Distorted Reality or Transitional Space? Biblical Miracle Stories in Psychoanalytic Perspective

Petri Merenlahti. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. 

In many ways faith in miracles exemplifies what traditional Psychoanalysts think is wrong with religion. The Psychoanalytic process is meant to improve the patient’s psychic well-being by helping him or her to cope with reality on its own terms. To hope for a miracle to happen and change the way reality works is to reject this kind of growth and opt for fantasy, regression, and wishful thinking.

However, some Psychoanalysts today take a more positive view of religion (Black 2006). They emphasize that the distinction between fantasy and reality is not always crystal clear and some fantasies can be beneficial to health. Together with art and other creative forms of human culture, religion allows for a particular merging of inner reality and external life, personal and objectively perceived meanings, so as to facilitate psychic growth and the building up of a capacity for interpersonal relationships. From this perspective, religious stories about miracles are not necessarily epitomes of regression. Even if they are not true in the objective sense, they may still carry psychological truth.

In this chapter, I will look at the biblical miracle stories as a case example. I will argue that the role they play in the biblical narrative displays both regressive and mature tendencies. On the one hand, they do recount and envision extraordinary acts of salvation by divine intervention. On the other hand, the narrative implies that the high season of such acts only lasted for a limited time, after which they became increasingly a thing of the mythical past. There will never be another Moses who will know God face to face. Jesus was taken up into heaven and will only return at the end of times. Meanwhile, people will have to cope with the present reality, where miracles are rare and the divine presence is less tangible. In this sense, the narrative is encouraging its audience in the task of reality-acceptance.

Yet the tension between the two tendencies is never resolved completely. They should therefore not be seen as successive developmental phases but rather as oscillating positions that together characterize the biblical stance vis-à-vis the world.

At Odds With Reality

According to the Letter to the Hebrews, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). Believers are dissidents towards common reality. They will not bow to the obvious, and they reserve the right to rely on other things than mere cold facts—even if this means being criticized for foolishness. As the apostle Paul puts it,

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are. (1 Cor 1:27-28)

Now, Paul may well be demonstrating an ego defense mechanism known as devaluation, that is, he dismisses the frustration of being denied something by claiming that he did not care for it in the first place. Even in that case, his words contain remarkable subversive potential. Who decides by what standards individual people are to be considered wise or powerful or noble anyway? Sometimes reality, and social reality in particular, deserves to be challenged. This is one reason why there is demand for the kind of idealism that is the business of religion.

On the other hand, common reality has found strong supporters, too. They have accused religion of deliberate or instinctive self-deception. According to Karl Marx’s famous statement (Marx 1887), religion is the opium of the people. The dream of a better world is a convenient painkiller: it helps the poor and the oppressed to put up with their lot.

Likewise for Sigmund Freud (1927, 1930), religious belief was essentially a pathology: in the religious worldview, infantile dependence and the demand for unlimited wish fulfillment survive into adult life as trust in the Heavenly Father’s omnipotence. Religious myths and rituals correspond to obsessive thinking and behavior that are meant to repress unpleasant truths.

There are three unpleasant truths in particular, says Freud, that religions refuse to accept: that the only reward for morality will be civilized life on earth; that nature has no purpose; and that death will be the end. As all the three are fundamental truths about life, religion amounts to massive denial. No psychologically mature person needs it, as he or she will be able to face reality as it is.

The biblical miracle stories are a case in point. They affirm the very same three ideas of which Freud thought people should let go.

First, they attest that history is all about justice. If the oppressed keep crying out for help long enough, God will take notice of them, as he did when the Israelites were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. The awesome wonders he displayed then signaled vindication to his people and judgment to their enemies. Similarly, Jesus’ exorcisms in the New Testament confirm that the rule of Satan is over and the Day of Judgment is near. Soon the good will receive their reward, and the evil will be punished. If the present reality cannot deliver this promise, God will intervene to establish a new one.

Second, the biblical miracle stories encourage their audience to take God’s acts personally. They imply that God gets involved because he cares for his own. Unwilling to have his chosen ones suffer any longer, he takes direct action, and reality will yield. So, when you see these extraordinary things taking place, you know that you are not insignificant. God’s interventions are signs of his personal affection.

Moreover, last but not least, you will be saved. The whole point of negotiating reality is that you will not have to die. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). Indeed, Jesus did make the promise, in the Gospel of John: “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (Jn 11:26). Death will not be the end.

Miracles Explained

So, Freud certainly had a problem with miracles, as did much of the Psychoanalytic tradition after him. The same is true of the heritage of enlightened rationalism on the whole, including those enlightened rationalists who were willing to tolerate or even appreciate religion, once it was understood in a proper way. As the latter position characterizes the thinking of some contemporary Psychoanalysts as well, it will be useful to take a brief look at the anatomy of the idea.

