Jesus And Object-Use: A Winnicottian Account Of The Resurrection Myth

by Brooke Hopkins, Ph.D.

March 15, 2006


This paper accounts for the power of the resurrection myth in terms of Winnicott's theories of early development, particularly the "development of the capacity for concern" and the idea of "object-use" that grew out of it. The myth of the resurrection allows those who participate in it to reenact basic developmental processes, beginning with the infant's relation to its mother and extending to transference relationships of other sorts, which can lead to the capacity to "use" objects (persons or things). For the believer, Jesus represents the object of destructive attacks who has, somehow, miraculously survived those attacks and has in the process become the symbol of "object-constancy." He can be "used...can feed back other-than-me substance into" those who have attained the capacity to "use" him. The myth enables believers to acknowledge their own destructiveness while at the same time enabling them to live life more fully in "a world of objects...a world of shared reality." The sacrament of the Eucharist is seen as partly reenacting this process.



"The key to the reading of the gospels is that it is necessary to project in order to receive."
Dolto and Severin, The Jesus of Psychoanalyis

No one will deny, I think, the centrality of the myth of the resurrection in Christian theology. To be sure, accounts of Chistianity are as various as the spectrum, but if Christians can be said to be united in anything, it is in the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died, buried, and rose again in the flesh, both to forgive men for the sins they had committed and to proclaim his eternal love.1 This is the central event in Christian history, the event that is commemorated and reenacted in an endless variety of communal and private contexts by Christians throughout the world. Regardless of the objective truth of this account it would be hard to deny its deep emotional and psychological appeal for millions of believers. That appeal, however, has never been adequately explained in emotional and psychological terms, and this is what I would like to try to do here.

     The purpose of this essay, then, will be to offer an account of the resurrection myth. The terms of that account will be psychoanalytic, largely Winnicottian, in character. This is not only because Winnicott's work tends to be far more sympathetic to the role played by cultural and religious phenomena in human development than Freud's does (Meissner 1984). It is also because Winnicott's writing, particularly his writing on the paradoxical role of aggressive and destructive impulses in human development, sheds direct light on the processes dramatized by the myth itself--specifically, the destructiveness embodied by the act of crucifixion and the central fact of Jesus' reappearance, his acceptance of the world that tried to destroy him. These seem to reflect developmental processes Winnicott describes as leading to the capacity to "use" objects (1969: 86), that is, the capacity to experience them as separate from oneself, as reliable and constant despite their separateness. Of course, Winnicott's work itself does not stand wholly outside the circle of cultural influence. And, while he tends to disapprove of many aspects of Christian morality, particularly that which "continues to create and recreate God as a place to put that which is good in [man] himself, and which he might spoil if he kept it in himself along with all the hate and destructiveness which is also to be found there" (1963a:94), it might be the case that his underlying conception of infant and adult relationships is formed and influenced by--perhaps even drawn out of--a tradition in which destructiveness, rejection, aggression, and yet survival and forgivenmess are central themes. If so, this is simply another version of the hermeneutic circle. But we will leave such ultimately unanswerable questions aside for the time being in order to pursue our goal; let us first look briefly at the central features of the myth itself.

     Two things stand out in the account: the destructiveness of Jesus' death on the cross and the miracle of his survival, the fact that he continues to love despite the terrible offense committed against his body in the act of crucifixion. The former, of course, serves to represent the Christian concept of sin in its starkest and most uncompromising form, the murder of the Messiah, the God/man who came to bring peace into the world. One has only to think of the vivid depictions of Jesus' crucifixion to recall the physical violence of the act--the scorged flesh, the nailed hands and feet, the spear-pierced side, the crown of thorns, the agony of the last moments, and the callousness of those who inflicted the pain. Suffering is almost an understatement. The latter aspects of the account, Jesus' miraculous survival of the murdurous acts committed against his person, serve to represent the Christian concept of redemption, redemption through love; they offer the promise of salvation for the individual and for mankind as a whole. Jesus' resurrection serves as definitive proof for believers of his godhead and the promise of eternal life, while Jesus' forgiveness of those who caused his suffering likewise serves as proof of the permanent and complete nature of his divine love. These, then, are the two central features of Jesus' story: the subjection to destructive attacks and the survival of those attacks, the ability to accept remorse, to continue to love those who inflicted them. Destructiveness and continuing love are the salient features of the central event in Christian history, the event that lies at the heart of Christian doctrine.

