Posted by: owizblog | March 23, 2015

“Perfect Fear Casts Out Love: H A Williams, Religion and Psychoanalysis” – Thinking Allowed Lecture, Cairns Church, Milngavie, 19 Feb 2015

God Judging Adam


H A Williams’ influence on the sixties’ theological landscape was comparable with that of John A.T. Robinson. His autobiography, Some Day I’ll Find You, narrates his emergence from an ostensibly very successful, yet catastrophically inhibiting, career as a priest, a rising star of Anglo-Catholicism, a return to Cambridge as don and chaplain, through a catastrophic breakdown, and a long course of analysis with the Oxford psychiatrist Christopher Scott, continued long after the resolution of the crisis.

The emergent theme is his repression of vast areas of his self, his use of the means at hand in Anglo-Catholic tradition to abet that repression, especially by the inculcation of guilt through sacramental confession, and his deeply dysfunctional relationship with a profoundly disapproving and condemnatory “God-image.” Williams’ psychoanalytic dismantling of his dysfunctional relationship with his own religious tradition is transferrable; consider the boundless potential for psychological damage of God-images founded on absolute judgment, hatred of human nature, and the permanent inculcation of a self-understanding of unworthiness.

James DiCenso (The Other Freud) offers a reading of the ‘psychoanalytic Freud’ against the officially positivist, nineteenth-century scientist, and draws out the potential positive presentation of religion as a human phenomenon implicit in his work. But there’s a blind spot of which Freud seems hardly aware. Freud famously characterises religion as an “illusion”, but doesn’t maintain consistently the distinction implied elsewhere throughout his work, between “illusion” and “delusion.”

“Delusion” is the pathological, defensive repudiation of reality, the rejrection of existing consensus as to how the world really is. The prime example of “illusion” in Freud would be “art.” We commute between immersion in the experience created by art, which provides a temporary relief and retreat from the harshness of existence, and the world known to be real. Freud insists that to understand a cultural phenomenon as “illusion” is to recognize its creative and metaphorical character, and not to make a pronouncement about its relationship to truth.

Freud slips from religion as “illusion,” into treating it as “delusion”. As Donald Carveth points out, this is only a valid criticism of literalist, “fundamentalist” religion. The use of religious language and imagery does not commit one to their literal understanding, or to a corresponding denial of the cultural consensus as to what constitutes reality – in our culture, grounded in science. It allows a conversation among, for example, atheists, agnostics, Christian non-realists (“the language is rich, powerful and helpful, but has no referent outside human conversation and community”) and realist Christians. (“we are speaking of something, in the only, poetic and metaphorical way in which it can be spoken of.”)

Williams’ oeuvre opened a conversation between theology and psychoanalysis which unpacks the dangers of uncontrolled literalism, as a delusional and destructive defence against harsh reality. It calls theology to an appropriate humility, from where it can be seen that, too often, the life of the church has been an idolatrous power-alliance with the censorious “cop in the head” of the Freudian superego, a “God” who is incapable of loving the whole of what we are, and won’t let us accept the whole truth of our being.

But the calling of the Church is to be a community of complete acceptance; the very meaning of atonement – at-one-ment – is that God is actually capable of accepting and loving us, when we can’t accept and love ourselves (Abelard).

“Let us accept each other/As God accepted us”…


I used to be a postmodernist, but I’m beyond that now. There is no going back: there is still denial abroad in the culture that we have been cast up on a different shore, and one vast reservoir of this denial is conservative Christianity, ever disposed to dismiss seismic cultural change as passing fad, and never to look around and marvel:

O, wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That has such people in’t!
These changed times are denounced as a decadence, the people who inhabit them as materialistic, narcissistic, self-obsessed, credulous believers in whatever pagan assemblage of pick’n mix religion the latest click of the cultural kaleidoscope has produced. The possibility of a loving embrace of people as and where they are is ever alien to such thinking, and that forms the core of our theme this evening.

Well, we’ve come through the Tempest, and I’m with Miranda; as to whether I could look at our turbulent contemporary, and say, with Ferdinand

Though the seas threaten, they are merciful;

I have cursed them without cause….
I am by no means as sure of that. I sometimes wonder if what crashed down on us in 2008 was the final spending of the tsunami that washed us onto the new shore, the end of the cultural wave of postmodernism that has finally cast us high, dry and irrevocably on the shores of post-modernity. I’m sure that we have lived through a cultural and societal transformation which has taken us out of the modernity we were ushered into some three and a half centuries ago, specifically by the Reformations, both Protestant and Catholic, and that we cannot begin to comprehend the scope or meaning of this change unless we do so from a perspective which unites religious and psychoanalytic analyses. We have lived through the death of a generally culturally-diffused monotheism, whose psychological correlate was a particular form of culturally and socially produced selfhood, and we have seen the dissolution of that form of selfhood. We are all of us different kinds of people to the people our grandparents were. People of the cusp, we are also different to our parents, and our children.

