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Latent Theology: A Clinical Perspective on The Future of an Illusion

No one who had a childhood has a liberal theology. Freud (1927/1964) grasped this point so simply in The Future of an Illusion that his sophisticated understanding of religion in psychic structure has received insufficient appreciation. This paper amplifies but does not improve upon Freud. He clearly saw how modem theologies with their admixtures of philosophical and existential underpinnings would generate endless elaborations upon abstract religious ideas. He just as clearly dismissed them as an “intellectual misdemeanor” that can “stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense” (p. 51), resulting in theologies that are either “nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines” (p. 52), or that persist in calling religious any humble acquiescence ill “the small pan which human beings play ill the world” (p. 52). That of course, Freud called “irreligious in the truest sense of the word” (p. 52).

Although there is much that could be explored in Freud’s discussion of the secondary functions of religion–exorcizing by humanizing the forces of nature, reconciling people to the cruelty of fate and death, compensating them for the privations of civilized life (p. 24)-this paper focuses on Freud’s understanding of the role of religion within individual psychic structure, His position is easily summarized, less easily explicated. Thanks to childhood education, usually a program devoted to “retardation of sexual development and premature religious influence” (p. 78), the precepts of civilized life, which are originally experienced as coercions, become internalized b)’ “a special mental agency, man’s superego,” which agency appropriately transforms the child from an “opponent” of civilization into one of its “vehicles” (p. 13), Freud always intended superego as an aspect of ego, a distinct ego capacity for acculturation, the capacity to digest the ideals, permissions, and restraints that communal life prescribes in the service of preserving communal pleasure and safety. However, the potential alliance between ego and superego, which is clinically recognizable to the extent that individuals adopt a friendly attitude to rules and restraints that generally serve their own interests (p. 68), is confounded by the child’s, or the patient’s, naive or neurotic assimilation of meaning systems. Freud objected to religious indoctrination, of course, but he noted en passant similar objections to American Manifest Destiny (pp. 27. 80-81), Marxism (p. 76), and the Monarchy (p. 79) on the grounds that meaning systems that is, the investing of otherwise negotiable guidelines with “a quite special solemnity” (p. 66), represent an infantile or desperate method of mobilizing the superego to tame passions through force-the force of repression or, one might say, suppression. Thus, religion cannot help but represent the “universal obsessional neurosis of humanity” (p. 71), since theological systems promote unverifiable claims of ideal purpose, meaning, and value as a replacement for the individual’s negotiated pleasures in everyday affairs. These remarks become clearer when cast in their more radical form.

The potential alliance between ego and superego is so disrupted by theology that the ego’s regulation of gratification is opposed by the superego’s vague but powerful claims of meaning. Gratification here means the aligning of aim and object to discharge tension with minimal anxiety, minimal threat of symptom or unpleasure, and thus it is synonymous with the dually maximized achievements of pleasure and safety. Meaning is here restricted in definition to any alteration of behavior, thought, or feeling brought about by the individual’s accommodation of force, or the threat of force, whether real or imagined. So, for example, the displeasure or a parent has, in the life of a small child, a significantly greater meaning (altering force) than the displeasure of a colleague typically has in the life of an adult. The colleague’s displeasure is likely to be more interesting, reflecting, say, disagreements over politics, economics, ethics, taste, or nuances of daily life: but such interests belong to the colloquial or philosophical definitions of meaning and arc of no concern here. The child’s accommodation to parental power occurs despite the fact thai issues such as where to play or how much noise to make out of little philosophical interest.

The true counterpoint of meaning is not nihilism but flexibility. No one who had a childhood has a liberal theology because theology, to the extent that it proposes obligatory solemnity to any or life’s forms, supersedes at best-and at worst – opposes – personally negotiated gratifications. Freud’s “education to reality” (pp. 81 ff.) proposed an experiment in which personal gratification, pursuit, and restraint thereof, could become the subject or life in its own right. He was obviously familiar with some or the developments or liberal theology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but he found himself unable to conclude that any such developments were actually used in the service of expanded gratifications. If, in the absence of the force of indoctrination, people were found to generate religious faiths, either because they needed them for safety or wanted them for pleasure, then Freud was quite prepared to abandon his stance (p. 80). The whole experiment remains destined to fail, however, as long as meaning systems, whether theological, astrological, political, whether systematically verifiable or not, can oppose it with the force of foregone, pre sanctified conclusions. During childhood education superego plays a subliminal joke on ego. Prudence, flexibility, and negotiability are only illusions offered to the developing individual. Actually. the power of the superego’s meaning systems will inexorably prevail. “I talk openly about everything with Jennifer, I want her to feel good about herself sexually. In 10 years when she’s 16, that’s what scares me.”