     Like all "cultural objects" (Kuhns 1983:21), objects that inhabit that "potential space" (Winnicott 1967:103) in which individuals and groups do most of their creative living, the story of Jesus' death and resurrection mirrors fundamental developmental processes. In this case, I want to argue, the process are those whereby the infant and, later, the adult, comes to acknowledge his or her own destructive impulses and, as a consequence of that acknowledgement, comes to discover the otherness, the reality of the object whose destruction was desired. In the case of the myth, and the historical events upon which it is based, of course, those desires are actually acted out. Jesus is crucified. But that is precisely what renders the myth such a powerful reflection of the processes it embodies, the processes whereby the survival of the object and its lack of retaliation for the destructive impulses directed against it are what transforms it into a genuine object of love.

     According to Winnicott (1963b) the original object in human experience is the mother or, more precisely, the mother's breast. This is the original object of the infant's love. Paradoxically, however, this is also the original object of its aggression and destructiveness as well, the "fantasized attack and destruction" that inevitably accompanies "full-blooded id-drives," particularly in the act of feeding (76). From the infant's perspective, to take nourishment from the mother, to swallow the contents of her body, is inseparable in fantasy from destroying her. Furthermore, since "the instinct driven episodes ... have acquired the full force of fantasies of oral sadism and other results of fusion," the infant's acts of feeding are genuinely aggressive in nature. But this aggression is transformed in its very occurance and is in the end productive. The key to the successful outcome of this process, according to Winnicott, is the mother's capacity to survive the attacks directed against her, "to continue to be herself, to be empathic towards her infant, to be there to receive the spontaneous gesture, and to be pleased." This is what "makes the infant able to hold the anxiety" it inevitably feels, and "the anxiety held in this way becomes altered in quality and becomes a sense of guilt" (77). The process here is a transitional one. In the course of it the infant comes to feel guilt or, even more favorably, to transform latent guilt feelings for destructive fantasies into constructive, reparative behavior. Thus the infant achieves a new sense of the other--the mother--and the reliability of her love. This results in what Winnicott calls "the development of the capacity for concern," a capacity that can only develop in the infant with the mother's survival of its attacks. Winnicott calls this a "benign cycle," a cycle that somehow makes constructive, positive use of destructiveness in the infant's discovery of the world.2

     The process described above occurs at the earliest stages of development. According to Winnicott, however, it also repeats itself in later relationships involving various forms of transference: projection, idealization, and destructive fantasies. In his seminal paper, "The Use of an Object and Relating Through Identifications" (1969), Winnicott describes the process whereby what he calls the "subject" comes to relate to the "object" (in the sense in which that term it used in "object-relations" theory) as something external, as fundamentally different from itself and as something that can be loved; this is to be able to use it. (By "use," it should be stressed, Winnicott does not mean manipulate or exploit; he means simply experience as something external, different from oneself.) These adult relationships also involve destructiveness, the subject's fantasized destruction of the object and, if the object survives (does not retaliate), a new appreciation for its otherness, for what its survival has meant in terms of the subject's growth.

     The first stage in this adult process of coming to use objects Winnicott calls "object-relating." That is when the subject relates to the object as "a bundle of projections," as part of, an extension of, itself, just as the infant did at the earliest stages of its relationship with the mother, the mother's breast, before its destructive fantasies and attendant changes of perception made her real (1969:88). The transition between "object-relating" and "object-use" Winnicott describes as "the most difficult thing, perhaps, in human development." What it involves is "the subject's placing of the object outside the area [of its] omnipotent control ... the subject's perception of the object as an external phenomenon, not as a projective entity ... recognition of it as an entity in its own right" (89). This comes about through the subject's fantasized destruction of the object. The process here is an essentially dialectical one. Destruction of the object in fantasy leads to the discovery of the object's reality, its otherness, and vice versa: "the subject is being destroyed in fantasy as fantasy and is felt as real because of this, at the same time its realness makes fantasy destructiveness possible" (Eigen 1981: 417). This results eventually in the creation of a new space, no longer a "potential space," but what Michael Eigen calls an "area of faith," an area in which the subject can relate to the object as "in some basic way outside [its] bounderies, [as] 'wholly other.'" This, in Eigen's words,

    opens the way for a new kind of freedom, one because there is radical otherness, a new realness of self-feeling exactly because the other is now felt as real as well. The core sense of creativeness that permeates transitional experiencing is reborn on a new level, in so far as genuine not-me nutriment becomes available for personal use. The subject can use otherness for true growth purposes and, through risk of difference as such, gains access to the genuinely new. (415)

By this process, according to Winnicott, the subject comes "to live a life in a world of objects," always keeping in mind that "the price has to be paid in acceptance of the on-going destruction in unconscious fantasy relative to object-relating" (1969:90). The key word here is "acceptance"; this is the measure of the subject's growth.

