The basic thing about analysis is that people finally realize that they’ve been talking nonsense at full volume for years.

—Jacques Lacan, Écrits


Sailing into New York Harbor, Sigmund Freud stood on the deck with Carl Jung and gazed out at the statue illuminating the world.[1] Their arrival was a much-anticipated event for American psychologists so very curious of what this new theory of the psyche could expose. Whether out of hubris or prescience—and are they not often one and the same?—Freud turned to his disciple and whispered, “They don’t realize we’re bringing them the plague.”[2]

A psychoanalytically informed theology is a conception of trauma. Regardless of who we pretend to be, our facades of humility and arrogance alike betray the deeply buried illusions we inflict upon ourselves with an irascible wrath, all for the misguided notion that our trauma will not surface and show itself through the veneer of security. The illusion of non-anxiety works until it does not. Psychoanalysis is concerned with what does not work.[3]

The Gospel of John begins with the signifier entering the world, and as Jacques Lacan countered, “It is when the Word is incarnated that things really start going badly.”[4] Our words and reference points contain an ever-present, if only latent, power to construct the most unforgivable narratives about ourselves. And so in our twenties or thirties we enter psychotherapy to begin to discern what happened to us in our earlier years.

We imagine we begin the process for any number of reasons, but really these reasons are all derivatives of two—and ultimately only two—reasons we seek help. First, we feel separated by a constitutive and fundamental lack from the first moment we realize our parents were concerned with things apart from ourselves, and we eventually began to suspect we will never be loved, accepted, or known as fully as we wish. Second, our alienation ensures we shall never fully escape our history. The best and the worst experiences mold us in ways beyond our control, and it is profoundly disturbing to realize we are conditioned by elements that have been thrust upon us. We are irrevocably the symptom of the experiences shaping our desire, and we cannot regress to a neutral state of nonconditioned naïveté. Our alienation began the moment we learned as infants that there were rules of the house we were powerless to protest; this trace inscription evolved into an elaborate latticework of self-imposed injunctions that shape our identities. Like the old authoritarian motto—the more you profess your innocence, the more you deserve to be shot—the more we obediently submit to the superego crafted precariously from our parents and friends, our political economies and our books, our demons and our gods, the more we are under its judgment. We live in the aftermath of the signifier’s incarnation and adopt our psychopathological dispositions.


We Speak Indirectly: From the Ritual to the Plague

People don’t realize that everything over which the conquest of our discourse extends always boils down to showing it to be a great big deception.

—Lacan, Anxiety


Psychoanalysis is a peculiar protest against the casual dismissal of religion as an archaic anomaly that shall soon pass. It rejects the liberal dream of a politics without theology and claims instead that politics are necessarily theological. The conscious rationale manifesting as justification for any religious belief or policy position can be addressed, mitigated, and suppressed altogether without altering the fundamentally ideological latticework on the unconscious. For reasons better or worse, religion will always triumph over the secular, psychoanalysis, and conscious theology alike, because religion is how we evolved to cope with anxiety before we could blame the gods.

The earliest evidence of religion in the archeological record appears many millennia before homo sapiens departed from earlier species. The evidence we have for religion begins with death rituals and shamanism. Religion is generally considered exclusive to the homo genus, but an eleven-thousand-year-old temple in Turkey provides some of our oldest direct evidence of deity worship. The Cro-Magnon mass graves in the Czech Republic (dated 25,000 years ago), the Neanderthal site at Regardou (65,000 years ago), and the homo erectus burials in Northern Spain (350,000 years ago) suggest an emotional connection to death in species that predate our modern capacities of consciousness. Red ocher pigments decorating skulls that were ritually “defleshed” (900,000 years ago) suggest we engaged in ritualistic acts long before we were homo sapiens.[5] The deceased’s burial with its tools perhaps tells us that a primitive conception of afterlife precedes our species as well. We cannot infer too much from the bare evidence that survived the ages, but what survived seems to tell us something about the motive underneath. Ritual began with anxiety.

