The Significance of Death drive and Death of Jesus Christ

Psychoanalysis has entered the domain of theology. The phrase ‘psychology and Bible’ has come into vogue.   Psychological approaches to the Holy Scripture are not new.  We can trace the roots of biblical psychology in the work of  Tertulian and St. Augustine.[1]  Moreover, the discipline of Psychology was born in the arms of theology in the 16th century.  From that time till today we have great developments  in the field of Psychology that has influenced  other disciplines like spirituality, theology, exegesis etc.  Indeed, the theory of death drive has opened new windows on our understanding of salvation through death.  Freud’s discovery of the death drive has come to occupy very important place in the work of contemporary thinkers like Jacques  Lacan and Salvoj Zizek.   Sigmund Freud presented the death drive in his work, Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  Although Freud tried to de-theologize religion in as much as he tried to translate human predicament from  religious-mythical idiom to scientific, positivist and biological langue of his day, paradoxically we can trace a return to theology, particularly in the work of Zizek.  Some scholars like Eric Santner and Herald Bloom tried to dig out the Hebraic underpinnings of Freud’s work.[2]  But most scholars think that Freud promoted hellenic-centric  source materials for the articulation of his findings in psychoanalysis.  Nevertheless, several scholars have found psychological tools like psychoanalysis important to open new horizons in their  exegetical  work. In this study, we shall try to understand death drive and attempt to trace it in the works of Freud, Lacan and Zizek . Next, we shall try to understand theology of death drive with special attention to teachings of St. Paul. Next, we shall pay a special attention of the Gospel of Luke and examine Jesus and his redemption and the place of death drive in economy of salvation. Finally, we shall strive to study death drive in the context of catholic faith in Goa

Understanding death drive

The self can take an orientation to death and enjoy what is called death drive.  It is amazing that we seem to live our life by masochistically destroying it.  It seems that the words of our Lord Jesus Christ that teach, ‘who ever save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life will save it ’ (Mt. 16.25) are proved to be true  by psychoanalytical theorists.


The Death Drive in Freud

Freud discovered the in adequacy of his own monolithic theory centred on pleasure principle in the context of his practise with his patients.  The idea that pleasure is the aim of psychic life did not explain the compulsive repetition of traumatic thoughts and images that his patience with neurosis exhibited during his clinical practice. [3] These findings brought into question the explanatory power of his pleasure principle. The fact that his patients bent towards  unpleasure or self destruction and manifested  a pursuit a kind of masochism, a mix of pleasure and pain made the inadequacy of singularity of pleasure principle crystal clear. Hence, Freud realised that humans are bound towards death in and through the dentour  that is life.  This means humanity takes death into itself imagining that it is the means to save itself.[4] Although the new theory was mirroring his clinical practice, it did not enjoy good reception even among his immediate followers.  The Key exception to this rejection of the theory was Jacques  Lacan who remained attuned to the gap between theory and lived experience. Freud taught that humans hanker to fullness of life through an investment in its opposite.  Thus, he believed that death was a negative force that constrained our access to life and reality through its overwhelming presence.   Hence, we may agree that death is a ‘mutate energy’ that silences ‘the cry for life’ embedded in the pleasure principle.[5] (That is why we deceive ourselves thinking that death is a form of life).  The game fort da played by Freud’s  nephew to deal with absence of mother  led him to understand death as the ultimate unpleasure  that overwhelms us and we strive to master it  through play of repetition.

Death Drive in Lacan

Lacan re-reads Freud and emphasis the key role of the death drive. Freud had situated the psyche in biology while Lacan situates the psyche in the language.  Lacan creatively links the meaning of death drive into human capacity to refuse death in and through language.  Instead of viewing death drive as a biological force, Lacan demystifies it to some degree by linking it to a lie.  Doing so, Lacan joins the death drive to the binary of language and asserts that it follows the structure of the symbolic order.  Language is a dynamic order. It does not endure in time. It passes off as soon as it arises.  Hence, the subject who comes into being by a relation to language suffers the fate of language. It is through the language/ symbolic order that subject acquires its identity. Hence, the subject subjects to death drive in the very project of making oneself. Indeed, the self undertakes an impossible task of repeating the self so to say through the symbolic order that keeps the self always eccentric.  Lacan, thus posits an all pervasive and dynamic role to the death drive through the dynamics of becoming a subject. This is how Lacan takes Freud’s statement that proclaims that ‘the aim of  life is death’ literally and connects desire to death. Hence,  he teaches that the self anchors itself in the symbolic order and comes to identify with a lie.  The mirror stage inaugurates this telling of the lie to oneself, when the infant between the age of six to eighteen months  identifies itself with image in the mirror. The self is further alienated  by speaking a language and it’s the entry into the symbolic order.  This displacement of the self is lived through what Freud explained through the game Fort /da played by his grandson which indicates the self repeats because it is not able to repeat itself.[6]

