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The Symmetry of GodReview - The Symmetry of God
by Rodney Bomford
Free Association Books, 1999
Review by Naomi Gold
Feb 11th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 6)

This book will present significant difficulties for many readers. This is because prospective readers of The Symmetry of God must be proficient in three areas of study: classical psychoanalytic theory, the genre of writing that seeks to find significant points of contact between the beliefs of Christian theology and the tenets of psychoanalysis, and, above all, mathematical logic, especially as it is presented by the psychoanalyst Ignacio Matte-Blanco. One service a reviewer can perform for prospective readers, therefore, is to provide some introductory remarks that will help orient readers to the author’s project.

The consideration of religion from a psychoanalytic perspective has a long history, going back to Freud himself and continuing in the writings of Jung, Fairbairn, Guntrip and Winnicott. It is well-known that a discussion of the contradiction--or perhaps the impossibility--of an alliance between psychoanalytic and theological worldviews is also found in the origins of psychoanalysis. In his correspondence with Oskar Pfister, Freud wrote "That you should be such a convinced analyst and at the same time a clerical gentleman is one of the contradictions that make life so interesting" (Heinrich Meng and Ernst L. Freud, eds. Psychoanalysis and Faith. The Letters of Sigmund Freud & Oskar Pfister, trans. Eric Mosbacher [London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1963], 142). In this book, Bomford, another clerical gentleman, (Vicar of St. Giles Church, Camberwell, and Honorary Canon of Southwark Cathedral), adds his voice to this discussion, building on themes he began in the articles "Mapping Mental Processes: A New Approach to Symmetric Logic and the Unconscious "(Journal of Melanie Klein and Object Relations 16 [1998]) and "The Attributes of God and the Characteristics of the Unconscious" (International Review of Psychoanalysis 17 [1990]).

Among both religiously-committed and secular writers, there have been significant developments in psychoanalytic perspectives on religion since Freud’s own writings, and a substantial, varied, and even accommodating body of literature now stands alongside the analytic writing that is critical or, as some have estimated, reductionistic. There is, moreover, a specific body of writing by religiously-committed writers that attempts to draw connections between and reconcile religious belief systems and the tenets of psychoanalytic theory; representative writers in this area are Ana-Maria Rizzuto and the Jesuit priest and psychoanalyst W.W. Meissner. With regard to this last point, it is the opinion of this reviewer that the implicit agenda of most religiously-committed psychoanalytic writers is to utilize psychoanalytic theories of human nature and development to support their own particular theological worldviews and truth claims. This implicit agenda may be seen to be operative in Bomford’s book in the way his discussion progresses from the unconscious and Matte-Blanco’s symmetric logic, to God, Christ, the Incarnation, the Trinity, Eucharist, and Atonement. There is a kind of syllogism operative in this book: the deep structure of the unconscious models symmetric logic, and, in Bomford’s own words, "The doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation...are dominated by symmetric logic and become virtually expressions of its laws" (124), therefore, the human mind itself--indeed all human minds--are infused with core elements of the Christian belief system. The objective of demonstrating the veracity of the Christian faith by arguing for its compatibility with a prior system (usually a philosophical one) has been and is a common modus operandi among Christian philosophers and apologists. And the reader who is able to follow Bomford’s arguments all the way through will realize that he or she is finally being drawn into considering the ultimate truth of fundamental Christian doctrines.

Bomford’s entire argument hinges on the work of psychoanalyst Ignacio Matte-Blanco. Matte-Blanco’s primary book is The Unconscious as Infinite Sets (London: Duckworth, 1975), and the most useful exposition of his work is in Eric Rayner’s Unconscious Logic (London and New York: Routledge, 1995). Matte-Blanco’s career was a diverse one: he was trained and worked in psychiatry and psychoanalysis in Chile, the United States, and Italy. In England during the thirties he studied Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, and in the forties, he continued his studies in mathematics at Columbia University. He introduced a new paradigm for psychoanalysis, conceptualizing emotion in light of mathematical set theory. Bomford is doing two things in this book: seeking points of contact between psychoanalysis and Christian theology, and, to this end, applying mathematical logic, as presented by Matte-Blanco, to the tenets of Christian faith. Bomford begins by asking a number of questions that have dominated and continue to dominate theology since the period of the enlightenment. He asks: "Does the Christian faith speak of realities or fictions? Is God real or merely a verbal symbol?" (1) Later he asks, "In talking about God are we dealing with factual certainties, or are we merely expressing our own outlook on life?" (7) The book is written, he says, "for those who...look for an understanding of Christian faith which is neither literalist nor reductionist; that is to say, which neither clings rigidly to the literal truth of every word of the Bible, nor on the other hand reduces the faith by rejecting most of what the past has believed to be central" (1). He makes note of the historical fact that Christian theology has "from the beginning the church has borrowed philosophies from the world as handmaids to faith, and has expressed its faith through them...Philosophers from Plato to Heidegger have been used for this purpose, by theologians from the patristic period to modern times."

Finally, and of central importance to his project in this book, he states, "It is psychoanalytic thinking that I propose as a ‘philosophical’ handmaid for Christian theology" (2). But is unlikely that his efforts will be very gratifying to, or even comprehended by, either psychoanalysts or theologians. His heavy reliance on the mythological nature of biblical narratives will not be satisfactory to many or perhaps most theologians, since such an approach is fundamentally incompatible with religious truth claims. Doctrines such as resurrection and transubstantiation are not merely symbolic or mythological for believers, but claims of objective fact, despite their inconsistency with any observable states of affairs. And while the theologically-minded may nevertheless have some appreciation for the task Bomford has set out for himself -- theologians are always glad to have their ideas sanctioned by science and mathematics--the book will be comprehensible only to readers to who thoroughly understand mathematical set theory. But I suspect that even mathematically astute readers will be at a loss to understand Bomford’s proposition that the tenets of Christian doctrine are disclosed in symmetric logic. Thus, most readers, whether mathematicians, psychoanalysts, or theologians, will find themselves stymied by one or more aspects of this perplexing book.

Naomi Gold is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Toronto School of Theology.  Her  dissertation discusses and critiques the way in which psychoanalytic object-relations theory has been used by theologically-committed analytic  writers to validate theological belief systems.  She has degrees in theology and religious studies, and has an active interest in the history and development of of "New Age" religion, religious cults, and the psychology of religious belief.

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