PSYCHOANALYTIC REFLECTIONS ON FAITH

D.W. Winnicott

Throughout his adult life, Winnicott (1896—1971) always had a “lingering [Christian] religiosity” (Goldman, 1993, p. 115); in fact, he wrote to his sister trying to clarify what psychoanalysis was by saying,“! shall probably be accused of blasphemy if I say that Christ was a leading psychotherapist” (Rodman, 2003, p. 43). Winnicotts biographer further noted, “From at least the mid-1940’s to the mid-1960s, Jesus Christ was clearly a figure with whom he identified” (ibid., p. 291)?

Winnicott famously believed that faith as religious beliefs were “transitional phenomena.” By this he meant an affect-integrating, meaning-giving, actionguiding experience that was largely subjectively created, lived in the immediacy of the moment, was thoroughly enjoyed, and was neither challenged nor unchallenged in terms of evidence and proof. Along with play/games, creativity/poetry, love, and certain types of spiritual/religious experiences, faith can be said to be a transitional phenomenon. “Transitional phenomenon” has been technically defined as “a process, relationship or activity” (in contradistinction to an inanimate object),“used as a symbolic representation of an important object,” such as the mother or primary parental caregiver, “for the purposes of counteracting painful feelings in relationship to that object, particularly related to the objects absence” (Person, Cooper, & Gabbard, 2005, p. 561). Such adult manifestations of these processes, relationships, and activities are analogous to childhood “transitional objects,” like the blanket or teddy bear a toddler relates to (Winnicott, 1953).The transitional object is said to reside in external reality (reality is conceived as being objectively present versus perception is reality) and, yet, is highly endowed with unconscious fantasy, in the service of the child’s emotional growth and development. What the transitional object is said to do is to maintain the illusion of the comforting, soothing mother/parental caregiver, the psychological parent who symbolizes nurturing and stability, who is not in the child’s field of vision and/or available to him in his real-life experience. As a result of this relationship to the transitional object, the child’s autonomy and integration are enhanced because the blanket or teddy bear is under his command and control. “Transitional space” is the hypothetical area of the psyche where reality and unreality, co-occur and co-mingle, an intermediate realm of experience that is the birthplace of the imagination, in which paradox is central and taken for granted. For Winnicott, transitional space is the site of cultural experience as a whole, including adult faith in God.6

A few points about Winnicott s formulation are worth emphasizing (Jones, 1991). First, Winnicott s theory is less about the nature of the object, blankets and teddy bears; rather, it focuses on a particular kind of interpersonal experience. Thus, when a particular blanket or teddy bear retreats into the psychological background, there remains the trace of the creativity that motivates the spiritual aspirant to create faith in God (or other cultural products). Second, a key point about transitional processes, relationships, and activities, particularly as they relate to faith, is they involve the creation of an intermediate area of emotionally impactful experience that calls to mind the infant’s experiences. In this context, the anxiety/disconnect between objectivity and subjectivity is transiently surmounted and inner and outer realities are bonded. As Winnicott summarizes his formulation:

I have tried to draw attention to the importance both in theory and in practice of a third area, that of play, which expands into creative living and the whole cultural life of man. The third area has been contrasted with inner or personal psychic reality and with the actual world in which the individual lives, which can be objectively perceived. I have located this important area of experience in the potential space between the individual and the environments ... it is here that the individual experiences creative living.

(1971, pp. 102-103)

It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.

(ibid., p. 54)

“Creative living” and “discover[ing] the self” for Winnicott can include religious feeling and faith in God, though Winnicott does not describe in much detail how such faith in God can positively animate how a person, thinks, feels, and acts in his effort at artful living, my main focus. However, similar to how the mother or parental caregivers felt presence generates an experience of silent/gentle relatedness, one that makes the child feel safe and secure, there is a religious correlation in adulthood: “The capacity to be alone in the felt presence of the mother—parallels the traditional idea of the Presence of God as being both intimate and ultimate” (Goldman, 1993, p. 123).' In this view, God can be experienced as similar to a “holding environment” (the totality of the emotionally containing environmental circumstances), as “good enough mothering” (the devoted, empathic, emotionally modulating parent) or the “facilitating environment” (one that promotes the child’s growth and development), such that the adults way of experiencing his God is as loving and infinitely gracious in the bounty and plenitude directed towards the spiritual aspirant, as he gratefully perceives it (Hoffman, 2011, p. 141). For example, in mystical experience,Winnicott suggests focusing on “the mystic’s retreat to a position in which he can communicate secretly with subjective objects and phenomena, the loss of contact with the world of shared reality being counterbalanced by a gain in terms of feeling real” (Winnicott, 1965, pp. 185—186). The main problem with Winnicott’s formulation is that while he beautifully describes the infancy-emanating intrapsychic analogues to adult religious faith, he does not distinguish between a faith experience and its behavioral correlates that can be life-affirming versus life-destroying, Mother Theresa versus Osama bin Laden. Nor does he put forth any workable criteria for making such moral distinctions, admittedly a thorny philosophical and psychological problem that does not have any easy answers.

 
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