- The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation: An Analysis of the Meaning of the Death of Christ in Light of the Psychoanalytical Reading of Paul by Paul V. Axton
To situate this book it helps to recall that early psychological readings of the atonement, beginning basically with Freud and Jung, took a fairly reductionist tone, viewing theology as an epiphenomenon of psychology. And yet these early theorists also left the door open for greater dialogue between the two disciplines. More recently, the most prolific attempt to read the atonement as both psychology and theology is likely that of René Girard, who learned his theory of mimetic desire from Dostoevsky. The “psychotheology” of Paul Axton’s title indicates that he is swimming in the same waters, using the work of the neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan, and Lacan’s popular interpreter, Slavoj Žižek, to reconceive atonement theory on the basis of a close reading of Romans 6–8.
The central idea of the book is an understanding of sin framed in terms of the death drive, a self-destructive force that Freud posited in opposition to the creative, life-affirming force of Eros. Axton begins by showing how Lacan and Žižek give the death drive primacy over Eros, and in fact see the whole constitution of the human subject as founded on a self-deception that denies death. This root deception involves all three Lacanian registers of the psyche, which are themselves a reformulation of Freud’s structural theory of id, ego, and superego. Where Freud locates these psychic structures in human biology, Lacan locates them in the vicissitudes of language.
Lacan’s “Real,” corresponding to Freud’s id, is the locus of the death drive and its secondary manifestations. The Real is what cannot enter language or thought, the absolute void beyond both presence and absence. Lacan’s “Symbolic,” corresponding to Freud’s superego, is the symbolic order of language that masks the death drive, mediates reality, and embodies the laws and mores that govern thought and behaviour in both conscious and unconscious ways. Lacan’s “Imaginary,” corresponding to Freud’s ego, is the false, divided, and alienated self, fuelled by narcissism and founded on a lie. For Lacan, we learn as a child that the word I corresponds to an image in a mirror, and this object is deceitfully posited as a subject. While this brief description risks oversimplification, it illustrates the many layers of the root deception: as Axton notes, the “Imaginary is the focus or object of the lie, while the Symbolic is the substance or medium of the lie, and the Real is that which is obscured by the lie” (40).
For Žižek these Lacanian concepts are expressed most originally and powerfully in Romans 7:7–25. Here sin involves deception (“sin deceived me”), namely, the deception of the symbolic order (“the Law”) which, in attempting to deny death, actually increases its power (“the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me”). Romans 7 goes on to describe the resulting split within the subject, between a mind that desires [End Page 164] good and a “body of death,” which parallels Lacan’s divide between the Symbolic and the Real.
After providing an excellent review and critique of Žižek’s exegesis of Romans 7, Axton then moves beyond it. For Žižek, the self is reoriented by “dying with Christ” and becoming aware of the fundamental lie. But Axton finds this “inadequate,” looking ahead to Romans 8, where the subject is reconstituted by participating in the resurrection of Christ and in the freedom of the Spirit. Axton argues that, for Žižek, death “is not aufgehoben or suspended in life; rather the two are one and the same” (123). But for St Paul the end of death is resurrection, and the end of the self is rebirth in Christ.
Axton’s Žižekian account...