Church Dogmatics right around the time he began writing CD II/2 in which Barth sketches out his radical doctrine of election. McCormack argues that God’s decision before time to be for us is actually constitutive and gave rise to the Trinity. McCormack goes on to argue that to remain faithful to Barth’s insights in CD IV, it is necessary that we re-interpret Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity laid out in CD I.

There has been a very solid exchange between Hunsinger and McCormack over the last two years. Hunsinger wrote something of a manifesto for what he takes his position to be a traditional interpretation of Barth’s theological ontology in opposition to the position McCormack defended in an excellent essay entitled Grace and Being found in the Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth. Hunsinger’s essay can be found here

Well, finally McCormack has responded here in the latest edition of The Scottish Journal of Theology in an essay entitled Election and Trinity: Theses in response to George Hunsinger

The debates encompass three important questions:
1. The evolution of Barth’s theology (Hunsinger alleges that it is fundamentally consistent all the way throughout, whereas McCormack recognizes an important shift)
2. Whether the christology advanced in CD IV would require a revision in Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity in CD I/1
3. The relationship between God’s triunity and the act of election

He makes the claim that from his early work to CD II/1 Barth in many ways still advanced a standard theological ontology. For McCormack, it was not until CD II/2 in which Barth began to develop an election wholly grounded in christology that he could properly construct a non-metaphysical theological ontology. This non-metaphysical theological ontology did not want to allow there to be a gap differentiating God’s being and God’s act for humanity. I’ve been thinking a little more through this paper and am curious what McCormack means when he asserts that the later Barth has a non-metaphysical theological ontology. One of his ideas is that Barth forecloses any sort of gap between the divine essence and will, hence the Trinity can have no metaphysical priority over the doctrine of election (only a logical priority). I guess I don’t understand how one can have a theological ontology that is non-metaphysical?

In Thesis 7, he writes:

“Christology constitutes the theoretical basis for all other doctrinal constructs from CD II/2 to the end of Barth’s life. But it was not until he had thoroughly ‘historicized’ his christology (beginning in IV/1) that he began to realize the critical potential of this epistemological starting-point. For if this new christology is now the epistemological basis for theology, then nothing may be said of God or the human which does not find its basis in this christology. Expressed another way: a doctrine of God built on the soil of this epistemological foundation may seek to find in God the ontological conditions for the possibility of this christology only. Anything beyond that is unwarranted speculation which takes place on a different basis – and is to be excluded. Seen in this light, there is much in Barth’s earlier doctrine of God that can remain standing, much that can remain standing only if seen in a different light, and some things which need to be rejected” (217).

Later in the paper McCormack makes a really helpful distinction between human decision making and divine decision making. We must first recognize that in God’s decision making there in no temporal gap that would render a before and after the divine decision (i.e. it is absurd to posit to some sort of deliberation process in God’s decision making). Yet, if we think God’s being precedes his act ontologically then we are forced to admit such a temporal distinction. Hence, we must admit that “God must therefore give himself being eternally in the act in which he sets himself in relation to Jesus Christ, and, in him, to the world. There is thus no metaphysical gap between God’s being and acting” (222).

Finally in Thesis 10 he writes:

“If God is what he is in the eternal decision of election and not in a state or mode of existence that is above or prior to that decision, then the question ‘who is the Subject of this decision?’ constitutes a transgression of the boundaries set by the divine reality itself. For embedded in that question is another, namely ‘What would God have been, had He not made this decision?’ Such a question can only be answered on a basis other than the one provided by Barth’s later christology. It is, inevitably, an exercise in natural theology” (223).

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this once I complete CD III and begin delving into CD IV. Also, I’ll be writing a post soon on Barth’s reading of Nietzsche in CD III/2.

