The Psychoanalysis and Orthodox Theology Workshop

A review by
Rev. Vasielios Thermos, Assoc. Professor, University Ecclesiastical Academy of Athens | Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

The workshop was successfully organized by the National Research Foundation of Greece on December 1, 2018. Undoubtedly it has been the most important event serving the dialogue between Psychoanalysis and Orthodox Theology that ever took place in Greece.
Among all psychotherapeutic schools Psychoanalysis appeared to be the most akin to the theological search for the ‘inner man’. In spite of early psychoanalysts’ atheism (to which Freud had aspired by attempting to scientifically devalue religion), during the twentieth century the two entities never ceased being in a dialectic encounter. Moreover, in some European countries, both catholic or protestant clergy became psychoanalysts. The theoretical dialogue continued being fruitful through books, articles, conferences, all of which seem to promise complementary fertilization of the two domains.
For the oversimplifying part of the Orthodox Church Psychoanalysis had been elevated to the status of an emblematic antichristian science. Although Freud was rather conservative in his own personal life, and in spite of the clarifications he had offered that his purpose was the ‘taming’ of the unconscious elements which generate conflicts, folk Christianity misperceived him as if he had introduced a permissive sexuality which would consequently have disastrous effects on human morality. This misunderstanding has for decades been the suitable soil for a hostile attitude of Christians to blossom. We have to consider here that Orthodox Christianity mostly copied the Catholic and conservative Protestant suspicion, neglecting the worthwhile effort of producing its own Orthodox criteria for assessment.
Thankfully, after so many decades of mutual suspicion and polemics, this dialogue may end up beneficial for both domains, Psychoanalysis and Christian Theology. After all, they both have recently evolved to be more prone to reconciliation and rapprochement based on beginning to clarify the actual complementarity that may exist between them.
In the past polarization would prevail, both because a militant atheism inherent to Psychoanalysis as a new body of theory and knowledge, and because ecclesiastical circles used to consider tradition self-sufficient. Now it seems that both have begun realizing that the future of sciences lies at their borders, not within their respective inlands. Psychoanalysts have begun feeling humbler, while theologians, in an increasingly complex world, facing challenges never before experienced in history, have begun understanding that it cannot speak to contemporary people in a language that is not theirs. Undoubtedly the language of the contemporary subject is psychological and scientific.
In Greece things started changing during the ‘80s. Although Kornarakis had begun teaching in the ‘50s and ‘60s a Pastoral Psychology inspired by psychoanalytic concepts, a wider acceptance of Psychoanalysis as a legitimate interlocutor of Orthodox Theology only appeared later in a temporal context of convergence which was fed by both theoretical concerns and practical pastoral interests. Books, articles, conferences, as well as recent pastoral training activities, compose an array of aspects of this approach. There has been a growing public climate that favors such a dialogue, so this workshop came to meet a highly interested audience, a reality that is reflected at the overflow crowd that gathered as well.
Therefore it would seem that this workshop takes place at a more mature point of the dialogue. In the past initiatives like this were more of a preliminary exploratory nature, i.e. what possible areas of convergence exist. This time, in the light of obvious convergences, the scope of the organizing committee adopted a more assertive stance: what potential mutual benefits could be derived out of this encounter? We believe that the workshop justified our expectations.
Psychoanalysis can provide Theology with tools useful to distinguish between a healthy and an unhealthy religious experience. We are well aware that around us crowd insane forms of religion, such as fanaticism, fundamentalism, superstitions, magical thinking, legalism etc. In addition to this, because Psychoanalysis stems out of Modernity, this dialogue may assist Theology in finding its own steps inside Modernity, as Christianity was initially shaped in the premodern era but now addresses contemporary persons whose language and cultural climate are of a psychological nature.
For its part, Theology can contribute an ontological dimension to Psychoanalysis which is an anthropocentric method. One who seeks something more about meaning of life may be interested in understanding the metaphysical content of psychoanalytic notions. At least three of the speakers (Loudovikos, Kyriazis, Thermos) expressed the idea that psychoanalysis has Christian roots, namely that some of its principles are inspired by the Scripture and the Patristic literature. In other words, what is of importance here is the ontological background of psychoanalytic concepts (such as libido, narcissism, guilt, anxiety, conflict etc.), as well as their use by a psyche that struggles to answer its existential agony with psychological means.
