The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study

by Ana-Maria Rizzuto, M.D.

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism



This is not a book on religion. It is a clinical study of the possible origins of the individual’s private representation of God and its subsequent elaborations. It is also a study of the relation existing in the secret chambers of the human heart between that God and the person who believes in him during the vicissitudes of the life cycle.


Rizzuto’s interest in this subject was aroused in October 1963, at Condoba, Argentina, under unusual circumstances. I was asked to teach a course for the students of the Pontifical Seminary on “the psychological foundations of belief and pastoral care”. The dean of the seminary offered her complete freedom to teach whatever she thought pertinent and relevant for all who would spend their lives dealing with peoples’ struggles with God and their fellow men. The focus was that all would be engaged in the process of developing a belief in God and the facilitation and interference factors that present themselves during the course of people’s lives, and most specifically during the formative years.


The course became a marvelous learning experience for the author. She learned much about the depths of her own ignorance. She also learned that the pastoral experiences of the seminarians (they were involved in catechistical work), as well as their reflections, seemed to support assumptions about the nature of the process of believing in God.


This study, which began by taking Freud seriously in his honest bafflement with the problem of human religiosity as belief in the Divinity, has taken the author as if by the hand, through an entire reconsideration of the theory of object representation, its symbolic value, its historical importance, and its psychodynamic value. The task is enormous, far-reaching, fascinating.


No single study could be so comprehensive or so painstaking that major mistakes would not lie side by side with useful insights, no matter how careful the thinking or how selective the criteria used to produce a coherent and meaningful frame of reference. Making theory is always a task too big for us.


The richness and depths of human experience, the complexity of psychic phenomena, the convolutions of the private world of man, the limitations of human communication, our ability to repress and distort, our limitations of human communication, and our ability to repress and distort, our inexhaustible capacity to hope and to idealize, make any study of this sort hopelessly complex.


It is therefore only with modesty and humility that one dares to talk in theoretical terms. Theory making consists in adopting a point of view and creating artificial words to name in abstract terms phenomena that are multiple and complex. The resulting theory invariably restricts the scope and depth of the phenomena theorized about.


But theoretical thinking gives us an opportunity to look for new aspects of the phenomena which would have been overlooked in mere observation. It creates new questions that would never have been asked without the theory. By its very existence, theory creates new phenomena for the observing eye. It should be remembered, however, that theory exists to assist in the understanding of complex reality: if it is not reality itself.


Theory is a tool, a short-hand, a vocabulary to identity an aspect of human perception for oneself and for others. It does not create entities, whether they are called the self or God. Theory provides a way of talking about observable phenomena in order to understand the phenomena, they may be accepted, not as truth but as the best explanation so far of what we see.


Restrained by these limitations, and in the context of these humbling remarks, the author still theorizes, trying to understand the object world of my patients as well as their secret hopes, dealings, love, resentments, and fears of their God. This study provides evidence of the complex sources of man’s belief in God.


The author’s work has the limitations of its method. She hopes that those who devote themselves to the scientific study of religion will think about the conclusions and scrutinize them, perhaps confirming some and disregarding others. The methodology is radically different, but certain aspects of the study lends itself to methods of scientific study other than the psychoanalytic method.


The questions the author used for the study are in the back of the book. There are also notes on the questions and adequate references to help read the book. It is a fascinating study and one that provides an aspect of wonder and curiosity about the human person.