Latent theology as used here is a double entendre that refers first to the reappearance, during psychotherapeutic treatment, of childhood religious ideas, ideals, and memories seemingly discarded in adult life. The content of such religious issues is usually quite accessible to patients and can become an occasion for them to blame elders for harsh, rigid, or whimsical attitudes inflicted during formative years. Also, childhood religion may be cited as a major source of guilt or self-doubt concerning impulses to aggression. competition, success, masturbation, seductiveness, conquest, coital pleasure, leisure, and the like.

The patient, a moderately successful architect, mocked and attacked his sadistic Irish father and parochial-school teachers for branding as sinful his intellectual achievements, enjoyed at the expense of others with less ability. He also mocked and attacked himself during treatment hours for bypassing commissions because of fits of anxiety or symptomatic acts that prevented enjoyment of “more than (his) share.” In his manifest irreligion this residue of a seemingly discarded religious upbringing became a vehicle for expressing oedipal defeat, as he demonstrated repeatedly to himself that his manifest irreligion must defer to their stronger religion. He consciously disavowed this religion but unconsciously convicted himself according to its precepts, thus framing an obsessive defense against personal pleasure that spiraled downward into ever more subtle, more complicated inner defeats.

This first definition of latent theology as the reemergence of childhood religious themes to express oedipal (or preoedipal) conflicts is reasonably uncomplicated and simply attests to the fact that religious content from one’s personal childhood remains a vehicle through which psychic conflicts are repeated and eventually remembered. Of course, political themes could serve as a vehicle too, as illustrated by a similar treatment struggle on the part of a man whose parents were members of an underground leftist movement. His productive university career as a botanist was confounded by lapses of attention to routine financial affairs so that he was repeatedly faced with evictions and miner court appearances. Inordinate complications in these types of treatment arise mainly when therapists collude with manifest assertions to the effect that their patients have already neutralized the manifest foibles of their parents. Besides being inaccurate from a structural viewpoint. such collusion robs patients of the most accessible vehicle for talking about themselves.

The second definition of latent theology pertains less to the content of childhood religious themes than to a persistent quest for and/or belief in the eventual validity of some theology. This is the more complicated problem of religion within individual psychic structure that Freud grasped so clearly. Space carved out in the psyche during childhood for pre sanctified meaning systems must be analyzed or it will inexorably be filled. It nor filled in later years with manifestly religious doctrines, then i twill be filled more idiosyncratically with admixtures of personal and/or social ideas and/or ideals. Whatever its content, the function of these new guidelines is to retain the parameters of a force field developed during childhood.

A patient 11 years outside the convent produced little religious material over the hours. As far as she was concerned, past religious teachings were a bit silly but over and done with. Instead, she was embarked upon a quest to experience “wholeness,” pursued with intense guilt and self-criticism. Contemporary psychologies contained for her essential revelations about the nature of “really being a person.” Yet these revelations were seemingly unrealizable for her through an ordinary (imperfect) sexual relationship and productive work life. The space originally carved out for religious doctrines was refilled with the solemn principles of “assertiveness” and “self-actualization”, that clinically speaking, forced her actions in the same way that religious indoctrination once did. In the transference she found herself “unredeemed” but “devoted to” complying with the dictates of modern psychology. Existential philosophies regarding the condition of human alienation poorly rationalized the clinically observable power of her superego. newly armed with psychology, diverting her away from the gratifications available to her in the name of the higher meaning of being mentally healthy.

In this version of a religious obsession, a psychological meaning system warded off the patient’s impending sense of danger at the prospect that maximum pleasure and safety could themselves be the subject of her life. It is no easy task for a therapist to crystallize the latent theological system of a patient. Logic and grammar are not isomorphic to psychic structure, As in the case above, what sounds like the grammar of ego liberation can serve the function of reintroducing a superego force field in more disguised form, A useful oversimplification in this regard is that the superego can conscript any available grammar of ideal meanings in the service of restricting affect, where affect is understood in its broadest sense to refer to the complete spectrum of tension discharges that comprise pleasurable experience and self-expression, Latent theology narrows this spectrum, that is, restricts ego options for organizing id, and substitutes instead compliance to approved meanings that may frequently be misconstrued as “insight.” For example, the misfortune of an enemy permits a delicious moment for expanded pleasurable discharge, as in the case of a patient who found herself gleefully and unexpectedly singing, “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.” The architect mentioned earlier, however, responded to a similar situation saying, “There’s something here, odd. I don’t, feel particularly bad; it’s like the realization that maybe I wanted it. And I don’t feel guilty like I thought. I’m maybe getting in touch with a sadistic side of me, but I haven’t worked that out yet,” This response is in no way insight. but rather a repetitive constriction of gratification in deference to newly conceived meanings. His latent concept of temporal sanctification here retains its structural role of transforming pleasure into meaning by force. Crystallizing these kinds of systems requires the therapist to hear the difference between a patient’s expanding personal language of gratification and repetitive compliance with any sanctified meaning systems.

With scholarship and piercing imagination. Roustang (1980) has concluded that psychoanalytic theory itself belongs in the category of a debilitating meaning system. The therapist’s theory is just as deadly as religious dogma. for as the theory swells to the status of a truth – an inexorable law instead of a poignant fiction-it lures desperate patients toward compliance, dependency, and then toward doomed attempts at rebellion that can only lead to interminable estrangement, and interminable treatment, This paradox, that the patient desires to find in the therapist a knowing other whose very existence then invalidates the self, is only soluble if the therapist is boldly willing to venture what Roustang calls distance errors, that is, flawed approaches to the patient’s subjectivity which are neither so caring as to become enveloping nor so competent that they reinfantalize the patient through their sheer impassability. Such a flawed and therefore therapeutic encounter does not permit the therapist to betray the patient by retreat to the higher ground of reified psychoanalytic knowledge, In this essential abandonment of prearranged knowledge. prearranged values, a prearranged professional identity, and even the Freudian pericope, the therapist, along with the patient, risks nothing less than psychosis itself.

Only where there is no meaning, that is, where nothing makes prearranged sense, docs the possibility arise for that intensely personal, separate, non-contingent, autonomous voice – the patient’s ‘I’ – that heals through its very alterneity.

So the patient must give up theology and the therapist must give up theory. The healing task is to render superfluous any need for such meaning systems at all. This is still a radical. frequently intolerable experiment, perhaps for patients and therapists alike. The need to fill the space carved out for meaning may recur in subtle allegiances to “openness,” or “warmth.’ or “self-acceptance.” or even cultivated atheism. A patient subtly drew the therapist into a reified superego meaning system by mentioning that he had impulsively committed a minor theft the week before and wanted to “get to the bottom of it.” The therapist’s latent wishes for meaning permitted a temporary collusion with the patient’s notion that the act should be deemed a symptom, a moral misdemeanor but a psychic felony. Only when the therapist realized that the patient was using this ac t as evidence for long-standing fantasies of secret malevolence (and guilt) could the therapist accurately clarify the act as a derivative form of aggressive pleasure, permissible precisely because it could so easily be mislabeled a psychological symptom, that is, permissible because it was bound to be stopped by guilt, self-criticism, and pseudo-insight. In this case the therapist temporarily resisted Freud’s radical experiment, in which the superego’s meaning systems arc totally superfluous, in which the only valid subject is the extent of gratification experienced in the events and emotions that comprise a daily life. The idea that these events and emotions need not tally into a coherent system of meaning (neither theological nor psychological) threatens an evacuation of superego that seems to foretell danger. The popular notion. even among therapists, that this fantasized danger must be respected for the sake of social order is another superego joke. Freud’s point was that an unchecked ego permitted to regulate gratification is no danger at all, because hypothetically dangerous impulses from the id are assimilated by a fully functioning ego into the individual’s best interests. A fully functioning ego does not need to be taught not to murder a parent and certainly does not need to be forced to refrain from it.

