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’.