Review of God Is A Trauma: Vicarious Religion and Soul-Making (1989), by Greg Mogenson

God is a Trauma

This is a review of an edition of this book that was later re-named and reprinted in 2005: A Most Accursed Religion: When a Trauma Becomes a God.

The thesis of this book is that trauma (as an experience that overwhelms the ego) and God (an experience that overwhelms the ego through unknowability) share something in common, and may perhaps even be different aspects of the same thing/process. Mogenson writes that his aim “is not to reduce theology’s God to a secularized category of psychopathology but rather to raise the secularized term ‘trauma’ to the immensity of the religious categories which, in the form of images, are among its guiding fictions,” (1). Further that just as “God has been described as transcendent and unknowable, a trauma is an event which transcends our capacity to experience it,” (1).

Drawing on Jung, Hillman, Nietzsche, Freud, the Christian mystics and the Christian Bible, Mogenson traces out a very interesting interplay between trauma and God. The book is flawed by, what comes across as, hostility toward religion, and with that spiritual and mystical experience. I would say this is the major reason that I found this book fascinating as well as frustrating and disappointing. There is a certain arrogance in Mogenson’s knowing of religion and a reductionism, not necessarily to materialism, but to imagism. By this I mean the strain of thought and argument from Jung through Hillman which seeks to distance itself from spiritual experience. Jung’s work is bifurcated, sometimes he claims to be a scientist and speak of the “God-image” rather than of God (Mogenson adopts this stance in the first paragraph of his book, saying he is not speaking of God, but of the “God-image”). Jung’s work, particularly now that The Red Book has been published, also clearly values spirituality and religion, and attempts not to reduce those universal aspects of human experience to psychology, but to use psychology to better understand God/spirituality/religion. Hillman (whose work I can’t claim to have studied as extensively as Jung’s) elevates soul over spirit, with soul being associated with energized human experience and the spirit associated more typically with transcending human experience. In a way, this is the old argument between immanence (soul) and transcendence (spirit). In Hillman’s work there is a, usually subtle, antagonism with spirit, partially because he views himself as correcting the imbalance of traditional religion.

Freud was a confirmed atheist. Nietzsche pronounced the “death of God,” however, Nietzsche was very alive and expansive in his writing. Freud used rationalism and modernism to dissect God. Nietzsche used reason and social criticism to diagnose a problem with Christianity. While Freud seemed to bemoan the fact of non-rationality in human beings, Nietzsche glorified irrationality in the form of “the will to power,” the flow of life, particularly Dionysian life, but also Apollonian life.

I apologize for this divergence from Mogenson’s work, but I think the flaws in the work are not specifically his, so much as a problematic current within contemporary human thought and experience, and particularly within scholarly and academic writing. I cannot claim to have “solved” this dilemma, however, I think it can be dealt with in a more subtle and complex way than Mogenson has done in this book.

Mogenson writes that the “soul-destroying consequence of worshipping a God who is identical with our inability to understand Him is that we tend to propitiate, as if they too were completely transcending, events which the soul might easily comprehend and absorb,” (46).  I think Mogenson overstates the point that life events are easily comprehended and absorbed. It is this aspect of Mogenson’s work that seems arrogant and polemical, rather than subtle and exploratory.

I do see that Mogenson revised this book and that revision is published under the title, A Most Accursed Religion: When a Trauma Becomes a God (2005).  This title does fit the topic of the current edition of the book being reviewed, the out of print, 1989 edition. I happened to be reading this book at the same time I was reading C.A. Meier’s Healing Dream and Ritual: Ancient Incubation and Modern Psychotherapy. What I missed in Mogenson’s book was Meier’s conception of Asclepius, the man who transformed over centuries from a man to a god. The healing, or “right attitude was made possible by the cult, which simply consisted in leaving the entire art of healing to the divine physician. He was the sickness and the remedy,” (3). The title of the revised edition of this book more clearly emphasizes that it is about the potential sickness of God and trauma. The edition of the book, entitled God is A Trauma, is an interesting, if at times one-sided, look at the relationship between Judeo-Christian religion and trauma, as well as the common human response of turning an overwhelming trauma into a “god,” that then terrorizes the individual. The one-sidedness comes from seeing god-making as a pathological process, rather than as an ambivalent process which could be positive or negative depending upon how it was handled.

 

 

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