The Personalist Project

Accessed on August 05, 2020 - 12:19:15

The problem of projection

Katie van Schaijik, Jun 04, 2009

I agree whole-heartedly with the substance of Michael Healy’s evaluation of Christopher West’s presentation last night. But I’d like to press one point of (perhaps) contention a bit.

In the course of his talk, Christopher made this very true remark:

If someone realizes he is in bondage to alcohol, he shouldn’t go where people are drinking. But he has no right to project his own bondage onto our freedom (to condemn us as imprudent because we go into a bar.) Similarly, if a person’s entire idea of sex is skewed by lust, he will have a tendency to project his own distorted attitude onto others. He will interpret any discussion of sex as salacious in itself. In such cases, his accusations against frank, but morally wholesome talk of sex only serve to expose his own impurity.

That’s true. It happens all the time.

But I thought CW might go further than this. He seemed to me to suggest once or twice (including in his response to the last question) that anyone who reacts negatively to his explicitness thereby exposes his own impurity. If that’s what he meant, then I think he goes too far.

Is it not more than possible that some of the criticisms come from a place not of prudishness, but of deep reverence for the sexual sphere and deep sensitivity to its intimate and morally delicate and dangerous nature? Objections in such cases have nothing to do with a projection of salaciousness onto Christopher West or a cramped uptightness in ourselves. They are motivated rather by a true Christian concern for how such talk might hit the ear and affect the imagination of a young teenager or of a person who is struggling with concupiscence or striving for heroic purity—or with a concern for safeguarding virtue and cultivating a sense of the essential mysteriousness of sex.

For instance, I have a friend who comes across as morally balanced and solid in his faith. He was dedicated to God from youth. He went to Franciscan University, dated girls, and expected to enjoy marriage someday, until the moment he unexpectedly heard God calling him to the priesthood. He said yes, though with natural fear and trembling. In seminary, he had to struggle to “change his mind” from that of a man looking forward to marriage to that of a man ready to renounce sex for life. He told me that Christopher West’s presentation at his seminary was an unhappy experience—not because he disagreed with his basic message, but because it was too graphic. It put images in his head that he didn’t want—not because they were ugly or impure, but because they were too vivid. He said, “I really didn’t need to be picturing him and his wife like that.”

Now, this was probably 15 years ago. It may be that West has dialed down the graphic factor since. I hear that he has. Certainly there was nothing objectionably explicit in his talk last night. Mike Healy (that von Hildebrandian intellectual) was much more explicit than CW was. But I think the anecdote serves to make my point. Discomfort with explicitness may be evidence of a hang-up in the person who feels it. But it need not be, and if we assume it is, we are committing a projection of our own.