Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies
3: 221–241 (2006)Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps
International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies
3(3): 221–241 (2006)Published online in Wiley InterScience(
: 10.1002/aps.107
Being and Potential:Psychoanalytic Clinicians’Concepts of God
Psychoanalytic clinicians interested in spiritual matters were interviewed concerning their concepts of God. For most of the 25 participants in this research, in which twomethods of qualitative analysis were employed, the notion of God was problematicbut was not rejected per se. Participants reported personal concepts of a force or energywhich is immanent, and for most, also transcendent, having evolutionary and moralscope, to do with awareness of the cosmos and levels of consciousness, and beyondthe usual limitations of understanding. These non-anthropomorphic, non-imagebound concepts were also shared by those who had a commitment to religious orga-nizations. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Key words:
force, God, psychoanalysis, qualitative, spirituality
Winnicott famously posed the question, “If God is a projection, even so is therea God who created me in such a way that I have the material in me for such aprojection? . . . The important thing for me must be, have I got it in me to havethe idea of God? . . . if not, then the idea of God is of no value to me (exceptsuperstitiously)” (Winnicott, 1968/1989: 205).Winnicott emphasized here, as always, the particular nature of what may beperceived, our individual capacity to look at something afresh, and the natureof our being which generates such wondering. He specifically related the conceptof God to the nature of the transitional object, observing that the situation withthe baby and the transitional object, “although the object was there to be foundit was created,” is similar to the situation regarding the existence of God, refer-ring to the limerick by the English scholar and priest, Ronald Knox (1888–1957,in Reed, 1924):
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies
3: 221–241 (2006)Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps
There once was a man who said, ‘GodMust think it exceedingly oddIf he finds that this treeContinues to beWhen there’s no one about in the Quad.’*
In theology, Winnicott said, similar issues of individual “creation,” (i.e. percep-tion and usage) arise in the “interminable discussion” about the existence of God.
Winnicott’s view contrasts markedly with Freud’s assertion that religious ideas,“are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking” (Freud, 1927: 212).The concepts of God that Freud proposed were of a father figure “writ large,” ora more infantile oceanic “mother” to merge with (Freud, 1930). When moreabstract notions of God were invoked, Freud described them scornfully as “vagueabstraction” and “insubstantial shadow” (Freud, 1927: 32, 1927). In a letter toMarie Bonaparte dated March 19, 1928 (Jones, 1957: 447), Freud derided“the most varied drinks being offered under the name of religion,” and used theanalogy of drinkers getting drunk on apple juice. Freud said he preferred “theold drinkers,” considering them to be less “ridiculous,” more “respectable.” Whatdid these old drinkers, these “respectable drinkers” believe? In “the mighty per-sonality of religious doctrines,” that “God alone is strong and good, man is weakand sinful” (Freud, 1927: 38). These “old drinkers” Freud could understand anddeal with much more easily. Freud’s ideas regarding the “mighty personality” arevery similar to those of the German philosopher Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach,who in 1841 in his book
The Essence of Christianity
, argued that God is a humanprojection. Armstrong (1993: 406) summarized Feuerbach’s arguments, “ThusGod was infinite, man finite; God almighty, man weak; God holy, man sinful.”Despite the fact that Freud said he was referring to the religion of the“common man,” it is evident in other work that Freud believed firmly that hisconclusions applied to all religion. In “The Question of a Weltanschauung”(Freud, 1933: 208–209), he generalized his previous conclusions, saying:
I restricted my remarks, strictly speaking, to one single form taken by religion, that of the Western peoples . . . But let me express a conviction that the most careful working-over of the material of the problems of religion would not shake our conclusions.* Knox’s limerick was anonymously answered:‘Dear Sir, Your astonishment’s odd:I am always about in the Quad.And that’s why the treeWill continue to be,Since observed by Yours faithfully, God.’
