Faith, Theology, and Psychoanalysis: The Life and Thought of Harry S. Guntrip/Psychoanalysis and Religion in the 21st Century: Competitors or Collaborators?

By Miller, Gavin | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Faith, Theology, and Psychoanalysis: The Life and Thought of Harry S. Guntrip/Psychoanalysis and Religion in the 21st Century: Competitors or Collaborators?


Miller, Gavin, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


Faith, Theology, and Psychoanalysis: The Life and Thought of Harry S. Guntrip by Trevor M. Dobbs Pickwick Publications, Eugene, OR, 2007; 190 pp; $22.00

Psychoanalysis and Religion in the 21st Century: Competitors or Collaborators? by David M. Black Routledge, London and New York, 2006; 278 pp; £55.00 hardback, £21.99 paperback

These two books consider the possibilities for both the psychoanalytic understanding of religion and the religious understanding of psychoanalysis. The challenge of this endeavour is quite apparent when one thinks of the range and variety of both phenomena. Will the psychoanalysis be Freudian, Adlerian, Jungian, Lacanian, object relations, and so forth - or some eclectic mixture? Which of the world's many religions will be discussed? And which of the varieties of religious experience, practice, and doctrine will be examined - from salvation and conversion, to good works and compassion, to soteriology and eschatology? Anyone who writes on the relation between psychoanalysis and religion must inevitably select a few favoured phenomena from each; only by some such neglective or abstractive methodology can an argument get under way.

Trevor M. Dobbs in Faith, Theology and Psychoanalysis prefers the object relations tradition, and focuses upon the impact of D.W. Winnicott and W.R.D. Fairbairn on Harry Guntrip's life and work. According to Dobbs, Fairbairn provided Guntrip with the intellectual tools of object relations thought, while the personable Winnicott provided a therapy more in tune with the spirit of the theory. The theological element in Dobbs's argument is furnished by the work of Guntrip's mentor while at London University, the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray (1891-1976), who "constructed an object relations theory within moral philosophy" that "prepared Guntrip to adopt Fairbairn as the psychoanalytic theorist who most appealed to him" (p. 168). Dobbs's references to Macmurray's demythologized Christianity usefully clarify the underlying aims and ambitions of Guntrip's object relations psychoanalysis. Indeed, Guntrip himself commented that he saw "Macmurray's definition of the sphere of religion as the sphere of human relationships" as identical to Fairbairn's "fundamental concern with 'object relationships' as the substance of human living" (Guntrip, 1961, p. 253). The intellectual connections that Dobbs skilfully develops undoubtedly go further: as I argue elsewhere (Miller, 2008), there is a web of theological and psychoanalytic intellectual connections that takes in Macmurray and Guntrip, as well as psychotherapists such as Ian D. Suttie (1889-1935), Maurice Bevan-Brown (1886-1967), R.D. Laing (1927-1989) and Aaron Esterson (1923- 1999).

David M. Black's collection, Psychoanalysis and Religion in the 21st Century, is divided into four sections, according to whether the essays consider the possibility of religious truth, the psychological truth of religious narratives, the psychological meaning of religious experiences, or the continuities between psychoanalysis and specific religious traditions. Perhaps the weakest area of the collection is the section on religious narratives; the essays comprising it are essentially psychoanalytic textual interpretations, and might have been better left to literary scholars. The remaining sections are generally better, and show a striking range in their analysis, taking in both non-Christian and non-Abrahamic religion, a wide variety of religious phenomena - including adoration, contemplation and mystic union - and established perspectives such as Winnicottian accounts of theism.

Both books, naturally enough, have to deal with the early, and perhaps still dominant, psychoanalytic position on religion established by Freud. The Freudian credo that religion is an unhealthy illusion is ably summarized by Black in his introduction to Psychoanalysis and Religion:

We are like children, said Freud, who long for a strong father to protect them, and this wish can be gratified by believing in a powerful God. …

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