The effects of this on what is credible as a form of lived Christian faith are profound. I fully agree with the controversial conclusions of Calum Brown, in his The Death of Christian Britain, that institutional, “discursive” as he calls it, Evangelical Christianity in British society has moved from hegemony to expiration since 1963. I don’t agree with the apparently causal significance he accords feminism in his analysis, although I don’t think he’s wrong about the salience of feminism as a feature and driver of this change. I believe that gendered religion nests best within a psychoanalytic account of cultural change. But I think his account is essentially congruent with the one I would give, and am working on – but that’s not where I’m going tonight, unless you wish to in the Q and A at the end!

I had thought I might. This isn’t quite the lecture I envisaged when Gwyn first approached me, and our preliminary conversation elicited from me a flood of ideas, loosely organized around the title I offered him. It became clear, as the material sprawled before me, that I needed to condense, but also that that process of condensation had begun to occur naturally, as my consideration of a figure whose idiosyncratic but seminal contribution to the theological ferment of the sixties, whom I intended to take as a point of departure, became the scaffolding of the whole lecture.


Let’s begin with a soupçon of autobiography. Like most of us here, I lived through the seismic, tectonic cultural separation that was the sixties.

Religiously, for me, the sixties were a wonderful time to grow up. Looking back, I was brought up in a very liberal religious tradition, in church and at home, deeply influenced by a positive, as well as a critical, reception of the Enlightenment, with no fear of science. Welsh-speaking Congregationalism drew on the radicalism of the eighteenth century that was itself the product of that strange mutation that occurs when the absolutes of High Calvinism suddenly flip, and limited atonement becomes universalism, the inamissability of grace becomes the abolition of hell, or at least the assertion that the love of God must leave hell empty, and the deeply contradictory notion of a God whose love can only be expressed in strict correlation with a pathological narcissism, and can only reconcile and forgive by killing someone else instead of you, suddenly becomes straightforward God-is-love.

The Welsh Independent tradition in which I was brought up had its wings, of course, but its orthodox wing was disposed to understand orthodoxy as itself radical and not conservative; that coloured its reception of Barth. Its liberal wing extended out through an avowedly Unitarian constituency to, in the sixties, an intrigued and fearless exploration of Death-of-God theology and the radicalism that lay beyond that. Its Biblical criticism was rigorous and scholarly; C H Dodd and W D Davies were among the colossi who emerged from the ambit of Congregationalism in Wales, and Dewi Z. Philips was ordained with us. Our roots were in the old Dry Dissent, cerebral, intellectual, and at its best rigorously self-critical. It profoundly shaped the home environment I grew up in; I remember Honest to God, Bonhoeffer, Tillich and Teillhard in the bookcase in the Front Room, and the Sunday calm into which I would occasionally slip when I went into that space in Welsh terraced houses that was famously Never Used Except For Religious Purposes: sitting on a Sunday; greeting the Minister; accommodating the coffin after a bereavement.

I remember the cool emptiness of that space, where the books about God – and about God not being who or what we thought God was – lived. And I remember the Sunday afternoon, post-Sunday School, quiet; because even in the most liberal Welsh nonconformism, as with the most liberal mainstream mid-century Scottish urban Presbyterianism, there were certain things you didn’t do on a Sunday. Orthodoxy might be endlessly examinable, debatable, reworkable – but the orthopraxy of right behaviour was pervasive.

There, in that Sunday afternoon space, I became dimly, but not vaguely, aware that thought is a religious duty; that God is mystery, but that mystery is not over against the fabric of life in the world but permeates it, and that explanation is not a zero sum game played out between reason and faith over the space to be allotted to the God of the Gaps: that mystery remains when clarity is achieved. And somewhere in there, I picked up the sense that the human mind was itself a mystery which invited exegesis – a mystery to itself. And somewhere in there, I came upon psychoanalytic ideas.


I have no idea when the cultural presence of psychoanalysis began to impact on my young childish mind, but it was ubiquitous in the sixties, and if it seems a bit implausible to suggest that a child would form attitudes towards Freudian ideas abroad in adult culture – and it probably doesn’t seem implausible if you are a Freudian! – I’d further argue that there was something in the religious framework I’d grown up taking for granted that rendered me receptive. I think that this is as true for people brought up in Calvinist and especially post-Calvinist religious traditions, because that implies a certain standing outside, looking back; selective rejection and carrying forward, and often a complete transformation to the point of inversion, of transvaluation. In such flux, formative influences become clearer, and, now, examinable, and structural homologies, patterns generated by similar evolutionary pressures in different lines of thinking.

