Let’s muse about one of the most persistent criticisms of religion: that religious beliefs are nothing more than a projection of human values and needs onto something we call God.
We hear this critique from atheists, humanists, and even those that believe in God but have a reasonable faith – as in faith that is reason-bound. The charge is that God is nothing more than a cosmic projection onto which human beings cast our unfulfilled desires, hopes, and needs.
I feel no personal need to argue with such critics or defend religion in general and Christianity in particular. This musing is for the rest of us, not the critics. For many of the rest of us, we also wonder about God from time to time, and sometimes with urgency.
It is obvious we anthropomorphize God by projecting onto the divine such human traits as love, justice, goodness, and even judgment, anger, or revenge. Many of the least credible stories and observations in the Bible have to do with explicit projections of these human attributes onto the God of the universe. After all, this cosmic Biblical god is even named the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and we couldn’t get more humanized than naming it after ancestors.
In short, the critics of religion point out that even modern and progressive Christians have done exactly what the Greeks did with their Nature deities, and clearly that makes our faith suspect.
In response to this criticism, that religion is nothing but a giant projection of humanness onto God, I say, what else is there?
We have no choice but to project our human attributes onto God because that is all we know. All of those criticisms are true and they are absolutely correct: projection is all we can ever do.
You and I live in our own skins and we cannot somehow magically transcend our humanness. When we look out on the savannah of life and see the grass and trees and elephants, we see them as humans see them and nothing else. We see them as an extension of our human mind and through the portals of our human eyes, and we reach for them with the tentacles of our human touch.
We must anthropomorphize God for that is all we know. And, that is as it should be. What is religious experience (mysticism) other than an encounter with God through the imagination?
The mystics describe passionate, even erotic bodily experiences with God through their imaginations – both in wakefulness and in dreams. Reading Hafiz, Rabia of Basra, and Julian of Norwich is to feel the heat of an encounter with God aroused by a bodily experience. Or even exquisite Japanese Haiku from Zen masters, their imagination entering a snow draped lotus pedal, delivers a gracious insight via a visceral imaginative moment. God aside, even poetry and prose that seeks to capture and hold Nature is done through the projection of human experience.
The critics of religion are both right and wrong.
They are right in pointing out that God is a projection of human traits upon the cosmic unknown. They are wrong in their presumption that that is all God is. Critics see our projections, scoff at them, and miss the presence of the holy that dances on the other side of a sheer veil.
One thing we can do to improve our own vision is to intensify our projections, in the way that Gestalt therapy might do. By this I mean, name our projections, bring them up out of the background of ordinariness, and intensify them. Instead of pretending we can somehow get outside or beyond our projections, we ought to exaggerate them.
It is in knowing very well the filters through which we perceive the world (and God) that we will come to better recognize the God who is on the other side of our projection.
So, for example, I cherish the biblical prophetic notion that God desires justice but loves mercy. That is the God I both hope for and seek. I know that I am projecting my own experience. I need a god that is more merciful than just because otherwise I am swimming in deep sewage. Getting clear with myself about that need for mercy, even though in life I often desire justice more than mercy for other people, allows me to peel away some of the husks that keep me insulated. It allows me to see my projections as projections and then, maybe, sometimes, notice the movement of other things in the field around me.
The clearer we are about what we are projecting, the clearer we will be about our needs, our core values, our deepest desires, and our fondest hopes. It is when we sit under the tree of those things that we often encounter God most intimately.