Unconscious Communication, Psychoanalysis and the Religious Experience

Professor Marsha Hewitt


Harvey Schwartz: Marsha, it's a pleasure to welcome you to the Jewish Thought and Psychoanalysis lecture series. I look forward to your April 30th lecture Unconscious Communication, Psychoanalysis and the Religious Experience.

We first met through your engaging and thought provoking book Freud on Religion. There's much to discuss about that. Before doing so can you give us all a sense of your background - what drew you to this work. You have an unusually deep involvement in both clinical and academic work.


Marsha Hewitt: Thank you, Harvey. It is an honor to be invited to be a speaker in your series, and I thank you for the invitation.

I’ve been interested in the psychoanalytic psychology of religion since I was a graduate student. I have taught in this area for decades, and continue to do so. When I was promoted to Full Professor, I decided to expand my career to include clinical work, so at that point I began my psychoanalytic training.

Thank you for your comments on my book, Freud on Religion. One of the things that inspired me to write it--beside my interest in Freud--was the rather monolithic critique of Freud's discussions of religion, which, as I say in my book, overlook the nuances in his thinking about religion, and his differentiated critique. Part of this must be understood within a general antagonism to Freud both within and outside of psychoanalysis. I think that a large part of this antagonism has to do with either a misreading, or misunderstanding of Freud's thought.


HS: Has your interest in religion had an impact on your clinical work? For example, do patients for whom religion is an important aspect of their lives seek you out? Do you feel that you are particularly attuned to the meanings that your patients' versions of God has for them?


MH: My academic work is in the field of the psychoanalytic psychology of religion. This includes attention to the psychology of mystical, or spiritual, religious experience. Students tend to be less interested in formal, institutional and dogmatic religion than they are in religious experience, at least this is the case with the majority of students who take my courses. We study the underlying psychological, mental processes that are expressed and socially negotiated within specific cultural contexts.

I don't know if patients approach me for therapy because I am a scholar/teacher in the field of religious studies. They must be aware of my academic work when they call me, since usually they have looked me up on the internet before they call. It may well be that my knowledge of the field helps me understand their religious experiences or spiritual interests and longings with a greater insight and sensitivity, I don't know. It doesn't really matter because my work is to be with the patient in whatever way she or he needs me to be. Occasionally a patient will tell me about a spiritual experience, a vision, a waking dream, or a feeling of having sinned and needing some form of 'redemption,' things like that. Many believe in a transcendent 'higher power' or spirit that gives their lives meaning. Like everything else in a person's life, I take whatever a patient brings very seriously, engaging with them wherever they need my engaged presence. If someone tells me that the Mother of God came to them, with the result that they felt a profound peace and sense that things would be ok, that is where the work is, so we both can explore what this experience means for that person, for example. 'God' has as many meanings as the individuals who experience whatever they mean by spirituality, a spiritual presence or experience. To paraphrase William James, there is a 'variety of psychologies of religious experiences'.


HS: How do you understand Freud’s more nuanced notions of religion and people’s relationships with their sense of God and what connection do you see with that and his and your interest in unconscious communication?


MH: When Freud wrote about religion, he addressed specific aspects of it, depending on the particular set of ideas he was considering: religion as a basis of knowledge and authority, or Jewish identity, for example.


His interest in unconscious communication indicates that the unconscious is a far more powerful mental force than consciousness. Since Freud, some analytic thinkers see unconscious communication as indicative that subjectivity is not a clearly bounded, individually discrete phenomenon, but is more permeable than it appears. For some, this may be suggestive of deeper levels of connectedness, of a unified reality that may be part of a divine reality.


HS: It has seemed to me that this intermingling of unconsciousnesses in a healing psychoanalytic context is an aspect of what is called the analytic third. Perhaps in a post - religion weltanschauung this may take the place of what had in the past been filled with notions of the divine.

Is this similar to what you mean by the "sacred unconscious" or “divine reality?”


MH: I refer to these ideas in the writings of others, these are not terms I use myself to describe my own experience.

Yes, I think the idea of the analytic third can sometimes be used, and sometimes is used, as a way of expressing people's sense of a transcendent reality.


HS: I guess the question for an analyst is when to consider experiences of transcendence as bedrock and when to look further, perhaps into childhood related meanings. Can you comment?


MS: I don't think I can answer your question as it is posed. As I read it, and mulled it over, Winnicott comes to mind, Bion, Grotstein, Ferro.... All experiences have meaning, and this is what analysis seeks to illuminate and explore, together with the patient. In a sense, everything is 'bedrock'--the question is, what does the experience mean, not only for the patient, but for the analyst and patient as they feelingly think together. When a patient has a dream, or a vision, or an experience of whatever kind, we explore it, which is what the patient wants or it would never have come up. Whatever the experience, it is shaped, mediated, organized, felt etc. within every unique mind.


HS: Marsha, there’s so much more we can discuss about this. It will have to wait for your lecture on the 30th. I also look forward to your forthcoming book Legacies of the Occult: Unconscious Communication at the Interface of Religion and Psychoanalysis. 


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