July 2, 2020

Towards the end of his life — and while suffering from throat cancer in London, having fled from the Nazis — Sigmund Freud embarked upon his most controversial and, to some, weirdest book: Moses and Monotheism (1939). Moses, he argued, wasn’t Jewish at all. He was Egyptian. The whole story about him being hidden in the bulrushes by his Jewish mother, discovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter and brought up as an Egyptian prince, was an elaborate and unconvincing cover story to disguise the simple truth that Moses was, in fact, one of the hated Egyptian overlords. Moreover, Freud contends, the monotheism that Jews regard as their own principle discovery, was, in fact, borrowed from the Egyptians.

Quite understandably, many Jews find Freud’s highly speculative account of their origins deeply offensive. The whole exodus story is supposed to be about how the Jewish people escaped slavery in Egypt and discovered their freedom in the promised land. This story has inspired oppressed people the world over. Exodus freedom was the story that was turned into song and kept the flame of hope alive for African American slaves as they dreamed of justice. The idea that this exodus revolution was itself led by one of the hated overlords, by the Pharaoh’s son himself, is never going to be a popular idea. And Freud had precious little evidence — Biblical or otherwise — to back it up.

It was the Palestinian writer Edward Said who helped me understand Freud’s most difficult text. In a brilliant lecture, ‘Freud and the Non-European’ given at Freud’s old house — now the Freud Museum in Hampstead — in 2003, Said warned us not to expect Moses and Monotheism to be tidy. Freud maintained an “irascible transgressiveness” even towards the end of his life. And Moses and Monotheism is grumpily and defiantly incomplete, messy, confused even.

But intriguingly, the form matches the argument. For, according to Said, what Freud was trying to do in describing Moses as Egyptian was to undermine the idea that Jewish identity — or any other identity for that matter — has uncomplicated origins. To describe Moses as Egyptian is to deny the idea that there is such a thing as some ‘pure’ origin.

Psychoanalysis, among other things, is in the business of exploring the stories we tell about who we are. In his last written work, Freud is warning us that these stories will never be neat, urging us to be distrustful of the desire for uncomplicated or uncorrupted beginnings.

Said writes:

“even for the most definable, the most identifiable, the most stubborn communal identity — for Freud, this was the Jewish identity — there are inherent limits that prevent it from being fully incorporated into one, and only one, Identity.”

He goes on:

“Freud’s symbol of those limits was that the founder of Jewish identity was himself a non-European Egyptian. In other words, identity cannot be thought or worked through itself alone; it cannot constitute or even imagine itself without that radical originary break or flaw which will not be repressed, because Moses was Egyptian, and therefore always outside the identity inside which so many have stood, and suffered — and later, perhaps, even triumphed.

The strength of this thought is, I believe, that it can be articulated in and speak to other besieged identities as well — not through dispensing palliatives such as tolerance and compassion but, rather, by attending to it as a troubling, disabling, destabilizing secular wound — the essence of the cosmopolitan, from which there can be no recovery, no state of resolved or Stoic calm, and no utopian reconciliation even with itself.”

Moses and Monotheism is intended as a spanner in the works of the perfect story of where we come from. It was the argument that came to mind when I took Tom Holland’s Confession a few years ago. Holland made the fascinating point that the empty sands of Arabia present a kind of pure and perfect beginning out of which a religion like Islam, concerned especially with purity, might readily imagine itself to have emerged from.

The way Holland explained it, the desert felt like the Islamic equivalent of the virgin womb: undefiled, pure, holy. The perfect place for a perfect beginning. And in challenging this account of Islam’s origins, as Holland did in his controversial 2012 documentary Islam: The Untold Story, he was courting a similar hostility to that which Freud received after describing Moses as one of the hated Egyptian overlords.

One of the things I have especially appreciated about the Church of England is that a narrative about purity of origins is not available to it. The Church of England was created because Henry VIII was a megalomaniacal sex-pest whose ego was so huge and fragile he would take no lessons from the bishop of Rome. In the course of its foundation, this new church was complicit with the destruction of the monasteries and an infrastructure of care that sustained the poorest in our society. The Church of England was born in shame.

And what is true about the Church of England is doubly true of the Anglican Communion. The worldwide Anglican Communion was the religious by-product of British imperial expansion. The church may like to tell the story of William Wilberforce and its part in the struggle against slavery. But many of its clergy owned slaves, and one of its largest mission agencies was funded for over a century by a slave plantation in Barbados. Slaves in that plantation were branded on the chest with the word “Society” to indicate they were the property of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Income from that plantation was used to fund missionary activity converting Africans to Christianity.

So why do I say that this shameful past is something that I have “appreciated” about being a priest in the Church of England? It was a hard word to pick. But Christianity is fundamentally the story of redemption. That is what is so appealing about it to a sinner like me. And redemption doesn’t work by pretending we have a beautiful past.

I’m quite sure Freud was wrong about Moses. But I think he was exactly right about people. And the reason I “appreciate” psychoanalysis nearly as much as I do the Church is that it works by the uncovering of a shameful past, something we deny to ourselves, of what Said calls the “wound”, so as, at the very least, to help us to find some way of facing it, of living with it. Many will disagree, but I also think of psychoanalysis as a quasi-redemptive exercise.

So let’s not pull down the statues to our shameful past. Both religiously and psychologically, they remind us of how much work we have to do, of the complicity of the faithful with the forces of evil, of how even our best intentions can be requisitioned by darkness. From here there is “no state of resolved or Stoic calm, and no utopian reconciliation even with itself”. That’s too easy. We can never have that, nor do we deserve it. No, we seek redemption. And we must search for that while surrounded by the statues that condemn us.