Death Drive  and Zizek

Zizek relies on German Idealism and teaches that absolutely free and autonomous subject proceed from nothing. This nothing or negation he links to death drive.  Absolute free subject cannot have any determinate content or predication. Like Lacan, zizek also connects the death drive to a primordial lie.  He teaches that the subject arises from out of nothing. This means that this nothing and death drive precedes the subject and are primarily ‘stuff’ that constitutes the subject.  This is Zizek’s creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo. Thus, for Zizek  subject is preceded by death drive which introduces the gap in which all human becoming takes place.  This ground of human becoming is without predicate and content that has to always be present and remains obscure or covered.   It is in this lack that Cartesian self posits self as constituted by its thought (I think therefore I am). This  in Zizek’s view is the fundamental fantasy. It provides the self with a consistent core. Just like the Hegelian panlogicism, progresses on the wings of death (antithesis) so to the self in Zizek move on the engine of death.  Life and death are not irreconcilable opposites but are two sides of human dialectic towards consciousness. Therefore, death is the principle of motion. It is not outside the self or a disruption that comes upon the self. It is the death drive that becomes the force that purses the self to align to the false stability of the symbolic order. It is in this sense that the self lives the lie.  Thus, by aligning to the symbolic order the self mortifies itself only to draw it to further circuits of desire. This means the self grounds itself in its alignment with the symbolic order but remains groundless because the ground is created through deception.[7]

Theologizing the Death Drive

Life is controlled b the orientation of death.  It means that we are riding our death drive. We have an indulgent joy in sin. We can trace that both Lacan and Zizek have  taken a great interest in this human fascination with death drive.  Their work draws our attention to St. Paul particularly to the letter to the Romans chapter 7.  Zizek describes himself as a ‘Pauline materialist’. They find a congruence of their theories in Paul’s description of ‘I’ first encounter with law and sinful desire. Pauls ‘I’ and the law lends them to trace the imaginary and the symbolic orbit of their psychoanalytic theory of Lacan.  Let  us theologize the death drive through psychoanalytical work of Lacan and Zizek.

Sin, Desire and Death drive

We can see a perverse relation between sin, desire and death drive. St. Paul beautifully brings this forth when he says, “For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death” (Rom. 7, 11).  That is why Zizek asserts that Law has to generate its own transgression in order to assert itself.[8] Hence, the Pauline question that asks: ‘is law sin?’(Rom. 7.7b) becomes very important.  Lacan rephrases the question: is the law the thing? [9]  For Lacan, the law refers to the symbolic order and thing represents the real. Hence the question translates as, ‘is the symbolic real?’ the answer in all the above cases is ‘certainly an emphatic no’ (Rom.7.7).  This means to confuse or fuse law and sin amounts to fuse the desire of the symbolic order with the desire of death under the guise of attaining life. It is like an attempt to establish the law by transgressing the law.  What St. Paul indicates that it is not law but the sinful desire that is at fault but we have the tendency to cover up the source of desire by equating it with law.[10]  (salvation 77). What St. Paul tries to do is to break the cycle in which the prohibitive law and its transgression generate and support each other. Lacan teaches that the subject sides with the law in an attempt to escape its punishing effect so as to partake of its surplus enjoyment. This is the enjoyment of the subject behind the law. Indeed, under the cover of the law, sinful desire folds in upon itself and self blinding compulsion to repeat is born. This means the subject is animated by the death drive. It is as if law gives life to death. Out of the death of life, the self lives often through  a life of death which is sin.  Thus, death drive is not a conscious embrace of death but is an eternalising repetition of enjoyment in search of its plenitude or fullness which can be attained only after death.

