The Theology of Monsters: Part 3, Monsters and Heros

In my last post I discussed how we fear becoming monsters. We fear the monster within. In the psychoanalytic literature this monstrous impulse has been identified with Freud's notion of the id, the primitive sexual and aggressive impulses within us that, if expressed, destroy "civilized" society. As David Gilmore writes,

[The monster] embodies the existential threat to social life, the chaos, atavism, and negativism that symbolize destructiveness and all other obstacles to order and progress, all that which defeats, destroys, drawsback, undermines, subverts the human project--that is, the id.
One way of defending against the id is to engage in the defense mechanism of projection. Projection is a form of paranoia or fear where the unwanted aspects of the self are projected onto other people. Projection also facilitates displacement. That is, anger or loathing that originates with the self can be displaced onto a despised individual or group.

Jesus was hitting at the mechanisms of projection and displacement when he said:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
That is, it's a lot easier to rage about someone else's hypocrisy than confront your own. In fact, my wars against hypocrisy might be allowing me to avoid confronting my own darkness.

There have been a few visible examples of this in the media. Take, for example, this clip from Ted Haggard in the documentary Jesus Camp:

Sadly (because it would be ironic to take glee in this incident given Jesus' admonition above), this clip was in wide release when Haggard's sexual issues were making national headlines. More recently, consider this recent article, now getting a lot of attention, that claims that religiously conservative states are more likely to consume pornography. One line of interpretation for this trend is that we are observing a form of projection: Fighting against gay marriage or sexual immorality is a way of hiding from or failing to deal with one's own sexual problems and addictions. Interestingly, some laboratory studies have shown that arousal toward homosexual pornography is positively correlated with homophobia. That is, those most offended by homosexual persons are those who might be struggling with latent homosexual desires. Again, it's a form of projection.

The point for our reflection on monsters is that monsters are often created by projecting aspects of the self onto others. A monster is created to expel the monster within. This is still a version of the "Self as Monster" thesis noted in the last post, only now the process is blind. As Gilmore writes:
[T]he monster of the mind is always the familiar self disguised as the alien other.
But it's worse than that. By expelling the monster from within, by projecting it onto others, I claim the role of hero. Via projection, I expel the bad aspects of the self and what remains is the good, the hero. Rather than seeing myself honestly, as a mix of hero and monster, I get a simpler moral situation: I'm good and you are bad. I'm the agent of righteousness and you serve wickedness. I am hero and you are monster.

The point is, crusades against "monsters" are often paranoid (as projection is a form of paranoia) and delusional. And if you look at most American crusades against homosexuals, or feminists, or communists, or whatever, you can see the delusional paranoia that taints them all. Monster crusades are psychologically complex and dangerous. Churches should be wary. I, personally, would not want to attend a church that is in hero mode fighting off the world's monsters. Why? Well, because I think the "monster war" would be hiding the projective mechanism that is creating all those monsters. Hiding the mechanism in its communal life and in the hearts of its members.

A healthy church embraces itself as monster. It doesn't create monsters or cast itself as the hero or White Knight. And if it does, I'd start running...

Next Post: Monsters & Scapegoats

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5 thoughts on “The Theology of Monsters: Part 3, Monsters and Heros”

  1. Rich - a wonderful set of meditations on evil and human nature. Very nicely done. Are you not arguing that the heart of evil lies in everyone along with the good ? That being the case then doesn't our challenge become to train ourselves to make the best decisions under stress that we can ? As I understand modern cognitive neuroscience we now know that the lizard-brain and the forebrain are involved in all decisions but which "circuits" are activated and control our actions depend on our training and experiences. So if we want to climb the ladder of sustained good behavior would that not lead us to accept the animal and learn to put our higher selves in control ? The Hindus have an interesting and complex pscychological model of "chakras" which sees the lower self as being driven by the basest instincts, the next higher being driven by the search for power (security)and only thru effort does a commitment to love and kindness, compassion emerge. The next higher level is to act with compassion but also in accord with an un-distorted view of reality and our natures; they view this as Wisdom. And the highest level is one where one has so re-trained the mind that it makes wise decisions and takes compassionate actions by reflex.

  2. Richard - as usual I am in general agreement and you express very well these mechanisms of projection and self-hero justification. I like too the lizard note in the first comment. One of the notes in Wrestling with God and Men - a book on homosexuality in the Jewish Orthodox tradition - is that the Rabbi must be able to kosher a lizard - in multiple ways. One of the powers in the Pauline proclamation on the cross is the power of the death of Jesus to transform our monster - not eliminate it but to use all its desire and power 'differently'. This mechanism is too little known but if known, too little applied - for obvious reasons. It's both very easy and very hard.

    Sometimes I have wondered if it is simply the power to stop and so to allow healing - as if the fundamental faith is in the inherent good among us. Then I remember the reality I am invoking and somehow I seem to know something different about it.

    A church very near me is leaving or trying to leave the Anglican communion. They don't sing the psalms! So they know nothing of their own projections - and I am sure those projections are there.

  3. One of my favorite quotes is Friedrich Nietzche:

    "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

  4. I've sometimes felt quite disconcerted around particular "perfect/crusade" communities, and never been able to verbalise why...
    Thank you, Richard, for providing insight into how to diagnose and describe what was going on.

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