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In this essay, I am going to decipher if psychoanalytical thought can aid theological thought in wishing to offer an answer to human suffering and help followers of Christianity escape a life of hopelessness. I will assess if Freud’s clinical psychoanalysis could save humans from the Christian preoccupation with being saved and attaining an afterlife goal. To do this, I will address the role of Jesus, which can be uncovered in St Paul’s writings in connection with Freud’s concept of the Oedipus, showing that Jesus can be the figure for change.
Freud will be a key part of this paper as I will be specifically referring to Freud when I refer to psychoanalysis. Freud is central to postmodernism here as he invites humans to look at themselves in ways that are not always socially appropriate and challenge social conventions. This is important to seeing how Freud’s psychoanalytic view of humans will be of use to my argument here. But first, I need to explain what psychoanalysis is.
Psychoanalysis also stemmed from Freud’s ‘Oedipus complex’. The Oedipus complex states that children often desire to kill their father due to resentfulness and jealousy that the father has the mother. Boys see the father as an inhibitor of libido and in turn, fear castration by the father, this is resolved by seeking to be loved by the father. This correlates with Freud’s view of Christians having an infantile child-like longing for a father figure, meaning God, “traditional religions seek to fulfil their moral aspirations through directives linked to parental love, that consequently, coexist with anxiety-inducing threats of its possible removal” . This idea for Freud, who considered himself an atheist, meant that Christians could need psychoanalytic help due to belief in God, as this is not based on a real belief, but a false one. What also lies at the Oedipal stage is a primordial development of a totemic religion. Freud believes there is a ‘horde’ who acts as a father with the rights to women, the sons in turn, corresponding to the Oedipus complex, kill him and eat his flesh. As a result, they are consumed with guilt and want to undo the gesture, this is done by eating him to establish the identity of the totem. This means the Father becomes a God and is seen as a victory. This will be important in this paper to show the importance of the psychoanalytic view of Jesus Christ.
Now, I must address the relationship between Original sin and the Oedipus complex to show that this connection can allow insight into how humans can escape suffering through Jesus, from a psychoanalytical viewpoint.
Critical to Christianity was the fact that all humans were fallen beings, bound by flesh in sin and consequently there was “no doubt among the early Christians that the world stood in need of change. The evidence of sin was all around and stood in sharp contrast to the promises of the Old Testament” . This change could be seen in Jesus’ resurrection, which I will show by using Freud to understand St Paul’s writings, as Freud can give us the vocabulary to talk about what it means to be changed. St Paul speaks of how humans are changed and renewed by believing in Jesus, but at the same time, humans are trapped by sin. Thus, Freud could say this is the unconscious of the human condition, that we are helpless and cannot change. However, the death and resurrection of Jesus, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” changes our understanding of reality and brings out our desires, and thus Jesus has the potential to save humans through Freud’s psychoanalytic method. This is because humans are transformed by the Resurrection of Jesus. Due to this, Jesus could be the solution as Jesus’ relationship to God is completely different to the father-son relationship that Freud addresses in the Oedipus complex, “the relationship of Christ to his Father will be contrasted with that between the primeval hordes and their father” . This is proven in Freud’s Totem and Taboo, “psychoanalysis has revealed that the totem animal is in reality a substitute for the father” , where the sons kill the Father out of jealousy. Whereas, in contrast, on Paul’s reading of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus a symbol of hope, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins.”
Hence, Jesus could be the perfect model for the removal of the Oedipus complex, “his life represents a perfect inversion of the behaviour of the primitive horde”. Jesus does not show hatred or jealousy towards the Father like Freud proposed all sons do towards their fathers in the Oedipus complex, but instead, has love and obedience for his Father. Similarly, the fact Jesus was merely born through Mary, a virgin who gave birth, means “Jesus was conceived without any oedipal motivation since he had no natural father”. Jesus sacrificed himself and suffered for his Father and for human sin all at once, and so his death can be seen in “psychoanalytic terms as an acceptance of a kind of symbolic castration”. It also should be mentioned that Freud states in Totem and Taboo that the oedipal motivation is the same as original sin in Christianity and Jesus can teach us about sacrifice. It is made clear that “in Christian doctrine, therefore, men were acknowledging in the most undisguised manner the guilty primaeval deed, since they found the fullest atonement for it in the sacrifice of this one son”. This comparison shows “A son-religion displaced the father-religion” . This shows Jesus interpreted in a psychoanalytic way can save humans from sin.
In conclusion, I do believe Freud’s psychoanalysis can help Christianity, alleviate suffering and modernise religion. My presentation of Jesus as the anti-Oedipus is the plain example to Christians that there is hope. Furthermore, both Christianity and psychoanalysis aim to achieve this end goal of a resolution to suffering: health for those patients undergoing psychoanalysis and salvation for Christians devoted to God. In this way, they both embark on “cultivating the love of man and the decrease of suffering” .
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