A Trauma Theory of Sin – Research Proposal

This past week I applied to The Global Center for Advanced StudiesMA in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, and I wanted to post my research proposal and (tentative) bibliography here. You can find the seeds of this project in my previous essay “The Will-to-Ignorance.”

The Problematic

Theories such as Platonism and Buddhism explain evil and suffering primarily as a lack of knowledge. However, these “ignorance” theories overlook the complex entanglement of knowledge and choice. Knowing is a two-fold event which includes both the content and the agent’s response to the content. Desire and will determine how an agent chooses to receive a certain piece of knowledge, and this observation suggests that evil choices cannot be explained purely by ignorance. There is a ghost in the machine.

Christianity’s notion of evil as “sin” maintains the distinctness and separability of knowing and choosing in the two-fold moment of knowledge. This is why repentance or metanoia (“turning away”) stands at the heart of Jesus’ message of the coming Kingdom. For Jesus, knowledge of the good is insufficient for doing good — one must also respond in faith to the proclamation of what is good. This response of faith looks like “being a doer of the word, and not a hearer only.”

Psychoanalysis stands in the Christian tradition of ethical reflection by employing this model of the two-fold moment of knowledge (content + response). Lacanian psychoanalysis inquires about the subject’s desire, and thereby probes the motivational structure within which the subject makes choices. The subject’s desires shape how knowledge is valued and received, as well as whether it gets sublimated. Sublimation differs from mere lack of knowledge by being a willed ignorance. How can such a will-to-ignorance emerge?

Psychoanalysis provides two preliminary answers — the effects of becoming a self-in-language and a response to experiencing the proximity of the Other’s desire. Crucially, these events are traumatic, and trauma warps the decision-making process of the subject in ways which produce and reproduce dysfunctional, maladaptive, and harmful behaviors. Trauma changes the coordinates of the subject’s desires by dramatically increasing the danger surrounding the possibility of human connection. Human relationships come to constitute a massive risk.

We can supplement the psychoanalytic account with contemporary psychological research on the effects of traumatic experiences on human subjects’ choices and behaviors. Not only does the notion of trauma help to elucidate the logic of how sinful choices can be made at the level of the individual subject, but the physiological and social ramifications of trauma also offer potentially illuminating accounts of intergenerational dysfunction, as well as an explanatory mechanism to undergird the Christian doctrine of “original sin.”

Challenges

A trauma theory of sin must anticipate pushback from Christians who claim that it ignores the notion of disobedience, and thus absolves the sinner of responsibility for their choices. While the theory does not necessarily entail these moves, the question of “disobedience” and its underlying rebellious drives must be addressed for a trauma theory of sin to gain a wider audience. To that end, this project will also consider theories of evil, disobedience, and nothingness in important Christian theologians, namely, St. Augustine and Karl Barth. Further, psychoanalytic theorists have also made notable contributions to understanding the concept and function of law. Slavoj Zizek in particular draws on unabashedly Protestant instincts to provide a reading of St. Paul’s theology as concerning law and the law beyond law, love. Finally, this project will also draw on psychoanalytic theories of language to provide an initial sketch of a theory of responsibility compatible with a trauma theory of sin.

Approaching the questions of trauma and ethics from the opposite end of the spectrum, a black pilled perspective may charge a trauma theory of sin with an excessive or cruel optimism. What if clinging to the idea of human connection is the very obstruction which causes our suffering? What if the trauma of being born is the greatest evil anyone could experience? Emil Cioran explores this nihilistic Western mutation of Buddhism in his writings, whereas George Bataille’s anti-humanist project provides a bloodthirsty edge to similar insights. In short, a properly Christian approach to this project must also contend with anti-humanist perspectives.

Finally, “ignorance” theories such as Platonism and Buddhism deserve a close reading of how they stage the relationship between knowledge and choice. This will require an investigation of Plato’s theory of knowledge, as well as special attention to his account of desire and knowledge in Symposium. Mahayana Buddhism as traced through the Ch’an and Zen schools will receive primary attention as attempts to articulate a Buddhist philosophy which addresses the problem of suffering. The notion of karma will also briefly be explored as a return of the repression of language in Buddhism.

Final Words

This project consciously draws on Christian theology, Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, 20th century continental philosophy, and cognitive psychology in order to contribute to the ongoing project of “critique of ideology,” especially within a Zizekian vein. Critique of ideology disassembles the system of cognition, desire, and will to uncover the pathological nature of knowledge, whilst also strongly maintaining the imperative of ethical decision-making and responsibility from the stance of a subject engaged in struggle. Such work also makes vital contributions to the Nietzschean discipline of the genealogy of moral concepts.

Consequently, this project charts fresh directions for the theory and practice of spiritual care and discipleship. A trauma theory of sin diagnoses sin as a crisis of connection. By exploring how traumatized subjects beget further trauma, we can begin to pursue a discipleship which takes on a more therapeutic approach, not only in how spiritual leaders care for those they are responsible for, but also in how the disciple relates internally to him or herself. This type of discipleship brings together a radical grace with an empowering responsibility as the disciple pursues reconciliation with others, just as God has reconciled the disciple in Christ.

The risk of connection stands at the heart of a trauma theory of sin. What is this risk, and is the risk worth it? Perhaps in seeking to protect ourselves, we may end up losing something even greater — what makes us human.

(Tentative) Bibliography

  • St. Augustine’s Confessions
  • Selections from Barth’s Church Dogmatics
  • John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion
  • Oliver Crisp’s essay in Christian Dogmatics on original sin
  • Various works of Plato, including Symposium
  • Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?
  • Slavoj Zizek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf
  • Slavoj Zizek’s The Ticklish Subject
  • Slavoj Zizek’s The Monstrosity of Christ
  • Slavoj Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology
  • Giorgio Agamben’s The Time That Remains
  • Sophie Fuggle’s Foucault/Paul – Subjects of Power
  • Alenka Zupancic’s The Ethics of the Real
  • Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle
  • Jacques Lacan’s Écrits
  • Jacques Lacan’s Seminar, Book VI – Desire and Its Interpretation
  • George Bataille’s Eroticism
  • George Bataille’s Theory of Religion
  • Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive
  • Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism
  • Monica Casper and Eric Wetherheimer’s Critical Trauma Studies
  • Donna J. Nakazawa’s Childhood Disrupted
  • Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth’s The Affect Theory Reader
  • Danny Silk’s Unpunishable

Note: This bibliography provides only a preliminary sketch of this project’s texts for engagement. Particularly in the area of trauma studies and the corresponding field of affect theory, I will need to conduct a literature review to survey the field and identify the key texts for mastery. Also, I am hoping the graduate coursework in psychoanalysis will provide additional clarity on the core concepts and primary texts (seminars, books, articles) within Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. I typically pick research directions based both on what I’m currently thinking about and what I’d like to learn more about.

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