Being and potential
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies
3: 221–241 (2006)Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps
Through a careful examination of a short paper Freud wrote at the end of 1927,the year in which his book
The Future of an Illusion
was published, we can seehow Freud used material to which we also have access to. The paper is remark-able in that we, as readers, also have the exact text that Freud drew on, that is,a letter by an American physician unknown to Freud, detailing his religiousexperience. It becomes clear that in his analysis of the physician’s religiousexperience Freud makes a string of interpolations, breaking his own rules con-cerning wild analysis (
Simmonds, 2006a for a detailed account). Interestingly,three waves of challenges can be perceived from within psychoanalysis over thecourse of its history to its reductionist attitude to religion and spirituality. Thefirst wave began with some of Freud’s contemporaries, among them his friend,the psychoanalyst and pastor, Oscar Pfister, the Nobel Laureate, Romain Rolland,and the poet, TS Eliot. Challenges continued after Freud’s death: in Britain frompsychoanalysts such as Rickman and Guntrip, and in America initially by theEuropean immigrants, Erikson and Fromm. British Independent psychoanalystsinitiated what may be considered to be the third wave (Simmonds, 2006b).Commenting on Freud’s “literalism” regarding religion, and his “very super-ficial observation of religious belief and behaviour,” Black (1993) proposed that“religious objects” differ in important ways from other internal objects intheir formation and modification. He described the function of the objects of religion as giving a way of speaking directly about actual, bewildering, humanpsychological experience. They serve the purpose of “instruments to thinkwith.” Black emphasized that religious objects srcinate from a cultural tradition,and although they “chime or clash in many different ways with the internalobjects derived from the person’s own constitution and history, that is not theirsrcin and they are in principle, and very often in practise, distinguishable fromthese ‘personal objects’ (Black, 1993: 624). He considered that the relationshipwith these objects, as with other internal objects, must be known by their“fruits,” which may differ markedly from the “inhibition, depression, unrelated-ness, or perversity which result from the pathological use of psychological defenceprocesses.”Both Jung’s and Bion’s positions on God are often read reductively. Sinceparticipants in the current research cite both these influential and complexwriters, I will summarize here their stances through quotations from their workwhich specifically address the intrapsychic issue. From the following passages wecan see that they appear to share some opinions regarding ineffability, and“glimpses” of Ultimate Reality.
That Jung’s view of God was not confined to the psychological becomes clearin his answer to a direct question on the subject (Jung, 1958/1984). HL Philpasked Jung whether he believed in “the existence of God other than as anarchetype.” Jung replied:
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies
3: 221–241 (2006)Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps
There is no doubt in my mind that there is an srcinal behind our images, but it is inac-cessible. We could not even be aware of the srcinal since its translation into psychicterms is necessary in order to make it perceptible at all. . . . Why should we be so immod-est as to suppose that we could catch a universal being in the narrow confines of our language? We know that God-images play a great role in psychology, but wecannot prove the physical existence of God. . . . If I keep to a statement that I think Ican prove, this does not mean that I deny the existence of anything else that might existbeyond it. . . . When people say that they believe in the existence of God, it has neverimpressed me in the least. Either I know a thing and then I don’t need to believe it; orI believe it because I am not sure that I know it. I am well satisfied with the fact that Iknow experiences which I cannot avoid calling numinous or divine. (Jung, 1958:259–260)
 Jung also said later in the same interview, “I dont know what God is inhimself. . . . I also recognize that the human mind cannot step beyond itself,although divine grace may and probably does allow at least glimpses into atranscendental order of things” (Jung, 1958: 261), and emphasized, “our tradi-tional image of God . . . is not the same as the srcinal” (Jung, 1958: 263).
