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  • Writer's pictureRony Alfandary

The Ascendance of the God Concept During Psychoanalysis: Divinity, Belief, and Psychotherapy

A Cooperative Presentation of the The Postgraduate Program of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Of the The Louis and Gabi Weisfeld School of Social Work

Bar-Ilan University


The Program in Hermeneutics and Psychoanalysis of the Division of Hermeneutics,

Bar-Ilan University

November 4-5, 2009

Select Speakers

Dr. Ana-María Rizzuto, M.D., an Argentina born

Psychoanalyst, is a Training and Supervising Analyst at The Psychoanalytic Institute of New England, East (PINE). A member of the American Psychoanalytic Association, the International Psychoanalytic Association, and was until recently a member of the Center for Advanced Psychoanalytic Studies (CAPS). A Clinical Professor in Psychiatry at Tufts University, Medical School until 1991. 1987, she was an Invited Lecturer in Religion and Psychology at the Harvard Divinity School. In 1960-1965 she was Professor of Child and Adolescent Development at the Catholic University of Córdoba, Argentina. In 1964, she was Professor of Pastoral Anthropology, at the Catholic Seminary, in Córdoba, Argentina.

Dr. Rizzuto is the author of The Birth of the Living God. A Psychoanalytic Study (1979), The University of Chicago Press and Why did Freud Reject God. A Psychodynamic Interpretation (1998), Yale University Press. This book received in 2001 the Gradiva Award for Best Book (Religion Subject), given by the National Association for the Advance of Psychoanalysis.

She co-authored with W.W. Meissner and Dan H. Buie the book The Dynamics of Human Aggression: Theoretical Foundations and Clinical Applications: Theoretical Foundations, Clinical Applications (2004), Brunner-Routledge.

She is the author of numerous articles on the psychodynamics of religion, language in psychoanalysis, aggression, the clinical situation, and other subjects. In 1966, she received the William C. Bier Award, given by Division 36, American Psychological Association, for outstanding contributions to the Psychology of Religion. In 1997 she received the Oskar Pfister Prize, given by the American Psychiatric Association, for outstanding contributions to the Psychology of Religion. In 2000, she became an Honorary Member of the Italian Society for the Psychology of Religion.

She is a regular participant in national and international psychoanalytic congresses and a frequent psychoanalytic lecturer in the USA, Latin America, Europe, and Japan.

Dr Mariam Cohen

A psychiatrist in private practice in Scottsdale, Arizona. BA from St. John's College of Annapolis, Maryland, Medical training at Hahnemann Medical College of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, psychiatric training at the Good Samaritan Hospital of Phoenix, Arizona.

psychoanalytic training at the Los Angeles Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies in Los Angeles, California. In addition I am a Faculty Associate in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, from which I have a

MA in Religious Studies and am pursuing a PhD in that area.

Last spring the Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry published the special issue on religion and psychoanalysis that Professor Spero and I co-edited.


Professor, Postgraduate Program for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and School of Social Work, Bar-Ilan University; Senior Clinical Psychologist, Department of Psychiatry, Sarah Herzog Memorial Hospital; Senior Clinical Psychologist, Weinstock Hematology-Oncology Day Hospital, Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Jerusalem; Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry published the special issue on religion and psychoanalysis Professor Spero and Dr Mariam Cohen (co-eds.)

Spero's published research interests focus on shame, countertransference cognitions, religious behavior, myth, and time, and has written several texts dealing with the interface of psychoanalysis and religion, including Religious Objects as Psychological Structures (1992, University of Chicago Press), Psychotherapy of the Religious Patient (1996, Aronson), and a 2004 new release entitled The Well-House: Loss, Repetition, and Repentance -- A Postmodern Psychoanalytic Critique of the Judaic Concept of Te'shu'vah published by International Universities Press.Currently, he is Editor-in-Chief of the

new Israel Psychoanalytic Journal.

Select Lectures

The simile of God as Selfobject: Language as intersubjective medium

Dorit Lemberger, PhD

Psychoanalysis was based from the very beginning of Freud' writings (1897; 1900) on language and speech both as medium of diagnosis and object of cure. The psychology of the self as the main development of psychoanalytic thought was although aware of the centrality of language, but hardly dealt with the linguistic aspect of analytic treatment. Comprehensive account of language as common ground for psychoanalytic dialogue is particularly required when epistemological and existential differences inevitably interfere as transference and counter-transference in the analytic process. Typical question is whether language is 'good-enough' system for mutual understanding when believer and non-believer are involved in analytic treatment.

In this lecture I would like to suggest intersection of Wittgenstein' concept of language and God and Kohut' term of 'selfobject' as possible 'good-enough' ground for dialogue including the simile of God. Wittgenstein main insight was that "It is in language that it's all done" (Wittgenstein 1974, p. 143, emphasis original). In due course, God' simile should be interpreted in the linguistic level, shared both by the speaker and the hearer. This consideration rises above the linguistic functional level to the existential one using Kohut inspiring term of 'selfobject'. Kohut described 'selfobject' as external representation of internal self, transferring narcissist energy to another object separated but interiorly connected to the self similar to Wittgenstein' description of language expressing both internal and external aspects of our life. The final clarification integrates Wittgenstein' and Kohut describing language in the analytic process as intersubjective medium for creating new concept of belief as dyadic selfobject.