     In both the infant and adult developmental processes, the crucial factor in the scenerio is the object's survival, its lack of retaliation against the subject for the subject's destructive fantasies. This provides the context for both the subject's rediscovery of the object as separate from, as external to, itself and its recognition of the destructive nature of its fantasies, its recognition of fantasy generally. Winnicott captures this moment in the following passage:

    After "subject relates to object" comes "subject destroys object" (as it becomes external); and then may come "object survives destruction by the subject." But there may or may not be survival. A new feature thus arrives in the theory of object relating. The subject says to the object: "I destroyed you," and the object is there to receive the communication. From now on the subject says: "Hullo object!" "I destroyed you." "I love you." "You have value for me because of your survival of my destruction of you." "While I am loving you I am all the time destroying you in unconscious fantasy." (90)

The importance of this moment in the Winnicottian scheme of things cannot be overstated. It represents a kind of rebirth for the subject in the recognition of the object's reality. The object's survival of destructiveness, its lack of retaliation, its being "there to receive the communication" are everywhere here. For these characteristics of the object are what enable the subject to experience love in the genuine sense of that word, love for another as other and not the product of the subject's "projective mental mechanisms." This is what enables the object to "contribute-in to the subject, according to its own properties" (90). It is what enables the object to be used.

     There is, as is not uncommon in Winnicott, a genuine paradox here. Fantasized destruction, "the quality of 'always being destroyed,'" is what contributes (from the subject's point of view) to the reality of the object, its "object-constancy" and its ability to "feed back other-than-me substance into the subject" (93-94). At the same time, this nurturing in turn contributes to "the subject's sense [of its own] aliveness" (Eigen 1981:415), to its ability to see itself as an object, as (presumably) something that could be used as well. "In this way," Winnicott writes, "a world of shared reality is created" (94), a "world of objects" (90) each of which is separate and unique. Again, survival is everything. It is the object's survival of, its lack of retaliation for, the subject's destructive fantasies that alone enables the subject to grow, and to be able to regard both the object and itself as independent entities.

     How then does the myth of the resurrection mirror these processes? Let us step back for a moment and view the Gospels from a distance. They were written, of course, in a variety of different contexts and for a variety of different audiences (Perrin 1977). At the core of each of them, however, lies the passion and death of Jesus and, with the probable exception of Mark, his return, his reappearance. Like all narratives, these invite participation in the story. They invite identification on the part of their readers with the main figures and situations, both with those who betrayed and murdered Jesus and with Jesus himself--that is, both with those who acted out their destructive fantasies and with the object they destroyed. Thus, the narrative gives its audience the opportunity to reenact one of the most basic developmental patterns, the destruction/survival/rebirth pattern we have been examining here. It does this by inviting the reader to experience the destructive drives that contribute to human development both from the point of view of those who act them out and from the point of view of their object, from both points of view at once.

     That object, of course, is depicted in the Gospels as a figure who attracted both devotion and animosity, a highly cathected figure and therefore one vulnerable to "radical decathexis" (Green 1978:184).3 The Gospels stress, among other things, Jesus' patience, his mildness, his remarkable capacity to heal. Above all, Jesus is depicted as good, as loving, as kind, especially to those considered socially unacceptable and to children, and his teachings are depicted as capable, if followed, of bringing about the reign of universal love. As they are represented, his betrayal and crucifixion constitute destructive acts of the most basic and primitive sort, the acting out in reality of unconscious destructive fantasies that serve to threaten this love.

