Book Review: Credo? Religion and psychoanalysis
by Patrick Casement
Published by Aeon Books Ltd, London
reviewed by Maeve Dooley
He’s back! Perhaps as a type of encore, or maybe as evidence of the truth of the ‘Resurrection principle’ he so eloquently describes, Patrick Casement brings us what he calls a mini- booklet. With 68 pages of content, it packs some deeply insightful messaging. It is some of his personal thoughts and takes us to his earlier life, reflections and influences, beginning from his studies in theology in the late 1950s.
He confesses that this book was never meant to happen: Learning along the way (reviewed in Inside Out, Spring 2019) was to be his last book on psychoanalysis. Credo? Religion and psychoanalysis is indeed a book about ‘belief’. As such, it includes references and parallels to formal religions as anchor places, where we have often placed and secured the experience of transcendence. The underlying question evoked in the reader, traversing both spiritual and psychotherapeutic worlds, might be: where and what is ‘the power greater than me’ that evokes transcendent experience and is a harbinger of hope in the desire for meaning?
He talks of questioning all belief systems. Blind faith assumes its path but not its direction of travel, and is often lured towards self-interest and power, thwarting the destination. He begins by describing some contorted absurdities of religions and some debasing behaviours of clerics, drawing examples from his own lived experience. He looks beyond the social aspect of the Christian rituals of baptism, communion and confirmation, to the symbolic meaning of such rituals as being a commitment to a solemn and onerous path … that ends on a sacrificial cross. How many people consider the meaning and interpretation of that when deciding to baptise a child?
Did God invent us or did we invent God? Did he make us in his likeness or did we make him in ours? The atheists and agnostics also have their own convictions and philosophy of meaning giving purpose and ethos – a ‘god’ or credo of their own, if you like. Patrick Casement suggests, as others have, that we face the possibility that the god that may be worshipped may not be a god at all. He shines a light upon god as a projection from our internal world, a defence against insignificance, a buffer against a lone, transient, finite, human existence.
The book addresses themes on the constraints of certainty and the freedom of non-certainty. Linked with this is the portrayal of truth, not regarded as a coveted absolute, but rather as a moving perspective. Certainty breeds a splitting function fuelled by righteousness. It can exclude other potentially enriching possibilities and it is slave to primitive defences, thus stifling development. It restricts us to what we already know – yet it has a lure of unquestionable expertise.
We meet the Resurrection principle – the idea that death is followed by new life. It is an Easter message in religious terms and it is a spring message in the natural cycle. This is a repeating motif in human experience. It is often met in the consulting room where ‘death’ of an old way of being may breakdown to give opportunity for a breakthrough – a new way of being. Patrick Casement focuses on some parallels from Christianity, as it is the religion that he is most familiar with, though he references other religions also. ‘Good Friday’ is followed very quickly by ‘Easter Sunday’ leaving barely any time for being with the experience of trauma and loss, before it moves on to recovery. This brief time in between means that we barely have time to meet the tragic experience before we are moved on to hope and recovery – perhaps it signals that that this is how we should manage traumatic change. The piercing pain of loss and grief in this instance, is quickly followed by the consolation of a better life ahead, ‘heaven’ and recovery. He goes on to describe how in contrast, in the therapeutic reality of his experience “…a patient’s ‘Good Friday’ may go on for years” (25). There is a later wondering if we have created this motif of trauma and quick response to make better, or if religion has instilled this motif in us and we might often be blindly following. Did we give it to religion? Or did religion give it to us? Patrick Casement tries to amplify and encourage us to stay with the sacred space in the depths of the psychological doldrums, where despair, death and loss is all that there is, where there is no reassurance, no hope, where a therapist must allow themselves “…to be battered by the impact of the patient’s distress and despair” (27). This requires that we exchange blind faith in the assumed path towards a hopeful outcome, for uncertainty and not knowing. That we hand over to a transcendent energy that is our guide towards a more authentic emergence – the client’s own pace of discovery.
He concludes, commenting on the parallels in the seeking of certainty that exist between psychoanalysis and religion. Too much sureness in the realms of psychoanalytic practice – as we have learned from the evolution of religion – points to a growing constriction of freedom. This is akin to winding up the chains of the castle drawbridge to close off entry for the unknown, assuming that with supplies aplenty, all within the walls is sufficient. Throughout this book Patrick Casement is cutting through those very chains “pointing towards a sense of transcendence that can take us beyond ourselves towards something other” (57). He urges the reader “to be prepared to remain in awe of that which remains beyond ourselves and beyond our understanding” (57).
Maeve Dooley is an accredited psychotherapist specialising in Jungian Sandplay. She works in private practice in Drogheda, Co. Louth.