A Better God? Questions about Change and Development of the God Representation by Mariam Cohen, MD, PsyD, MA In this paper I want to present a question about the interaction between psychoanalytic therapy and our patients’ god representations that has come to my mind since Professor Spero and I edited the collection of essays that was published last spring. Several of these essays portrayed changes in patients’ god representation in the course of psychotherapy, and at the time we solicited the papers we were interested in encouraging our authors to depict the intricate relationships among the patient’s god representation, the transference, and the countertransference as the analyst’s god representation also entered the therapy. That last aspect of the task was clearly the hardest for all our authors. Apparently three – or four – interacting internal objects – god and self representations – could be quite a crowd in the consulting room. In my contribution to that collection (Cohen, 2009) I included a description of my countertransference to one of my patient’s recognition that she was called by her God to a new state of religious devotion. I intended in that paper to address the question of whether therapist and analyst could perceive an intervention as coming from the patient’s relationship with divinity. However, since I prepared that paper, another patient has raised new questions for me about the nature of changes in a patient’s god representation that occur in psychoanalytic therapy. These questions relate to how we might (or might not) evaluate the developmental aspects of a patient’s god representation. That is, I want to ask what constitutes a mature god representation.

I’m not speaking about theological issues. Presumably a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim or even a Hindu might relate to their theologically diverse gods in similar ways. Each of us may relate to God as judge before whom we feel appropriate guilt and repent our sins. Each of us may turn to God as comforter in distress. Within every religious tradition we all have a wide selection of ways to relate to divinity. What I’m asking is: When a patient’s god representation undergoes change and development in the course of a psychotherapy, how do we judge whether the change is in the direction of maturity or not? Certainly we hope for maturation in the course of analytic treatment, but sometimes patients do regress.

My ability to answer this question is limited by the sparse literature in our field dealing with changes in god representations in psychoanalytic therapy. The collection of essays I edited with Professor Spero was meant to start to correct that situation. Some of the papers do describe changes in god representations during therapy. Pamela Holliman (2009) describes a patient seen in a pastoral counseling setting (where overt discussion of theological issues is not unusual); this patient’s need for a “protective, soothing and magical God” was challenged as the patient became increasingly self-confident and able to handle feelings of vulnerability, to soothe herself. Even as this patient felt less of a need for a magical God who would make a broken car window work if one prayed in the right way or who would make one happy if one just believed rightly, she still felt a need for some sort of God in her life. In discussing this patient’s changed god representation, Holliman notes that the issue in therapy is not the god image specifically but the exploration of defenses that underlie and support the problematic god representation. Ryan LaMothe (2009) describes the “clash of gods” as his patient confronted her image of God as indifferent to suffering and non-protective and developed a new relationship with one she “experienced as keenly devoted to her,” (p. 81) a “just God who sees and takes note of all sin.” He notes that the patient was able to integrate these two god representations without “clashes,” while also noting his countertransference based in his rejection of the image of a “wrathful God . . . who is without mercy, compassion, and love”(p. 81) and who tabulates sins for later punishment. Christopher MacKenna (2009) describes a patient whose “Chief Examiner God” was too terrifying; the patient could not think of the possibility that God might have love for her and a wish for her to feel good (and sexual). Hers was a God who would overwhelm her if she let herself surrender to religious devotion and would transform her into something shameful, just as her wish for sexual surrender (as depicted in a masturbatory fantasy) was shameful. As this patient was able to integrate her sexuality with her spiritual life, she was also able to experience a “beloved image of a God who could be adored, who could receive her feelings and understand her sexual needs” (p. 122). John Peteet’s (2009) patient began her work with him struggling with an image of God “who allowed (if not caused) suffering from a distance,” a God who was “obligated to justify Himself by reasserting His sovereign authority” (p. 171). This image transformed over the course of a complicated therapy into “an image or a presence that was somewhat more benign, yet less powerful and less interested in her life” (p. 172), Peteet acknowledges his countertransference disappointment in what he felt was his patient’s loss of faith but also admitted that as the therapy progressed, he – as therapist – began to trust his patient to her God and to feel less that he had to do God’s work with the patient for Him. Professor Spero’s Orthodox Jewish patient (2009) became able to express an outburst of anger at a God who imposed stringent restrictions on him, restrictions that he had accepted without question, so much so that he found himself tacitly participating in the restrictions. This development was not due to any specific focus on the patient’s religious stance but was signaled by other changes and loosening of strictures in the patient’s thinking and an increasing ability to attend to his inner emotional states and desires rather than dismissing them as inconsequential. Most of these accounts describe Christian patients working with Christian therapists; some of them occurred in religious therapy settings where both patient and therapist expected to discuss matters of faith as well as other issues that would be identified as more straightforwardly psychological. However, each of the authors takes care in their articles to make it clear that the therapy did not devolve into religious education or what might be called spiritual direction. The changes in their patients’ god representations developed as intrapsychic and interpersonal issues, defenses, and transferences were addressed. Similarly, with my patient, Sarah, that she was able to find a new, unconditionally loving God who did not shame her for wanting to be loved was not a product of my addressing religious issues directly. She could accept God as maternally loving as we analyzed Sarah’s shame over wanting a loving maternal relationship. My point in reviewing these examples is that each of the therapists seems to have felt that the changes in their patient’s god representation were for the better, but the criteria by which they evaluated these changes as improvements were not made specific. It is clear that in each case, the patients were functioning better, were more able to experience inner emotional states, and improved their ability to relate to other people (as well as to God). Clearly the changes in these patients’ god representations were related to other intrapsychic and interpersonal changes, but none of the authors directly addresses the issue of what constitutes a mature relationship with God. This is a question that we have to address as some of us analytic therapists have begun to seriously address the role of our patients’ relationship with divinity. At this time I have located three major themes in the literature addressing the issue of how a psychoanalytic therapy should affect a patient’s god representation. First, for a long time, it was, I think, taken for granted that a thorough psychoanalysis should end with the analysand’s renouncing a need for God. My first analyst straightforwardly told me that by the time we terminated, I would have given up my “religious delusions.” Certainly Freud would have agreed with him since for Freud the god representation (a term he would not have used) was only a projection of childhood wishes for omnipotent parents, in Sara’s case a paternal strict judge or a wished-for all-loving mother. The second theme is related to the notion of the god representation as having developed as a transitional object. This concept of a transitional god representation entered our discussions beginning with Dr. Rizzuto’s work (1979) and has been elaborated by McDargh (1983) and Meissner (1984). From this position, the god representation is likely to be a universal aspect of human development. Rizzuto has pointed out that it would be unlikely for anyone to grow up in our culture with no concept of divinity; the surrounding culture provides a host of god images, and these are handy receptacles for projections of aspects of parental images. It has been asserted that even those who profess not to believe in God have some sort of an idea of what the God is that they do not believe in, a relationship characterized by the assertion “I do not believe in you.” However for those patients (and for those analysts) who in some sort of a way “believe in God,” the god representation is an internal object that reflects something that is “real” in some way (even if it cannot be subjected to the sort of reality testing employed with other relationships). The origin of this internal object has been assigned to the child’s need for transitional objects that bridge between the infant’s solipsistic omnipotence and the world of reality in which the child is powerless. God, being all-powerful, provides hope that one’s powerlessness is mitigated by God’s concern. God is both created by the child and provided to him by his parents, his culture, and his religious tradition. Our childhood concrete transitional objects – our “blankeys” – are fated to gradually fade into the background as we become more competent to deal with reality and as we become involved in the creative aspects of our culture and exercise our own creativity. The notion is implicit that our attachment to God might undergo the same sort of fading away process. However, in the cases I have cited, the patients’ god representations did not fade away; instead they changed. The third theme suggests that a mature god representation should be “universalized” and in a sense devoid of content. McDargh (1993) has divided psychoanalytic discussion about God into two perspectives. He describes the “god relational” perspective as one that has to do with the discussion of the reality of God. He describes those who work from this perspective as working to identify “transferential elements in [the patient’s] representation of God while remaining himself reverently and tactfully silent about what may or may not manifest itself when those transference elements have been worked through.” McDargh asserts that in this perspective, both the therapist and the patient acknowledge a reality to divinity and anticipate the possibility of divine intervention. For instance, the patient I described in my contribution to our journal issue felt called to a religious vocation, an experience that she felt as a direct call from God. The role of our therapeutic work was in part to allow my patient to find a way to listen to that call (Cohen, 2009). Alternatively, McDargh describes a “faith relational” perspective appropriate to those patients for whom the internal god representation is “irrelevant or even inimical to their construction” of a sense of self (p. 183). He asserts that with these patients “inquiries afer a ‘God’ representation produce either incomprehension or incredulity” and that the “faith relational” approach “attempts a more inclusive formulation of what constitutes ‘religious material’ in order to accomodate the widest range of human spiritual experience.” McDargh distinguishes the two perspectives:

In the God relational perspective primary attention is directed to particular religious contents, especially the object representation of “God” or other divine figures. The “background of safety” . . . of such figures may be described as the individual’s fundamental sense of the quality of his or her relationship to self, others, and ultimacy as symbolized, secured, and mediated by those object representations. In the faith relational perspective it is this “background sense” that is of paramount interest. The focus is not on the what, i.e., specific religious contents, but rather upon how the representational world functions, regardless of content, as a factor in an individual’s construction of his or her relationship to whatever is experienced as an ultimate ground of personal meaning and value. (P. 183-184)

McDargh then clarifies the distinction by describing a patient who professed to be an atheist but who was deeply entangled with an internal image of divinity as punitive and intrusive (p. 186). McDargh asserts that a therapist working from a “god relational perspective” would then have directly confronted the patient’s disbelieved image of god, perhaps even pointing out that other, more benign images are present in scriptures. In contrast, he focused on the patient’s “faith” – how the patient’s god representation “kept intact an inner world, and a correlative perception of himself as somehow cosmically wronged and victimized” (p. 186). As a result, McDargh says, the patient “had come to connect these experiences with what he named . . . a ‘higher power’ – a power that he still maintained . . . was ‘not God.’ . . . [T]he normative dimension of the listening perspective was not organized by the perceived validity or truth of the client’s representation of God, but rather by a judgment upon the adequacy of the client’s experience of self” (p. 187).

McDargh’s distinction can be disputed. The articles I cited (including my own) from the journal issue Professor Spero and I edited include therapists who worked in mental health settings identified with religious organizations and who identified themselves (and their patients) as believers. I do not think that any of these therapists could be described as working from what Dr. McDargh would describe as the “god relational perspective.” In some cases the therapist and the patient overtly discussed the patient’s belief in God, and all of these therapists acknowledged countertransferences related to the contrast between their God and the patient’s way of relating to divinity. Nevertheless, in all of these cases, the therapeutic work was as McDargh describes as “faith relational,” dealing with the patient’s inner world, sense of self, transferences, defenses, and “background of safety.”

McDargh bases his faith relational perspective on the developmental perspective of James Fowler (1981). Fowler postulated a developmental schema of faith from primal faith, through intuitive-projective, mythic-literal, synthetic-conventional, conjunctive, and universalizing stages. Mythic-literal faith is characterized by children who have not attained to formal operational thinking and involves meanings captured in narratives and stories in rather concrete terms. God is like a policeman or a judge. Synthetic-conventional faith includes the ability to think abstractly about those concepts, and individuative-reflective faith involves the questioning of received beliefs and the creation of one’s own faith. Conjunctive faith includes the ability to integrate opposites and polarities, and universalizing faith is attained only by those – like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Ghandi – who find a passionate devotion to oneness with “the power of being or God.”

McDargh cites others who have posited similar ways of characterizing faith development, including Robert Kegan (1980), who describes faith development as aiming toward a relationship with a “Source or Ground of Being.” Ultimately McDargh describes the goal of a developmental faith relational perspective as one that “focuses on the primacy of relationality in human development” (p. 186). Thus, in the clinical vignette he cites, the atheist whose god representation was of a severely punitive, judgmental, and intrusive god could be seen as having developed a more mature relationship with the undefined “higher power,” not God, who is linked to recalled moments of shared time with a loving grandfather and “similar contemplative moments in nature” (p. 187).