This excursus into archeology is worth reading as a parallel to psychoanalysis’s two sources in separation and alienation; religion likewise has always had two—and ultimately only two—purposes: a personal explanation for the inexplicable and a primitive mode of tribal cohesion. Personal explanations gave us a sense of meaning, and the cohesion gave us proto-politics. The earliest shamans gathered the small hunter-gatherer packs of perhaps twenty to thirty individuals to enact the magic ritual that constituted the earliest religious formulations. The shaman was the first subject-supposed-to-know, oscillating between the roles of priest and politician, prophet and charlatan. The placebo effect made the shaman’s ritual effective, and our ancestors could not have survived without this desperate need to believe. Critiques of religion still elicit angst wherever they infringe upon either the purposes of personal meaning or tribal cohesion, and to psychoanalyze theology will require that we eviscerate both.


On Psychoanalysis and the Loss of Gods

Well then, the unconscious has been accepted, but there again we think that a lot of other things have been accepted—pre-packaged and just as they come—and the outcome is that everyone thinks they know what psychoanalysis is, apart from psychoanalysts, and that really is worrying. They are the only ones not to know.

—Lacan, My Teaching


Being a philosopher is being interested in what everyone else is interested in without seeming to realize it,[6] and psychoanalysis provokes a particular intrigue in this pursuit. In a tour for his Écrits, Lacan joked,

[Psychoanalysts] do not say that they know in so many words, but they imply that they do. “We know a bit about it, but let’s keep quiet about that. Let’s keep it between ourselves.” . . . And so we remain silent with those who do know and with those who don’t know, because those who don’t know can’t know.[7]

Later in the speech, he remarked that psychoanalysis “is not at all within the field of what we can call the coherent, but, after all, we know a lot of things in the world that survive on that basis. . . . it is not for nothing that I have described it as ‘propaganda.’” He also wrote that “What I am trying to do is let you in on something that is under way, that is in train, something that is unfinished and that will probably be finished only when I am finished, if I don’t have one of those annoying accidents that make you outlive yourself.”[8]

What then is psychoanalysis? Is it silence? Is it obsolete? Is it propaganda? Nobody seems to quite know, least of all the founders of the theory. Upon professing my interest in Freud and Lacan, I often receive a question that is more a confrontation: has not modern psychology or neuroscience displaced psychoanalysis? But the question misunderstands what psychoanalysis aims to do. The Freudian unconscious, which has nothing to do with the unconscious before Freud,[9] is not something that exists. We do not claim that the unconscious can be mapped by a brain scan, as if it is nothing more than a hidden tier of synaptic connection. We claim that the unconscious, the foundation of this theory, in the most explicit and direct sense does not exist but instead insists. It is not a thing but instead a way of discussing something indirectly.

Psychoanalysis predicts behavioral repetition and schematizes what we see, but it does not in the slightest sense suppose its terminology should be read literally. And yet its method should be followed with exactitude. Clayton Crockett puts it well when he cautions, “it is important to note that what Freud calls the unconscious is not an objectified entity but a dynamic principle of explanation that is testified to only indirectly.”[10] Psychoanalysis flanks traditionally approved methods of critique, cutting across deadlocks by speaking indirectly against reality as such—any theory worth listening to does precisely this. In Interstices of the Sublime, Crockett describes psychoanalysis as a method of unsettling both theology and scholarly religious theory after the death of God. Perhaps, then, like Crockett we should let this notion of unsettling define the goal for psychoanalytic theology.

Psychoanalysis added a new dimension of depth to European thought. The phrase death of God now has at least two meanings in continental philosophy. The first is the concept of an immanent world-becoming-Spirit and Spirit emptying itself into the world, as developed in the latter chapters of G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. This idea of sublation provided the basis for Thomas Altizer’s radical theology in The Gospel of Christian Atheism. Radical theology has matured to produce several streams in the half century since; the radical theology of Altizer and Paul Tillich emphasizes different questions from the variant of John D. Caputo and his influence in Jacques Derrida. Although Caputo is generally skeptical of Lacan, Caputo’s notion that “God does not exist; God insists[11] harmonizes with Lacan’s early claim that the big Other does not exist but rather insists. Their meanings are clearly separate, for Derrida’s deconstruction is not Lacan’s psychoanalysis. But there is a theme developing among these figures where we must realize—and is this not true of religion generally?—the veracity of our beliefs has little bearing on whether or not those beliefs live on in our academies and cultures. Thus, even in disparate streams of radical theology, there are points of intersection.

In turn, we come to a mode of radical theology popularized by the likes of Slavoj Žižek and Clayton Crockett among so many others. The second meaning of the death of God, as Crockett explains, “can be assimilated to the linguistic turn, in which the being of God is dissolved into language non-metaphysically.” What would it mean to say that the true formula for atheism is not “God is dead” but instead “God is unconscious”? Lacan’s claim that “God is unconscious”[12] can be read at least two ways, the first evoking the image of a figure literally knocked unconscious by the incendiary critiques of materialism and the second evoking a unity between what we call God and the demands of our unconscious register. The second is clearly Lacan’s primary meaning, but we should not neglect the idea of deities knocked off their pedestals—even demoted gods do not die. Anyone who has ever spoken with someone who has supposedly left her faith behind in ashes and yet cannot seem to rid herself of the “big questions” will know what I mean when I say that gods do not perish. In either case, the claim “God is unconscious” is read poorly if we conclude from Lacan that God is nothing more than a psychic aberration of a misguided imagination.

We cannot understand psychoanalysis without considering the intersections of Jewish and Christian theology in its founding theorists. In The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, for example, Lacan said there could be no Sigmund Freud without Martin Luther and the changes in subjectivity at the dawn of the Reformation.[13] The death of God for psychoanalysis is not simply a claim about God’s nonexistence but an acknowledgement that the question of God’s existence is nearly irrelevant next to the persistence and insistence of gods in our society, psyche, and language; it is the claim that the death of one manifestation of the big Other will turn out the same way it always goes when we reject a god—we shall immediately search out a new god. It is not for nothing that Lacan famously claimed, “in the end, only theologians can be truly atheistic, namely, those who speak of God.”[14] No theologian will read that hyperbolic line without immediately feeling a visceral truth. We may disabuse ourselves of tired gods, but the big Other is never threatened by our rearranged loyalties.

If psychoanalysis is concerned with what does not work, psychoanalytic theology will be an aggressively critical theology, placing Christianity on the couch and invasively inquiring of its self-sabotaging repetitions, masochism, and sadism. At times this will appear altogether cynical, but cynicism need not only mean the politician’s staged theater or the sociopath’s disinterest. Cynicism also evokes realism and negativity; these things too can be deeply good things. Sometimes society needs nothing more than a day of rage, and rage can be among the holiest of things. My wager is that the psychoanalysis of Christianity should require a healthy dose of rage against the ways we disengage. Those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear will always bring a plague.


The Obscene Trauma of the Real

Lacan was fond of quoting from his patient Pablo Picasso who said, “I do not seek. I find.” At the risk of immense hubris, Picasso’s quote captures the power of a theory to encapsulate what we often already know yet cannot find the words to convey. Let us consider another quote that continues to haunt me, this one from the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Intellectual honesty is one of the supreme goals of philosophy of religion, just as self-deception is the chief source of corruption in religious thinking, more deadly than error. Hypocrisy rather than heresy is the cause of spiritual decay.”[15] As I said, Lacan was fond of the idea of a shared cultural paternity for the Protestant reformation and the discovery of the unconscious. Saint Paul and Martin Luther leveled weapons against the Symbolic Law that creates sin. In the same way, a very Lutheran psychoanalysis claims the Thing we desire, like sin, is desired precisely because the Law says we cannot have it. This antagonism generates endlessly frantic activity as we seek the reacquisition of a Thing, which was never owned in the first place and cannot exist. Out of the regulatory superego injunctions comes what Žižek calls an obscene excess-supplement,[16] which is to say that every instance of Law contains a contradictory injunction to do the opposite. A truly Christian ethic requires us to, as Saint Paul insisted long ago and as we have ever since only ignored, confront the Symbolic head on.

The relationship of the conscious to the unconscious delivers us to our psychopathology. Lacan calls the Real that which is unassimilable, the impasse of formalization, a knocking at the door that wakes us up before we have gathered our wits to interpret the knocking as a visitor.[17] This is perhaps best glimpsed when the truly unforgivable is committed against us; in these instances, there is always a societal pressure on the victim to reinterpret what happened. Trauma is always present in the Real, always lurking beneath the scenes in the aftermath. The unforgivable is interpreted through the Symbolic—however our culture divides up responsibility and blame—and the Symbolic pressures the Imaginary’s perception of the event. But we return over and over to the event in our minds, wandering through the course of details, and at each moment we are on the precipice of reinterpretation for better or (often) for worse. Sometimes we heal and become unhealthy again—not because we did not adequately and appropriately deal with trauma in the first instance but because we allow in a voice that did not deserve to speak.

Like Job—the quintessential illustration of an Imaginary demanding that the Symbolic give account for the Real collapse of his life and of an ego which can only reorient at the moment the big Other refuses to give account—we recover from obscene narratives at the moment we realize that our version of the big Other does not exist. The Symbolic is always precarious, always unconscious, and always open to the slightest suggestion that it should impose upon the Imaginary a new framing of a traumatic event. It is the nature of the Symbolic to be in flux, and this flux allows both maturity and the worst aspects of painful regression. The soul does not cease to be written.[18] A psychoanalytic theology is not a simplistic, metaphysical rejection but rather a materialist protest against theologies that do not work.


Prophets, Theorists, and Charlatans

Such is the signifier’s answer, beyond all significations: “You believe you are taking action when I am the one making you stir at the bidding of the bonds with which I weave your desires. Thus do the latter grow in strength and multiply in objects, bringing you back to the fragmentation of your rent childhood. That will be your feast until the return of the stone guest whom I shall be for you since you call me forth.”

— Lacan, Écrits


Lacan admitted his slippery ideas were “a conquest of the truth along the path of deception,” and he is treated as either an uncannily perceptive theorist or a loathsome charlatan. To be honest, I haven’t yet made up my mind. His ideas have shaped me, personally as well as theoretically, but perhaps the question of theorist or charlatan should be irresolvable at times. Perhaps saying something worth hearing means saying something very much outside normal boundaries. Although he was speaking of the rigid desire many have for theoretical purity, Lacan’s caution works just as well for those who desire the safe boundaries of religious creeds: “One remains true to [orthodoxy] because one has nothing to say about the doctrine itself.”[19] We may choose to believe truth is a continually unfolding, progressive, and hauntingly uncertain process, or we may choose to believe we already have the truth encoded in our creeds, books, and prayers; there isn’t a third option.

In the tenth chapter of Revelation, an angel descended and commanded the exile to eat a book that tasted like honey but made the stomach bitter. Likewise, the message the angel had for kings and empire would appear alluring but result in a plague upon empire. Today the angel’s message is no longer bitter, and my wager is that if Christianity desires a prophetically incisive role beyond the mere servitude of concealed interests, we should begin by bringing the Freudian plague against Christianity. The position of a theorist with something to say is always precariously balanced between charlatanism and prophecy, and that unresolvable ambiguity can only be dealt with the moment we consume the book. As Lacan said, “That [Christianity] is the true religion, as it claims, is not an excessive claim . . . when the true is examined closely, it’s the worst that can be said about it. Once one enters into the register of the true, one can no longer exit it.”[20] To claim we have the truth puts a heavy burden upon us.