The eighteenth-century deists are a well-known case. They cherished the idea of a sensible natural religion that would stand for what they believed to be timeless spiritual values: faith in a benevolent creator and in the immortality of the soul, combined with high morals. Such religion would be in full harmony with scientific knowledge, and therefore not allow for miracles or any other kind of unreasonable superstition.

Today it is much easier than in the eighteenth century to reject religion altogether. It is now possible to conceive of life without a creator, and to explain mental and moral capacities in purely materialist terms. So there is no need to have a natural religion to make sense of the world. Yet the idea is not forgotten. Unlike what was predicted by many social scientists just a couple of decades ago, religion is not going extinct, although institutional religion continues to lose ground, especially in the global North (Berger 1999). Among Western educated people, there still seems to be demand for a natural spirituality, that will go together with modern values and the basic assumptions of the contemporary scientific worldview, and still be genuine spirituality. But what to do with those elements of religious tradition, such as the miracle stories of the Bible, that run counter to reason and experience?

Ever since the Enlightenment, there have been attempts for a rationalist solution. One popular approach was to argue that miracles were not really miracles. The Bible, although historically accurate, does not really mean what it says, or the biblical writers did not understand correctly what they heard or saw. So, when the Bible tells us that Jesus was walking on the sea, what he actually did was stroll on floating logs of wood. Or, when it says that darkness came over the land when Jesus died, this was because a massive sandstorm hid the sun, and so on: for every biblical miracle a natural explanation was to be found. The German nineteenth-century rationalist theologians became famous for their efforts in this field, and the name of H.E.G. Paulus in particular stood out among them (Paulus 1828; see Albert Schweitzer’s account in Schweitzer 1906, 49-58).

This approach never turned out as a success, however. From a scholarly perspective, it is now a thing of the past, although in fiction, popular culture, and folklore, classic rationalist explanations of biblical miracles still flourish, and popular books presenting the natural causes of the biblical stories continue to be published (Humphreys 2003). In light of modern biblical criticism, not so much informed by rationalist arguments as by careful source criticism, the biblical stories are not direct eyewitness accounts but religious literature combining historical traditions, artistic creation, and folklore. There is therefore no need to explain every biblical account as historically possible.

Moreover, in their literary and religion-historical contexts, the biblical miracle stories hardly make sense except as stories about miracles. The biblical writers were not in the business to keep record of well-timed natural phenomena and furnish them with misguided explanations. Rather, they were to pass on, give expression to, and reshape genuine religious experiences and beliefs: what Moses or Jesus were believed to have been, done, and meant, and how this was integrated into experiences of the divine in the present. The same was true of Jesus himself. While we do not know too much about him with much certainty, we do know that he was not a naturalist philosopher preaching timeless moral truths. Most likely, he was a Jewish popular charismatic, a practicing healer and exorcist who, like many others in his time, waited for God’s radical intervention in history (Theissen and Merz 1996). The problems we may have with calling anything supernatural were not his problems. What he and his followers believed made perfect sense in their historical and religious environment, although it may no more do so in ours.

This takes us to another solution, one that may have stood the test of time a little better. According to this solution, the biblical miracle stories are indeed about miracles, but their real meaning and value for our time lie on another level than that of historical truth. Modern history of ideas knows many versions of this approach, the roots of which go back to the allegorical exegesis of the ancient rabbis and the church fathers. They too thought the deepest meaning of the sacred text lay beneath the surface level and could only be grasped once one understood that the historical stories were in fact symbolic expressions of eternal spiritual truths. Like their modern colleagues, the rabbis and the church fathers were keen to apply this method to the texts they considered primitive (Smalley 1956, 2).

In the history of modern scholarship, a couple of key figures stand out for the influential way in which they reinterpreted the meaning of biblical miracles. The year 1835, “the revolutionary year of modern theology,” saw the publication of the first volume of The Life of Jesus (Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet) by David Friedrich Strauss. An eminent pupil of the philosopher Hegel, Strauss rejected both the belief in the supernatural and the rationalist attempts to discover the natural causes of the biblical stories. Clearly, he thought, the biblical writers recounted, as authentic narratives, stories that were at odds with nature and reason and therefore could not be historical. They could, however, have theological value as myths that communicated universal truths about the human spirit. For Strauss, those truths were happily congruent with Hegel’s idealistic philosophy: in Christ, humanity became conscious of its true nature as absolute spirit.

One of the most important theological figures of the twentieth century, Rudolf Bultmann, introduced another famous program of demythologization (Bultmann 1933-65). He, too, considered the mythological language of the Bible severely outdated and therefore irrelevant to modern people. The answer was to reinterpret it so as to address the great existential questions of human life. While Strauss drew on Hegel, Bultmann’s source of inspiration was Martin Heidegger’s existentialist philosophy. For him, the real meaning of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, hidden under ancient mythological language, was to be found in how they related to the universal experience of the human condition.

