Editor's note: this excerpt comes from the concluding
section of Pamela Cooper-White's 2001 AAR Annual Meeting presentation.
The full text is available on the PCR website.
Is the self-psychological concept of the vertical split an adequate
theoretical paradigm to account for good and evil (particularly
evil) as understood in Christian theology? Well, in good Anglican
fashion, I think the answer to the question is "yes" and
Yes- especially as understood empathically from those whose suffering
falls most prominently under the category of narcissistic pathology.
From the narcissistically damaged individual's point of view, evil
is most often experienced as an alien part of one's self-identity
and character, corresponding well with the vertical split. Early
experiences are predominantly of deficit and lack, specifically
of appropriate mirroring and provision of reliable selfobjects for
idealization. The process of removing contents from ordinary awareness
is a conscious process of disavowal. Evil is experienced as lack,
and one's own self-defeating behavior is experienced as both unintended
and unwanted, or as necessary recompense, as in "filling an
empty hole inside" or in its most sociopathic form, "the
world owes me." The classical theological doctrine of evil
as privation of the good fits well with this psychological model,
and the pain experienced by such individuals is the pain of compulsion.
But also, nothe concept of the vertical split, in my view,
is not sufficient to explain all conceptions of evilwith two
objections. First, in the experience of trauma victims, and
secondly, in the larger sense of corporate, systemic evil.
In the subjective experience of traumatized persons, evil is most
often described as a malevolent attribute of someone else's identity
and character, based on early experiences of injury and later life
experiences born of projection of inner persecutory objects outward
where they are then battled or feared. Early experiences are not
predominantly of deficit and lack, but of active trauma. The process
of removing contents from ordinary awareness is an unconscious process
of splitting and dissociation. Evil is experienced as "out
there," and one's own self-defeating behaviors are understood,
if at all, as righteous attacks on evil that has been projected
onto or into others. The classical theological doctrine of evil
as privation of the good fits less well with this psychological
model, and competes with views of evil as an active cosmic force
battling the good. The pain experienced by these individuals is
the pain of ex-pulsion, and the resulting experience of terror
of what is out there, repeated, baffling experiences of intense
attachment and rejection in relationships, internal fragmentation
and constant, undifferentiated psychic pain.
This is not a gender-neutral conclusion. While certainly both men
and women experience trauma, the disproportionate number of women
survivors of sexual abuse and assault in our culture may suggest
that clinically, the object-relational and intersubjective psychoanalytic
theories which can accommodate this experiential understanding of
evil as something positive (i.e., active) within a framework of
multiplicity, may be especially relevant to women's experience.
The Augustinian notion of sin as pride or inordinate self-reliance
(which I have correlated above with the self-psychological understanding
of narcissism) has been further challenged by feminist theologians
as inappropriate when applied to women and other marginalized groups
within patriarchal society. In the words of Elizabeth Johnson:1
If pride be the primary block on the path to God, then indeed
decentering the rapacious self is the work of grace. But the situation
is quite different when this language is applied to persons already
relegated to the margins of significance and excluded from the
exercise of self-definition. For such persons, language of conversion
as loss of self, turning from amor sui, functions in an
ideological way to rob them of power, maintaining them in a subordinate
position to the benefit of those who rule
Analysis of women's
experience is replete with the realization that within patriarchal
systems women's primordial temptation is not to pride and self-assertion
but rather to the lack of it.
Second, the answer to the question, "is the self-psychological
concept of the vertical split an adequate theoretical paradigm to
account for good and evil as understood in Christian theology?"
is no, again, in a larger sense: What about corporate, and long-term
consequences flowing beyond individuals?
Feminist and Womanist writers' approach to the subject of evil
has tended to de-emphasize classical arguments about the abstract
nature of evil and individual sin and atonement, and to focus much
more on what Noddings calls "cultural evil." Noddings
highlights women's experience of suffering and participating in
evil through complicity with the cultural conditions of poverty,
racism, war, and sexism.2
Womanist theologians especially have highlighted the systemic, institutionalized
aspects of evil, as noted above.3
Delores Williams redefines individual sin as participation in the
larger social systems that devalue Black women's humanity through
a process of devaluation and "invisibilization."4
Neither psychoanalytic model described above has actually paid
adequate attention to the larger systemic, cultural, and social
forces that are implicated in human cruelty and human suffering.
But at least one reason, and perhaps the most profound reason, that
evil is evil, is that it not only destroys individuals intrapsychically,
but it tears at the fabric of human relationship and confounds the
human capacity for community. In the words of David Tracy and Hermann
Haring, "Evil has no center, but is everywhere. It does not
send out its raiding parties, but spreads like moods and rampant
The image here is not one of either of sheer nothingness nor of
purposeful malevolent planning, but of metastasis. The rejection
of the image of "raiding parties" may be more debatable
after Sept. 11. However, in the larger sense, the image of metastasis
still works: there is no precise beginning or end to contemporary
terrorism, and no precise boundaries. Local, temporal acts are subsumed
under larger movements and counter-movements and cycles of retaliation
across many centuries and continents.
While few psychoanalytic theorists have yet adequately addressed
this larger systemic and social dimension, (although there are a
few exceptions, from both self psychology and object relations points
of view), my sense is that an appreciation of the dynamics of projection
not only by individuals but entire groups, and further application
of theories of intersubjectivity, alterity, and social constructivism,
may yield important understandings of the systemic dimension of
evil than the concept of the "vertical split," or indeed
any theoretical conceptualization of intrapsychic pain can do by
itself, without the application of a wider social and cultural lens.
This seems especially poignant now, in the wake of a massive cultural
mobilization of Americans to split off and locate the enemy "out
there," to disavow all complicity in the evils of the world,
and to claim only the virtues of American ideals of freedom and
democracy, without any of the pitfalls of unfettered global capitalism
or militarism. The consciously held self-identity, purified of problematic
elements, is then packaged in the symbol of the flag.
1. Elizabeth Johnson, She
Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse
(New York: Crossroad, 1992), p. 64. See also an earlier exposition
of this theme byValerie Saiving [Goldstein], "The Human Situation:
A Feminine View," Journal of Religion 40 (1960) 100-112;
reprinted in Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion
(SF: Harper & Row,1979), 25-42. Saiving proposes that patriarchal
attention to sins of self-absorption are less relevant for women,
and suggests as alternatives the sins of "triviality, distractibility,
diffuseness; lack of an organized center or focus; dependence on
others for one's own self-definition; tolerance at the expense of
standards of excellence; inability to respect the boundaries of
privacy; sentimentality; and mistrust of reason." Saiving's
proposals have more recently been debated as inadvertently reinforcing
essentialist stereotypes of women, and insufficiently critical of
women's own participation in cultural evils, particularly racial
and class oppression. See also Kristine Rankka, Women and the
Value of Suffering: An Aw(e)ful Rowing Toward God (Collegeville,
MN: Liturgical Press, 1998).
2. Nel Noddings, Women and
Evil (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 120-121.
3. Emilie Townes, Ed., A
Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering
(Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993).
4. Delores Williams, "A
Womanist Perspective on Sin," in Townes, Ed., A Troubling
in My Soul, p. 146.
5. David Tracy and Hermann Haring,
"Introduction," in D. Tracy and H. Haring, Eds., The
Fascination of Evil, Concilium 1998/1 (London: SCM Press and
Maryknoll: Orbis, 1998), p. 1.