Are psychological wellbeing and salvation antithetical concepts? If one stops at the investigations of some Orthodox authors, one might easily gather the impression that the Orthodox faith is not compatible with practices like psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. The aims of psychotherapy seem at times to conflict with the aims of Orthodox asceticism. Notably, however, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy do not take the same aim, and it may surprise some to hear that one of the most Freudian analysts of the 20th century proposed a vision of psychoanalysis quite compatible with the Orthodox Faith: Jacques Lacan.
Lacan, a French psychoanalyst active in the 1930s through 1970s, reformulated psychoanalysis, stepping away from Freud’s biological determinism and toward the philosophical shifts occurring in postwar Europe, such as existentialism, structuralism, and later, poststructuralism. While many practicing analysts in the US may find Lacan difficult to understand, his works have had notable influence in other disciplines and other parts of the world, such as the noticeable influence he has had on Orthodox authors such as Christos Yannaras. In considering the relationship between Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis and Orthodox theology, a helpful starting point may be the end—that is, the aims of the Orthodox faith and of psychoanalysis.
In the Orthodox Church, the aim of the person is theosis, becoming by Grace what God is by nature. The salvific process of union with God in his energies is not measured by earthly wellbeing or by the social goods society prioritizes. Indeed, the heights of theosis reached by the saints are often in direct contradiction to the goods of the world. The Fools for Christ, the Martyrs, the Unmercenaries, the Passion-Bearers—these all run counter to the goods of the world as defined by society. This is because Orthodox salvation is kenotic, it requires a self-emptying or pouring-out of oneself. Salvation does not require us to pour ourselves out as some sort of tax; pouring ourselves out is part of salvation. This is why the Orthodox way is ascetic at its core. It mortifies that which the social good glorifies. With these ideas in mind, how could a secular process like psychoanalysis work in accordance with this principle?
First, one must differentiate the aims of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. The primary aim of psychotherapy is the reduction of psychiatric symptoms be they cognitive, emotional, or physical. Treatment may be deemed successful when psychiatric symptoms are reduced or eliminated. In Freudian terms, we could say that psychotherapy is generally aligned with the pleasure principle—it seeks to reduce tension and maintain homeostasis, increasing pleasure and decreasing unpleasure. From this perspective, we might say that psychotherapy runs perpendicular to the ascetic course. It does not conflict by definition, but it is not traveling in the same direction, either. We contrast psychotherapy with psychoanalysis. Lacan asserted that the ego is “the human symptom par excellence, the mental illness of man”, and producing its happiness is not the goal of analysis. Lacanian psychoanalyst Raul Moncayo argued that the process in psychoanalysis is one of “benevolent depersonalization”—a pouring out of the ego—an idea similar to kenosis. Moncayo connected this to the practice of Zen Buddhism, another Eastern spiritual tradition in which a person lets go of their narcissistic investment in the ego.
Ultimately, the process of psychoanalysis for Lacan leads to a confrontation with the desire that inhabits each of us. Confrontation with desire rests at the heart of ascesis as well. In ascesis, the person confronts their desire by divesting it of mortal interests, always seeking relationship with a God who is unknowable in essence and abides in darkness. This relationship requires the forgoing of worldly goods. In psychoanalysis, the subject takes responsibility for a relation to an unspeakable primal absence. This absence is the cause of a desire that goes beyond the wishes of the conscious ego. For Lacan, at the heart of the subject there is a gaping hole, and it is not difficult to see the creative and essential absence of God in Orthodoxy as resonant with Lacan’s assertion. In psychoanalytic terms, the subject who goes beyond the pleasure principle (which protects the ego) will discover unpleasure. This is an experience in which the excitement in the psyche reaches a point where pleasure and pain arrive together as a sort of pleasure/pain, which Lacan called jouissance. Interestingly, Lacan discovered this jouissance in the ecstasies of the mystics of the Catholic Church, such as in the Transverberation of Teresa of Avila or in John of the Cross. This jouissance might also be found in the Orthodox saints whose hagiographies recount their own experiences of the pleasure of the experience of God blending with the pain of the conscious, socially-oriented ego. To the extent a Christian has yet to undergo a kenosis of the self, or we could say, of the ego, such events will be experienced painfully.
Psychoanalysis does not lead to salvation. However, the Orthodox tradition generally holds that heaven and hell are not distinct places but two experiences of the presence of God: heaven, for those whose hearts are prepared, and hell, for those whose hearts are unprepared. To the extent that ascesis prepares the heart for the presence of God, we offer that psychoanalysis follows a parallel course to Orthodox ascesis. Both orient the subject not towards wellbeing, but towards a desire beyond pleasure that can lead to a jouissance replete with both the enjoyment of the subject and the pain of the ego. For those more invested in their ego, such jouissance is pain. For those who have divested their egos through kenosis, they will be more prepared for the mystical jouissance of the Divine Presence. Though psychoanalysis is secular and does not intentionally foster a relationship to the God of the Orthodox Church, it certainly facilitates an ascetic journey oriented towards something beyond pleasure. In this sense, there is a resonance between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Orthodoxy in their understanding of what it means to be human. This resonance places them in the unique position for fruitful inter-disciplinary dialogue.
 Jacques Lacan, Freud’s Papers on Technique: 1953-1954, the Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book I, (1975/1988). (J.A. Miller, Ed.). (J. Forrester, Trans.). p. 16
 Raul Moncayo, The Emptiness of Oedipus Identification and Non-Identification in Lacanian Psychoanalysis, (2012).
Carl Waitz is an attending psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and a Clinical Instructor at Harvard Medical School.
Theresa Clement Tisdale is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at Azusa Pacific University and a licensed psychologist and psychoanalyst.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.