Strauss and Bultmann were prime examples of progressive theologians running to the rescue of their religious tradition at a time when advanced scientific knowledge threatened to make it intellectually inadequate and ideologically irrelevant. Structurally, their solution was a standard one, known well from similar situations in the history of biblical interpretation, and the history of interpretation of sacred literature on the whole. The scriptures were to be interpreted symbolically as manifestations of some timeless truth. The end result was a definition of biblical truth that conformed to the current scientific paradigm.

It is not unexpected that a similar approach to religious stories and traditions should occur within the guild of Psychoanalysts. While Freud’s blanket rejection of religion became the dominant Psychoanalytic view for decades, not all of his colleagues shared this view, not even in the beginning. Since then, the Western intellectual climate has become more tolerant, if not towards all forms of religion, at least towards a spiritual dimension of life. Most importantly, the Psychoanalytic method itself stands in close connection with the tradition of allegorical interpretation (cf. Frosh 2006, 216, quoting Ostow 1982, 8). Freud’s very own oedipal interpretations of Christianity and Judaism assumed that the key to understanding biblical texts lay hidden beneath their surface level. Technically, then, it should be possible to neglect their supernaturalistic top layer and find other meanings that will not contradict the rationalist premises that Psychoanalysis holds dear.

Rethinking Fantasy

Since the mid-1980s, Psychoanalytic interest in religion has grown steadily. Some commentators speak of “something of a flood” (Black 2006, 15). Numerous analysts, including Michael Eigen, Mark Epstein, James Jones, Sudhir Kakar, William Meissner, Paul Pryser, Ana-Maria Rizzuto, Jeffrey Rubin, and Neville Symington, have written on the topic, reconsidering the relationship between religion and Psychoanalysis. Rejecting what they see as Freud’s overly simplistic critique of religion, they suggest that some forms of religious belief and practice can support healthy psychological development. As a means of furnishing experienced reality, including one’s experience of the self, with personal meaning, religion can help people in the task of reality-acceptance; quite unlike what Freud thought would be the case. This view seems to be gaining wider support, so that “overall among analysts today, there is a much greater openness to and acceptance of certain religious beliefs and practices than ever before” (Blass 2006, 23).

What happened? How is it possible to adopt an almost diametrically opposite position on religion from what was before, and still remain within the same Psychoanalytic paradigm? It seems that two things made the difference: first, there was a new understanding of the sense of reality as a (or better, the) Psychoanalytic criterion of psychic maturity; and, second, there was a new understanding of religion (cf. Blass 2006).

While the new Psychoanalytic understanding of religion connects with the work of various theorists, it is probably D. W. Winnicott’s ideas of transitional phenomena, transitional objects, and transitional experience that have made the most profound impact on how many analysts today perceive the relationship of religion, reality, and illusion. Special extensions of the self, transitional objects stand halfway between the subjective inner reality of the individual and the objectively perceived external reality or environment. Winnicott initially introduced these concepts with reference to a particular developmental sequence (Winnicott 1951); a typical example of a transitional object is a safety blanket or a soft toy that comes to be of special importance to the infant. Later, however, Winnicott expanded the idea into a broader vision of mental health and creativity. Giving birth to art and culture, transitional experience makes us able to connect our inner experience of the self with the world of other subjectivities (Winnicott 1971).

A key thing about the transitional phenomena is that their reality, outside fantasy, is not to be challenged. To ask if the teddy bear is really what the child conceives of it to be is to miss a point. The child is not lying or hallucinating. Instead, he or she is taking steps from subjective omnipotence, that is, the early, illusory experience of the world as created by the child’s own wishes, to the actual, external world that exists on its own right, independently of the child. As the transition progresses and the child builds capacity for secure, trusted relationships with others in the external world, the transitional object ceases to perform this function and is left behind.

Similarly, the point of art and religion is not to make positive, verifiable statements of the external reality in the ordinary sense of the word. Rather, they constitute a protected realm for creative vision and play that is vital for our being in touch with ourselves and for our relatedness with others. The illusion of art and religion is not a way to escape or avoid painful reality, but “a vehicle to gain access to reality” (Black 2006, 14; Meissner 1984; cf. also Hopkins 1989, 239).

What Winnicott and other British object-relations theorists did was redefine the concept of illusion so that a new Psychoanalytic understanding of religion became possible. They, of course, were not the only ones in the business. Even earlier, Melanie Klein had called into question Freud’s clear-cut distinction between regressive fantasies and a mature sense of reality. Moreover, there are other instrumental cases as well. Heinz Kohut’s self-psychology and especially his work on narcissism and idealization (Kohut 1971, 1984) is another good example.