I remember fragments of the cultural representations of psychoanalysis that conveyed something to me of what it was. A startling proportion of my earliest memories are of snippets of black-and-white films, and one I remember involved a psychiatrist and his dinner-party guests being held hostage by a gangster who happened to be tormented by a recurring nightmare. He dreamed of being unable to stanch the drip of rainwater through a hole in an umbrella with his hand, and in what was clearly a cinematic representation of a neurotic symptom, the fingers which in the dream he held up to the torn fabric were mysteriously paralysed. The hood, as a boy, had snitched on his gangster father to the police, who had killed him when he resisted arrest. The boy had crouched hidden under the table onto which the bleeding corpse had fallen, and tried to stanch the drip of blood through a knot-hole. This was his trauma. The fact that I can’t remember what the actual denouement of the siege was, whether gangster fils suffered the same fate as gangster pere, or was arrested as his captives were liberated, says something, I suppose. For me, the resolution of the plot was the resolution of the psychic conflict. I must have stopped paying attention beyond that point, which suggests, perhaps, that I might have made a decent psychiatrist.

It’s amazing how easy it is to find what you want from Google in the first five returns, if you use the right search terms, and enough of them! Looking for this half-forgotten film, I entered film, psychiatrist, umbrella, hole, rain, table, father, gangster, blood; and the very first return directed me to the 1939 film Blind Alley on the Internet Movie Database.


This trickle of confluence of religious and psychoanalytic ideas was probably swollen by the intellectually broad and inquiring tradition of Welsh nonconformist preaching, though I can’t specifically recall anything before the summer of 1970, when I would be 13. We were about to move from Rhyl to Caernarfon, and the very last sermon I heard before we left the church I’d been brought up in was a Jungian exposition of the Pharisaic character type. The preacher was Iolo Lewis, who was a Lecturer in Education at Aberystwyth, and whom, subsequently, I came to know very well. He was an ardent Jungian – the Welsh nonconformist pulpit of the second half of the twentieth century had its ardent Jungians, along with its Wittgensteinians, Kierkegaardians, Freudians, Marxists and others – and the substance of his sermon derived from a paper he subsequently published in the relatively small-circulation Contact: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. I lost my copy, and have been unable to locate it in any library subsequently.

I did, however, come across H A Williams’ Freudian exposition of the Pharisaic character, at some point. Certainly the volume of Trinity, Cambridge sermons The True Wilderness was another volume around the house.

Williams was, of course, an enormously influential figure in the ferment of the sixties, closely associated with the groundbreaking volume of essays Soundings, produced by the Cambridge Divinity Faculty in 1962, a year before Honest To God. Indeed, for anyone whose Christian identity is framed in the Robinson-Spong tradition, Williams, too, is a foundational intellectual source. A consideration of his work will form the scaffolding of what I have to say to you tonight.

Williams was a very well-regarded New Testament scholar, Fellow, then Chaplain, then Dean of Trinity, and an important figure, in a very Anglican manner, in his emergence as an out gay person, albeit at a point when he was a celibate monk of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield. In his autobiography Some Day I’ll Find You, Williams recounts his upbringing as the child of a distant, absent, naval officer father and a ferociously Evangelical mother, whose conservative faith was deployed in the service of facilitating the repression of love for another man.

Williams’ rebellion against the constraints of his upbringing, and, in retrospect, he realized, their psychological implications, was articulated in his strong attraction to astronomically high Anglo-Catholicism. As a teenager he perused catalogues of gorgeous vestments, which he regarded, he said, as “a species of ecclesiastical pornography.” Cambridge followed, and a curacy at the Anglo-Catholic bastion church of All Saints, Margaret Street, before a return to academia, the disintegration of his repression of his homosexuality under the impact of a gigantic crush on a colleague, and a colossal crisis, a breakdown which saw him in a nursing home for an extended period, safe, particularly, from all clerical and ministerial visitors, except for a Bishop who, he remarked pointedly, “could be trusted not to pray with” him.

His emergence from this seismic life-event came through fourteen years of analysiswith the Oxford psychiatrist Christopher Scott, which profoundly influenced, perhaps remade, his theology and even his biblical scholarship; his contribution to the very significant essay-volume from members of the Cambridge Divinity Faculty Soundings, edited by Alec Vidler which appeared in 1962, a year before Robinson’s Honest To God, is a striking paper on Theology and Self-Awareness.


I mentioned above his analysis of the Pharisaic character. Elements of this are presented in the Soundings essay, others are scattered through The True Wilderness and Some Day I’ll Find You, with differing emphases and expression, but the conceptualization is consistent.

Scholarly research into first century Judaism, says Williams, does not concur with what is essentially a polemical caricature, in the New Testament, of the Pharisee as quintessentially a hypocrite. “He was upright, conscientious and God–fearing, and certainly not given to conscious hypocrisy.”

