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God is Unconscious

Kester Brewin

Tad DeLay, Wipf & Stock, 164pp

At a 1955 Tokyo conference on number theory, Yutaka Taniyama, a brilliant young Japanese mathematician, took to the stage and proposed something quite extraordinary: a direct link between modular forms and elliptical curves. For those not well-versed in higher mathematics, let me explain: this was as absurd as taking a map of Manchester and using it to navigate your way around the Cape of Good Hope. Yet Taniyama's conjecture not only proved to be spot on, but it turned out that using a map of Manchester around the Cape of Good Hope actually revealed aspects of the Cape's topography that had previously been hidden. Reading one world through another lens somehow contrived to bring new depths of perception. 60 years later, Tad DeLay has performed a similar feat. In this brave and challenging book he proposes that it is not only possible to read theology using the topology of psychoanalytic theory - and vice versa - but that doing so reveals more than we can see through a purely theological lens. Modular forms and elliptical curves; academic theology and psychoanalysis - these are all complex terrains that many might reject has having little practical purpose in everyday life or faith. I know enough mathematics to be able to confirm that without some of its highly abstract concepts we would have no mobile phones or air traffic control, but without theology or psychoanalysis…? Well, this is one of the questions that haunts DeLay's book, precisely because it is one of the deep questions that haunts anyone who is serious about engaging in either. The thoughtful theologian or analyst is always prepared to ask the difficult fundamental questions, and God is Unconscious is a deep mine with which to fund them. Specifically, DeLay here is reading the French theorist and analyst Jacques Lacan with an eye to understanding what his particular psychoanalytic insights might have to say about theological identities. Lacan's work is not for the faint-hearted, and to continue the cartographic metaphor, DeLay has done us a huge service here by travelling through the territory in person. His reports and insights come back first-hand from the source material, which he must be praised for. More than an academic exercise though, the book comes across as a piece that has arisen from a person and their lived experience, not a research robot. This is important because it means it always retains an empathetic and pastoral root. DeLay begins by quoting Lacan thus: 'I did not write [the seminars] in order for people to understand them, I wrote them in order for people to read them. Which is not remotely the same thing… People don't understand anything, that is perfectly true, for a while, but the writings do something to them.' Which is to say: the word acts on us in the process of our engagement with it, and something then happens. DeLay explains that, for both psychoanalysis and theology, the beginning of this engagement is in non-understanding. There is emptiness and darkness, and the depths present as formless. In this trauma of unknowing, we hope that light will be let in, that there will be some paring apart from darkness and a solid ground will emerge, a place for life to flourish. Therein lies the apparent divergence of these two worlds: what force will be the source of this enlightening? Who - or what - is the 'Big Other?' Taking Lacan's proposal that 'God is Unconscious,' DeLay answers by playing between his twin meanings: 'the first evoking the image of a figure literally knocked unconscious by the incendiary critiques of materialism and the second evoking the unity between what we call God and demands of our unconscious register.' It is this evocation of the divine and the unconscious as co-resonant that is the most powerful thread, and through it DeLay sits religion down firmly on the therapist's couch and makes it reflect. 'Christianity was a bitter plague upon the empire until its absorption into imperial ideology. Today the angel's message is no longer bitter, and my wager is that if Christianity desires a prophetically incisive role beyond the mere servitude of concealed interests, we should bring the Freudian plague against Christianity first.' He explains well the Freudian ideas of illusion and delusion and Lacan's use of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real, and how those can help us understand more richly the ways in which beliefs function differently for, for example, liberals and fundamentalists. The terminology in use here is not simple. Though DeLay makes a brave attempt to explain it, this is not a simplistic text that can be easily navigated those new to the ideas. He is, however, at least aware of this hurdle. Using one of Žižek's jokes about censorship he notes that there will always be 'something about the insufficiency of language to critique the modes of thought producing that very language.' In other words: both the theologian and analyst have to use language to describe things that are essentially beyond language. Typically though, DeLay refuses to use this as a getout clause. 'Religion says God is ineffable,' he notes, 'but this is not quite so. We can speak of gods all day long; what must remain ineffable is the void the gods cover.' It is to the continual, life-long challenge of uncovering this void that God is Unconscious sets itself. Tragically, in 1958, before his ideas could be proven to be true, Yutaka Taniyama took his own life, unable to make peace with the voids within. DeLay's welcome gift with this book is an outline of how the unhelpful messages about how these voids might be handled will be eliminated, and as such it deserves to be read widely.