Death of Jesus and Death Drive

The death of Jesus is  means of salvation of humanity from the  power of death drive.  It shows us that we are no longer constrained by the power of law of the old covenant. It is the death of one’s symbolic support and the emergence of a new form of subjectivity. This is the new subjectivity from where St. Paul’s writes. The death of Jesus is the wiping of the slate  of  the symbolic clean that open us to the new redeeming  symbolic.  Hence, Zizek thinks that death drive is constitutive to the rise of subjectivity and its reconstitution.  This is a movement from law to love.[11] Law is a system constructed by and for those who stand outside of it.  Law becomes what  Lacan calls a  symptom, that is a point of suspension of the universal principle. Sin mediates law as power over and against love. Hence, the wages of sin has to be paid. It is the Death of Jesus that pays the wages of death. Just like the wife in St. Paul’s example in Rom. 7. 1-4 is bound  by law to her husband, she is redeemed to love by the death of the same husband.  Thus, we have St. Paul making this even clearer  when he says, ‘ So my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ,  that you may belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order  that we might bear fruit to God (Rom . 7, 4). It is not that the law is abolished but it is rendered inoperative. Thus, the place from where the law originates is marked by its disapplication. Hence, participating in the death of Jesus and being born as children of God through his victory over death, the force of the law stands suspended and the power of the Spirit sets us free. Thus, the death of Jesus disrupts the force of law and opens the space for new subjectivity governed by love. This means in the very suspension of the law, law is full filled in Jesus Christ.

Dying with Christ and Death drive

The death of Jesus is a death to live by. Zizek directly links sin to death drive. The death of Jesus and his victory in resurrection leads to the transformation of death drive. The original sin operates as an unhealed wound and afflicts human subjectivity. As marked by original, humanity is born into sin. Sin becomes a passage into human subjectivity. Like in the garden of Paradise, Zizek teaches us that what creates the possibility of sin is prohibition.  It is law that generates sin and feeds on it.[12] The law creates the transgressive desire. It means it creates the condition of freedom to transgress the law.  Therefore, it also means that we have the choice of choosing salvation. But being wounded by the original sin, we are tilting to the trasgressive desire/ death drive.  The wound becomes the gap that distances humans from nature, themselves and God. It  becomes the gap that constitutes the human subject.  Hence, the death and victory of our Lord Jesus Christ becomes the healing of the wound that introduces the gap between humanity, nature and God and brings about a new creation where humans can live by the death of Jesus. In Jesus Christ who stands beyond the law, we are able to free ourselves from the clutches of all consuming transgressive desire/ death drive   which is emerging from the law. This means we are led to live by the merits of his victory that has generated our subjectivity in Love and Mercy.  Hence, the death drive in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus transmutes and transforms into drive for fullness of life driven by the experience of love and mercy through the Paschal mystery of Christ. Thus, life of faith, sacraments and communion with the Church  becomes a new way of being human that overcomes the affliction of the death drive by participation in the death and victory of Jesus Christ.

Psychoanalytic reading of the Gospel of Luke

The very purpose of the Gospel of Luke as articulated in the prologue (LK1. 1-4) is to give Theophilus and others like him increased confidence to live the new life that they have embraced through their grafting into the life of Jesus Christ.  It is the experience of new life that the merciful Father in the parable of the prodigal son beautifully declares when he says, “my son was lost but now found, was dead but alive”. Here, let us try to draw this life in Christ as life in mercy and love through a psychoanalytic reading of the Gospel of Luke.

Recapitulation of life animated by Death drive and its Redemption

St. Luke’s genealogy recapitulates the humanity born under the sin of Adam and Eve and presents Jesus and Mary as the new Adam and Eve.  If St. Mathew is said to have attempt to portray Jesus as the new Mosses, Luke can be said to be giving us a portrait of Jesus as a new Adam.  Luke does challenges the’ law of the Father’ in psychoanalytic terms when he makes room for mother Mary in a male dominated genealogy. Thus, we find St. Luke crossing boundaries that are inscribed in the narration of genealogies which gave prime space to Abraham and his generation and was largely marked by the male as the chief bestower of ancestry . Though Joseph is mentioned, in God’s design Mary becomes the source of genealogy in terms of bios, thus becoming the new eve. By introducing the infancy narratives of  Jesus  before the genealogy, St. Luke manifests that  in God’s economy of salvation, we certainly have a clear breakdown or movement  away from the oedipalizing law of the Father.  Therefore, it seems that the transgressive desire, the death drive is transmuted and transformed and in fact rendered important by the very birth of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit and obedience of mother Mary. This means new life in the Spirit of Christ is first lived by mother Mary who is truly a model disciple for us.  Indeed, the recapitulation of life animated by death drive and it’s redemption in Jesus Christ becomes the chief hermeneutical key for us to understand the mystery and mission of the church who is Like the Jesus in Luke is on a heavenly pilgrimage, living and sharing of God’s love and mercy she has received in her saviour and Lord Jesus Christ.