As any analyst worth listening to should do, a psychoanalytically informed theology attempts to speak indirectly against postulation at its synchronic origin. We should aim to expose the myopic conditions upon which our condemned paradigmatic notions are built. Lacan’s method has ever been criticized as too opaque to make sense of and too intentionally abstruse to negate the possibility of a position. “Does he ever truly mean what he says?” we ask. Perhaps it is a matter of preference, but what makes Lacan interesting to me is his resistance to being pinned down; this avoidance of precise definition somehow works on me and becomes coherent as a whole. The burdensome difficulty of his teaching, both in his day and ours, lead to charges of “intellectualism,” as if the hearer’s inability to understand should stand as grounds to ignore what is being said. But of course, Lacan countered, “This [charge of ‘intellectualism’] carries no weight, when one wants to know who’s right.”[21] Commentary on Lacan can only go the way of (1) reducing and clarifying Lacan’s work beyond anything he would condone or (2) provoking ever more obscure interpretations of an already unreadably abstruse figure. My work admittedly does both, and I leave much of his opacity in place to work on the reader just as it has worked on me.

Freud lamented, “as a rule, the repression is only temporarily removed and is promptly reinstated.”[22] We heal and then become unhealthy again, often, as we saw before, because we allow a voice to enter that does not deserve to speak. The substitute satisfaction we receive from saboteur repetition of ideas that never work ensures we resist our epiphanies. But even if religion is often deceptive, it already has built into it the means of overcoming its stagnant thought patterns. The Freudian joke, like the Christian parable or the Jewish midrash, short-circuits the defense mechanisms that resist, triggering a truth that lurks just beyond the conscious grasp. We realize we knew something all along yet resisted. So if the psychoanalysis of Christianity will require a healthy does of rage, it will also require a cryptic sense of irony. Not everyone has ears to hear a message that must come indirectly. Psychoanalysis ends with the triumph of religion, but it begins with this: the Real is always exactly in its place, and anxiety is the only affect that never lies to us. We scatter our world with rituals to cover our anxieties, but the gods will always be where they have always been.

[1] This essay is adapted with permission from DeLay, God Is Unconscious: Psychoanalysis & Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015).

[2] Jacques Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1996), 336.

[3] Lacan, The Triumph of Religion, trans. Bruce Fink (Malden, MA: Polity, 2013), 61.

[4] Ibid., 74.

[5] The dates and details of this discussion on prehistoric religion come from Barbara J. King’s The Evolving God: A Provocative View of the Origins of Religion (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2007).

[6] Lacan, Écrits, 671.

[7] Lacan, My Teaching, trans. David Macey (New York, NY: Verso, 2008), 9.

[8] Ibid., 12 and 4.

[9] Ibid., 11.

[10] Crockett, Interstices of the Sublime: Theology and Psychoanalytic Theory (Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2007), 23.

[11] The notion of insistence over existence deserves far more attention than I give it here. I highly recommend John D. Caputo, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013).

[12] Crockett, Interstices of the Sublime, 14; and see Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1981), 59.

[13] See Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959–1960: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, book VII, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Dennis Porter (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1997).

[14] Lacan, Encore, 1972-1973, On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, book XX, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Bruce Fink (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1998), 45.

[15] Picasso quoted in Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 118; Heschel, God In Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), 10–11; italics in the original.

[16] See Tad DeLay, “Excess: The Obscene Supplement in Slavoj Žižek’s Religion and Politics,” International Journal of Žižek Studies 8.2 (2014): 1–20.

[17] Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 55; Lacan, Encore, 93; and Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 56.

[18] Lacan, Encore, 109.

[19] Lacan, On the Names-of-the-Father, trans. Bruce Fink (Malden, MA: Polity, 2013), 90; and Lacan, Écrits, 205.

[20] Lacan, Encore, 1078.

[21] Lacan, Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment, ed. Joan Copjec (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1990), 13.

[22] Freud, “Repression,” in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1989), 572.