The Church’s Role In Suffering And Longing

In The Idolatry of God, Pete Rollins suggests that we have an insatiable longing, restlessness and uncertainty, all stemming from the emergence of the self in the infancy stage. The mistake the church makes is legitimizing the quest for the end of this restlessness, rather than seeing it as the womb of the Spirit. Rollins wants to articulate an understanding of salvation that takes place in the very place of our unknowing and dissatisfaction.

Frank Lake, a British psychiatrist writing in the 1960’s, expresses a similar notion:

The nature of the help God gives through His Church is to make what cannot be removed, creatively bearable. Paul’s thorn of weakness in the flesh remained. Resting in the power of God, he could glory in his infirmity. It is natural, and it is, I think, spiritually desirable, that we should at first strive and pray, as Paul did, to have our weakness and negativities removed. But the utmost of personal effort and of professional skill may disappoint our hopes in this direction. What then? There are no lectures in the medical course to inform the doctor of that paradoxical movement of the spirit which can turn decisively away from the evidently vain hope of a cure, to a courageous bearing, and more, to a creative using of the pain and loss that cannot be cured. There is a strength which is made perfect in weakness. Without the prior weakness this particular endowment of strength could never be experienced. Medical practice must extend itself to prevent the outward man from perishing. Pastoral practice, recognizing a certain inevitability of failure in this entirely laudable object, extends itself to ensure that the inward man is concurrently renewed from day to day.

The natural man in us tends to reject the paradox that mental pain and spiritual joy can exist together in us, without diminishing either the agony of the one or the glory of the other. The whole personality may be afflicted by a sense of weakness, emptiness, and pointlessness, without diminishing in the least our spiritual power and effectiveness. This is possible because Christ is alive to re-enact the mystery of his suffering and glory in us. So far as our own subjective feelings are concerned, any inner-directed questioning of our basic human state may produce the same dismal answer as before; the cupboard is bare. While we regard our humanity as a container which ought to have something good in it when we look inside, we miss the whole point of the paradox. We are not meant to be self-contained, but channels of the life and energies of God Himself. From this point of view our wisdom is to let the bottom be knocked out of our humanity, which will ruin it as a container at the same time as it turns it into a satisfactory channel.

-Frank Lake, Clinical Theology

The Development of Self and the Origin of Loss and Longing

I’ve just begun reading Pete Rollins’ The Idolatry of God. In the first chapter Rollins, borrowing a bit from Lacan, explains how early human development plays into a perennial sense of longing and need for security that categorically shapes the human condition.

This important point in human development was named “the mirror phase” by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and is generally estimated to start between the ages of six to eighteen months. While the process is gradual, it is around this time that the infant begins to identify as existing in separation from her surroundings and slowly begins to experience herself as an individual.

The time before this awakening can be described as a type of prehistory, for it is the time before language, before self-consciousness, before the sense of “I.” It is only as the infant begins to enter selfhood that her history really begins, a history that cannot articulate what came before it, yet which remains indelibly marked by it.

One of the fundamental experiences that arises from this second birth is a profound and disturbing sense of loss, for as soon as we experience our inner world, we encounter for the first time an outer world. As we develop a sense of our internal space, we are confronted with another one, a space existing beyond the borders of our flesh. Before the formation of our inner world, there is no sense of “me” and thus no notion of “you.” There is no near and no far; no inside and, therefore, no outside; no barriers that would separate me from everything beyond the threshold of my skin. Before the advent of selfhood, the infant’s body exists in a type of equilibrium with the environment, being impacted by it but not standing in contrast to it.

All this changes as the child gains a sense of selfhood, for at this point, the world is experienced as “out there.” With the advent of the “I,” there is an experience of that which is “not I.” The sense of selfhood is marked indelibly with the sense of separation.

This means that one of our most basic and primal experiences of the world involves a sense of loss, for when we feel separated from something we assume that there was something we once had. The interesting thing to note, however, is that this sense of loss is actually an illusion, for we never actually lost anything. Why? Because there was no “me” before this experience of separation. Before the experience of loss there was no self to have enjoyed the union that we sense has been ripped away from us. The very birth of our subjectivity then signals a sense of losing something that we never had in the first place.

This primordial experience of separation means nothing less than the experience of a gap, a feeling that there is some gulf between us and that which we have “lost.” In light of this we can read the scriptural saying “For we brought nothing into the world” quite literally, as meaning that we enter the world with one thing in our possession: nothingness itself (i.e., a sense of some space separating us from the world we inhabit).

The gap this separation creates is what causes this deep and abiding sense of incompleteness in us all. Rollins then goes on to suggestively connect this sense of incompleteness and the way we attempt to address with with Paul’s concept of the Law:

An important distinction needs to be made at this point between objects that we seek because we feel (whether rightly or wrongly) that they will improve our life in some way and objects that we believe will fill the gap we experience at the very core of our existence. For example, one person may wish to make money in order to look after her family or gain some extra comfort, while someone else might pursue money in a way that suggests they think that wealth will provide them with ultimate meaning.

There is a very simple but vital mechanism that transforms an object from being something we would like to something we believe would make us whole: a prohibition. Whenever something we would like is refused to us in some way, this refusal causes us to want the object even more.

We can see this happening in a very transparent way while watching children play. We might imagine a child wanting to play with a toy he sees but is denied access to by a parent. By this act of prohibition, the child’s normal desire for the object is transformed into something much more potent. He is likely to invest that toy with a significance not merited by the toy itself.

This prohibition was called “the Law” by the Apostle Paul. He understood that the prohibition of the Law does not cause one to renounce an object but rather fuels a self-destructive drive for it.