The anti-oedipal Journey of Jesus

Jesus of St. Luke is always on the road. He is portrayed as a pilgrim. The pilgrim does not oedipalizes or chooses the rest of latency but remains always active and on the go. Being on the go was  Jesus’ way of staying connected with the ‘cry of life’ that he solemnly inaugurated when he stood up to read the scriptures in the synagogue in his home town, Nazareth, where he proclaimed the redeeming plan of God for humanity. All journeys militate against repetition. They remain open to the new and the novel. Hence, pilgrimage being the ultimate victory over the death drive is not stuck in the fort da dynamics of continuous repetitions and substitutions. Different narratives of Jesus on his Journey to the cross portrays taking up the burden of  humanity that is being exiled on account of it’s sin. In some way the new Adam in Jesus also carries the journey of Israel to the promise land in him. The journey of Jesus also recapitulates the chain of sacrifices (repetitions and substitutions) into his singular salvific  sacrifice of death on the cross.  Thus, the journey of Jesus becomes anti-oedipal as he becomes the high priest who offers his own self to God for the propitiation of sins of all humanity. Thus, in Jesus, the old Israel is put to death and a new Israel is born. He opens up the new covenant and new way of worshiping God in Spirit and truth. We can trace the abandoning of the law of the father in the call to be merciful as the heavenly Father and in the parables of mercy. Besides, the travel narratives of Jesus to Jerusalem, we have the narrative of sending of the seventy two disciples (Lk. 10.1-12) and the mission of the twelve (Lk 9. 1-6).

Look in Luke

The infancy narratives have the imperative to go and look given to the shepherds by the Angels. Luke narrates that angles enjoined the shepherds ‘to go over to Bethlehem and see…’( Lk 2: 15). They are invited to experience God’s power in a powerless infant.  We can trace the same with simeon who believes that by the power of the Holy Spirit he will not see death and then having seen the saviour he says he is willing to see death (LK 2. 26, 28-30).  Luke further exemplifies the power of look  through many narratives.  Jesus visits the synagogue in Nazareth and sets the eyes of the fellow Jews on him after he finished reading the scripture manifesting how he was  under the gaze of his opponents trying to find fault with him at the same time we find that  on the mount of transfiguration, Peter, John and James  were given a glimpse of his glory  behind the veil (Lk.932). Hence, the  look in Luke is ambivalent. It is an objectifying gaze as well as a redeeming look.   In the Old Testament, after the eating of the apple, the Adam and Eve saw that they were naked. One can trace the redeeming look of Jesus when he saw one of the thieves who was crucified alongside him.  This redeeming look is already praised in the magnificat of mother Mary.  God’s mercy is very much inscribed in the look as we find in the case of Zacaheus or the rich young man.  In psychoanalytically, we talk of scopic desire/ drive that wishes to see. It can be positive as well as negative. It can open the scopic field for transformation/ salvation as it was the case with Zachaeus as well as the thief on the other side of the Jesus on the cross. Luke, who began with the invitation to see adds to his Gospel the narratives of apparition of Jesus Christ post his resurrection and his final ascension into heaven.

Death Drive and the Catholic Faith in Goa

In Jesus Christ, we have become sons and daughters. Power of death drive or tendency to sin has been crippled. We have been saved by his mercy and are enabled to experience and live the joy of the Gospel.  Though we can find Catholics who live the new life offered by faith in Jesus Christ, there are several constraints and often weaknesses to sin. Death drive seems to still hold us back as we seem to often enjoy our own death drive forgetting to live under the power of grace given to us in mercy through the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ

Contesting the Law of the Father

Often, we catholics have oedipalized and have chosen the latency of silence in the face of Hindutva forces trying to play our fathers. These forces try to discipline our women regarding their dress code, attack our schools as spaces of de-nationalisation, and unhome us making us feel that we are not Indian enough.  In the wake of this politics of intimidation, we seem to have lost the voice of resistance and choose a silence as a response for fear of being orphaned by these powerful forces. Falling in the Hindutva law of the father is oedipal behaviour and a way of letting death drive strangulate our community in our country.  Besides, this oedipal behaviour in the face of the onslaught of the Hindutva forces, the long memory of caste in our society and casteist behaviour of several Catholics as well as men in cassock seem to indicate that we end up shamelessly serving caste rather than Christ. Marriages, celebration of feasts and confraternities seem to enjoy our death drive and forget to live by the love and life that our faith has brought us in abundance. Hence, just like Jesus, who contested the tyranny of Sabbath and gave us the principle that Sabbath was created for humans and not vice versa, we need to find the grace and strength of our catholic faith to prophetically embrace a theology of communion and stand up against the oppression of exclusion, denationalisation and the egoistic acceptance of false security offered by caste   both in our society and the Church. This prophetic resistance in faith challenges us to live the death of Jesus.

Developing a Counter-Gaze

The tourism industry that flourishes in Goa has brought us all Goans under the gaze of the tourists and tourism industry.  The scopic desire of the tourist has not only led to the museumization of Goans and displaced us all from the main stream of tourism industry, put has presented Goa as an exotic destination of enjoyment.  Goa as a scopic field draws the tourists to see its natural beauty. Besides,  the scopic drive in Goa produces a desire to see oneself  enjoying the pleasure of taking intoxicating drinks, drugs and sex.  Moreover, the tourism season disrupts the pastoral life of the parishes located in the coastal belt and we seem to be ill equipped both to understand and respond to the phenomena of tourism that has been in our society for more than fifty years. Hence, developing of a counter Gaze would require us that we take steps to understand the impact that tourism has over our people, environment, moral life as well as life in the Church. Perhaps, we may agree that tourism industry in many ways opens several possibilities of enjoyment of one’s death drive by opening us to the scopic field of  desire.  Hence, the counter-gaze that we have to develop will have one that will enable us to  deal with the scopic desire that orients one to death drive.  One important way would involve the empowering the centre for responsible tourism initiated by the Church as well as develop a theology of tourism that would critically understand the impacts of tourism industry and  develop a response of faith to the models of mass tourism at play in Goa. This response is intertwined with the model of development that is being enforced in our society by our Government.

Facing the Enjoyment of the Other

Goa being a famous tourist destination, we are faced with the enjoyment of the other (tourists).  It is important to understand the plight of our people and develop adequate resources so that we can develop a Christian response to the same. Faced by the enjoying other, we are often tempted to become the other of the same.   It means the values of the enjoying other become the indicators or indices for us to measure the worth of our life. Human are profoundly indexical and Goans are no exceptions.  When the cat runs after the rat it is the rat the makes the path of the cat so also what we may consider good life is a translated from what we deem as good life that is enjoyed by the other. In this sense humans are profoundly mimetic. Hence, we will have to deal with our mimetic desire that imitates the enjoying other and fails to imitate our Lord Jesus Christ. Usually, mimetic desire leads us to become the other of the same. Same here is the enjoying other who serves us as the model. This model that we imitate through our mimetic desire translates the value and indices of the enjoying other in the form of the enjoying other while taking matter of the subject of imitation from our culture and tradition. This means we may translate matter of our faith/ Christian-ness in such a way that this matter  informed by the form of the enjoying other, thus diluting our discipleship of our Lord Jesus.  Hence, we need to understand our mimetic desire  and respond to it. Otherwise we will slip down the moral slope taking our life of faith to ride on our death drive.


Our study has tried to expose how death drive is congruent to our tendency to sin and how we have been saved from the clutches of our death drive by the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is only by living the death and its merits of our Lord Jesus Christ  that are offered to us through the Paschal Mystery that we are enabled to die to our death drive and rise to new life opened to us by our Lord.

[1] See D. Andrew Kille, Psychological Biblical Criticism, (Minneapolis: Forttress Press, 2001), p.  12.

[2]  See Paul V  Axton , The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation: An Analysis of the Meaning of Death of Christ  in Light of Psychoanalytical Reading  of Paul (London: Bloomsbury T and T Clark  2015 ), PP. 19-20.

[3] accessed on 4/11/2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Paul V  Axton , The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation, p. 21.

[6] Ibid., p. 35-45.

[7]  Ibid., pp. 55-66.

[8] Ibid., p. 76.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 77

[11] Ibid., p. 94.

[12] Ibid., p. 116.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao