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Rebuilding a sustainable world.

Is Moral Masochism At The Heart of Religion?


English: Statue of St. John of the Cross at Ca...

English: Statue of St. John of the Cross at Carmelite Monastery, Varroville, NSW, Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend once encouraged me to read the writings of St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic and Roman Catholic Saint, as a way to gain spiritual insight. At the time, I rather callously dismissed the book and St. John’s teachings.  What put me off completely was a passage in which St. John abjectly apologizes for “troubling” a clearly sadistic and abusive abbott (or whatever his title was) during John’s imprisonment at a monastery in Toledo. How can this kind of sado/masochism be an example for anyone to follow?  I have often wondered whether others notice the masochism inherent in some of the “religious” practices performed by the intensely devout?  When did self-flagellation enter into the teachings of Christ?  Is “mortification of the flesh” really a way of imitating the suffering of Christ or a perverse outcome of repressed sexuality? This passage from a recently published draft, Bisexuality in Jewish Mysticism,  by Jacob Arlow, touches on the subject.  Although the paper pertains predominantly to the Jewish faith, it explains how, what Arlow refers to as “moral masochism,” is a dynamic in most religions.

In one of his pithy, all-encompassing observations, Freud noted that moral masochism represents a regression from true morality to negative Oedipus complex (1924). This statement deserves more elaboration than is possible at this point. Briefly put, moral masochism as a rule develops in the following way. At a certain stage in his development, the male child, under special conditions, adopts a loving, feminine, passive, submissive attitude towards the father. Since sexual submission, however, is unacceptable, this trend is opposed and may be replaced by a painful but nevertheless more acceptable compromise formation; instead of wishing to submit sexually in the manner of a woman, the individual substitutes the wish to be beaten physically. At this level one outcome could be the development of a masochistic perversion. However, in a further defensive maneuver, the wish to be beaten physically is replaced by a tendency to be oppressed by moral strictures. At first these strictures may be experienced as emanating from the father figure. In turn, however, they may be replaced by the laws and commandments imposed by God and experienced as a constant inner moral imperative.

Author: Daniela

I was born in Croatia, at that time Yugoslavia. My family moved to the US when I was very young, but I still treasure the memories of my grandfather teaching me how to protect myself against the "evil eye," my grandmother shopping early every morning, at the open air market, to buy the freshest vegetables for the day's meals, and the traditions that were the underpinnings of our society. Someone once noted that "For all of us that want to move forward, there are a very few that want to keep the old methods of production, traditions and crafts alive." I am a fellow traveler with those who value the old traditions and folk wisdom. I believe the knowledge they possess can contribute significantly to our efforts to build a more sustainable world; one that values the individual over the corporation, conservation over growth and happiness over wealth.

4 thoughts on “Is Moral Masochism At The Heart of Religion?

  1. I would not say that Moral Masochism At The Heart of Religion. To be sure there have been movements through out history that have emphasized the experience of pain as a path to spiritual enlightenment. Most of these movements in Christianity reflected the idea that one could only know the Christ through experiencing what he did. That meant one would physically abuse one’s body in order to experience the pain of Christ.

    The Abbott who abused John was both a cultural and religious construct of the times. The culture of kings and queens and medieval society meant everyone was subject to the ultimate political authority of the land. Torture of ones captured enemies and subversives was a way to not only stay in power but to limit internal discussion otherwise you ended up in the dungeon as well.
    As a religious construct the head of any religious order was the ultimate authority in their order. Since physical torture was accepted in the culture using it in a religious order was deemed acceptable.

    There will always be abuses in the system so to speak for religion is a human construct of what the divine life should be. Most nation states have a similar process in that their courts make decisions using their constitutions as a guide. Some of those decisions make sense, some do not.

    For John of the Cross that path was a difficult one but made consciously. His writings and life speak to us and challenge our western thought of control and the supremacy of self over community. John was a reformer of the Carmelite tradition with John siding with Therese of Jesus a Carmelite nun who wanted to return the order to a more rustic tradition of wearing no shoes and wearing rougher garments. They were to spend their days in prayer and fasting. In any human organization there was conflict with their superiors which led to John’s arrest.

    John’s “apology” for troubling the abbott was a stance that Jesus himself took when they beat him before he was hung on the cross. It defies our sense of morality. We cannot understand how that can happen. Yet why are we not equally offended because people still smoke cigarettes and we know cigarettes will cause various forms of cancer. Is that not a form of masochism? Like wise the same with drugs, alcohol, and texting while driving. Doing each of those activities increases the likelihood of death. Are we not playing russian roulette with our lives?

    The core idea in any religion is that someone who lived before, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, and various other beings traveled the path less known and found some sort of enlightenment. People seeking peace and a better way for their lives choose to follow that path in order to gain enlightenment. In almost every case one has to give up parts of their former life in order to walk the path. For some that meant adopting an ascetic lifestyle while for others it meant divorcing themselves from the trappings of power and living a more common life among the people.

    While our modern sensibility may cause us to look down on the behavior of those who have passed this way before us the idea of seeking a better path for one’s life is alive and well and will always live on.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read my post and to comment. I will acknowledge freely I probably threw out the baby with the bathwater, but here’s the rub for me. Jesus did not apologize to his captors for inconveniencing them. He forgave them. From your post, it appears I have come off as disdainful, and if I’m honest there is a bit of that in my feelings. The idea that you would flog yourself just doesn’t strike me as religious. For me the sexual undertones are glaring. I guess I fall into this category of people who read St. John:
      “Oftentimes, however, people read his writings and become frightened by the absolute, stark, and radical language he uses, such as: all or nothing, self-denial, mortification, emptiness, renunciation, nakedness, contempt for self and creatures, and detachment. All these terms form a rich vocabulary to express the theme of negation and can appear repellent and inhuman if not understood correctly. They recur throughout John’s works and are often the source of misinterpretation and fear that have distorted the beauty, depth, and humanness of his person and doctrine.”

      • “The idea that you would flog yourself just doesn’t strike me as religious”. That is very true to the 21st century mind. We must think metaphysically when we read some of the ancient authors. I would expect no one to flog themselves today.

        Back in the day it was thought to be acceptable as a means to faith. So the question really is this, St. John was willing to flog himself and deny himself to experience the Christ. St. John followed his path out of love for Christ as stark as it may seem. For any seeker in any religion today the question would be want are you willing to do to find that sense of peace which you are seeking? You cannot dip a toe here in this path and reject something in another path and find peace. The salad bar approach never bring lasting peace. Every faith, Christian and non-Christian has some aspects that do not make sense in our modern thought. If we were to use our modern understandings of the Pepsi generation we would never follow any faith.

        We make any particular faith our own when we decide that we will follow the path knowing we will not like all things but also knowing it is the path less traveled. We pray, reflect, meditation and then respond accordingly. Flogging is not something one would do today however the path still yields a bounty for those who are willing to look with new eyes.

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