For Freud, narcissism and idealization were infantile features to be outgrown. For Kohut, however, there was a positive side to them that remained relevant throughout one’s entire life. In order to be well psychologically, people need to be able to feel that they, their love objects, and the communities to which they belong are special. This is not something dictated by the reality principle: objectively speaking, no part of reality is any more special, blessed, or meaningful than any other. Yet, such a feeling of worth is hardly delusional, either. It is rather something no one can live without: we need what Kohut called self-objects, special people, places, and things that help us sustain a sense of coherence and vitality. Religion provides for such experiences of positive idealization, as it assumes there is such a thing as the supreme good; that human beings are valuable and called to salvation; that all God’s children are sisters and brothers to each other, and so on (cf. Jones 2002).

Rethinking Religion?

The rehabilitation of illusion testifies to a shift of emphasis in the criteria of psychic maturity. Focus on interpersonal relatedness and self-experience has replaced oedipal notions of maturity in post-Freudian Psychoanalysis. Illusion and fantasy are no more undesirable, by definition (cf. Blass 2006, 26-27).

Yet it is still illusion and fantasy we are talking about, and herein lies another key question regarding the new Psychoanalysis of religion. Does the revised understanding of religion as an (positive) illusion not imply a new, normative idea of religion? A religion that would not make any claims to truth but rather regards its teachings and rituals as illusions, or illusion-generators, certainly sounds like a novelty.

Many analysts, who have adopted a positive understanding of religion with a Winnicottian twist, would readily admit that this indeed is the case: it is not religion on the whole but religion in the mature sense of the term that is compatible with Psychoanalytic theory and practice (Blass 2006, 28-29). Some make a distinction, in the spirit of the deists, between natural religion(s) and revealed religions (see, for example, Wright 2006, 177, with reference to Symington 1993, 2006, 197). Many focus predominantly on traditions of mysticism, especially as they are featured in Eastern religions, and on Buddhism in particular, although often in a somewhat Westernized, meditation-oriented form (cf. Blass 2006, 29). Some even volunteer to cure pathologies of the spirit by means of analysis, to attain an even more refined form of religious practice and belief (Rubin 2006).

On the other hand, it is fair to say that there is also a growing awareness within Psychoanalysis of the diversity of religious experience. If Freud did not realize that not all religion is the same, proreligion analysts have come to learn that no religious tradition should be idealized, either. Primitive and enlightened ideas and habits coexist in all quarters (cf. Black 2006, 5).

In any case, the new illusionist (re)definition of religion has met with strong criticism (Blass 2006; cf. Hood 1997). The key point of the critique is that such an ideal religion hardly exists in the real world. Would any true believer of any religious tradition consider his or her faith a mere meaningful illusion with no interest in actual truth? Rachel Blass (2006, 33) hits the mark, I think, when she quotes the theologian Hans Küng.

The man who believes … is primarily interested … in the reality itself…. He wants to know whether and to what extent his faith is based on illusion or on historical reality. Any faith based on illusion is not really faith but superstition. (Küng 1984, 418)

Even in the mystical traditions, the ineffable, and, in a sense, only that, is considered real. While art may indeed imitate reality and create independent worlds of pure imagination, religions do seem to make claims to truth about this reality, and sometimes about other realities as well. Should these claims turn out to be invalid or, for the present purposes, incompatible with the rationalist premises of Psychoanalysis, this would make religion, from a Psychoanalytic point of view, not only a purposeful illusion but a distortion of reality, very much like Freud said it would.

Freud did, in fact, note that a philosopher might view religion as a kind of fiction accepted as true for its practical significance (Freud 1927; Blass 2006, 31; Hood 1997, 53-54). However, he said, no serious believer would accept this. This seems to leave the original controversy between Psychoanalysis and religion unresolved. When it comes down to it, both religion and Psychoanalysis apply the same criterion to judge whether a particular belief is healthy or not: Is it the truth? In the words of the Second Letter of Peter:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. (1:16)

Still, both religion and Psychoanalysis should be allowed to change. Many a thing in contemporary religious thought would have been incomprehensible some hundred years ago, just as Freud would be surprised to learn what kinds of ideas and practices carry the name of Psychoanalysis today. Although in the business of absolute, eternal truths, religions have hardly reached the end of their development, or the peak of their diversity, as systems of belief, sometimes reluctantly and often with a marked delay, they nevertheless keep adapting to what each time and culture finds possible to accept as true. This is precisely because they are interested in reality. If the material reality should become too narrow for them, they will turn to other spiritual, philosophical, or psychological realities for more living space. This is nothing new under the sun: ancient allegorists like Philo and Origen did it, when they taught that awkward-looking passages of the Hebrew scriptures must be understood as symbolic expressions of Platonic or Christian doctrines. So did modern theologians like Strauss and Bultmann, although for them truth was Hegel and Heidegger. While they may represent a small intellectual elite rather than the common believer, they still succeeded in laying the basis for the entire systems of medieval biblical interpretation and modern liberal Protestantism, respectively; not to mention the impact of those early Christian intellectuals who concluded that their Christ was not only a Jewish prince but also the Greeklogos, the ruling principle of the universe, incarnate.

So, perhaps the Psychoanalytic mystics, too, are up to something, when they ask if religious stories can carry psychological truth. It is with this question in mind that I will now turn to the Bible and its treatment of miracles and the supernatural.

The Fantastic God

At first sight, it seems that Freud was right. The biblical God is fantastic in the fullest sense of the word. The awesome signs and wonders he displays promise the restoration of the original state of “primary narcissism”: his loved ones will want no more. Their desire for protection, love, and worth will be satisfied. He has chosen them out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. He will take them to a land flowing with milk and honey, and there they will eat their fill. Their friends will be blessed and their enemies will be cursed. Their souls will enjoy the calm and quiet of the weaned child (as in Ps 131:2).

Even in an utter catastrophe, the idealized image of God survives. The dominant interpretation of history in the Hebrew Bible is that the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 587 BCE was not a sign of God’s failure, but it was God’s premeditated punishment of his chosen people. That he failed to protect them was their own fault: they broke the covenant with him by worshipping idols and neglecting justice. This, of course, is a textbook example of securing a good object by means of creating a bad self-image. The object-relations theorist W.R.D. Fairbairn framed it in explicitly religious terms: “It is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God than to live in a world ruled by the Devil” (Fairbairn 1943, 66).

Like Father, like Son: a successful healer and miracle-worker, Jesus has constant access to sources of nourishment and well-being. He encourages his followers to model themselves after little children, and he serves them like an ideal mother, indeed, so intensely that he has almost no room to move about or time to rest and eat. He neglects conventional social boundaries that would rather have satisfaction postponed: he will not wait until the Sabbath is over or his hands are clean to feed and heal people. Not surprisingly, people keep coming to him, while his enemies, the established religious authorities, become so jealous they could kill.

So, the infantile aspect is arguably there, even if the divine parental figure smacks more of a preoedipal, omnipresent mother than an idealized omnipotent father. The picture shows features of illusion: fantasy is incorporated in the representation of reality as God’s presence breaks into history in an unparalleled way.

In their wider narrative context, the biblical miracles build up to epiphany. In the Exodus narrative, which establishes the covenant between God and Israel and is in many ways the heart of the Hebrew Bible, God’s signs and wonders against Pharaoh make known to Israel his might. The revelation culminates in the apparitions on Mount Sinai and the giving of the Law. God descends on earth and speaks to Moses face to face.

Likewise, in the New Testament gospels, reports of signs, wonders, and fulfilled prophesies confirm that we are witnessing an epiphany: “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s unique son” (Jn 1:14). The miracle stories verify Jesus’ true status: “these [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (Jn 20:31). The audience should take after the characters in the story, who, astounded at what they see, ask, “Who then is this?” (Mk 4:41), and conclude, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mt 27:54; Mk 15:39). Make no mistake: the savior became flesh and lived among us.

The Disappearing God

However, fantasy seems to be only one part of the story. Epiphany is not the end but a beginning. As both Jack Miles (1995) and Richard Elliot Friedman (1995) have pointed out, the Hebrew Bible tells the story of a disappearing God. The Almighty gradually leaves the earth and finds a new residence in heaven. Likewise, the Gospels are literature of renunciation: Jesus’ followers need to accept that he must go away. The mythic Galilean spring is to be transformed into reality as we now have it, uncompromising and nonnegotiable. What results is a twofold coming-of-age story. On the one hand, God finds his proper place and role as a transcendent, otherworldly being. On the other hand, people are expected to cope with reality that involves frustration and suffering.

In the opening narratives of Genesis, God and humanity are simultaneously present in one space. It takes no special revelation to bring them together. Neither party has to leave its own reality to enter the reality of the other. In mythical Paradise, God’s world and the world of the humans are truly one.

In the world of the patriarchs, too, God is still very much like a human character. He enters and leaves the stage, approaches people and engages in conversation with them without special notice, in a matter-of-fact style. No cloud of smoke is necessary, no extraordinary light phenomena, or burying your face between your knees. The coming of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is no news, and if he needs people to know his will, he will tell them in person. It is only with Moses that changes crawl in. The God he meets is much more than ever before a “mysterium tremendum,” to quote Rudolph Otto’s (1917) classic definition of the holy. The revelations of this God are mystical and exceptional, and no ordinary person may know what he truly looks like: “for no one shall see my face (glory) and live” (Ex 33:20).