I think McDargh is clear that his faith relational perspective focuses not on what the patient believes but on how he or she relates – to others and to divinity. Fowler’s faith development schema does not preclude defined belief in God as being “universalizing” (otherwise he would exclude Mother Theresa’s devotion to her God as universalizing). Neither Fowler nor McDargh is incompatible with the object relational understanding of relationship based on an internalized psychic structure. (We have to remember that the intrapsychic internal object called the god representation is not a thing but a shorthand way of referring to a pattern of relationship.)

However, the notion of a “universalizing faith” as meaning a sort of undefined relationship with an undefined abstract divinity has shown up in the literature. For instance, Cynthia Stone (2005) posited spiritual development as moving from preconventional through conventional to postconventional stages. Conventional spiritual development included “socialization into a particular culture and perhaps into a particular religious tradition” whereas postconventional spirituality is “individualistic rather than institutional,” trusting “in one’s own experience,” and focusing on “the search for the true self as identical with the search for God or ultimate Reality” (p. 421-422). Stone gave examples of patients whose spiritual development progressed to the postconventional, and in each case she describes their postconventional faith as progressing beyond a specific religious tradition.

It is this third theme regarding religious (or faith or spiritual) development that I am most concerned with. McDargh seems (although he is not explicit one way or the other) to valorize the sort of universalizing faith in a Ground of Being that transcends religious tradition, and Stone clearly valorizes postconventional spirituality. Thus, they seem to me to be asserting that those of us (patients and therapists) who continue to identify our internal god representation with the divinity of a religious tradition are somehow remaining in a less than completely mature “faith.” It has been asserted that the god representation should be outgrown as every image of God implies a limited or denigrated image of the human worshiper. For instance, if God is judge, then we are humble penitents. If God is ruler, we are the ruled. If God is creator, we the created are indebted to a divine parent who is so beyond us that we can never be His equal. Those who make this objection valorize a notion of human as unlimited by such subservient relationships.

In another paper, one of my first excursions into the intersection of religion and psychoanalysis, I argued that a woman’s religious conversion involved a developmental maturation because the convert was able to integrate her paternal god representation with a caring, maternal god in an androgenous image of Jesus (Cohen, 2002). The subject of that paper (who was not a patient) found comfort, the potential for personal growth and happiness in a relationship with a divinity that integrated diverse representations of relationships. She found mother, father, comforter, and refuge in a what was for her a wider image of God. She left one religious tradition for another but asserted that she found not a “clash of Gods” (to use LaMothe’s term) but a “convergence” of relationships in a new relationship. Although I am not sure that Fowler would have classified her “faith development” as less than universalizing, certainly as conjunctive, but her god representation did not become the sort of diffuse spirituality that Stone would consider as postconventional. She did not identify a search for her “true self” with the search for God or “Ultimate Reality.” Like all of our patients (and ourselves) who remain believers and adherents of one or another religious tradition, the subject of my paper did not identify her god with the Ground of Being but with the God of Scripture, however much expanded from her childhood and early adulthood image of God.

I would then propose that we consider the possibility that the maturity of god representations could be judged by the degree to which the person’s relationship with divinity can integrate a diverse range of relationships, integrating and transcending polarities (as Fowler’s conjunctive faith does). A mature god representation, then, can remain identified with the divinity of a specific religious tradition while one also acknowledges that such a divinity transcends the limitations of any specific metaphor for a relationship. Such a god representation may attain to the degree of transcendence that Fowler’s notion of a universalizing faith suggests, while still remaining a divinity that a human can relate to in a variety of ways.

To return then to my question about the change in my patient Sara’s god representation, I would have to say that she is moving in the direction of maturity but has not really reached a stage of truly integrating her two current god representations. The judgmental and intrusive god of her father who would dictate to her that she must submit to His will is still a background presence in our ongoing work together. She still finds herself assuming that in any conflicted situation, she is the one at fault for problems. Irrational guilt for past “misdeeds” still surfaces. The loving maternal god and the maternal transference continue to surface, but she still finds it difficult to nurture herself. For instance, she has large amounts of accumulated vacation time, and when I asked why she could not take some of that time for herself, she recalled her mother’s asking her when she worked during high school whether she “deserved” the nice things she bought for herself with the money she earned. Then she laughed at the notion that she might not deserve to use some of what she earns to provide rest and relaxation for herself.

Rather than characterizing Sara’s situation as a “clash of Gods” as LaMothe did in his essay, I would suggest that she is now at the very beginning of realizing that there are a lot of ways to relate to God and for God to relate to her. As therapist and patient we have a long ways to go, and Sara’s god representation will need to expand and become more integrated as we continue to work through her parental introjections, defenses, and their manifestations in the transference.


Cohen, M, 2002, Convergence: Maturation and integration in the course of a religious conversion, Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis 30: 383-400

Cohen, M, 2009, An old god awakens, briefly, Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry 37: 35-48

Fairbairn, W.D., 1944, Endopsychic Structure Considered in Terms of Object-Relationships. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 25:70-92

Ferenczi, S., 1949, Confusion of the Tongues Between the Adults and the Child – The Language of Tenderness and of Passion, International. Journal of Psycho-Analysis 30: 225-230.

