The Personalist Project

Back in May, we talked about the trouble and complications “projection” can cause.  As Caryll Houselander explains, projection means

judg[ing] people by our own reactions, fears and desires.  We do not see them as separate people who possess their own souls and live their own lives, but as part of ourselves and our lives….we attribute to them motives which we would have in the same circumstances.

People who walk around imagining they’re privy to the inmost depths of other people’s souls are hard to live with, and conflicts with them are difficult to resolve.    

Besides projection, we all use various kinds of guesswork and construction to fill in the blanks about other people: what they’re really saying, what motivates them, what they’re liable to do next, and how they see us.

For example, as a brand-new expatriate in Barcelona, I didn’t really speak the language yet, but I had to pretend I did.  Anxious to move beyond touristhood,

and armed with four years of high school Spanish, I  achieved maybe 20% comprehension, 80% befuddlement.  I replaced the befuddlement with guesswork and hoped for the best.  The percentages gradually reversed themselves.  (With my children it was more dramatic: after two weeks in nursery school they moved from 100% cluelessness to 100% fluency.)

Some guesswork, projection, and bias are inevitable.  Our cognitive contact with all reality passes by way of our own conscious experience.   We have to make some assumptions about other people’s internal states if we’re going to communicate at all. 

But what happens when we project our insecurities, our pride, our defense mechanisms, our hurt feelings—onto God Himself?

Some recent atheist memes inspired this question.  They portray a “God” who seems bossy, manipulative and none too bright.  Or one who’s uncertain about His place in the scheme of things, or just in a bad mood.  (I was going to post some, but they range from depressing silliness to ugly blasphemy.  The more I looked, the less I wanted to share.)

Of course, the ones who post them think it’s believers who are doing the constructing--that  our “God” is the result of Christians projecting human traits into thin air and then imagining Someone to embody them.  They ridicule this fictional being and imagine they’ve disproved the existence of the one true God.

Believers aren’t immune, though.  Christians also project onto God our faulty attempts at unconditional love and end up with a distorted and shrunken version of His love for us.   Thus, we understand His commandments as a contradiction of His claim to love us, like this:

(This is actually one of those atheist memes, but it expresses a misunderstanding of love and law that isn’t always as foreign to the Christian mind as it should be.)

It’s worth examining our own preconceptions to see if maybe we’re constructing a false god in our image and likeness.  If we are, it can distort our prayer life from beginning to end.  It can lead to deep misunderstandings about what He wants from us, and we can spend our lives anxiously trying to earn His good opinion.  Or we can miss the point entirely, just asking Him (as one clueless new husband reportedly asked his bride), “What’s the least I need to do to keep you happy?” 

The whole subject of what God’s love is really like has been on my mind lately since it’s so central to Fr. Michel Esparza’s Amor y Autoestimasoon, God willing, to be available from Scepter as Love and Self-Esteem.  (My translation is done; now it goes to the editor.)

What does God see in us?  On the one hand, we have all our worst qualities and actions, and our conviction that an omniscient God sees them too, only more clearly.  On the other is our theoretical belief that He loves us anyway. 

This is hard to make sense of.  

We might imagine it's kind of like a mother showing unconditional love to an undeserving child. 

 But a mother may love a child for his inheritance of her own favorite qualities, or her love may be mixed with manipulativeness or a desire for appreciation.  Even a good mother may be proud or needy or insecure or unreliable or impatient.

God is none of these things.

It’s not just His sinlessness that makes Him different, though: it’s His ability to give of Himself without reserve.  Here, too, He’s doing something outside our experience.  As Fr. Esparza points out, you can only give what you possess—and we don’t possess ourselves, not fully.  We can give time, gifts, affection—but our self isn’t fully ours to give. 

But God’s is.  He gives of Himself without stint, without reservation.  To the extent we can receive Him, we’re united with Him—not just “in a relationship” with Him, but one with Him.   He doesn’t have parts; therefore, He doesn’t give Himself partially.  

All this is so far outside any natural experience of ours that you can see why St. Paul would say that now we see “through a glass, darkly” and why we'd want to press on past all the projections, constructions, and preconceptions to get on to the part where we see Him “face to face” and know “even as we are known.”

Comments (6)

Patrick Dunn

#1, Sep 28, 2012 9:24am

I would like to read the English translation of Love and Self-Esteem when it is available.  Can you keep me/us posted on when it will be out?

Thank you!

Devra Torres

#2, Sep 28, 2012 9:52am

Patrick, I'll definitely do that.  The first part of the book, which I posted about earlier, is enlightening in that it focuses on antrhropology--what happens to the human being who manages rightly ordered self-love, and what happens to the one who falls for the superficial feel-good version of self-esteem.  But the second part is theological, and it paints a picture of God that is certainly compatible with all orthodox teaching about Him but is somehow brand new--it sheds new light on how justice and mercy work together and how God can hate evil and love us at the same time.  It helped me get rid of an unexamined sense that He just looks away from our sins and is nice to us anyway, because He's good, and replace it with a conviction that He really desires union with us.  

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Sep 28, 2012 10:28am

Devra, ever since that "construct not, either" post, I've been thinking about it and wanting to write another, titled, "go ahead, construct."  :)  If I ever get to it, it won't be a disagreement, I think, but a different angle on the same fascinating phenom.  

I mean, I'll want to try to show that it's not just a lamentable tendency of our fallen nature that we "construct", but a power and exellence of the human intelligence.  But that's for later.

Here I want to push back a little on one part of this great post: can only give what you possess—and we don’t possess ourselves, not fully.  We can give time, gifts, affection—but our self isn’t fully ours to give. 

Didn't we learn in grad school that "self-possession" is almost the definition of personhood? Of course we don't possess ourselves absolutely, and a given individual can have weak or strong "self-possession", but it seems to me that when even mere mortal love truly, we're not just giving "stuff" (like time) or parts of ourselves, we're giving ourselves, really and truly.  Aren't we?

This is especially true in marriage.  I give myself; I receive him.

Devra Torres

#4, Sep 28, 2012 10:56am

Oh, I know!  In fact, I wrote my master's thesis on "time and self-possession in the human person," so I do believe there is such a thing! It's definitely a point that deserves more attention than I could give, and I try to keep posts under a thousand words.  I might have done better to skip it.

Yes, we possess ourselves in many different senses: we're placed "in our own hands" and with our free will we make of ourselves "somebody" or "somebody else."  And what is going on even when we give time or affection or attention to someone else?  That's not wholly separate from giving ourself, or giving "of ourself."  Even that is something more than an external handing over of "stuff."

So it remains to explore what full or absolute self-possession, as found in God, is, and what the best way to describe our self-possession would be.   

More later, as time permits!

Michael Healy

#5, Sep 28, 2012 9:39pm

Many interesting thoughts Devra.  It's certainly a life-long process to get a clearer and clearer picture of Who God really is and free ourselves from our own narrowness and fears.  "Be not afraid," as JPII always said--with many precedents.  

I also appreciated your description of guesswork and construction in trying to interpret Spanish!  I recently experienced this.  Last month I visited my daughter in Ecuador--she's been a missionary there in Guayaquil with HeartsHome for the past year.  My Spanish was only about 10% comprehension and a full 90% guesswork.  But after a very nice meal with a local family (and the missionaries), when the hostess turned to me with a question about "how [something] was?" I was certain she was asking about the meal.  Therefore, I enthusiastically replied that it was "absolutely delicious!"  Everbody looked just a little startled at this description and then began to smile and giggle--with a few open laughs, but still trying to be polite.

She had asked me how my wife was!

(Maria, fortunately, says she'll take it as a compliment!)

Devra Torres

#6, Sep 30, 2012 10:12am

Katie, I look forward to your post about construction.  I remember someone saying something similar about the placebo effect: instead of treating it like something suspect, since it seems disconnected with reality, we should find ways to use it.  Like construction, it's extremely powerful and useful, though potentially misleading.

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