God is (the) Realhttp://peterrollins.net/2014/03/god-is-the-real/
by Peter Rollins
March 25, 2014
On twitter I occasionally get asked what I think about the existence of God. It’s usually asked by someone who has a solid grasp of what the term “God” refers to, and they assume that it has the same meaning for everyone else. Hence there is confusion when I reply that I can’t answer in 140 characters. The response is usually that the question is an easy one to answer: yes, no, or not sure.
However the word “God” is anything but simple or stable, and so an answer to the question of “do you believe in God” must be preceded by the question, “what do we mean by the term ‘God’.”
In order to approach an answer to this question I want to make use of a tripartite frame that Lacan developed to understand our subjective world. Lacan taught that our inner universe can be understood through reference to three interconnected registers: the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real.
These are somewhat slippery concepts to get a handle on, but for our purposes we can make use of them without fully defining them. To do this I’ll refer to what it means to treat someone through the filter of the first two registers.
We treat someone at the imaginary level when we see him or her as fundamentally like us. In other words, they are someone who we can admire, love, hate, be jealous of etc. This is relatively easy to understand as we’re broadly aware of the way we exist in competition, or solidarity, with those around us.
When we treat someone in a more symbolic way they operate as a type of stand in for a more basic type of relation. To understand this we can think of how a person might treat their analyst. For example, an individual might relay a dream during their session and then say, “I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking that I resent my mother.” In actual fact the analyst (who is not an expert on your unconscious) is unlikely to have an immediate interpretation of what they’ve said. The claim, “I know what you’re thinking,” is more likely to reflect what the person themselves is thinking, but are unaware of. At this point the analyst might respond by showing surprise or interest in the fact that the analysand (i.e., the patient) assumed what they did. In this exchange the analysand treats the analyst in a more symbolic way. The analyst effectively becomes a type of screen upon which the person’s unconscious is projected (and thus can reflect that projection back to the speaker).
In terms of religion, when the word “God” is employed I would argue that it is used primarily in one of these registers. In popular discourse “God” is basically understood in an Imaginary manner. God is a being like us, a being who speaks, thinks, desires etc. God is a being who we can love, hate, argue with and make up to. The difference between the theist and the atheist here revolves around the idea of whether this God exists or not.
In traditional theological circles God operates more on the Symbolic level. Here God is not named as such, it is claimed that what we say about God reflects ourselves and that we must speak of God as “beyond being,” “ground of being,” or in some other way that avoids the idea of us “speaking of ourselves in a loud voice” (Karl Barth). It is claimed that there is an ineffable reality to God that cannot be penetrated; yet this impenetrable God exposes us to ourselves.
In addition to the Imaginary and the Symbolic registers, Lacan also spoke of the Real. For Lacan, the Real is that which breaks into our Imaginary and Symbolic constellations. The Real is a rupture. The Real cannot be imagined or symbolized, it does not occupy a place, and yet it takes place. The Real is a crack within our existing political, religious and cultural configurations, a resistance that prevents systems from claiming absolute knowledge. It is a destabilizing event that threatens to disrupt the balance maintained by our ideological commitments.
It would seem to me that primitive religion understands God in a predominately Imaginary register (beginning from the Greek gods of antiquity right through to the gods of Western fundamentalism), while theology tends to treat God at the level of the Symbolic (onto-theology and apophatic thought = "speaking of God through negation"). In contrast I employ the term “God” primarily as a name for the Real. Indeed the collectives that I’m part of setting up are primarily committed to this idea of evoking the Real.