A meeting between Paulo and Freud – Beyond castration and the Oedipus complex

By Hermes C. Fernandes 

Among the rituals prescribed in the Mosaic law, none was more radical than circumcision. It is a surgical procedure in which the foreskin is removed, the skin covering the glans of the male reproductive organ, as invasive and traumatic as cutting the umbilical cord. Unlike other ceremonies such as those that required the sacrifice of animals, circumcision left a mark on the individual’s body. In fact, circumcision was instituted well before the law, serving as a seal of the covenant between God and Abraham’s descendants. Every male child should be circumcised on the eighth day (G.17: 10-12). Jesus himself needed to be subjected to the rite.

Currently, many advocate circumcision as a hygiene measure, useful to prevent the accumulation of genital secretion in the space between the glans and the foreskin, a region commonly the focus of infections. Research points to the practical benefits of circumcision such as the reduction of urinary tract infections, penile cancer, and cervical cancer in partners, sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Despite the value attributed by modern medicine to practice, I would like to propose a biblical investigation in search of its symbolic/spiritual meaning. The sacred writer says that the rites and ceremonies of the law have “the shadow of future goods, and not the exact image of things” (Heb. 10: 1). Paul adds by saying that the reality to which they point is found “in Christ”

(Col.2: 16-17). Therefore, much more than a hygienic and preventive measure, circumcision has a broader and deeper meaning. In fact, circumcision turned out to be the subject of much controversy in the early church. Some Jewish disciples thought that any Gentile who converted to the faith should submit to the rite. Only then would the new convert be accepted into the Christian community, being officially included among Abraham’s descendants. Paulo was one of the ones who most fought against this belief. According to the apostle, what was once a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham, has now become a tool for holding people hostage to a frivolous and vain religiosity. “Being careful,” warned Paulo,

“So that no one may make you their prey, through philosophies and vain subtleties, according to the tradition of men, according to the rudiments of the world, and not according to Christ; because in him the fullness of divinity dwells bodily, and you have your fullness in him, who is the head of all principality and power, in which you were also circumcised with the circumcision of Christ ” (Col.2: 8-11). Therefore, the circumcision instituted in the law was only a shadow of the true circumcision to which we are subjected to Christ. In Him we reach fullness; in other words, we lack nothing. We are complete. His grace is enough for us. There are no additions to make.

Some more moderate disciples felt that circumcision should be viewed as optional. Anyone who wanted could be circumcised. Whoever did not want to, could remain uncircumcised. However, Paul, anticipating that this would promote the division of Christians into two distinct classes, was radically opposed. “If you let yourself be circumcised,” warns the apostle, “Christ will profit you nothing” (Gal.5: 2). And the logic he used was unbeatable: “And again I protest to every man who allows himself to be circumcised, who is obliged to keep the whole law” (v.3). I couldn’t compromise. Whoever wanted to live under the aegis of the law would have to observe it completely. Either everything or nothing. You either live by the law, or you surrender to grace. And he himself sentences: “You are separated from Christ, you who are justified by the law; you have fallen from grace ” (v.4). For Paulo, that was a long-overdue issue. Turning her into a workhorse was a complete waste of time. For this reason, he refuses to put on warm clothes. The matter had to end right there. “Because”, after all, “in Jesus Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value; but the faith that works through love ” (v.6). And he concludes: “In Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any virtue, but that he is a new creature” (Gal.6: 15). Neither value nor virtue. Therefore, no one can boast to God for the simple fact of having been circumcised as prescribed by law.

In almost all of his epistles, Paul had to return to the question, even if reluctantly. The church suffered continuous harassment from those who defended circumcision as a sine qua non for salvation. To the Philippians, he argues that true circumcision “is we, who serve God in spirit, and boast in Jesus Christ, and do not trust in the flesh” (Phil.3: 3). Unlike the law that had served as the platform of a meritorious system, grace overturns any human presumption, since it reveals our spiritual bankruptcy, the weakness of our flesh and our inability to fulfill the demands of divine justice. You cannot trust Christ and trust our flesh at the same time. Any attempt to establish a meritocracy succumbs to the radical nature of grace.

To the Christians of Rome, he pins:
“Because what is outside is not Jewish, nor is circumcision what is outside in the flesh. But what is inside is Jewish, and circumcision is what is of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter; whose praise does not come from men, but from God. ” Romans 2: 28,29 Circumcision of the heart? Where did Paul get this concept from? Was it a totally new concept? Was there any indication in the Old Testament that under the new covenant would circumcision of the flesh be replaced by the circumcision of the heart? And what would such circumcision mean? Jeremiah, the most emotional of the prophets, admonishes:

“Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and remove the foreskins from your heart, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, lest my fury come out like fire, and burn so that there is no one to put it out, because of the malice of your works.”  Jeremiah 4: 4

This veteran- testamentary passage makes it clear that the non-circumcision of our hearts would attract the judgment of God. It is also understood that our evil works are nothing more than the fruits of an uncircumcised heart.

Even during the institution of the law, long before the age of the great prophets, God had already committed himself to promote the circumcision of the hearts of His people. Therefore, it is not human work, but divine. Read what Moses says about it:

“And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your offspring, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. ”  Deuteronomy 30: 6

Note this: circumcision of the heart is what enables us to love God. Jesus said that the whole law was summed up in two commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. Without a man having his heart circumcised, he will never be able to fulfill them. The fulfillment of both depends entirely on this operation made by the Holy Spirit within us. And once we are unable to love our neighbor, we will certainly also deny him justice.

“Circumcise, therefore, the foreskin of your heart, and do not harden your neck any longer. For the Lord, your God is the God of gods, and the Lord of lords, the great, mighty and terrible God, who is no respecter of persons, nor accepts bribes; who does justice to the orphan and the widow and loves the foreigner, giving him bread and clothing. ” Deuteronomy 10: 16-18  

Peace is only possible if there is justice, and this, in turn, is only achieved where there is love. However, there is a foreskin in every man’s heart that prevents him from seeing this. Paul also refers to this covering as a veil capable of hardening human understanding. Hence the warning that we do not harden our neck. In other words, we have to stop being tough headed. However, for this, the veil has to be removed. This only happens when we are converted to Christ (2 Cor. 3: 13-18). Therefore, the genuine conversion is equivalent to having a circumcised heart.

Let me make use of a psychoanalytical understanding of our human condition that seems to echo the truth announced in the Scriptures.

According to Freud, we are all born narcissists. When we are born, all our love is turned to ourselves. Even our mother is seen as an extension of our being. This seems to fit perfectly with what Christian theology says about our human condition: we are all born in sin (Ps. 51: 5). Sinit is, by definition, missing the target. We were not created for self-love, but to love God and our neighbor. Self-love is, as it were, the essence of sin. We are born in sin because we are born turned to ourselves. We invest all of our affection in our self. The other is just a mirror where we can see our image. It is for the other that we become aware that we exist. The world seems to orbit us. Until such trauma occurs that Freud calls castration. If narcissism is the enthronement of “I”, castration is its deposition. We are confronted by the law imposed by the superego in a process called the Oedipus Complex, through which we discover that not all of our desires can be satisfied. The role of the superego is to equip us with a moral conscience, dictating the good to be sought, and the evil to be avoided. It is through castration that the law is embedded in our consciousness, generating a neurotic psychic structure, based on desire and guilt. An eventual failure in castration will generate a psychotic, or even perverse, psychic structure, in which the subject is unable to feel guilty. Without guilt, there will also be no regret. It is necessary for the law to fulfill its role in order for grace to enter the scene so that the celebrated apostolic declaration is fulfilled: “Where sin abounded, grace abounded” (Rom.5: 20). As a Christian who believes in the ministry of the Spirit in convincing man about sin, justice, and judgment (John 16: 8), I firmly believe that no one is immune to His efficient work, even the psychotic or the wicked. However, this action necessarily involves the admission of guilt, without which, a grateful conscience for forgiveness will never be reached. Without the law, there is no possible gospel. The law condemns the gospel to absolve.

Anyone who thinks that the law was bequeathed exclusively to the Jews is wrong. Paul states that even the Gentiles  “naturally do the things that are of the law, since they have no law, for themselves they are law; who show the work of the law written in their hearts, testifying together to their conscience and their thoughts, whether accusing them or defending them ”  (Rom.2: 14,15). This law in the heart is what Freud calls a superego.

It is precisely castration that throws us out of ourselves and makes us search in the other for what we do not find in us since it reveals our desperate condition of incompleteness.

Now we have an ego suppressed by the superego and a third psychic instance that Freud calls Id, which is equivalent to what Paul calls “flesh”. Let’s say that the superego is that little angel that stimulates us to do what is right, while the Id is the little devil that instigates us to do what is wrong. It will be up to the ego to arbitrate between the demands of the superego and the Id.

Due to our sinful condition, we are much more likely to respond to the calls of Ethan to the stimuli of the superego. We want to indulge our flesh’s desires at any cost, even if it results in the unhappiness of others. Unlike the stars around which the most varied planets orbit, we become black holes that suck everything around them.

Neutering was not enough to make us full human beings. At most, we owe her our introduction to spiritual adolescence. The fullness that we so need is found in the grace revealed in Christ. It frees us from the oppression of the superego and the continuous pressure of the Id.

Circumcision of the heart offers us a stage beyond castration. Both the ego and the superego are destitute and in their place we enthroned Christ and the Holy Spirit respectively. “I am crucified with Christ,” declares Paul, “and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal.2: 20). The axis around which our existence revolves is no longer our self to be Christ, and the voice of our conscience is no longer the inquisitive voice of the law to be the sweet and encouraging voice of the Holy Spirit. Only the Id continues to occupy the same place since the flesh is never converted. We only get rid of the drives of our sinful nature when we receive new bodies and God is all in all (1 Cor.15: 28; Phil.3: 21).

Through castration, we were taken to the Tree of Knowledge of Good from Evil, but only by the circumcision of the heart are we brought back to the Tree of Life.

From there, instead of seeing our own image (narcissism), we started to see in ourselves the image of Christ and the flagrant transformation sponsored by the Spirit of Freedom (2 Cor. 3:18). Finally, with a circumcised heart, we stop living for ourselves. As Paul says,  “the love of Christ compels us, judging us like this: that if one died for everyone, soon everyone died. And he died for everyone so that those who live will no longer live for themselves ”  (2 Cor. 5: 14-15). This holy constraint not only affects the way we see ourselves but also how we see the other. Paulo adds:  “As soon as we know anyone from now on according to the flesh” (v.16). In other words, we no longer look to the other for our own satisfaction. The other is no longer a mere item of our desire, a dream of consumption, and is seen and welcomed as someone to whom we must unpretentiously devote our love. By grace we become free to love both God and our neighbor; not driven by the neurotic guilt generated by the law (superego), but by the Spirit of Christ; not out of fear of being inadequate to the expectations of others, but out of the pleasure of finding happiness in someone else’s reason for our own happiness.

It can be said, then, that the being conceived in the uterine environment will only reach the fullness of his humanity when he is regenerated, passing through the circumcision of his heart.