Lacan on Ego Psychology


Ego psychology was a psychoanalytic school popularized through Anna Freud’s study of defense mechanisms and Hartmann brought it to fame in America. Believing the focus of the ego be a central betrayal of the Freudian subject of the unconscious, Lacan never missed an opportunity to skewer this school for fundamentally misunderstanding Freud. It’s especially interesting that a focus on the ego is in many ways responsible for the ascendancy of cognitive-behavioral therapy in the States. CBT exclusively focuses on the way automatic thought patterns negatively impact a person’s engagement with the world. For example, to treat a depressive patient it’s of the utmost importance to correct the automatic thoughts patterns that only serve to reinforce the depressed person’s negativistic view of the world (while completely bracketing the study of the unconscious). In 1920, Freud introduced his structural model of the mind (id-ego-superego) in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Here’s the quote from Lacan:

“What Freud introduced from 1920 on, are additional notions which were at that time necessary to maintain the principles of the decentering of the subject. But far from being understood as it should have been, there was a general rush, exactly like the kids getting out of school – Ah! Our nice little ego is back again! It all makes sense now! We’re now back on the well-beaten paths of general psychology. How could one fail to come back to it with elation, when this general psychology is not only stuff from school or mental commodity, but, what is more, is the psychology of everyman? There was satisfaction in being once again able to believe the ego to be central. (Seminar II, 11)

On a meta-level, this summer (along with continuing to read Barth’s CD) I plan on reading Seminar II, III, XVII, and XX with the hopes of producing a paper on Lacan and theology. So continue to expect more on Barth and Lacan.

More Thoughts on Theodicy


Process theology (grounded in Whitehead’s metaphysics) or open theology (a more conservative variant) in many ways seems to be a response to age-old theological conundrum of suffering. Both theologies challenge the idea of a sovereign God preferring to think of a God who remains open to the future and does not pull the strings controlling nature, history, etc. I have many objections to these theologies, but one of my chief complains is that both seem to be intent on making apologies for God. They make the necessary moves so people can no longer protest to God in the midst of their suffering. It’s not that God willed things to be this way, but rather he is caught up in the process and unfolding of history. I’ve been thinking about the historical contexts in which these theologies have emerged and have become convinced that their development is contingent on a world that has become increasingly technologized and explained scientifically. In the past a tribal, omnipotent God who took sides in war made sense when man did not have the technological capacity to fight wars the way we do now. Also, in the past man was utterly dependent on mother nature for rain, but now we’ve grown smart enough to manufacture food year round. We no longer need a God to occupy such a position of power so he’s been displaced in these theologies as a friendly, relational Being who has revoked that place in the cosmos. God as an explanatory hypothesis is no longer needed so these theologies have re-thought the Godhead to make space for him in our scientific world.

I’m still working through thinking theodicy, but I thought I’d included an excellent quote from J Kameron Carter on theodicy and Haiti (I’ve borrowed the quote from Halden’s blog here)

By coming at the issue of God and suffering, which this Haiti crisis compels us to do, from the vantage point of the God not above our pain but the God known in and who is identified from our pain, the classical theodicy question comes to an end. We step beyond theodicy and into a “Christ-odicy.” That is to say, we address suffering from Jesus Christ. And to approach suffering from him is to approach those who suffer, not as those merely needing our charity (which positions us above them), nor as those who trigger our intellectual and aesthetic capacities to glean the beautiful from the tragic (which also positions us as masters, above the fray), but as those who witness God to us, the God who is the Neighbor—the one and only Neighbor—who has come to us (cf. Luke 10:25–37). They are neighbors in whom God is known and is present to us. And thus, Haiti is the witness to our redemption. The script is Christologically flipped: they are the missionaries to us. To neglect them, to position ourselves above the fray and thus above them, to not work to change the social conditions that make natural disaster worse—these are all signs of the refusal of salvation.

Finally Bonhoeffer writes

“So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering” (Letters and Papers from Prison, 360-361).

Barth on Philosophical Systems and God


“Plato and Plotinus would have been rather surprised and not very pleased by the way in which their philosophy was deepened and illuminated in the thought of Augustine, and no doubt Aristotle would have felt the same about what Thomas made of him. And from the philosophical standpoints the rise of theological Cartesians, Spinozists, Leibnizians, Kantians and Hegelians was a very dubious manner. Only rarely did the originators of the great philosophical systems have the will or the courage to make plan the possible compatibility of of their thought with Christian faith. And when this was attempted, as in the case of Kant and the older Schelling, it was inevitably to the detriment not only of faith but also of the system of ideas” (CD III/2, 10).

Oh, and for the record, I would have liked to have written some posts on CD III/1, but it was easily my least favorite part of CD thus far. For some reason my idea of fun isn’t a 400 page exegesis on Genesis 1-3.