     But the Gospels also depict Jesus' resurrection, his survival of those destructive attacks. History, the "facts," are of little relavance here. What matters is what Jesus' resurrection meant to those who believed it and what it symbolizes for those who continue to do so. And, as it is depicted, that survival of, that lack of retaliation for, destructive impulses represents Jesus' capacity to love, even more importantly, to "be there to recieve" love when it comes, even from those who attempted to destroy him or those who acquiesced in that attempt. Thus the resurrection story provides a clear analogue to Winnicott's account of the destruction/survival paradigm. Like the mother whom the infant believes it has destroyed but who is always there, continuing to love, like the object of the subject's destructive fantasies which remains constant despite them, Jesus is depicted as harboring no urge to retaliate, no urge to pay back those who betrayed or even murdered him. His attitude is one of infinite forgiveness, just the sort of forgiveness that makes possible "the explosion of the introjection-projection circle" (Eigen 1981:415) dramatized above: "'Hullo object!'" 'I destroyed you.' 'I love you.' 'You have value for me because of your survival of my destruction of you'" (italics added). It is Jesus' "quality of 'always being destroyed'" that makes him an object, in Winnicott's terms, that can be used, that is, experienced as something external, something independent, "wholly other." Because Jesus is not only always being destroyed (in fantasy) but also always surviving that destruction, he stands, so to speak, "outside the area of omnipotent control," outside "the area of objects set up by ... projective mental mechanisms" (1969:94). He is, in fact, completely autonomous. What is crucial about this quality of externality in the account, however, is the way it frees those who believe in Jesus' survival of the (their unconscious) attacks upon him to "live in a world of objects ... a world of shared reality." This is because, being external, being experienced against "a backcloth of unconscious destruction," Jesus has now achieved "object-constancy," has become an object of trust and, having become an object of trust, can "feed back other-than-me substance," especially love, into those who trust him. But there is a price. The experience of Jesus' independent reality and continuing love is possible only with the "acceptance of the ongoing destruction in unconscious fantasy relative to object relating" (90), that is, only if the believer is able to acknowledge the permanence of his destrucive impulses, or what Christianity calls "sin."

     The theologian Rowan Williams has argued that the essence of the resurrection doctrine is "the invitation to recognize one's victim as one's hope" (1982:11), and that "to recognize my victim as my hope involves the recognition of the fact that I victimize, and of the identity of my victim" (19). This involves, Williams says, both self-discovery and discovery of the other, in this case, Jesus, "the symbolic figure who transcends to order of human violence, a figure first to be identified with my victim and then with myself, in a continuing process of mediation and reinterpretation" (25). What Williams does not recognize is that part of that "continuing process" involves the continuing reenactment of processes outlined by Winnioctt, not only the acknowledgement of one's own destructive impulses but "the development of the capacity of concern" for the other and for what the other has come to represent, and the eventual transition from object-relating to object-use that produces "a world of shared reality." Jesus' symbolic, transcendent status is a measure of the "object-constancy" believers grant him in the process. He has become, quite literally, the symbol of trust.

     From this Winnicottian reading of the resurrection story I think it is possible to see why the account would have such (relatively) lasting appeal, as a "symbol," as "a vehicle of human self-interpretation and a challenge to human self-interpretation" (Williams 1982:26). The figure of Jesus is, on some level, a maternal imago, or at least one who, in our culture at least, represents certain strikingly (albeit stereotypically) feminized qualities: patience, nurturance, the ability to love (Bynum 1984). (He represents other qualities, of course, but they are not as relevant here.) And Jesus' murder embodies, on some level, the infant's fantasized destruction of the loved object, its radical decathexis. The violence of the act, the assault on Jesus' body, his hands, his feet, his side, is fundamental here. The crucifixion (as it is represented) is an essentially corporeal act. As a representation of destrucive drives, it could not be more brutally honest. Jesus is the body in pain, the pain human beings inflict, in fantasy or in reality, upon one another from infancy on. This is Jesus' "quality of 'always being destroyed,'" the correlate of the Christian sense of sin. Yet if Jesus, as an analogue of the mother or of the loved object, is "'always being destroyed,'" he is also always surviving, always not retaliating against those who, in their "sinfulness," destroy him; rather he is always waiting for and accepting their love. He is, in fact, in his survival of destructive impulses and in his refusal to relatiate, the embodiment of "object-constancy," of trust and love.

     These elements are at least part of what accounts for the tremendous potency of the myth of the resurrection for those who believe in it, the way it simultaneously reenacts the destruction of the loved object and its survival, the possibility of continued love. Two essential things are acknowledged by the account--destructiveness, which, according to Winnicott, "creates the quality of externality" in things, and the survival of that destructiveness, which makes it possible for the object "to feed back other-than-me substance in to the subject." A doctrine, a "symbol" that acknowledged less to its believers would tell only part of the story. This one manages, for those who are able to accept its full consequences, a good deal more, feeds "back other-than-me substance into" them as well.

