Monthly Archives: January 2020

Miserable sinner and the false god 5

If parts of our self that are condemned as ‘wrong’ are then either repressed or hidden away or projected into others then it’s hard to be authentic. Instead the inner work is about taking possession of all the different parts of one self and this involves a creative act to bring a sense of unity – this is the sort of person that I am. This bringing into unity involves who we are with others and in our relationship with God, and the changes that can happen when we are in relationship. The changes that can move the ‘miserable sinner’ in a sado-masochistic relationship with the false god, into becoming a person in relationship with the loving God, involve moments of understanding and acceptance. The changes also involve a reconfiguring of how we see God.

The false god full of envy and jealousy and wrath interferes with acts of understanding and self-acceptance and so prevents creativity and personal growth and this is so different from the true God – the infinite, the absolute and ultimate truth that all reality is. The true God promotes them. To let go of the false god is – as Neville Symington sees it – an act of faith, an act of trust. He emphasises how helpful it is to use words such as ‘infinite’, ‘the truth’, or ‘the absolute’ which are part of a new dawning of consciousness and a realization of what reality is, and how it is, and that each of us are part of it. In the bible he sees an interplay the whole time between the false god and the true God as there is both individually and collectively always a tendency to go back to what is basically a powerful figure that dictates and overrides the creative inner power of conscience. The interplay is between an anthropomorphic idea of God with human characteristics and a much purer one. We have a number of the prophets telling us not to make statues or false images as God cannot be imagined in that way. In other words, this is the infinite – because God is not finite and the only way to describe him in that sense is what God is not. When Moses came down from the mountain he was furious because once again the people wanted an image – this time a golden calf, but that God could not be imagined in that way.

It isn’t so much that God was then angry, but rather that the people suffered because they had acted against their inner principles and therefore suffered from it. Symington writes how all religions contain this wonderful ‘pearl of great price’ and also superstitions and anthropomorphic elements here and there that have built up around the central wisdom

‘But they are not really essential – the important thing is to recognize what the reality is that is being spoken about. To speak of God being offended [and the associated miserable sinner syndrome] is an image, like the golden calf, from which we need to purify ourselves.’

Miserable sinner and the false god – 4

One of the difficulties of thinking about our faults and what we have done wrong, and then feeling sorry about them and ‘repenting’, is that this can become a process of disowning these parts of ourselves. In the miserable sinner syndrome then we bewail our ‘sins’ such as envy, hostility, meanness and lack of joyousness as somehow being unworthy of God. These are the parts of us that we are told are not like Christ, and so they ‘should’ be obliterated or denied or at the very least distorted to become the ‘good’ fruits of the spirit – love, joy and peace and so on. Except that takes us away from being human.

All the splitting into ‘good’ and ‘evil’ leaves us split too. If we think of ourselves as say behaving in a ‘greedy’ way then that can become  a ‘thing’ in itself – in other words ‘miserable sinner that I am I am greedy’. In relationship with the false god this gets turned into condemnation and from there into an absolute of the wrong sort. Quickly I then become a disaster and it’s hard to recover and see oneself differently. One way to try and recover is to split that ‘greedy me’ off and alienate it from the rest of me – but that obviously cannot last – the greedy me is waiting to pop out again for further condemnation by the false god who plagues me and keeps me submissive.

Another way to try and manage these parts of ourselves that the false god condemns is to begin to understand our inner world. So, for example, if I set off driving to my destination but find myself on the wrong road it is essential that I try to avoid condemnation from the false god – such as ‘my stupidity’ or ‘my aging brain’ or ‘typical – I always get things wrong’ and so on because it is this judgement that evokes the ‘miserable sinner – worm that I am syndrome’. A kindly approach is to accept and from acceptance to integrate without what Neville Symington calls ‘a hint of hatred’. It just is the case that sometimes I am like this, and sometimes I am like that. Sometimes I make mistakes, and sometimes I don’t.

As has been pointed out all this ‘miserable sinner syndrome’ fits neatly with one of the theories of redemption, the one where when Adam sinned it was an offence against God, and so God sent his Son because the Son had to repay such an infinite offence, and could do because he was the of the same stature and nature as God Himself – who is Himself infinite. Calvary becomes then the way of repaying God for our sin. An alternative version which eases up the miserable sinner syndrome is rather that God looked down and saw how we were damaging ourselves, and how wounded we were, and so sent His Son to try and repair our state.  Symington comments that if we follow the first theory what sort of God is it that is going to take offence like this, ‘like a sensitive soul offended at a cocktail party? It’s just absolute nonsense …it is to be repudiated’ and with it goes the miserable sinner.

Miserable sinner and the false god – 3

The embodiment of the false god happens in all sorts of institutions – not just the church and that includes in psychoanalysis itself. This is where one becomes merged with the embodied god and so there is no space for creative capacity. Bion called this state of mind the living relic of a primitive catastrophe – it stems from a traumatic event that has become fossilized, and the trauma was a wound to the narcissistic system probably early in life.

What happens is that the thinking process has taken a back seat and the embodied thoughts of the god have been substituted.  The person then operates in submissive identification with the god. This, incidentally is why ‘following the will of God’ can be problematic – is it the true God or a false god. Through this identification the thoughts and thinking processes of the god are understood and yet there is always distortion.

For example Wilfred Bion was once at a group relations conference, and he kept hearing speakers saying ‘Bion said …’ and ‘Bion did not think …’ etc. He turned to a colleague and said ‘This chap Bion sounds as though he was an interesting person.’ He had become ‘a god’.