The hidden God reveals himself by hiding, in a burning bush, in a pillar of cloud or a pillar of fire, inside the curtain of the tent of meeting, or on a cloud-covered mountaintop with thunder and lightning and a blast of a trumpet. Moses alone may know him, even though he cannot know God’s essence, his full nature; so it is his lot to act as a mediator between God and his people.

Assisted by Moses, God makes the necessary preparations for his departure to heaven. He wants to make sure he will be remembered when he is gone, and he insists that each generation will be reminded of him:

When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right. (Dt 6:20-25)

Israel’s rescue from Egypt is something to remember. Yet it is the law that enables God to retire from service, when his people embark on a new life in the promised land. From now on the Law is the medium of God’s presence. Its directions guide people to responsible living now that God himself is no more there to give personal advice. And indeed,

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. (Dt 34:10)

Once the Torah, the Law of Moses, established itself as the supreme authority of the Jewish religion, there was no way God could come back. The Talmud tells the story of a Rabbi Joshua, who refused to take into account a voice from heaven in a debate of the law (Bava Metziah 59b; see Visotzky 1991, 51-55, for an entertaining treatment of the story). The point he made was that the law “is not in heaven” (Dt 30:12). Since God has tasked his people to observe it, he has no right to intervene in its interpretation. Upon hearing Rabbi Joshua’s words, God smiled and said, “My children have outwitted me.”

According to traditional Jewish thinking, God’s prophetic Spirit has left the world for good. In the time of the patriarchs, all righteous people had it. When the Israelites fell to idolatry and worshipped the golden calf, it was limited to few: prophets, high priests, and kings. With the death of the last writing prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, it was quenched altogether, due to the sins of the people. Since then, the best you could hope to hear was a remote echo of God’s voice from heaven, a poor substitute, as the story of Rabbi Joshua so aptly illustrates (see Jeremias 1970, 80-82).

In the New Testament, however, the Spirit makes a flamboyant return. It descends like a dove from heaven on Jesus in his baptism. After all these years, God is here again, truly in the flesh, as John the evangelist is so keen to emphasize.

Yet he is not here to stay, not even this time. The Gospels are stories of bereavement, with the community of Jesus’ followers in the leading role. The believers will need to grow stronger and more independent, so that they may survive after Jesus has returned to his Father in heaven. The original fantasy of God’s all-encompassing presence must be transformed into a desire towards an absent God and an acceptance of reality.

The beginning of Jesus’ career is a dream come true. The sick are healed, the crippled and maimed are made whole, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Jesus embodies the promise of absolute satisfaction: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (Jn 6:35).

Soon it will turn out, however, that following Jesus is no key to happiness. The gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life (Mt 7:14). There is no resurrection without suffering and death. This is a difficult lesson for Jesus’ disciples to learn, as they are quite fond of their original fantasy of unlimited personal wish-fulfillment. Although corrected by Jesus, the fantasy keeps returning, as fantasies do. The disciples argue with one another about who is the greatest (Mk 9:33-37; Lk 9:46-48) and pursue leading positions in the coming kingdom of God (Mt 20:20-28; Mk 10:35-45). This claim to power, comfort and security, however, is precisely what they need to abandon. Jesus’ followers are not to lord it over other people, but rather to be slaves of all. This makes them vulnerable to persecution, suffering, and even death. Jesus himself is destined to suffer and to die at the hands of his enemies.

The news about the necessity of suffering traumatizes the disciples, and they will not take in the message. In the famous scene in Caesarea Philippi, Peter rebukes Jesus: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” (Mt 16:22). Yet the message keeps repeating itself, as traumas do: on the road to Jerusalem, Jesus predicts his passion and death three times.

The story that began as a clean-cut fantasy is gradually transformed into a story about the necessity of a loss. The disciples witness Jesus to be wounded and dying, to go away and turn into symbols. Feeding miracles will be replaced by the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and Jesus’ care for his own survives in their own capacity to love: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34). This is how life is going to be in God’s absence, between the magnificent days of the past and the numinous future world to come. The illusion of fulfillment in the present gives way to a longing for what once was and for what has not yet arrived.

Jesus’ ascension to heaven, where his Father has taken up residence already, marks the end of a mythical era. All the fantastic things that were possible when he was here are now irrevocably things of the past. From now on, that time will be a lost golden age, a paradisiacal island in history, an ideal to which there is no access from our present and hopelessly imperfect world. Encased in the story of the mythic Galilean spring, the ideal survives alongside the reality that is now allowed to follow its own, natural rules.

The “Good-Enough” God

So, there is a peculiar dialectics of infantile fantasy and mature realism running through the biblical narrative. The latter element culminates in God’s gradual exit from this world on the one hand, and in his appearance in the form of a vulnerable human being on the other. The same God who at one point was prepared to take on reality and make all things well for his children is now encouraging them to bear with the toil and trouble of their earthly life. The good God, who would never fail to fill the needs of his little ones, turns out to be a good-enough God, who provides a secure framework for their acceptance of reality, very much like Winnicott thought a good-enough mother would do, another term he coined for Psychoanalytic use.

