The Christian Energy Suck: On the Cathexis of Politics

Many of you may be following the James Wood and Tim Keller debate about Christian involvement with politics. The conversation started with Wood's article "How I Evolved on Tim Keller" in First Things. People like David French responded. And then Wood followed up with a response to those responses. There's been a lot of commentary about all these articles.

In brief, the debate concerns the shape of Christian political engagement in an increasingly post-Christian world. Should Christian political engagement be winsome and non-partisan (Keller) or more aggressive and partisan (Wood)? 

While I have opinions about that question, what I want to share is a deeper concern about this debate and debates like them.

Stated simply, my worry concerns the cathexis of politics within the Christian psyche. 

Coined by Freud, the word "cathexis" comes from the psychodynamic tradition in psychology. A cathexis is an unhealthy concentration of mental energy on a person, idea or object. The word "fixation" is a related concept, as we become "fixated," to an unhealthy degree, where there is a concentration of mental energy and investment. Along with "fixation," "obsession" is another word that points to a cathexis. 

You can think of a cathexis as a "hot spot" in the psyche, a "gravity well" that creates a mental orbit, even a kind of "black hole" that sucks up available energy. And that's a key notion in psychodynamic thinking, how our mental energy is a finite resource. Our various cathexes, fixations and obsessions hurt us because they suck up mental energy, leaving us less energy to allocate, devote and invest in other areas of our lives. Like the pull of a large gravitational mass in space, a strong cathexis warps and distorts the psyche causing it to become twisted and imbalanced.  

Given that, let me restate my concern. Politics has become a cathexis in the Christian psyche. Like a psychic black hole, the power of this cathexis is warping and distorting the Christian mind, heart and soul. Worse, the cathexis of politics is sucking up all the available mental and emotional energy, energy that needs to be directed toward other pressing endeavors and concerns.

So, my concern about the Wood/Keller debate has less to do with the debate itself. I expect that Christian opinions will differ regarding how to engage politics in a post-Christian culture. Fine. Express your opinions. My bigger worry is the energy suck, how the debate itself is symptomatic of the warping of the Christian mind. The Christian psyche is currently orbiting the nation state with an unhealthy, distorting, and morbid fixation. 

To be clear, I think it's perfectly appropriate for Christians to be involved in democratic politics. Feel free to vote and be politically engaged. The issue involves the cathexis of politics in the Christian psyche, the unhealthy concentration of psychic energy being devoted to the state and electoral politics. Psychic energy is a precious and limited resource, and every bit of energy sucked up by the cathexis of politics is energy that could be devoted to your family, your friendships, your church, your creativity, your spiritual formation, and your works of mercy in the local community. 

Who is right, Keller or Wood? Perhaps our interest in that question, and the energy suck of my writing this post, is a sign that the battle has already been lost.    

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