Bion’s usage of religious concepts was especially complex; his application of religious language in his vertices, for example, was used to indicate “bigness,importance” (Meltzer, 1978: 104), but that he was actually also talking aboutreligion and God
 per se
at times is evident especially in a lecture he deliveredat São Paulo in 1973 (published 1980), where he said:
. . . the universes of reality cannot be simple enough to be understood by a humanbeing . . . the most profound method known to us of investigation – psychoanalysis – isunlikely to do more than scratch the surface. It is, therefore, not surprising that thepeople who have a predominantly religious outlook say that there are certain experienceswhich are independent of the human mind; that is to say that God is just a projectionof the father of the family as he appeared to us in infancy or childhood is irrelevant andhas nothing to do with the God of reality; that it is a human interpretation which flat-tens out the religious belief, turning it into an imprisoning idea; that the scientific,psycho-analytic view of religion or God can in no way describe the reality of religion,but flattens out religious dread, or religious love, or religious hate to a point where theindividual cannot feel awe or dread, terror or stupor. This is one reason why modesty isbecoming to the analyst: arrogance is not. Even the mystic who says he has direct contactwith God must, in fact, have flattened out the religious experience, although it is muchmore profound than anyone else’s experience. However long we live we cannot possibly,as individuals, experience events such as those recorded by a few, mobilized from thewhole of the human race, who, in spite of differences in age, religion, race and language,are all in agreement. Note, for example, what is said by Dante in the 36th Canto of ‘Paradiso’: by Krishna asking Arjuna, in the Bhagavad Gita, why he thinks he can under-stand God; and by God replying to Job’s assumption that the human being can compre-hend the Almighty. (Bion, 1980: 30–31)
Being and potential
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies
3: 221–241 (2006)Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps
Both Bion and Jung comment on extraordinary experiences which allow glimpsesof, respectively, “the God of reality,” “the numinous and divine.”
Within the larger field of the psychology of religion, there have been manyattempts to study “believers’ ” concepts of God, often through survey data or“forced-choice” profiles. (For an extensive review of this literature,
Spilka etal., 2003.) Within the psychoanalytic literature on religion there has been littleempirical research as such. Vergote, a psychoanalytically informed philosopher,and his colleagues used the “Q-Sort” technique of personality research (Vergoteet al., 1969; Vergote and Tamayo, 1980) and in her research Rizzuto (1979) askedhospitalized psychiatric patients to draw and talk about their representations of God. Rizzuto’s research, also on personality characteristics attributed to God,was heavily “theory-led.” The research was conducted from an exclusivelyChristian–Judaic framework, with Rizzuto appearing at that time to be unawareof Western, as well as many thousands of years of Eastern, panentheism, when,for example, she categorized what she described as a “religious experience” of “God is in me and I in him” as belonging to the anal stage of development. Theexperience of “God is great” she classified as Oedipal (Rizzuto, 1979: 205–208).As part of a larger non-empirical project, Meissner (1984) extended Rizzuto’swork, using Erikson’s 1958 terminology, (also later taken up by Symington, 1993),of “primitive” and “mature” religions. Meissner (1984) added a Judaeo–Christian“sketch” of stages of religious development. Working from an Orthodox Jewishperspective, Spero (1992) argued for an objective God, and emphatically consid-ered God as “experience” rather than entity, as a “lower” developmental stage(Spero, 1992: 66–68). In Rizzuto’s (1979) and Spero’s (1992) categorizations, andto a lesser extent Meissner’s (1984), traditional Christian–Judaic conceptions of God are privileged over, for example, highly developed Eastern Upanishadicconcepts.In an empirical study, Sorenson (1997: 187) used written autobiographicalaccounts of developmental representations of God. Working from an intersubjec-tive framework, he asked American postgraduate students in a psychoanalyticpsychotherapy doctoral program to write about their notion of God arising fromtheir family of srcin, their experience of how religious issues were addressed intheir personal therapy, and their ways of working as therapists with religiousissues in their own patients. He found that he could not predict how a religiouspatient’s concept of God would change from its pretherapy status, but he reportedthat “the orientation toward and analysis of the transcendent by the patient’sanalyst” was “much more determinative” of the patient’s eventual concept of God. Sorenson (1997) was referring to the therapist’s orientation as perceivedby the patient: he did not interview the therapists. An interesting finding fromhis research was that the therapist’s receptivity, as perceived by the patient, wasrelated to a change in patients’ concepts of God.
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