Yet the two elements do not make one coherent story of maturation and growth. In Winnicott’s words, “the task of reality-acceptance is never completed” (Winnicott 1951, 217). Instead of constant progress, there is a continuing struggle between two conflicting interests, namely, the resolve of the heart to have what it desires, and the call of reality to be recognized in its full severity. As a result, God is inclined to return from heaven whenever the existing patterns of religious thought, such as apocalypticism or certain forms of charismatic Christianity, make it possible.

For the serpent-handling Pentecostals, the biblical reality of Mark 16:17-18 is fully intact even today, and their case is not as extraordinary as it may seem. What makes them exceptional is not so much the principle but the extreme way in which they put it to a test. It was never an option for Christians to turn back time and pretend that the return of the prophetic Spirit never happened. As promised by Jesus, the Holy Spirit came and took his place in the world, which enables the Christian churches to assert God’s continuing presence in their midst. The more concretely they take it, the more relevant it makes any tension between the biblical (mythical) truth and the present (experiential) reality. What was possible then should be possible now as well. If this does not seem to be the case, which reality will yield?

Moreover, Jesus said he would come back, which brings in a further element of instability. Time and again apocalyptic movements seize the hope that his return is at hand; and the same happens to Jews who wait for the Messiah and to Muslims who wait for the Mahdi. Sometimes they even believe he has actually arrived, for example in the figure of some charismatic religious person. Although Jesus warns against this in the gospels (Mt 24:23-24; Mk 13:21-22; Lk 21:8), it is bound to happen over and over again. The idea of a divine revelation is a risky one: once God has proven his ability to appear to people, he is known to have that capacity, even if he was said to have retired for good. At the moment he first made himself known on earth, heavens were torn apart, and sealing them off again has turned out to be difficult.

Perhaps this is good: perhaps the realms of illusion and reality cannot and should not be kept too far apart. Fantasy, transitional phenomena, and idealized self-objects are believed to be vital for human health. Maybe the biblical fantasy would be too weak to fly, if it was strictly a thing of the mythical past or a mere dream in the distant future.

However, the higher the tension, the greater the risk. There is no return to the kind of supernaturalism that was characteristic of the biblical times. Faith in miracles cannot replace empirical science as the basis of medical treatment. That the end times are here is a feasible working assumption for a limited time only; after that, it becomes denial. If a person today tells us that Jesus is alive and well and calls her every day on a magic telephone, we probably should not speak of illusion at all but psychosis.

There is more at stake than the simple question of truth or self-deception. An essential feature of mature reality-acceptance is the ability to tolerate ambiguity, to accept that even the best of the things we hold dear can only be good-enough. As long as we live in this world, God will not be there to fill all our needs. If we cannot comply with this, the consequences can be grave. To protect an idealized image of an all-satisfying God, we need to repress any negative feelings we may have about our religious life. Typically, we will project them onto others, each onto his or her favorite enemy, or introject them back into ourselves, blaming ourselves for not being worthy of the good things we have. This kind of behavior is characteristic of religious extremists. The absolute perfection of their beliefs is something they will not contest. Whatever frustration it may make them feel, they transform that feeling into guilt, or develop paranoia to explain why they should feel worried.

The Compassionate God

A key dynamic of early human development, the challenge of accepting reality, reemerges and intensifies in times of crises. Denial is a standard first response to a major personal loss, and acceptance is where a successful process of grief work is supposed to end.

The biblical storyline, of course, rambles from one major crisis to another. The expulsion from Paradise is no small loss, and the End of the World and the Last Judgment sound critical enough. Between these two cosmic mega-crises there are plenty of minor catastrophes: the Flood, the slavery in Egypt, the destruction of Jerusalem, the Babylonian Captivity, the scandal of Jesus’ death, the failure of the Christian mission among the Jews, and Jesus’ delayed return. At the individual level, too, the biblical characters go through tribulations that put their faith to a test. The patriarchs must leave home for an unknown destination. Jesus’ followers are to leave house, wife, brothers, parents, and children for the sake of God’s kingdom. The identity of the biblical God takes form through a series of crisis narratives. He is the one who hears cries for help, comes over, gives consolation, helps us through, restores hope, and encourages action.