And that’s the problem. There are things about him he can’t cope with, and which he therefore seeks to deny. There are components of his human being that, in Williams’ significant terminology, the Pharisee seeks to “amputate,” because, it seems to him, this is what God demands. It’s certainly what he needs. The Pharisee therefore reduces himself to his conscious mind, his ego, in Freudian terms. Those vast aspects of himself he has repressed, violently, “by using God and the Law as an ally of the self” are still there, of course. (Soundings, p. 91)

Williams recognizably deploys-without-naming concepts drawn particularly from Freud and Klein (his mentor and doctor Christopher Scott’s psychoanalytic orientation, in usual British School style, formed a palate of influences and approaches) to elaborate a psychoanalytic context for Jesus’ ministry.

Here, Williams the New Testament scholar offers the crucial caveat that “When Jesus, in the Gospels, goes after the Pharisees, he isn’t going after a first-century Jewish sect; he’s going after the Pharisee in you and me.” This is not strict New Testament scholarship. It’s a particular interpretation of New Testament texts with a contemporary understanding in view, though clearly he does not believe that he is doing unjustifiable violence to the contexts – Jesus’ own ministry, but also the experience of the second-, third- and, if you date Luke as late as I do, perhaps fourth-generation church.

He delineates a carefully-constructed psychic edifice the grounding of which in first-century Judaism is certainly challengeable on scholarly grounds, but which, read in our shared cultural and religious context at the end of Western modernity, in societies deeply coloured by the long-secularized assumptions of European monotheistic religion, claim a very special purchase on the imagination.

It is compelling to argue that this, within broad modifications across the diverse Christian traditions of modernity, and far beyond the structures of the churches in “Christian societies” of post-Enlightenment, pre-twentieth-century Europe, is how the relationship between the human individual, the human soul, and God was understood. To express the same thing much more ideographically: when I look around, and back, as a Minister of the Kirk raised in Welsh nonconformism in twentieth-century Britain, Williams’ reading of the psychological dynamic of culturally-diffused Christian monotheism makes an enormous amount of sense to me.


The Pharisee’s relation to God is essentially a bargain with God  – he can’t simply trust, he’s too insecure, and his insecurity about himself and who he is, and how much of his being is hidden and unknown to him is necessarily taken up into his relationship with his “God-image” (if I can insert a concept from the work of Ana-Maria Rizzuto). The Pharisee’s bargain with God is that he will conform to God’s Law, to what he believes he knows what God demands of him. This orientation – a determination to earn God’s favour (and, we might add, call it God’s love) and a schizoid pride in one’s rectitude and one’s capacity to do this, over against an abyssal uncertainty as to whether one really does measure up, really has kept the Law, which derives not from what one has actually done, how one has actually lived, but from the gnawing impossibility of not acknowledging, on some level, the whole of the seething, appetitive, wrathful and violent repressed aspect of the whole self.

In the Soundings essay, Williams offers a back-of-the-envelope sketch of how an exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount on these lines might proceed.

“The Pharisee could prevent himself from committing murder and adultery, and such self-control generated the illusion that he was whole, and had no need of the physician. Jesus pricked the bubble of this pretension by pointing to men’s anger, and their lust. I can no more help feeling angry and lustful than I can help feeling hungry.”

This is much more than a mere pricking of a bubble, of course. It amounts to the destruction of a fiction about the self – not an illusion, but – to flag up a distinction which will become very important – a delusion. The antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount – “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” demolish the understanding that one can regulate one’s relationship with God through faultless conformity to the Law, but more than that they challenge the self-understanding, the prime identity-claim of the Pharisee, that this is possible.

But there is another generator of this murderous antipathy. Jesus is the destroyer of the Pharisaic delusion in an even more direct way.

A mechanism readily at hand to defend the psyche against such overwhelming internal contradiction and terror is, of course, projection. It’s entirely typical of what we might call Williams’ “Pharisaic position” that it compares itself with others, to dispel its anxieties about its own acceptability to what-stands-above-the-self, and therefore to itself. Onto any plausible candidates are projected all the lusts, impulses and chaotic appetites of which the Pharisee is so mortally afraid within himself. He can safely hate these things in others, and those others along with those split-off parts of himself which he has deposited in them. And then, as Williams says, in the face of an alienated, deeply neurotic living, in a psychic framework assembled and maintained at tremendous cost to the self, along comes Jesus, and tells these others, these sinners, publicans and prostitutes, that God loves them and accepts them, and invites them to respond to this love and acceptance. And they do.

As Williams summarizes it, “No wonder they crucified him…”


It’s very seductive to map an understanding like this directly onto the transformed face of institutional Christianity in Scotland, and particularly, since it’s by far the largest, and therefore most heterogeneous, denomination to be kept aloft by the flapping of theological “wings”, onto my own Church of Scotland. Seductive – and not, as long as we are sensible, illegitimate.

Many of us are shocked at the vitriol heaped on us whose stance is one of inclusion, to say nothing of those sinners who claim that Jesus has told them he loves them, those oxymoronic (to this way of thinking) “LGBT Christians.” The sense of threat that we collectively clearly pose, to Godly religion and its practitioners, is often quite overwhelming when one eavesdrops on blogs and fora. The sense that one poses such a threat, and the sensed mass of hatred, horror and wrath, an iceberg only the tip of which is the overt suspicion which blights personal interaction, is quite terrifying, so terrifying, in fact that we can miss its sheer mystery.

