In the first semester of my freshman year at Illinois Wesleyan University I wrote an essay and titled it “Is God a Teddy Bear?” I was exploring the psychological roles of anchoring for personal security in a god and the projection of good and bad attributes onto one’s idea of god. This was based naturally in the different characterizations of gods as judgmental, oppressive, vindictive at one end of the spectrum to loving, generous, and forgiving at the other end. These seem to be tied to personal experiences with parents, leaders, and others, to degrees of stress in environment, and the coping mechanisms we adopt for dealing with them and for understanding ourselves. The result for me was not only an “A” on the paper, but also a crisis in my own faith that lasted throughout the year.
If I was only praying to and worshipping an aspect of myself projected onto an idea of a personal being, there was not much power in my activity. If I was refusing or delaying the mature behavior of taking responsibility for myself and for my own potential, even when connected to other people, then such worship provided no service that could be characterized as healthy, “saving,” or mature. Worshipping oneself, even as a projected self, is a dead end. I began to think of the practices of devotion that I had exercised increasingly during my adolescence as an echo chamber that simply revealed to myself what I was thinking. Obviously I was on the wrong track in planning to be a minister, and I began to think of a career in psychology instead, or perhaps I should return to my earlier interest in anthropology. The immediate dilemma was practical—my scholarship was tied to my status as a pre-theological student, and IWU had a psychology department which was devoted to behavioral psychology only, with its theoretical foundations in B. F. Skinner, whose work did not inspire me in the least.
I wanted to believe. The means to that end seemed to be retreating, and the awareness of my practical and psychological needs only accelerated the retreat. Even the fact that my own projections were positive, based in loving parents and family, and helpful, intelligent advisors and mentors, did not provide the answer if they were only projections. Relying on the faith of others does not provide a substitute for one’s own faith. My advisor for my work with the Illinois Conference Methodist Youth Fellowship noted that sometimes we “act our way” into belief. We continue to do as much as we know how to do until the ultimate goal becomes real for us. I knew “how to act” but the advice did not deliver me from the circle of my own subjectivity. The college chaplain suggested that the analogy of projection relied not only on a projector but also on a screen; something had to be there to receive the projected image, or something had to be “behind the screen” that was true. While I agreed with the analogical point, it did not construct anything more than an idea of god, not God-as-personally-known-in-the-universe.
I had no idea about what could deliver me from this conundrum, but I continued seeking an answer.