But what sort of a counselor, or therapist, will a Savior God make? Will he lead people to acceptance, or is he rather encouraging futile, unrealistic hope? Drawing on Walter Brueggemann’s work on the biblical psalm of lament (Brueggemann 1977), Donald Capps (1981) has made an informative structural comparison between the psalm of lament and the classic Kübler-Ross model of grief work (see Kübler-Ross 1969). The two have marked similarities. They both provide a structure for recovery from a personal or communal loss. They also allow expression of anger. However, whereas according to the Kübler-Ross model the fifth and final stage of grief is acceptance, the typical lament concludes with an assurance of God’s help and a vow to praise him for what he has done on the suppliant’s behalf. From the perspective of realism, this is the critical point. Not only do we receive the good at the hand of God, but also the bad. Does an over-optimistic reliance on divine intervention not border on denial?

On the other hand, there is a variant of the same lament form that involves a less simplistic position. In the books of Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah, a new version of the lament emerges. In “The Lament of God” God himself bemoans the afflictions he must bring on his people due to their transgressions. This reversal of roles opens a view to yet another development in the characterization of the biblical God. The intervening God, who used to reward the faithful with oxen and sheep and slay the wicked with famine and plague, is joined by and gradually gives way to a compassionate God, a source of hope rather than retaliation. While the compassionate God will not necessarily step in and rescue his servant from “the arrow that flies by day or the pestilence that stalks in darkness” (as in Ps 91:5-6), he will pity the desolate and “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15b).

In the Christian grand narrative, the compassionate God goes so far as to empty himself of his divinity altogether, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil 2:7), to share human pain and vulnerability. It is true that he will later resume his power in full, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil 2:10); inside the compassionate Son of God, the not-so-compassionate apocalyptic Son of Man remains dormant, waiting for the appropriate moment to return. That moment, however, is now pushed far over the edge of the present reality, to the numinous world to come. Meanwhile, the compassionate God will be happy to make his sun rise on the evil and the good, and to send rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Mt 5:45).

The compassionate God’s long experience of humans seems to have refined his character. The trigger-happy world policeman has grown into a keen listener. The original promise of a timely and decisive intervention on behalf of the righteous has lost credibility, as injustice, unfairness, and misery abound in the world. At the same time, however, the claim that God understands what people go through and feels sympathy for them gains new weight. Great wonders are replaced with silent appreciation and assurance of worth: no matter how life may treat people, they are still of immense value to God, more so than sparrows, ravens, or lilies, which are not insignificant, either (cf. Mt 6:25-34; 10:29-31; Lk 12:6-7, 22-31).

In a sense, the compassionate God has paid the price of becoming more real. He is considerably smaller than the old intervening God was, and he has essentially left the business of miracles. Yet he has the advantage of being commensurate with the present reality and therefore not being rejected by it. He has grown to accept, for the time being, the reality he is said to have created, and reality is willing to tolerate him in return, as a matter of faith.


From a Psychoanalytic point of view, the Bible displays not one but many strategies of coping (or not) with historical and existential crises. Judged on the grounds of whether they support reality-acceptance, some of these are healthier and more mature than others. Some of them seem primitive, while others have obviously taken some time to take form. They do not, however, represent successive stages of development but rather complementary positions. It is not unusual for them to coexist even if there are apparent contradictions between them.

It seems clear that the Bible contains fantasy, infantilism, and wishful thinking. Faith in miracles can become a way of rejecting reality and clinging to primary narcissism. On the other hand, there are biblical themes and traditions that, implicitly or explicitly, challenge infantile religious thinking as a barrier to spiritual growth. Both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament introduce the idea that God’s direct involvement in reality increasingly belongs to the mythical past and to the eschatological future, whereas the present reality, between the biblical story time and the future eschaton (end time), is something with which people need to cope on their own. In Judaism, the supreme role of the law as the people’s self-managed guide to life makes this particularly clear. In Christianity, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world leaves more room for God to move in personally, yet the anticipated fruits of the spirit, self-restraint, ethical excellence, and concern for the well-being of others (see Gal 5:22-26), hardly count as narcissistic fantasy.

While Freud’s rejection of religion became the dominant view in the Psychoanalytic movement, many analysts today are tolerant or even appreciative towards religious beliefs and practices. However, their idea of religion as beneficial illusion has met with criticism, as it seems incompatible with the way most religious believers understand their faith. Yet it is hardly disconnected from contemporary (Western) religious experience. On the contrary, it seems to be linked to a general rise of interest in mysticism in its many forms: Zen Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish Cabbalistic, Christian Charismatic, Islamic Sufi.

It is not surprising that the mystical idea of God should have appeal among Western educated people, including, and especially, Psychoanalysts. If traditional God-images, including the biblical portrayal(s) of God, are merely illusions hiding rather than revealing the true nature of the ineffable God, then there is no need to worry about their scientifically or morally questionable features. Besides, the evasive God of the mystics is so much like the treasured unconscious of the analysts (cf. Bomford 2006, 256): never to be exposed, he only appears “in the mirror, dimly” (1 Cor 13:12).