God is a Fantasy: The Neo-Freudian Case Against Faith

Friday, October 9, 2009

Note to self: When a fervent Christian moves in with you for nearly a month, do not be studying Jacques Lacan for an epic (47-page) paper about David Lynch and do not let her show you Youtube videos about dubious miracles. You will turn into a gigantic asshole. You will be compelled to ask, "What element of your desire does belief in God fulfill?" It is pretentious and somewhat mean. I also forgot to ask, "What role does your belief in God play in maintaining the symbolic order?"

The subject -- the religious person -- lives in a world of desire where the impossible object -- the knowledge of our existence -- causes unbearable anxiety that must be eliminated. He or she enters into a world of fantasy to comprehend that desire and move toward the successful depletion of it. All of our questions about the nature of the impossible object become answered in the fantasmatic reproduction of it, where it becomes the mysterious object and is subject to our internal thoughts and perceptions.

Where did life originate? By what morals should one live his life? There are no clear answers in the symbolic order in which we live. The person depending on religion to solve these problems (among others) turns to the idea of God because that fantasy complete dissolves the anxiety of any number of impossible objects with which we are presented. God did this, God did that, God says you must do this or you will rot in a fiery cesspool for an indeterminate amount of time. God the fantasy is consonant with our desire.

This explains why nobody ever attributes wicked things to God, only what we consider good. In fantasy, the fantasizing subject is completely in control: it's what we see in the first half of Mulholland Drive, the second half of Lost Highway, and, depending on the character, almost all of Inland Empire. In The Straight Story, complete immersion in fantasy compels Alvin Straight to succeed in an almost impossible task: a seventy-six-year-old man traveling 240 miles in nothing but a John Deere tractor. Desire provides the destination. Fantasy shows the way.

When the religious person suffers personal tragedy or discovers a divine miracle, he or she enters a world of desire to comprehend its meaning and uses fantasy to reach that comprehension. A deceased family member is "in Heaven now," and God always seems to be working in mysterious ways, despite all of the rape, murder, starvation, poverty, sickness, and hate that people seem to suffer now as well as in the Bible. But the road fantasy paves toward comprehending desire is never bumpy or impassable -- it always delivers a positive outcome. Even when fantasy proffers terrifying images (the rotting corpse in Mulholland Drive is the most obvious example), it is merely a consequence of one's complete commitment to that fantasy, such that one is able to admit to the often-terrifying world of desire laying beyond. Think about how the subject embraces the death of a relation because (the fantasy of) God has apparently summoned them home.

By that same token, everything good that happens is a result of God's will. Thus we have the idea of praying, and the even stranger idea that God answers those prayers. Once again, the believer's commitment to fantasy explains how this is possible. As I said, through fantasy, the nature of God ceases to be impossible to know, because the subject conjures up exactly the image of God that he or she requires to find the answer to that act of goodness. He becomes the "mysterious object", to use Todd McGowan's funny-sounding term, in terms of the subject's fantasy, a force to be admired and almost even understood. Fantasy turns God into the bestower of good fortune, the grower of the fine harvest, or the Cupid with the sure aim. All these roles God plays depending on the world of fantasy the religious subject enters to explain benevolent things happening to him or her, whether or not these powers are delegated to God in any holy text. The religious subject's fantasy allows that the mysterious object remains, of course, mysterious: for example, he or she cannot measure the length of God's supposed infiniteness, or the exact force that wields his miracle-magic, because fantasy only works in the absolute. What cannot be explained in the world of desire can only be partially explained in fantasy, which is why Naomi Watt's character in Mulholland Drive fails completely as an actress in the world of desire but is relegated only to smaller roles in her fantasy; the mafia-ordained super role goes to another actress entirely. Fantasy and desire are not opposites.

There are countless depictions of Jesus always varying from canvas to canvas. There are countless translations of his words into countless denominations of his church. Every religious person has his or her own idea of God. Old white bearded men, Middle-Eastern Jewish men, blue many-armed women, elephants and cows and swirly symbols, all of these are legitimate depictions of gods that originated in the fantasmatic mind of the faithful person. Because one person does not necessarily fantasize about the same God, one's imagination of that deity varies per his desire. The Greeks had gods to control the waters and the sun and wine and fertility. Our modern gods just tell us how to act and provide flaccid answers to scientific inquiry. What we choose to believe relies on what elements of our desire that belief satisfies.

In that sense, this is not really a case necessarily against faith, because fantasy is one of the most useful and healthy tools the conscious mind can deploy, a product of our evolution that underscores everything from moral questions to issues of artistry, enjoyment, and knowledge. But every fantasy has a certain conclusion, so even the idea of God must eventually end, and faith with it.