Fowler, J., 1981, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, Harper & Row

Holliman, P. J., 2009, Why both with God?, Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry 37: 59-72

Kegan, R., 1980, Where the dance is: Religious dimensions of a developmental framework, in Toward Moral and Religious Maturity, ed. By J. Fowler and A. Vergote, Silver Burden: Morristown, NJ

LaMothe, R., 2009, The clash of gods: Changes in a patient’s use of god representations, Journal of the Ameriican Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry 37: 73-84

McDargh, J., 1982, Psychoanalytic Object Relations and the Study of Religion, University Press of America

McDargh, J., 1993, Concluding clinical postscript: On developing a psychotheological perspective, in Exploring Sacred Landscapes: Religious and Spiritual Experiences in Psychotherapy, edited by M. L. Randour, Columbia University Press, p. 81-112

McKenna, C., 2009, The mutual redemption of divine and human being, Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry 37: 111-122

Meissner, W. W., 1984, Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience, Yale University Press

Peteet, J. R., 2009, Struggles with God: Transference and religious countertransference in the treatment of a trauma survivor, Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis 37: 165-174

Rizzuto, A-M, 1979, The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study, University of Chicago Press

Spero, M. H., 2009, Countertransference illumination of a latent religious object representation of a Jewish patient in psychoanalysis, Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry 37: 189-218

Stone, C., 2005, Opening Psychoanalytic Space to the Spiritual, Psychoanalytic Review 92: 417-430

Young, W. P., 2007, The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity, Windblown Media: Newbury Park, CA

Epiphanies: the appearance of the patient's God representation during psychoanalytic treatment.

Ana-María Rizzuto, M. D.


An epiphany may take the form of “a revealing scene or moment.” In psychoanalysis and in psychotherapy we encounter moments that reveal the patient’s personal representation of God and the dynamic motivations for its appearance.

During the course of development people who grow up in a monotheistic culture form a non-conscious and conscious representation(s) of the divinity. Such representation is dynamically intertwined with parental and self representations. Affectionate, hostile, and conflicting feelings related to parental figures and complementary components of the self-representation affect the formation of the individual’s conception of the divine being and of the divinity’s manner of being involved with the person.

The divine representation the child forms during development becomes a significant aspect of the individual’s dynamic wrestling with his/her internal and real objects. During a psychodynamically oriented treatment the divinity may be called to the treatment forum to fulfill complex psychic functions at the service of integrating or disrupting the treatment process. The analyst or therapist’s attentiveness to subtle or overt epiphanies of a divine ‘presence’ during the treatment facilitates the task of understanding the patient’s dynamic and transferential situation at that particular moment as well as illustrating his/her way or relating and using the God representation for psychic living or for self-deception.


When I talk about the epiphany of the God representation in treatment, I am talking about a God that is alive in the psyche of the person who relates to God as a transcendent existing being and as a psychical object. Alive may mean as a friend and helper, as a painful presence, as a feared opponent or as an actual divinity inspiring worship and loving devotion.

I have selected the word epiphany to highlight that the appearance of the divine representation during treatment may take the usual two form that epiphanies take. Overt epiphanies are obvious to every one. If the patient says unexpectedly “I am afraid that God is going to punish me for telling you what I promised never to tell anybody” we know that, in the patient’s belief, God has appeared in the treatment no only as a representation but as an actual being who is capable of chastising the traitor. The private epiphanies are those moments in treatment when we, the therapists, realize that the patient’s words and actions hide or veil the entrance of the divine representation into the treatment process behind other familiar figures or events. The attentive analyst may realize that behind the figures of people or circumstances brought up during the session might lurch or hover a divine representation. Its appearance signals that it has been called to fulfill a dynamic purpose at that particular moment in the treatment. The therapist’s epiphany about the presence of God as a represented object will require careful assessment, attentiveness to further associations, and tactful exploration before bringing it to the patients awareness. One of the definitions of epiphany suits this description: “a revealing scene or moment” (Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary). For the therapist it means, the revealing scene or moment in treatment when the God representation has been called to the psychic forum for a reason that is for us to ascertain.

All patients are potentially religious. A psychoanalytic therapist must remain attentive to the moments when God, as a psychic representation, and religion appear in treatment as a natural manifestation of significant developmental and dynamic issues and also as defensive object-linked moves against forbidden wishes or at the service of fulfillment of desire. When religion or God emerge during an analytic hour they are never simple issues. In its representational components the God that appears in the hour brings many aspects of the patient’s genetic developmental history together with a regressive potential to capture earlier moments of his/her psychic formation and the concomitant conflicts and defenses against them. God can be use as a defense against difficult transferential issues, desires, or fears. The origin of the God representation in affective interactions with the parents bestows upon it the possibility of being used as an object for displacement and externalization. Besides, in patients who are believers, God as an object has a long conscious history in the life of the individual and it is readily available to be used defensively during regressed moments. The God representation can also be unconsciously called upon to enforce the patient’s superego stance that is contrary to free association claiming that certain things are not to be thought or said, not even in analysis, thus making God responsible for avoiding painful associations. It may even serve the opposite purpose by helping the patient at the conscious level to recall that s/he has promised to be honest and that honesty is a religious duty. The God representation may also appear to signal the therapeutic transformation of internal objects as a result of the analysis and the elaboration of the parental representations under the influence of the interpretation of early objects transferences. The internalization of the representation of the analyst may also affect the reorganization of the God representation.

Psychoanalysts and psychotherapists must also remember that our technique can only examine the sources and motives of the God representation’s appearance in analysis. The religious experience of the patient in actual life with a believed existing God is broader that our explorations and reaches beyond what we are able to examine with our analytic method.

I will provide now examples of these type of epiphanies of the God representation.

Overt epiphany

God’s participation in the intricacies of an Oedipal dilemma.

The child is very involved with both parents during the late narcissistic moment of development and the subsequent time of the Oedipal awareness of his/her mother and father’s private relationship with each other. The young person must transform parental and self representations to accommodate the new discoveries into his/her evolving mental representations and into the structure of his/her desires. This is also the moment in which the child is actively trying to figure out the mysterious being the parents call God, and who, like them, has a private way of being not directly accessible to the child’s eager investigations. As a result, the Oedipal parental representations, the child’s self representation, and the divine representation of that period are connected to each other in multiple and various ways that make them inseparable until the therapeutic or analytic treatment assists the patient to tease them apart.