Patients under the grip of latent theological systems simply do not accept the prospect of this kind of personal freedom. Their defending of the superego’s function is, as it were, undisguised. Having counted on the safety of meaning systems and having remained ignorant of the specific shape of their appetites for so long they envision themselves unchecked as likely savages, insatiable, unspeakably dangerous, and as without ego to serve their interests. Actually, neither Freud, therapists, nor patients can be psychic anarchists where there is ego. The possibility for structural change, rendering the superego superfluous, begins, therefore, as the patient mobilizes support for the superego’s function in forcing compliance to meanings. Said a newly married patient who had abandoned for convenience her mother’s long-standing instructions on the way to prepare certain meals: “I know it doesn’t make any difference, but I don’t want to not have the rules.” Her anxiety at the prospect that convenience was, by itself, a fully adequate guide for her actions reflected a seemingly dangerous intrusion of ego into functions formerly handled by superego force. As might be predicted, analysis of this anxiety was found to encompass former restrictions on her sexual life and a convoluted prohibition against being a mother.

Mobilized support for the superego’s right to force compliance is clinically observable in at least three characteristic forms. First, patients presume, without necessarily knowing that they presume, that they arc surrounded by force fields, legitimate and abundant meanings, that require respect. Freud’s primary forces, the cruelty of nature and the fact of death, arc rarely included in the patient’s list of what amount to other safer meaning fabrications. A few such fabrications include the presumptions that a broken promise causes harm, that a sexual peccadillo constitutes a character flaw, that running away makes things worse, that the majority must be respected, and that chickens come home to roost. None of these minor meaning fabrications can be shown to have durable validity, nor are they trustable guides amid particular human events. Nevertheless they can be mistaken for basic truths to which the patient expects to submit, ironically in the name of clearheadedness. Second, patients frequently disavow abundant evidence in their lives testifying to their essentially non dangerous desires and essentially non dangerous means of regulating them. Third, they protest that without some form of trustable meaning, life could be only unceasing chaos or despair. These latter two mobilizations may usefully be clarified as instances of infantile grandiosity. Certainly it is as hard to play Satan as it is to play God. Clarification, however, only sets the stage for the necessary, complete interpretation of the latent theological system itself.

Latent theology as here discussed reflects the structural clash between two opposing psychic functions: the pursuit of gratification and the preservation of the threat of force. each competing to define and stabilize daily life. Through the oedipal paradigm Freud demonstrated repeatedly that the threat of force is cherished and defended to the extent that its loss would threaten an invitation to formerly repressed desires in the proscribed realms of murder and incest. The uniquely valid enforcement of these prohibitions occurred in childhood through the parents’ stronger counter-wishes and unavailability. Except for this unique force and enforcement, the regulation of the individual’s sexual and aggressive drives no longer requires force and may safely come under the supervision of ego in the individual’s best interests. This regulation or supervision promotes, most notably, the capacity for choice in the pursuit or restraint of impulses.

Interpretation of latent theological conflict centers. therefore, on the archaic wish to rely on force (of meanings) rather than the self’s own choice to pursue or proscribe in the self’s own interest. Oedipal conflict can be analyzed but never analyzed away, since this conflict recurs throughout life. Interpretation aims to place recurring conflict permanently within the arena of self-interested choice and no longer within the arena of compliance to any system of meanings, powers. ideals, or even values. In other words, the instincts remain essentially unknowable. They may seem to be naively mastered by moral force, or they may during development or through analysis be permitted derivative forms regulated by the ego in the best interests of the individual’s pleasure and safety. Where, one might ask. is the danger, chaos. or despair in that?

Freud’s experiment may not soon reshape childhood education, but it is to be considered a non dangerous experiment in the treatment room. Ironically, this experiment that insists upon obviating the function of childhood theologies permits unfettered experiences of religious faith when pursued for gratification. To acknowledge this is not to sanction at the end of this paper another subtle meaning system. Fundamental issues regarding self, other, and the world-its promises and its illusions-arc contained within the theology of the ages; yet Holmer (1984) has correctly noted that one must have cultivated a self capable of passionately addressing this material before it any make any sense. Theology will not and cannot create the capacity. Kierkegaard’s (1843/1946) Knight of Faith. who has cultivated the capacity for pleasure in an afternoon walk and has outgrown the need to grasp the infinite mysteries of life. might qualify for a psychoanalytic saint, if only he were a living being and not one of Kierkegaard’s brilliant fictions. Freud’s point, happily, is that the eradication of the threat of meaning makes sainthood universal-and blessedly ordinary.