The human question “Why do they hate us so?” needs to find its complement in the fundamentally psychoanalytic question “What do we represent?”

In a highly restricted sense, we represent what Jesus, as Williams’ psychoanalytically –informed hermeneutics recovers him from the Gospel documents, represents.

And what of the thus-threatened God, of the Law and of Wrath, of Holiness and Implacable Justice? Williams has a lot to say about this God, because, he tells us, he worshipped Him (sic), under his decaffeinated Anglican avatar.

“For the one God I thought I was serving had a double identity. He was partly Himself, the true God, and partly somebody I had projected upon the heavens from my own subconscious, an idol by which I was no less taken in for being to a reasonable extent theologically sophisticated….

“It was with the Idol that I conceived my relationship to be one of contract. Keeping his back scratched… had nothing about it of a free, loving, joyful obedience. It… made me in my heart of hearts hate the taskmaster who imposed it… For my idol-God was a neurotic… who felt unloved and insecure unless he was constantly the centre of attention. And when he felt insecure, he would take it out of you by refusing to speak to you until you had formally apologized to him by going to confession, and sometimes not even then…”

It’s impossible, I suspect, if Penal Substitutionary Atonement in its full Calvinist horror has found at any time any sort of a lodgement in a Christian tradition in which you were brought up, or have inhabited, even in another wing of it, not to read that quintessentially mid-century Anglican account with a wry smile. A neurotic God who refuses to speak to you when miffed is a much more benign kettle of fish than the murderous, psychotic hyperCalvinist God who can only forgive if another be made to die, and whose love consists in a completely conditional, indeed arbitrary, redirection of his hatred.

Despite the differences in intensity, we might well see the touchy, disapproving, damaged-parent-with-issues God of Williams’ High Anglicanism and the psychotic hyperCalvinist God of that Penal Substitution which is radically and precisely not “at-one-ment”, as refractions, in different Christian traditions, of a single phenomenon of human psychological experience, or mental life.


Williams is able to use the Archimedean point outside the system which his experience and understanding of psychoanalysis and religion together give him, to suggest that there is a very important sense in which these homologously structured understandings of God derive not necessarily from the Christian revelation of God, however conceived, but from elsewhere.

There is a certain amount of theological equivocation here in Williams’ thought, because he is also saying that religious tradition and its ecclesial exposition in theology are also really speaking of the reality of God. So, in his experience, clarified by his analysis, “…the one God…” possesses a “double identity… partly… the true God, and partly somebody I… project[…] upon the heavens from my own subconscious, an idol…” This seems at odds with the radical reworking, and significant rejection, of so much received tradition in the position he comes to after his long analysis. The nearest I can come to an articulation of what Williams seems to mean is that the true God really “inhabits” the structures, human, cultural and therefore also psychological, within which people practice their faith, and is “there” despite the acute distortion of God-image which these structures – principally institutionalized Christianity – generate.

Yet there is also the clear recognition that God-as-worshipped is indeed largely a projection. Of course, the next step is to generalize that this “projection” is an inescapable aspect of human mentation, and therefore a universal component in the human approach to the institutional appropriation of religious experience, and its religious and theological elaboration in orthodoxy and orthopraxy – our communally-grounded, individually appropriated understanding of what we should believe, and how we should behave. In other words, that religion always foists this understanding of God on us, because we always let it, because it’s already inside us.

Itis clear that what Williams is elaborating is a cruel, punitive, watchful superegoic God, and what he is postulating is a confusion, endemic to Christian thought, between the superego and God: that is, between the superego as experienced by the individual and interpreted by institutionally mediated belief, and faith derived from the experience of acceptance and self-acceptance, something he gained from his experience of psychoanalysis.


Much has been made of Freud’s critique of religion, scattered throughout his writings, but distilled in his The Future of an Illusion. It is quite fascinating to watch Williams elaborate his own, psychoanalytically-informed, critique of religion from a Christian perspective, which though, as he insists, derives in large measure from his own experience both of faith and of analysis, runs in tandem with much of what Freud has to say in his great paper The Future of an Illusion. I won’t resist the temptation to share with you, if you don’t know it, Bannister’s marvellous summary of the psyche of Freud’s second topology as “basically a battlefield … a dark cellar in which a well-bred spinster lady and a sex-crazed monkey are forever engaged in mortal combat, the struggle being refereed by a rather nervous bank clerk.”