     It might now be possible to see why a sacrament like that of the eucharist has such appeal. Winnicott had already made a few observations on the symbolic function of the sacrament for Catholics and Protestants in his paper on transitional objects. "For the Roman Catholic community," he observes, the bread "is the body [of Christ], and for the Protestant community, it is a substitute, a reminder, and is essentially not, in fact, actually the body itself" (1953: 6). This points to differences in the ways the two communities experience potential space, how much illusion, how much play it tolerated. But in both traditions the body, or the bread that "is" or symbolises the body, is eaten; it is incorporated, in a way that reenacts the infant's incorporation of the mother, her breast, the nourishment from her body. In both the infant's interaction with the mother and in the religious rite, something disappears, is destroyed.

     In both cases, the mouth is the vehicle of that disappearance, that destruction. Yet in both cases, something survives. In the case of the infant, what survives is the mother, who remains as she was despite the "id-drives" directed against her body and who can begin to become, on account of her survival and lack of retaliation, a symbol of object-constancy (the way other transferential objects will in later life, under analogous circumstances). In the case of the sacrament, it is Jesus himself who survives both bodily and symbolically--that is, both in his physical (or spiritual) body, represented by the bread and wine, and in the spiritual body represented in Christian doctrine by the community, in the spirit of love between its members. Every time the believer takes the sacrament, he must acknowledge his own destructiveness (in eating the wafer, the symbol of the body, or the actual body itself) and his own faith that the love-object survives and continues to love. Thus, the sacrament, like the account of the resurrection, involves destructiveness, yet involves it as something that can become, under the right circumstances, ultimately creative of a world of shared reality which can be used by those who share it.

     We have been talking about symbols and the developmental origins of their potency and appeal. There should be, I hope, nothing reductive in this. In fact, our account should only render those aspects of the Christian myth and practice of which we have been exploring the psychological roots all the more noteworthy. After all, this account gives us a way of seeing them in a new, and perhaps more deeply human, light, as arising "out of human nature" and not imposed "from outside" (Winnicott 1968: 143). Read, as we have been reading them, in a Winnicottian context, they are representations of some of the most basic human drives and impulses--destructiveness and the painfully achieved capacity for "object-constancy" and trust. For--and this is where Winnicott differs so profoundly from Freud--symbolic and therefore cultural representations of the sort we have been examining here are not necessarily expressions of the human impulse to escape or avoid painful "reality." They can be powerful ways of facing, indeed of creating, reality, of continuing a process, begun nearly at birth, a process of making things, including both transitional and cultural objects, that render experience a bit more comprehensible. This is called "reality-testing." It takes place in the "intermediate area of experiencing" (Winnicott 1953:2) where we have just been.  


End Notes

1 I am treating the resurrection story as myth here not in the pejorative sense but to describe a story that appeals on a "primorial" level to some of the most basic human impulses and needs and that "provides the structure of identity and cohesion of particular human groups and ways of life" (Wilder 1976:73-74). I am aware, of course, that the Gospels contain separate and at times contradictory accounts of the resurrection story and that differences between those accounts are profoundly revealing in themselves of the different intentions and and audiences of their "authors." But that is not my concern here. My concern is with the general account of the resurrection that can be gathered from all of them and that serves as the object of Christian belief: that Jesus suffered, died, and rose again. For a good summary of differences and some of the reasons for them, see Perrin (1977).

2 cf. Melanie Klein: "Here is a benign circle, for in the first place we gain trust and love in relation to our parents, next we take them, with this love and trust, into ourselves; and then we can give from this wealth of loving feelings to the outer world again" (1937: 115)

3 Green uses this term to clarify what he takes Winnicott to mean by destructiveness in "The Use of an Object." "Hence," Green writes, "what we are concerned with is a succession of libidinal or aggressive cathexes and of decathexes which abolish the preceding cathexes and the objects linked to them. When carried to an extreme, such decathexes lead to psychic death." This could be said to be the fate of Judas.

Works Cited


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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Brooke Hopkins, Ph.D. "Jesus And Object-Use: A Winnicottian Account Of The Resurrection Myth". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available May 24, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: October 1, 2005, Published: March 15, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Brooke Hopkins, Ph.D.