An objective of the conference was to lead to a mutual understanding of clergy and clinicians, which may hopefully bear fruits of both theoretical nature and practical cooperation between the two domains and disciplines. As there exist people who are religious and at the same time are in psychoanalytic therapy, a reasonable question arises regarding the two domains’ capability for communication and dialogue. A shared basis can be Freud’s famous saying that human beings should become capable of both work and love.
Of course, Psychoanalysis and Orthodox Theology are not of the same view about human beings, however they share some aspects. For example, both domains agree on the central importance of the unconscious, that the full context of a human person is not coterminous with appearance. Both share an optimism, namely that people can change. Both share the fundamental position of relationship which gives us our psychological shape, as well as the role of the imaginary in human relationships. Moreover at the practical level, insofar as they both advocate for maturity, they are allies in the war against pathological narcissism and consumerism that plague our era.
Psychoanalysis is now officially admitting that mature religious faith exists, over against Freud’s insistence that religion is a sign of immaturity. However, being highly concerned about human potential, it seems that may still implicitly preserve the embarrassment introduced by Modernity which is not able to capture how one can relate to God without underestimating oneself. Another difference is that the goal of Psychoanalysis is a healing of inner conflicts so that they no more produce symptoms, whereas Theology aims at a different (spiritual) change through a process that is not anthropocentric. Not infrequently though a successful psychoanalytic treatment paves the path for a healthy religion and a spiritual transformation.
Let me now briefly review the speakers’ basic positions and their potential contribution to the encounter.
Alexandridis (The Genealogy of the “Religious” Into the Psychic Space) elaborated on the early infant-caregiver relationships which make an initial scaffold to later host the various forms of individual religion. By so doing he indicated the non religious roots of faith and spirituality; their psychological background is studied by Psychoanalysis. Obviously this approach reveals the universality of religious stance, as the roots of the absolute are lost in the depth of the primary vital relationships. As the adventures of early care color the later nuances of individual religion, a fertile field opens for both prevention and healing.
Harris (Truth is a Double-Edged Sword: A Brief History of the Dialogue Between Psychoanalysis and Christianity) mentioned Freud’s religious roots before he proceeded to analyze different types of Christian reactions towards Psychoanalysis in the past, to end with the development of object relations and attachment theory which will prove critical for establishing a fruitful dialogue. To approach this topic after decades of successes and failures offers the advantage of not repeating the same mistakes and of adopting a more cool and constructive glance.
Loudovikos (Philosophical and Biblical Theology and the Discovery of the Unconscious: Preliminary Remarks) developed his idea that the unconscious is basically a theological phenomenon. Furthermore he selected desire, catholicity, and eschatology as key notions which mark the ontological endeavor of the person. In this perspective Psychoanalysis can be seen as a field that indicates more clearly the theological nature of human beings and their calling.
Muse (Shame and Overcoming the Mechanisms of Defense in Response to Sin and Trauma: Reflections on Psychoanalytic Parallels With the Patristic Idea of Vainglory [Kenodoxia], Repentance, Confession and Healing) juxtaposed the psychoanalytic mechanisms of defense to vaingloriousness as (both) attempts for self-repair in the face of alienation and fragmentation due to sin and trauma. Approaches like this are greatly desirable because they attempt to cross the wordings of the two domains which so far remain distant and isolated. As the psychoanalytic and the theological-ascetical vocabularies usually describe similar phenomena from a different point, it is critical to study them in parallel and simultaneously make any correlations pertaining. Guilt, shame, and pain, for example, are psychological realities which involve both psychological mechanisms and passions as potential means of coping.
Kyriazis (The Influence of Christian Thought on Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice) drew from Fairbairn, Lacan, Winnicott, and Bion to underline various areas of convergence between Psychoanalysis and Orthodox Theology, putting emphasis on the notion of the absolute and on the overcoming of psychic death. Object relations theory was here considered as a step of approach closer to theological interests, as well as Bion’s unique contribution as a groundbreaking landmark in paying attention at the infant’s thirst for truth.
