The Buddha opened his eyes and gazed upon the young man. He responded,
“And you look like God!”
Taken aback, the soldier demanded, “What do you mean?”
The Buddha explained, “When we look out at the world we don’t really see what’s there. We project what is within onto whatever meets our gaze. I sit under this tree thinking about God, and when I open my eyes I see God. You must have been thinking about other things.”
This response could have landed a lance in the Buddha’s belly. However, it does contain a truth to be aware of, and a notorious tendency to be countered.
Sometimes I have asked myself why I took a dislike to someone, only to realise on searching my soul that they reflected something I did not like in myself. Thrusting my presumptions and faults onto others is unfair. It is also very self-indulgent because I can then dislike them for ‘their’ faults, and don’t have to acknowledge those faults as mine. It’s self-protective scapegoating.
Projection certainly happens in our human relationships. It is also common in our encounters with animals, and even inanimate objects. Very significantly, we do it to God.
Aptly named ‘projectile vomiting’ provides an earthy – albeit unpleasant – illustration.
(I apologise to the squeamish for conjuring these crass imaginings!).
Imagine someone throwing up on another and then telling the unfortunate person they stink and look disgusting, without acknowledging that it’s really their own inner contents that appal them. Imagine that person saying to the other, “You’re gross. I want nothing to do with you.” Metaphorically, on the interpersonal level, this can happen. I don’t want to associate with you because you reveal what I refuse to accept about myself.
I have witnessed persons accused of attitudes, prejudices and behaviour which have barely been displayed by the accused but have been pronounced aspects of the accuser’s personality and conduct.
For example, I observed one person constantly criticised for allegedly being constantly critical, when there was no basis in reality. The complainant, in fact, seemed compulsively critical. I have also seen uncaring individuals complain, “You don’t care about me” to genuine friends trying to offer consolation and help.
Such situations call to mind Jesus’ observation concerning our tendency to be preoccupied with the speck in another’s eye while oblivious to the plank in our own.
Sometimes, too, we can project goodness onto others that isn’t in them. Children, for example, have to learn not to see all adults as benignly as those who have nurtured them. There are some who will take advantage of the positive misconceptions projected onto them – and will actively foster such projections.
Concerning animals, we have all encountered transference of human thinking and feeling to creatures incapable of such. Evil intentions assigned to the nasty species (think Jaws) is common, as is the application of human motivation to pets for heroism, loyalty and other animal behaviours.
For projection onto inanimate things, consider the times you have seen a face in a cloud, or a ‘ducky’, or the times you have accused your unco-operative car of ‘knowing’ that you had an important appointment the very day it ‘decided’ not to start.
How about God? Possibly the worst casualty of projection of all time!
The Bible tells us God made us in God’s image and likeness. We have spent human history ‘making’ God in our image and likeness. Instead of discovering the good features of the Creator to be found in the creature, we have been busy concocting not-so-good aspects of ourselves which we have then projected onto an innocent God.
The mean have created a mean god. The angry have created an angry god. The lax have created a lax god. The vengeful have created a vengeful god. The cruel have created a callous, whimsical, aggressive god who demands cowed obedience to stave off his wrath.
What could God do about these false characteristics projected upon him? (Yes, even the masculine pronoun is a projection!)
What God did was counter-projection. God projected himself in flesh into our humanity in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the perfect image of the Father.
We look to Jesus in the Scriptures and in prayer so that we can see truly what God is in himself. God is perfect love, the clear-seeing St John tells us.
Still, there is danger. Our propensity to project extends even to Jesus. We make Jesus in our image, too. We can emphasise his mercy and neglect his justice. We can highlight his respect for the Law and downplay his forgiveness. We can spotlight his good actions and overlook his downtime in prayer. We can make much of his compassion, and relegate his insistence on truth to virtual non-existence. We can make our own Jesus to suit us, according to our bias.
Being aware that we are natural-born projectionists is the starting point for us to discern truth. Countering and overcoming the tendency is very challenging. It is a vital challenge, because truth is not something we create but rather something to be discovered. What we discover is infinitely better than anything we could fabricate.
We need to let God project the reality, the truth about himself and ourselves, onto our awareness.
Imagine if we really saw the God who is love in one another.