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A Turn to Lived Experience  

This week someone asked me how I respond to the criticism that psychoanalytic theory fails to take political power seriously. The question has implications specifically for my work, which draws on psychoanalytic theorists regularly in my scholarship, teaching, and writing.

So it is an excellent and important question.

Often this criticism hits the mark: those who write from a psychoanalytic perspective focus on individuals and their psychological thinking, feelings, and behavior. They can ignore larger social influences or situations that impact individual lives. The classic examples of ‘depth psychology’ are Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, twentieth century figures, who through their thinking, writing, clinical practice, and lecturing exerted enormous influence on generations of psychologists. However, I’m teaching a class presently about both of these men and their insights about power and religion. To say they didn’t take politics seriously would be to ignore their contributions and influence.

Freud and Jung also exerted tremendous influence on many other academic disciplines from philosophy to medicine. And they shape everyday ideas from parenting to elections to professional sports. For instance, can you imagine a world in which the “unconscious” doesn’t exist or internal motivations are not seen as powerful factors in decision making? Figures like Freud and Jung and their students and colleagues reshaped the ways we think about private and political life. Still, to be fair, they were concerned most centrally with individual psychology.

In answer to the question about the non-political character of psychology – and on the fly – I gave two answers, and I left out another. I want to offer all three responses here: 1) I engage other critical thinkers who take politics very seriously; 2) I do empirical research that takes the clash between big ideas** and everyday experience seriously; and 3) I learn from the work of pastoral and practical theologians who give sustained interdisciplinary attention to a variety of issues.

My first response was to name several more recent theorists whose work I engage, and who help me by taking issues of political power, difference, and plurality of human experience very seriously. Two immediate examples are Jessica Benjamin and Judith Butler. Benjamin is a practicing psychoanalyst, and she writes about how patterns of thinking and practices of gender are shaped by early psychological experiences in infants and children – then reinforced socially. Butler, a philosopher, challenges tacit understandings about gender and power, engages psychoanalytic theory, and untangles many commonplace assumptions about the politics of sexuality, gender and difference.

My second response was to say that I confront the problem of psychoanalytic theory’s lack of attention to politics by engaging in empirical research. It only takes about one interview with an actual person to see ways that politics – the unfolding of powerful relationships among people and with institutions – is at work everywhere in the world. The clash between complex psychological ideas and everyday lives, makes questions about politics pop right to the surface.

For example when Rev. Mark* is having problems with the church elders, a bit of probing might provide a researcher the psychological insight that the pastor carries a history of difficult relationships with authority figures, beginning with highly adoring but overbearing parents. However, listening carefully to Rev. Mark’s story might also reveal a troubled history with the church itself and a steady stream of disagreements between lay and clergy leaders in his present congregation, which predates his arrival. Further exploration in that direction may show how church unrest has been fueled by labor and management disputes at the local garment factory, which shut down ten years ago. A few more questions might lead to Rev. Mark’s story of his spiritual restlessness that has lately taken his attention away from the day to day life of the congregation.

Stepping back, neither small town politics, nor individual psychology, nor a spiritual description fully account for Rev. Mark’s troubles with the elders. Yet together they contribute to an increasingly holistic perspective on what is at stake and how the present situation came to be. Some clues about addressing the conflict or healing for the distance and pain in the situation may also emerge by sticking with Rev. Mark’s story and keeping it in dialogue with the knowledge and wisdom of psychology, sociology, and theology.

My third response to the criticism about the apolitical character of psychoanalysis — the one I forgot to mention in the conversation — is that I regularly learn from pastoral and practical theologians. These are scholars who take the questions of power and privilege, difference and plurality, doctrine and practice, into account in all the scholarly work they do. I could make a long list of scholars and colleagues who begin with the lived experience of actual individuals and put that in conversation with a host of big psychological and theological ideas. For now, I’ll simply mention several, whom I have already written about elsewhere on my blog: Andy Lester, Don Browning, Wayne Oates, and Christie Neuger.

The study, practice, and knowledge of big ideas in psychology and religion are shifting and changing in the twenty-first century. One of the most substantial changes is that deep thinking about big ideas demands an engagement with the lived experience of real people and situations. As a scholar, if I’m going to do work that matters, really matters for the world, then a turn to lived experience is one I think I must take. I take it seriously . . . and with joy.

  • Rev. Mark’s story is hypothetical and a compilation of stories I’ve heard over years of research and teaching.

** These big or important ideas are often grouped under the rubric ‘theory,’ which needs yet another critique and deserves a separate post.