The superego is, of course, the policing-apparatus of the human psyche. In what is taken to be the classical Freudian statement of the constitution of the human psyche, the ego, the self which is conscious of itself, emerges out of the unconscious, appetitive, drive-directed id because of the impress of external reality. The superego, however, is the last component of the psychic apparatus to appear, formed, where it is present – and Freud, while he considers the presence of a superego normal, and its absence at least liminally pathological, does envisage human beings without superegos – for males through a process of normal negotiation of the Oedipus Complex, in which the boy’s desire to possess his mother and eliminate his father as a love-rival is mastered by the reality of the father’s practical unchallengability. When things go as they should, the father is too strong and too powerful, the mother’s desire for the father is too unshakeable, and the humiliating imposition of a sense of proportion on the child is accompanied by the internalization of parental authority – not simply and straghtforwadly the paternal authority – to which nucleus of internalized authority, as Freud notes, societal and traditional authority also readily accretes. The result is, famously, a split-off part of the ego which monitors behaviour and thought, censoriously and disapprovingly.


Elements of Freud’s critique of religion are scattered throughout his work, in obiter dicta, and drawn together at various points from Totem and Taboo to Moses and Monotheism but coalesce around his late paper The Future of an Illusion. Freud certainly understood himself to be working within the positivist paradigm of late-Victorian science, and this is very important to his critique of religion. As DiCenso puts it, (p.31) “The meaning and truth of “higher-order” psycho-cultural developments is explained by underlying substantive realities divided into biology and external materiality. This enables him to interpret social-psychological constructs as evasions of the pressures of these primary realities.” Human community, in the face of the external threats of a hostile environment “the great common task of preserving itself against the hostility of nature” (Freud FOI p. 195) and the internal pressures derived from the instinctual impulses within individuals, must be built on renunciation, a recurring theme particularly in Moses and Monotheism, which as DiCenso, in The Other Freud,his masterly re-reading of Freud against himself, the psychoanalytic Freud against the positivist Freud, points out amounts to much more than the repression of primary drives; renunciation amounts to profound and extensive modifications of human psychology in the context of culture.

An aspect of this is the generation of “cultural assets” which include “ideals”, and “substitute satisfactions”, the prime examples of which would be the arts, but also intellectual production generally, and Freud particularly praises scientific and intellectual labour and its fruits. A clear connection is made with the cultural production of religion, but religion is not straightforwardly aligned with these “cultural assets.” “Perhaps the most important item in the psychical inventory of a civilization… consists in its religious ideas in the widest sense – in other words… its illusions.” (Freud, FOI, p.193)

The characterization of religion as illusion is key, especially as illusion rather than delusion. “Illusions are derived from human wishes”(DiCenso p. 32) They represent the fulfilments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind.” (Freud, FOI p. 213) Delusions are false beliefs about the world, whereas: “What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes.” (ibid., emph. mine.) This is not a clear-cut distinction in The Future of an Illusion: Freud’s criterion for distinguishing between illusion and delusion is on his own admission at least partially subjective, and one boggles at, for instance, his classification of the “belief that only the Indo-European races are capable of civilization” as an illusion, not a delusion.

A further, complex ambiguity is thrown up in Freud’s statement:

“We call a belief an illusion when wish-fulfilment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relation to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification.” (ibid.)

As DiCenso notes, religion in Freud’s construction of it straddles this divide between illusion and delusion. On the one hand, this is no bad thing, because “religion” in its contemporary Western manifestations really does straddle a really-existing divide between belief-driven construals of actual reality – as, for example, the contrast between, say, the Roman Catholic dogma of the creation of an individual soul at conception is a construal of the actuality of a human being existing in the world, which does not contest scientific and medical understandings of what a human being is, and Young Earth Creationism, which flatly does challenge science on its own explanatory turf.

However, the instability in Freud’s distinction commutes across the line he seems to have drawn by professing to “disregard [the ] relation of [illusion] to reality.” There is a covert pathologization of illusion through the postulation and subsequent symptomization of wish-fulfilment in the context of Freud’s positivism. Wishing is, ex hypothesi, the postulation of a “beyond” to the sum of material reality, and therefore ungrounded and unreal, and therefore a symptom of an inability to relate to reality.

The question arises, of course, of what is postulated, how, and in what terms. In a fascinating co-authored paper, Christianity: a Kleinian Perspective, Carveth and Forster dismantle Freud’s criticism of religion as resting on an unsustainable distinction between religion and art, and therefore “applies to religion in its literalistic forms, as what we now call fundamentalism. By way of contrast, in his praise of art Freud made no provision for forms of that activity (both creation and appreciation) which were also “fundamentalist.”

A “fundamentalist” literalistic approach to the value of artistic meaning might seem an unlikely possibility, yet “…the history of censorship of art and literature attests to the failure of many to grasp the illusory nature of art in just the same way that many have so failed in regard to religion.” Freud’s distinction between art and religion, and his disparity in treatment between the illusory dimensions of the one and the other are more precarious than they seemed to Freud.

“The artist and art appreciator remain aware of the gap between illusion and reality. Artistic illusion constitutes phantasy, as opposed to the delusion (p.81) which is religious illusion. The possibility of religious phantasy, where a gap between illusion and reality is maintained (and equally of artistic delusion, where that gap is collapsed) is not addressed.”

In a comment more than a little redolent of Marx’s famous characterization of religion as “the opium of the masses”, Freud observes “the mild narcosis induced in us by art can do no more than bring about a transient withdrawal from the pressure of vital needs, and it is not strong enough to make us forget real misery.” Those who have recourse to the analgesic of art never forget, insists Freud, that art is not reality. This, of course, he argues, circumscribes the analgesic power of art.

Yet it isn’t immediately clear to me why Freud couldn’t say, with Marx: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Marx’s understanding of the cultural place of religion seems here much closer to illusion than delusion. Freud seems almost to taint religion with the innuendo of delusion.

Carveth and Forster argue to the contrary that art does indeed provide a virtual experience of reality, and the capacity to explore and examine reality, and effect a re-evaluation of the understanding we have of the world in the process. Yes, the artistic experience may be exited, and quotidian reality re-entered, but the relationship between the two is not that of empirical reality to a fictional alternative, not least because art takes its rise in human experience of the world.

DiCenso observes that whereas on the one hand “In many of his explicit arguments Freud continues to assume that reality is a fixed referent characterized by the force of physical necessity bearing upon human existence” “he also shows that our experience of reality occurs as a dynamic interchange between… forces of Ananke [necessity] and human desire, as moulded by culture and language… [A]esthetic illusions and cultural productions contribute to cultural formations. It follows that scientific inquiry is not the only valid and constructive mediating form in the human experience of reality.” (p. 42)

The point DiCenso seems to make is that in his critique of religion, Freud’s default positivism is in profound yet creative conflict with the dynamic of psychoanalysis, and this conflict skews his placement of religion, but also suggests its relocation in cultural and social life, when its institutional role as a sort of prosthetic for the policing Superego has gone – as now it has.

This suggests – to me, at any rate – against Freud’s disclaimers in The Future of an Illusion, which are as polite as they are somewhat disingenuous, that there is religion which can be addressed under the rubric of illusion, and there is religion which is based in delusion, that is the deliberate mis-statement of the way the world is in the face of a completely cogent alternative assertion of reality, and that a criterion can be elaborated to distinguish between them. This is the religion that falls under the indictment that it is a defensive construct, and pathological.


The principal illusory content of religion is God Himself [sic], as the Father under the two Oedipal rubrics of love/respect and fear/hatred. Thus the illusions of religion “compensate [men] for the sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them”.

Constructively, “the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfilment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization; and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfilments shall take place.”

Negatively, the internalized authority of the Oedipal Superego allows the legitimation of social coercion in terms of religious demand. Freud toys with the vision of an unrepressed society cohering on the basis of conscious, voluntary renunciation and sublimation:

New generations, who have been brought up in kindness, and taught to have a high opinion of reason, and brought up with the benefits of civilization from an early age… will feel it as a possession of their very own and will be ready for its sake to make the sacrifices as regards work and instinctual satisfaction that are necessary for its preservation. (FOI p. 187)

He concludes glumly:

“Probably a certain percentage of mankind will always remain asocial, but if it were feasible merely to reduce the majority… to a minority, a great deal would have been accomplished –perhaps all that can be accomplished. (ibid.)”

Freud’s critique of religion in The Future of an Illusion is of mainstream late-modern monotheism, and could be said to rest on its postulation of a reality – God – which embodies, and in varying degree personifies and hypostasizes, the Oedipal superego in a socially-mediated way. Institutional religion is certainly, and increasingly, implicated in wholesale infantilization, and the Oedipal critique of the idealized Father certainly addresses important aspects of this.

Freud ignores the subtle countercurrents in the deepest, richest religious traditions, which do foster well worked-out goals of individual growth and maturation. Yet the cultural cost, as expounded in The Future of an Illusion, perhaps best expressed as a debilitating, generalized infantilization, which conduces to irrationality, injustice and misery, which can appear as a as a society-scale upscaling of the troubles and tergiversations of the individual psyche presenting at the psychoanalyst’s office, has been unignorable. This is, of course, the locus of Freud’s famous description of religion as “the universal obsessional neurosis of mankind.”

So what of Williams in all of this?

The Oedipal superego in Freud’s later thought unites love and fear in a particular way, under the convenient rubric of the parental. There is an organic relationship between the aspects of protection and threat, in the Freudian concept of the oedipal superego which can be used critically – though that isn’t how Freud uses it in his critique of religion – to illuminate the way in which, over the three and a half centuries or so of Western modernity, the radically monotheistic relationship of the God of modernity to the guilty, compromised individual human soul, led rapidly to the selective emphasizing and suppressing of ancient elements (resources, in fact) of the Christian tradition to produce a received understanding of how the individual stood before reality which was entirely consonant with the demands of culture and society, especially into industrial modernity.