The main point is that our creativity becomes crushed through such an embodiment – though submission is usually followed by rebellion, usually at the point when we try to break free from the narcissistic bondage. You can find this often in people who perhaps through a convent or monastic education have been submissive, but grow to hate the submissive act. While it is being submissive that is hated, this, too, gets projected out onto the object – sometimes the church or Jesus or god. But here again the trying to break free has been distorted. The liberation is in the insight of what has happened in one’s own psyche. Why did I so readily submit to this, and how can I understand it enough to dig deep and really free myself. We know if there is submission when we attach words like ‘ought’, ‘driven’ ‘compelled’ and so on. The false god ‘demands’ and says ‘do it this way’ and so on.

The true disciple pursues their creativity and recognizes how they are in themselves in relationship with the true God; this is about respect and acceptance of the self or as Jung would spell it the Self with a capital. Here we follow our conscience respecting the Absolute which we share with each other, and the whole of creation. Following our conscience then benefits not just me (as in the closed miserable sinner syndrome), but the other person too and indeed the world.

Miserable sinner and the false god – 2

In 1986, Roger Dorey, a French psychoanalyst, published an interesting paper on the relationship of mastery. In it he explores what happens between the two parties – so in this context it would be the ‘miserable sinner’ and ‘the all-powerful false god’. The main point is that each needs the other to be in the relationship. If I am the miserable sinner then I need the false god to seduce me, to take me over so I become fascinated by the process of trying to please and placate this god, until what I think the god wants from me becomes the way I behave and respond. In other words, I, too, become false to mirror the false god. The irony is that I am really enraptured and captured by an image, but an image based on reflection of part of me – a part that I don’t want to own and so on. Yet in being only a miserable sinner, I gain a great deal of gratification – a gratification which is partly about depriving myself of my own wishes and sense of personal being, and so nothing but a faithful replication. Dorey writes about this as a narcissistic perversion, and perhaps this can also explain what happens in certain religious settings where the desire to ‘annihilate’ desires and so on can lead to serious self-harm.

In her extraordinary early autobiography ‘Through the Narrow Gate’ the author Karen Armstrong as a nun in the 1960s writes about mortifying the body in order to become closer to god:

‘It has to hurt, really hurt, I thought, or else how can it work … It was not just my body I wanted to hurt; it was myself. But as I went on [with self-flagellation] I no longer felt the pain. Just a dark reckless excitement that grew steadily, blotting out everything but itself. And then there was a huge sense of release.’

Here there is the erotic aspect of this seductive slave-master relationship; ironically turning to her superior for advice Armstrong is instructed to beat herself harder and increase her fasting. The false god demands the punishment of the miserable sinner; and the miserable sinner is only happy when being punished. And because the psycho-spiritual life of the miserable sinner has been appropriated by this false god there is no space to think about what is being demanded. An analytic understanding would see that the ‘miserable sinner’ has suffered a deep wound to the narcissistic part of the personality and so the god arises and takes over – leaving the rest of the personality utterly crushed. It needs to be added that this god can also take over in groups.

The difference with the true God is that the true God is reached through deeper understanding  and contemplative reflection on the nature of reality … It’s been pointed out that those with the deepest understanding tend not to use the word ‘God’ but terms like ‘the THAT’, ‘the Absolute’, ‘the Divine’, ‘Presence’ or ‘Reality’, the analyst Wilfred Bion called this same Reality ‘O’. There is a sense of experiencing the absolute character of reality and also that it is contingent – in other words it is a contradiction or paradox: changing and unchanging – our minds cannot grasp this, it is both a ‘Beyond’ and a ‘Within’.

Miserable sinner and the false god

There’s quite a bit of encouragement to feel terrible about oneself in Christianity: confess one’s sins, feel remorse and acknowledge guilt and then be forgiven and so be relieved and grateful – before the whole sequence starts up again. In his spiritual exercises Ignatius of Loyola quotes St Francis: ‘Ah! Lord who am I? and who are you? I, a worm of the earth, a miserable sinner, am to receive a God! You, God, of infinite majesty, are to be received by a worm – a sinner, such as I am!’

How can this sort of dynamic of what one might call the miserable sinner syndrome be understood? There seems to be a relationship between the miserable sinner and the punishing/false god – it is I think to do with a masochistic-sadistic relationship and sadly a dynamic that is sometimes encouraged in institutional religion. It’s worth taking a psychoanalytic look at it as well…

Here’s an example taken from the writing of Neville Symington of a patent who was late one day because snow on the road had delayed her, and she was angry. In supervision with Wilfred Bion, Symington is told: “You must say to her that god has sent down that snow to get between you and her.”

As Symington discusses this is then a god who gets in the way of two people coming to know each other; it’s similar to

‘a god who interferes with my thinking; there is also a god who demands that I follow his instructions even if this is not in my best interests and indeed against my wishes; there is a god who punishes me if I think for myself; there is a god who sanctions my sadism, a god who encourages my masochism, a god who fosters my greed, who fosters my envy, who fosters my jealousy, a god who possesses me but despises me, a god who solves problems by obliterating them.’

Aspects of this portrait of god can be found in the Bible, the Torah or the Koran, so it is also part of a collective cultural expression but with traits that can be found in the individual psyche too. This god is a narcissistic object seen from one particular angle but is many-faceted and using analytic speak it is a part of the self that has been expelled and embodied in a figure, or figures, outside the self. Like its ‘maker’ this god is extremely sensitive to hurt or rejection. If we install these aspects into god then we see the figure as an elevated being but one who like us in our narcissism is fragile and liable to hurt, sensitivity and potentially uncontrollable anger. And of course we are warned by the prophets in the Old Testament for chasing after false gods:

‘What use is an idol once its maker has shaped it – a cast image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in what has been made, though the product is only an idol that cannot speak.’ Habakkuk 2: 18.