Vulnerability as Opportunity: Adam Phillips and Giles Fraser at the Freud Museum

The Freud Museum at 19 Berggasse, Vienna

Religion and psychoanalysis was our theme at the Freud Museum in London last night [podcast here], with Adam Phillips, psychoanalyst and writer, and Giles Fraser – Anglican priest, writer, and broadcaster.

The venue itself is well worth a look – far more so than its sister museum in Vienna. The Freud family travelled heavy when they fled Hitler in 1938 – much to the later chagrin of the Vienna museum, no doubt: despite Freud living most of his productive life at 19 Berggasse, the museum now based there has the empty, cheated feel of a house that’s been robbed.

That couch, that desk, those statuettes and figurines – they’re all safe and sound in Hampstead.

So, to the debate – or rather, the chat. Fraser and Phillips were letting us in on a conversation they’ve been having for a couple of years now. And while no-one would have expected from them a ‘religion in the blue corner, Freud in the red, FIGHT…!’ sort of affair, what we got was a surprising degree of rich, shared territory – shared uncertainty.

Freud's north London home, 1938-9: more bedrooms, fewer Nazis, and a walkable Waitrose

For two reasons. One is that psychoanalysis, and its relationship with religion, has moved on since Freud. The man himself wasn’t, in any case, as belligerently opposed as you might think: his epistolary back-and-forth with the Lutheran pastor Oskar Pfister reveals as much, alongside Pfister’s own revolutionary views on pastoral care and his memorable account of the Reformation as ‘an analysis of Catholic sexual repression’ (whose failure was underscored, he wrote, by the Inquisitions and witch trials of later years).

The second reason tonight’s conversation didn’t descend into a verbal punch-up about delusions and metaphysics is that Giles Fraser gave us a key question at the outset: how, as human beings, do we respond to our frailty and vulnerability?

This is core territory both for Christianity – once described as being chiefly about ‘how to lose, gracefully’ – and for psychoanalysis, all the way from Freud (our state of ‘original helplessness’) through to Donald Winnicott, on whom Adam Phillips has written.

For both Phillips and Fraser, our vulnerability is a question without an answer. Fraser rejects omnipotence as definitive of the divine, pointing out how odd – ludicrous, even – many in the ancient world thought Christianity to be, with a helpless baby as its major symbol of God.

Religion as something that allows us to ‘leapfrog’ or deny our own helplessness is not to be taken seriously.

There’s a sense, thinks Fraser, in which the kind of Christianity that New Atheism likes to seek out and attack is really a mirror image of New Atheism itself: chock full of clean-cut moral and metaphysical propositions, a sort of Right Living for Dummies, emerging out of the assumption that all questions are there to be closed down with answers ASAP, rather than allowed to do any work on the person who’s asking them; doubt is always a matter of unknowns to be eradicated, rather than a necessary, valuable dimension of life.

Fraser, glass of red wine in hand, warms quickly to his theme and is practically leaping out of his seat as he gets us going with these thoughts; on the other side of the little table from him, Adam Phillips offers a lounging, pensive counterpoint.

Picking up Fraser’s train of thought, Phillips suggests that while the desirable response to vulnerability is to build character, the major risk is of a collapse into sadomasochism (the psychoanalytic rather than the Soho sort). Religion all too easily creates a ‘sadomasochistic split’, he warns: humble, weak little me; awesomely powerful God. Phillips asks a great question, drawing on British object-relations:

‘What is the difference between being in a relationship with an object you can know and control, versus being in one with an object you can neither know nor control?’

Classically, a parent is the known, controllable object – at least this is how the infant experiences the situation – while the latter sort of relationship can be that of a Christian with her God. Surely a great deal hinges on whether there is at least some illusion of control in the latter sort of relationship?

Yes indeed, says Fraser: across Christian history, and especially in the confrontation between Pelagius and Augustine, we see two models of a relationship with God being explored and played out.

Pelagius’s is more the controllable deity, the check-box religion – I’ve done x, y, and z, so my salvation is in the bag.

Augustine laughs – perhaps cries – in the face of this: its naivety, narcissism, perhaps both, where human capacities are concerned; its dramatic underrating of divine sophistication (or ‘messiness’, to use Fraser’s word).

Kosawa Heisaku: Japan's Freud, visitor and student at 19 Berggasse

Augustine is much celebrated in inter-religious circles for this critique, which matches perfectly the role of ‘other-power’ in religious traditions elsewhere in the world – including Japan’s ‘Jodo Shinshu’ Buddhism, from whence Japan’s first psychoanalyst, Kosawa Heisaku (who criticized Freud’s lack of interest in non-western religion).

Giles Fraser, too, is a fan of Augustine: Fraser’s quote from Wallace Stevens tonight (‘The Man with the Blue Guitar‘) captures both Augustine and the paradox in Japanese Buddhism of how self-power and other-power relate:

But play, you must / A tune beyond us, yet ourselves

The Japanese poet, Kai Wariko, surely had something similar in mind when she wrote:

The voice with which I call on Amida Buddha / Is the voice with which Amida Buddha calls to me

One of the reasons the conversation works so well tonight is that Adam Phillips is able to find and pursue secular parallels to these sorts of religious intuitions without collapsing into reductivism. He suggests that parallel to (and perhaps within) the question of whether God can be manipulated runs this concern: ‘Can I make someone love me?’

And if the ‘transcendent beyond’ of religion is similarly bound up with the ‘unpredictable future’ of everyday life, then there’s a second question: ‘what’s wrong with vulnerability?’ Can’t we live with it, quite fruitfully?

After all, here is the heart of both religion and psychoanalysis: vulnerability without end. Or vulnerability, we might say –  reading between the lines of the conversation tonight – as opportunity.

There is hope too, even when we consider the more sombre dimensions of our vulnerability. The last word, here, to Adam Phillips:

‘We have to do everything we can to enable us to enjoy one another’s company. It’s the only game in town’.


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