Louis, a man in his early 30s, graphically illustrates the appearance of the God representation as a being enmeshed in his complex Oedipal struggles. He requested analysis because he was suffering from obsessive symptoms, anxiety, a feeling that he was not up to task in his work and the inability to marry because of his feeling that he was not a ‘real’ man. He belonged to a family of believers who participated in religious services with some regularity.

During the evaluation he presented his predicaments with big and dramatic words using metaphors that revealed a vivid imagination and active libidinal and hostile wishes that dominated his waking life. Louis was deeply attached to his parents, individually and as a parental couple, and related to them in the present as a good and obedient latency child while he was secretly engaged in sexual fantasies. He cried during the initial interviews saying that nobody should take God and his religion away from him. The tears revealed the depth of his conflict with the divinity. During the same hour, he wept again out of fear that his father could die soon. Obviously, Louis was thoroughly entangled in a human drama with his father, mother, and God. Analysis could help him with his internal conflicts because, in spite of his complaints, his actual life was in order: his parents were interested in him; he was financially comfortable; he performed well at his work even when he continuously felt like a child assigned to do a man’s job; and he had women available to him, but he was overcome by terror by the idea of marriage.

The earliest epiphany of a God representation during treatment occurred at the time of my first vacation. God appeared as Louis’ accomplice in the direct imaginary satisfaction of Oedipal desire. He experienced the separation from me as very painful and presented himself as frantic, clinging, and terrified of his feelings, which were voiced in gruesome, fairy-tale metaphors hinting at some unconscious guilt as suggested by a dream in which he was being castrated by his mother. He insinuated before I left that he would have to kill himself if nobody [me] showed love for him. During my absence, he called his pastor and repeated to him the sad announcement of his need to kill himself. The pastor, using Scriptural readings affirmed that God loved him. Louis informed the pastor that he had a woman analyst and asked him to call her. He felt much consoled by the pastor’s words and considered them proof of God’s love for him.

The pastor did call me upon my return. When Louis returned to analysis he reported that he was much improved and asked if the pastor had called. He knew that the pastor would keep his promise. A good mood came over him and, without transition, he reported a conscious fantasy of being naked next to his mother and ready and eager to have sex with her. He was surprised that he was describing the fantasy but felt no guilt and acted as though God had given him permission to have sex with his mother. From that moment on Louis clingy and loud complaints diminished, his mood lifted, and he became able, once more, to collaborate in the analytic exploration. Probably, it helped him that I accepted without challenge the first and very explicit emergence of his sexual wishes for his mother/me under the aegis of the pastor’s reading the Scripture affirming God’s [God/god/mother/ me in his experience] love for him. He made no mention of his sexual desires for me. The meeting with the pastor replicated many of his childhood manipulations of his parents to confirm with one parent or the other that he was loved in spite of his secret sexual and hostile wishes directed at them. At this early moment of treatment I did not interpret his wishes (something to be done later) but helped him to make himself comfortable with me so that he could say all he needed to say. Louis remained at this moment of his analysis unaware of his sexual wishes towards the analyst and of the interconnections between God, pastor, mother, father, and analyst.

The cleverness of Louis’ unconscious processes is shown in their economy of means. In the enactment with the pastor, Louis unconsciously orchestrated a magnificent demonstration of how to keep yourself loved by God, your mother, your analyst, and your pastor/father, while fulfilling in fantasy the triple satisfaction of sex with mother, narcissistic triumph as a loved object, and nonchalance about my absence without any conscious guilt. All this he could achieve because he made God, the Scriptures, and his pastor the unsuspecting accomplices (as his mother had been) of his satisfaction. Louis had a very interesting superego, I should say, a corrupt superego. It was very harsh when he thought that he had failed as a man and shown himself to be nothing more than a fumbling child. On the other hand, it was always ready to permit him full satisfaction of forbidden wishes, if he went through a dramatic enactment of his miserable condition until he found an adult, frequently his mother, and, at times, his father, who would give in to his pleading to satisfy his disguised wishes. These parental concessions did reveal faulty parental superegos and a mode of relating in which both parties accepted a corrupt solution, but did not inform themselves about it. In his enactment at the time of my vacation, Louis re-experienced his clinging need for a maternal object that he could not force to stay with him. As he had done many times in childhood, he sought a paternal ally, his pastor, to tell him that he was distressed and on the brink of suicide because he was not loved. The pastor dutifully resorted to Scriptures that proved God loved him. What the pastor could not have known was that, in his conscious and unconscious manipulative style, Louis heard the words “God loves you” in the key of his libidinal and transferential wishes at a moment of feeling abandoned by me: his analyst/mother/god/God loved him and God/ father/pastor approved of his loving his mother, even to the point of having sex with her in his mind. Thereupon he could give me in the analysis a clear demonstration of what he was entitled to, because God/god/mother loved him. God, as experience through his God representation, was his accomplice.

From the point of view of the unconscious interconnection of representations this enactment graphically illustrates the profound intermingling of the mother/god/God/analyst representation and the father/god/pastor/God representations during Louis’ regression to an unresolved childhood Oedipal crises.

The representations could not be teased apart at this moment. The real God invoked by the pastor and known by Louis could not be differentiated form the Oedipal mother/analyst so closely linked to an aspect of his libidinal God representation. The God of Scripture, the pastor/father and the God representation connected with them were all interconnected with his own self representation as a child/man deserving to have sex with his mother.

Later analysis permitted Louis connect this episode to his childhood’s deep and highly ambivalent involvement with his mother. He had been physically very close to her as a small child and she had overstimulated him with her physical games. It was that mother who supplied the elements for the God representation that approved their sexual involvement in his analytic fantasy. The paternal figure was displaced onto the person of the pastor who, unknown to him, insisted that God/mother did love him and that it was very good. It replicated Louis’ childhood father consolation when the child resorted to him for help. Louis heard the Scriptural reading as permission to have sex with his mother.

God as represented in Louis’ mind became a regular feature of our analytic work, serving dynamic functions of substitution, punishment, envy, and as a helper, among many others.

Here are a few examples.

1) God/god representation as substitution of his responsibility.

While Louis was talking about his father as an inefficient, incompetent man, a sissy, he received high praise from his boss and his fellow workers. They said the changes he brought to their business seemed like a miracle and they congratulated him effusively. He immediately thought that it was not his doing but that God had performed the miracle. He was terrified that it would kill his father if he became better than him, as he had insinuated during the initial interviews. This situation was illustrated in an analytic moment a year after his visit to the pastor. Louis’ everyday life was improving but he could not accept responsibility for his changes for the better. I called his attention to his refusal to accept responsibility for having done very well. He responded by saying that he was ashamed and guilty about his great success. It was better to have God be responsible for what had happened. His guilt about having exposed his desire to be superior led him to disclaim responsibility and place the success into God’s hands. The God of this episode appears on the surface to be the real existing God that had now intervened on Louis’ behalf. Dynamically, however, it connected to a representation of the father, not as an incompetent man but as the effective executive Louis had always respected and in whose footsteps he had selected his own line of work. It would take a long time in analysis before Louis could begin to accept some responsibility for the satisfaction of his wishes. Transferentially, the report of his great success had another angle. He repeated with exaggerated words how much he had come to trust me and my judgment, while consistently avoiding any feelings toward me. He complained he wanted me to be more responsive to his wishes. Calling upon God as responsible for the ‘miracle’ also contributed to the modulation of his frustration with me. If God had performed it, there was no point in being disappointed with me for not celebrating his great success.

2) God will bring punishment upon him but will also ‘help’ him.

As Louis continued to regress he became able to give voice to the intensity of the sexual wishes for his mother while vehemently denying any sexual wishes towards me. Yet frequently during the hour he experienced sensations in his bladder and penis and felt compelled to leave the office to go to the bathroom to urinate. The more he talked about his sexual wishes the more frightened and frenetic he became. Louis was certain that immediate and terrible punishment would come to him. God was angry with him and would punish him terribly. During several hours in which he experienced despair in confronting the unavoidable punishment, Louis began to plead with God saying: “God, help me, help me.”One day after the hour, he went to church to appease God and obtain some help from Him.

Persistent inquiry and interpretations led Louis to describe one of his persistent activities in childhood. Through lamentations and demands, Louis frequently managed to forcefully place himself between his parents and play one against the other while feeling mistreated and abused by both. These manipulations brought him many concessions from both parents and frequent libidinal and narcissistic hidden satisfactions. Once more, in conflating, father, mother and God/god in his dealings with me he was asking God’s help to replicate childhood interactions of forbidden satisfaction without informing himself about it. The enmeshment with the parental couple had found a replica in his dealings with the different facets of his God. If Louis, feeling like a victim, pleaded to and cried enough in the presence of his God, he could win some concessions and feel that he had again become a good person in God’s eyes.

Several months later and after many sexual ‘confessions’ he said that God was punishing him because he had always manipulated everybody. He had to accept that God sees everything, and God could see that he was manipulative.

3) God as an abandoning object

The analysis progressed and Louis began to talk about the chaos within him. He cried and said that in that chaos he was totally, completely alone. God had abandoned him to his chaos because God did not want to deal with it. I asked him why God did not want to deal with his chaos. He sobbed to the end of the hour. The following day Louis insisted that God was going to kill him or let him die if he attended to his chaos. Slowly we figured out that his chaos was a composite of intense sexual wishes and erotic desires, deep anger, revengeful wishes, and a tremendous desire for experiences that would make him feel important, significant, someone who deserves the attention and care of others. After much analytic work he concluded that his parents had not been able to soothe him and that he was not able to soothe himself. The parents criticized him, blamed him, accused him but did not console him. Louis felt that his parents did not want to deal with the despondent child. They either conceded to him what they should not have conceded or asked him to change. It seemed clear that the God/god representation that avoided his chaos had at least a partial origin in the parental couple’s inability to place limits on him or to want to know what he really wanted.

4) God as fixing Louis destiny.

Louis’ progress permitted him to find a woman he felt he truly loved to the point of wanting to marry her. He was promoted at work. Yet, during the hours, he continued to lament about his endless misfortunes and insisted that he was only a child and that God was responsible for it. Louis insisted that God created him to be only a child, not a man. This God representation seemed to served a defensive purpose against his intense wishes to be a better man than his father, capable of impressing mother and others and deserving of praise and admiration. It appeared in analysis each time he was afraid that I thought that he was an accomplished, a ‘real’ man.

5) God as object of envy

His wife-to-be announced she was going away to visit her family for two weeks. Louis felt extreme despair. He sat on the couch and prayed: “God, help me, God, help me.” When he calmed down, I invited him to make sense of his feelings. What emerged was that he was furious because he was not the most important person for his woman friend, or for his mother or his family. He wanted his woman friend to have no one, absolutely no one, but him. I said that it seemed to me that he wanted to be adored as the only god. Louis immediately responded that that was exactly what he wanted and that not getting it made him furious. In this hour, Louis was envious of the total attention that God receives. This event points to the narcissistic component of Louis’ G/god representation, in which the adored and the adoring are intermingled in mutual narcissistic involvement. I reflected privately that the God Louis prayed during this period of his analysis could be linked to an early mother who might have adored her first boy child.

6) The God/god of the termination of the analysis

At the end of the analysis Louis started to look consciously at himself as a believer and to tease out aspects of his God/god representation from his parental representations. He said that God and mother were different. Mother wanted to take him over, deprive him of his freedom. God wanted Louis’ own good, had Louis himself in mind, and desired that he should behave well. This was the first time in which Louis referred to anybody as capable of seeing him as himself and desiring his own good. This new aspect of God/god representation seemed to have some connection to his perception of me as the person who insisted in knowing him as himself.

I hope this case illustrates the interconnections between the God of belief, diverse God representations and their dynamic connection with the self representation, including the self representation of the patient in the relationship with the analyst.

Private epiphanies

Heidi came to treatment because she was in her mid thirties and was unable to find a suitable man to marry. She said from the beginning that she was an atheist as her family had been for a couple of generations. She was a gifted woman with a good sense of humor in spite of intense anxiety and frequent insomnia. After much therapeutic work around her relationship with her mother and the unexpected and sudden death of her father when she was a girl of five she was able to sever the sporadic but continued relationship with a married boyfriend who had dominated her life for several years. Finally, she found a suitable and loving man who proposed marriage to her. She accepted to marry him and all seemed well except that in spite of a loving and caring relationship involving affectionate and passionate sex she could not have an orgasm. We talked much about sexual issues and her difficulty with orgasms, an issue she had no been able to mention to her previous therapist and would have preferred to avoid. The very explicit conversations about her sexual activities and the lack of sexual satisfaction had an unexpected result: her insomnia disappear.

Heidi talked about her need to be in charge of things, to be vigilant, and how she found it difficult to surrender to the care of others. There was something in her tone of voice and the manner she talked about being vigilant that prompted me to think about God but I decided to wait and help her follow and expand her associations. She talked about falling asleep as a dangerous activity because she could not be vigilant if she was sleeping and could be zapped out of life. I could not help but feel that a dangerous divine representation was entering the hours. She talked about orgasm and its frequent connection with the idea of death. People do call orgasm “a little death.” I continue to feel that a representation of God as the giver of life and death was just around the corner, in spite of the fact that she was an atheist and had no religious education of any type. I encouraged her to follow her associations and to left nothing unsaid. One day, unexpectedly she found herself saying: “The problem is that God doesn’t want me to have orgasms. If I do, God would zap me out this world and that would be the end.” She was very surprised to hear herself talking about God but it was too late. Her complex conviction about God had already entered her conscious awareness. She described later how “He is up there, looking at me, ready to zap me if He saw any sign that I enjoyed myself, that I am loved, and more than anything, if He sees that I am having an orgasm.” After much careful listening I commented: “Your God seems to be set against your having any personal or sexual satisfaction.” She said: “God is very cruel. He enjoys waiting for people to be distracted for a minute to zap them out of their life.” We dedicated many hours to explore her representation of a cruel God. Heidi connected God to Hitler. Both, God and Hitler enjoyed being cruel to people and were watching over to find the best moment to make them disappear. Heidi was Jewish and her family had to leave Germany just before Hitler started to send people to concentration camps to gas them to death. They had lost many relatives who were sent to the gas chambers.

Further elaboration of the theme of “being zapped” by God led her to the sudden death of her father, not even giving him time to say goodbye to her before he died. The family had explained to the young child who had asked to see her father that he had gone to “heaven.” Heidi was completely amazed that she was talking about God with such intensity and conviction. She was an atheist after all. She did not believe in God. I conveyed to her that it was important to wrestle with such dilemma: her conviction of the extreme danger posed by the cruel God representation that dominated her convictions and symptoms and her equally powerful conscious conviction that there is no God. After much work, Heidi concluded: I cannot shake up the feeling that my hypervigilance has to do with my having to keep an eye on God to make sure that He would not catch me unprepared. God is just waiting for that moment.” Further elaboration of such fantasies and convictions led to her conclusion: “God was waiting for my father to be unprepared and then kill him.” She elaborated: “God is always there watching, looking, waiting to act when He does not like what He sees. God likes to zap people out of their lives.” We pondered together the contradiction of her beliefs and her unbelief and how she had spent her life trying to control and stop a God she did not believe in. She reflected about the tragic untimely death of so may Jews and how she felt that God is tricky, cruel, impatient and does not like people to love each other. He is willing to make them disappear any time He pleases. She realized that she had spent much of her psychic life watching and propitiating the cruel God represented in her mind.

A year later, Heidi recalled that as a small child she had believed that her mother was another Hitler. Several relatives reminded her that as a young girl she had talked about her mother as Hitler. In that context she believed that God had decided that she should be an unhappy person and that God had made her different from other people. For that reason she should not have an orgasm because then she would be really happy with her husband. These associations were astonishing to Hiedi. If people had asked her if she believed in God she would had said she didn’t. In fact, her God is different: their God is good. Her God, the one she conceives of in her mind is truly evil, as demonstrated by his killing her father.

Further exploration of her God representation and her childhood experiences led to the fantasy that perhaps her own mother had zapped her father. Perhaps she believed that her mother did not want her to be happy.

This case illustrates the progressive appearance of the God representation in a patient who is by tradition and conviction an atheist. Nonetheless, the powerful representation of a cruel and treacherous God seems to have been formed by a conflation of childhood convictions about the death of her father, the God of her neighbors and classmates, the tragedy of those zapped in the gas chambers and her own complex childhood beliefs and fantasies about her sexuality and her mother. It is fascinating to see that a true and convinced atheist had organized a significant portion of her psychic life around the representation of an evil God ready to destroy her if she defied his purported intentions. This case convinces me that the detailed exploration of the unconscious God representation might provide in many cases essential clues about the patients pathology and even character structure as well as their stance in life.

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