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Whether structured like a language (Lacan), the submerged base of an iceberg (Freud), or the ocean upon which the iceberg itself is afloat (Jung), the unconscious is that vast “region” of mind that operates below (or para to) the limen of awareness, interacting with, affecting, and determining, to a certain degree, both our actions and our experience of consciousness in a myriad of ways only subtly perceived.
The discovery of this chimerical “entity” and the term which describes it has often been credited to Sigmund Freud, though articulator is perhaps a more a fitting distinction. Innumerable authors have described and foreshadowed what we today call the unconscious, among their number Paracelsus, Schopenhauer, Leibniz, Spinoza, and Shakespeare, but it was Freud who first gave us a language and latticework with which to both read and describe it in the form of psychoanalysis.
In the history of psychology, it was this integral insight that shaped the discipline’s theoretical orientation(s) and made therapy possible. Much of therapy consists of the seemingly Sisyphean task of unraveling the private mysteries of neurotic conflict, unearthing their roots and exposing these sources to the light of consciousness, and ideally, via the process of therapeutic engagement, successfully working through them.
In the psychology of religion, it is equally important.
Freud’s reductive view was rooted in his hydraulically based psychodynamic understanding of the unconscious, believing the entirety of humankind’s religious expression to be the glorious, though illusory, processes of projection, psychosexual conflict, and sublimation. This model has since been applied to virtually every god(dess) and his or her religion that scholars have come in contact with. Freud undoubtedly drew heavily from the work of the German theologian Ludwig Feuerbach, whose cataclysmic pronouncement was that the essence of Christianity (and by natural extension all religion) was simply our collective projections of all that is best in us as a species onto the intrinsically nonexistent cipher of “God.” Although writing long before Freud and the coining of the term “unconscious,” the concept is clearly operative in Feuerbach’s analysis. Object-relations theory further developed these ideas in the context of idealized parental figures, while Jung believed the dazzling infinitude of religious expression could be read as permutations of a pantheon of archetypes.
The reception of these theories has historically been reductive, but recent reworkings of the psychoanalytic method have since seen that this unconscious process known as sublimation is precisely that – sublime. And that the erotic, which so often acts as both medium and message in the realm of the unconscious, cannot be collapsed into sex any more than three dimensions can be collapsed into two. And as embodied beings, it is the erotic dimension through which we seem to contact and express our experience of numinosity in its arborescent unfolding throughout the play of time.
- Feuerbach, L. (1845). The essence of Christianity. Leipzig: O. Wigland.Google Scholar
- Freud, S. (1927/1968). The future of an illusion. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (trans: Strachey, J.) (Vol. 21). London: Hogarth Press.Google Scholar
- Jung, C. (1953–1976). The collected works (Vols. 1–20). Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
- Lacan, J. (1968). The language of the self: The function of language in psychoanalysis. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
- Rizzuto, A.-M. (1979). The birth of the living God: A psychoanalytic study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar