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.