Thermos (Tracing Judeo-Christian Elements in Psychoanalysis: a Path for Renewing Western Civilization) derived from Kohut, Winnicott, and Lacan psychoanalytic concepts that can facilitate the convergence between the two domains. Those concepts either reveal their religious origin or make a space for a shared encounter. He also added at the end the idea that such a convergence possesses the potential for renewing Western civilization which draws from Christianity while simultaneously denying it. His position supports the idea that Modernity in the West can be renewed and avoid its dead-ends by honestly facing what Christian Theology has to offer.
Jevremovic (Modern Psychoanalysis and Orthodox Theology), after amplifying on the Other as the factor who colonizes the emptiness of psyche, found similarities between clergy and psychoanalysts in the process of this colonization and their struggle to answer the most serious existential question, that of death. His contribution has been quite valuable in promoting both a therapy and a pastoral practice that do not promise to filling all voids, introduce apophaticism, and allow an intact desire to experience its pending nature, namely that there is no object in this world that can satisfy desire.
Emmanouilidis (Clinical and Pastoral Similarities and Differences Between Clergy–Spiritual Fathers and Psychiatrists-Psychoanalysts) proceeded to a detailed examination of similarities and differences between the mission of psychoanalysts and clergy, suggesting points to be cautious about as well as aspects of potential cooperation. By better knowing each other and being aware of the peculiarities of each domain they may, in mutual respect, better serve people’s well-being.
The discussion which followed all sessions has been rich and fruitful. The audience presented a high degree of awareness and proved sensitive to exploring further aspects. We should mention here that the newspaper with the highest circulation in Greece hosted an extended interview with me, in which I described the rationale, the aims, and the challenges of the workshop.
I believe that this workshop has been an excellent idea to insert into the project ‘Science and the Orthodox World’. It succeeded in highlighting a branch of science, and its dialogue with Orthodox Theology, which had not been given much attention during the entire project. More importantly, by revealing the degree of interest present and the quality of discussion possible, it has paved the way for future events that will examine in more detail facets of this dialogue.
Reuniting psychoanalytic notions with their theological ancestors has the potential of endowing the psychoanalytic legacy with the existential dynamism it was deprived of because of the omnipresence of secularism. While Modernity feels and behaves as the estranged child of Christianity, Psychoanalysis can be a privileged field for rediscovering its spiritual roots. From a theological point of view psychological realities are, at their core, ontological realities perceived as psychological ones on the screen of empirical life. It is critical to remember that ontology is never experienced as such; it is always received and interpreted on the psychological level, thus giving birth to and justifying a psychological vocabulary.
To me, the West, after having enjoyed the benefits of secularism to the last drop, has started to discover in depth its dead-ends and thus has begun to suffocate. To catch new breaths it turned to Post-Modernity, in the hope that it might derive the fresh air of existence, a sense of greater freedom of the ego, a renewal of relationships, and to regain the lost vitality of a unified psyche and body. Indeed new horizons opened in this cultural shift, yet at the price of loosening the boundaries of the human person through a blurred anthropology.
To conclude with, Orthodox Theology, as it was shaped by both the Bible and the patristic legacy, is characterized by a quite important view of the human person which includes a mixture of Hebrew anthropology and classical Greek achievements. This human image is not complete (how could it be?) and can surely benefit from the rich depths of Psychoanalysis. At the same time Psychoanalysis can acquire through Theology the metaphysical-ontological perspective that it lacks. This combination makes a powerful point of reference for understanding of humans, especially in front of an overwhelming technology and excessive consumerism, on the one hand, and an eclectic and inchoate experientially hungry ‘New Age’ mentality at the other. In addition to coping with psychic pain, humanity has to survive against both materialism and pantheism. The encounter of Psychoanalysis and Orthodox Theology, in my opinion, offers a great, though not yet fully captured, opportunity to support this endeavor.
I am grateful to add in particular that Dr Delli and Mr Livanos proved to be excellent organizers, in terms of both conceiving the scope of the event and planning its many details. I strongly advocate that future events like this are worthy of attempting, as more nuanced aspects of this dialogue are quite promising.
Rev. Vasileios Thermos, MD, PhD


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