Williams, we saw, embarked on a personal project in his own life of the deconstruction of infantilizing institutional religion which, in the axial era of the sixties, found a remarkable resonance, that has not a little to do with the currents of thought which bring us here tonight.

It is, I think, capable of being reworked as the starting point of a new critique, a specifically inner-religious critique, of the role of religion in human society, and very specifically an inner-Christian critique of reactionary, dysfunctional and delusory Christian forms of belief.

We can see this now in a way in which Freud simply could not, I submit, because the world changed again in the middle of the last century, and now we understand how it changed, and the people in it, at the beginning of monotheistic modernity. The cultural and social demands on human beings changed, and human beings changed too – and changed their relationship to the inherited institutions and cultural and psychological structures of religion.


Williams’ work falls precisely into the period when the enormity of this transition was becoming inescapable. His explorations of the shared territory – it’s much broader, more overlapping and more permeable than a boundary, or even a borderland – between Christian faith and psychoanalysis is clearly personal, experiential and existential. He admits this: he wasn’t a psychoanalyst, but a patient, and although he was certainly an academic theologian, if theology is indeed “critical reflection on the content of faith” then his was wrought out of the importation of highly personal experience into his theology. Psychoanalysts expect one to come bringing whatever one brings, and uncensored. That is not a normal expectation of the theologian.

It seems to me that what Williams achieved for himself, and then left as a literary deposit within the Christian tradition, was the prising apart of Freud’s oedipal-monotheistic God of Modernity imago, by the prising-apart of the two components of Freud’s critique of religion, fear and love. We need a further distinction. There is illusory religion, that functions as art does and captures and re-expresses, and makes possible the reworking of human truth. There is deluded, delusory religion, which insists on prescribing reality down to the last detail. There, fear not only still lives, but is necessarily cultivated.

Fear and literally-interpreted tradition constitute a shared delusion, and emancipation from this carries with it the risk, indeed certainty, of hostility from those who continue to be in its thrall.

Williams described the construction of a belief-structure, which he characterized as the “Pharisaic” mindset, which required the denial – as we saw, in his terms, the “amputation” (with inescapable overtones of castration) – of enormous areas of the self he really was. For those whose psychic bargain with God demands the same, the threat of the simple claim by others that such is not demanded of them by God is entirely likely to throw them up violently and inescapably against components of human being and living, and components of their own individual being as selves, that they cannot deal with, and from which, at terrible cost, their delusion protects them.

Williams’ own pilgrimage was, paradoxically, out of the institutional life of Cambridge academic Anglicanism, and out into the life of an Anglican monk of the Community of the Resurrection, at Mirfield. There, his obituary suggests, for the last   years of his life, he was a solitary, not well known to the other members of the community whose round of worship framed his life.

It would be parlous, if not crass, to offer any assessment of the relationship between the institutional setting of his life, and the vibrantly-confessed personal faith which emerges from works such as True Resurrection or his autobiography. Why did he still need the church to frame his faith? How did he stil need the church? And the unspoken rider “…given that the instrument of his healing was an understanding of himself he gained through psychoanalysis…?”

It is well – and psychoanalytically sound – to for each of us to recognize these as, really, our questions. They are certainly my questions, as a Minister, leader of a religious community. As theologians, we’re not really allowed to ask questions like “Why do people need what this congregation professes to offer?” or “What is this congregation really offering people?”

But it does seem to me that, unless one understands theology as the sole determinant of Christian community life, and theology also as either a hermetically sealed intellectual discipline, or at least incapable of being brought into interaction with other disciplines except on terms of total hegemony, which is how I understand John Milbank’s theological project, then the encounter with psychoanalysis must raise these questions, and, ultimately, raise them for theology, and particularly, ecclesiology.

What do we think we are doing? Who do we think we are?

Freud saw religion in its institutional and establishment role of masking the state of things, and undergirding the forced renunciation necessary to the life of society. But that was then. Outside conservative and cautiously establishment circles, such an understanding could hardly be applied nowadays to the institution of the church, which is either being radically repositioned, or dying, depending on how gentle one wishes to be.

But for us who are the Church, the living local communities of the Church, it seems to me that it is possible to return to the tradition, and rework it, to return particularly to the New Testament, re-read it, and refound our community life as congregations on this recognizable Gospel principle:

The church is not the church, that is, is not true to the meaning of Jesus, as witnessed to by the broad Christian tradition, unless it is capable of being a place of total acceptance: of loving, yet challenging, honest, yet total, openness to everything we are as human beings.

That, it seems to me, places us in a role of radical subversion to the way things are. Williams quotes Niebuhr, to the effect that “The Church is capable of being the antichrist, and when she denies this, she IS the antichrist…” Niebuhr actually ties this insight to the truth that the Church’s life is eschatological, or she is not the Church. To invoke, if not exactly to paraphrase, Bonhoeffer, we really are a sign of something beyond the way things are, as long as we stare unblinkingly at the way things are. That’s not delusion. If it’s illusion, so be it. It can still be helpful.

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