Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Day 11 of Fun-a-Day. All month I post a blog-a-day on various subjects. Go figure.

Having just read and really tried to digest Steven Davison's post What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Fellowship & the Angel of the Meeting, I want to write a little bit about the role of projection in religious leadership. 

To summarize the very fine post by Steven Davison would be challenging, because it has many aspects, but I'll pull out some of it. In it, he is working to articulate the angel of meeting, and its role for ministers in their leadership within a community, either a home community or in traveling ministry. His lived experience of angels of meetings led him to explore contemporary modeling of how to ascertain this angel and how to engage with the information and communion with these angels for the purposes of moving meeting communities, ministering to their needs, and effectively responding the inner Teacher who calls ministry out of us. But you should read it.

He does a lot of great question generation for working on ascertaining the angel, and makes even better connections to Walter Wink's work. Quoting extensively from Unmasking the Powers about this angel of the church, "[that] exist[s] in, with, and under the material expressions of the church’s life as its interiority. ...,"(p 71, from Davison's post) Davison brings out the ministerial lessons that this angel can offer us.

There is a striking couple of sentences early on in his piece, in defining his experience with these angels, that struck me and has stayed with me.

"I have never experienced the angel of my own meetings, but that is because they are partly a manifestation of myself as one of the meeting’s members. That’s what the angel is, the spirituality of a meeting, and thus a projection, if you will, of all its members. It’s really hard to spiritually commune with your own true self."

Two pieces are really powerful here. First there is this admission that it is really hard to commune with your true self. That is no joke. It’s hard because it is a discipline and practice that some traditions have as their central work and vocation. And second, Steven Davison calls this spiritual manifestation of the angel of a meeting a projection of a true self—or maybe many true selves, as members gather together. This is very interesting to me.

Full disclosure, my bias and perspective is distinctly psychological here. So there’s that. Davison is writing from a theological/spiritual and sociological perspective in his very fine piece.

Projection, from where I am sitting, is about the taking of an aspect of self and placing outside of the self. Projection is a fundamental function of xenophobia and racism. We recognize aspects of the inhuman in ourselves, and we project it outward onto those who are less powerful, or on those we secretly identify with, but need to distance ourselves from, for some reason.
Bread and Puppet: kings and queens
of symbolic projection

Projection is the thing that stalled me most definitely from seeking ordained leadership in a church, before I really understood myself to be a Quaker in the liberal tradition, which does not ordain leaders in their meetings. In seminary, I took a course, a really brilliant course, called Re-visioning the Power of Leadership in the Church. Leave it to my lefty seminary, Episcopal Divinity School, to offer this course. This course was about projection, or at least that's what stays with me 16 years later.

The course was specifically trying to help folks seeking ordination to think critically about projection in their role as pastor in a church.  Unchecked, projection can lead to all kinds of abuses of power. A parishioner in need of succor comes to feel love for a pastor because the pastor is making it possible for her to project a parental feeling onto the pastor. The pastor can seem like a parent to the parishioner. How the pastor handles this projection is crucial for appropriate leadership, as well as empowerment of the parishioner. The truth is the parishioner has the parent within their self, the resources and ability to heal their self. A responsible model of ministry recognizes this and builds towards it pastorally, structurally.

But projection goes both ways. The pastor also projects, also separates aspects of their selves to good or ill effect. In the same situation, a pastor might project their own struggle onto a person coming with a need, making it harder for that pastor to serve that parishioner. Or, the pastor might project a family feeling onto that person, making it easier to connect. I remember a brilliant exercise, where we were asked to identify a mentor or person we looked up to—I chose George Lakey. We were then asked to repeat this in pairs—to say, I love the George Lakey in me, and then proceed to name aspects of that person’s identity as a part of ourselves.  

By doing this, I was able to identify with in a deeper way the parts of myself I had projected onto him. But then there were aspects of him that I was not—male, middle aged, working class, etc. As I said to myself-- I love the man in me, I love the middle aged in me, I love the working class man in me, I smiled, recognizing the dissonance, and the sense of melting limits. It was powerful, playful, and taught me a lot about owning my own projection.

Not that this stopped it at all. I feel like we humans are a bundle of projections, for good or ill. In another post I talk about splitting, an extreme and terrible aspect of this. Projection frightens me. And it's in the fabric of our relating.

But I wonder, what would it look like if we did this—I love the angel in me. I love the wild winged life in me. I love the God talk in me. I love the connection in me. I love the best and worst in me. I love the meeting in me. I love the angel in me. 

Steven Davison’s post did a lot to open up the possibility that projection can be a good thing, a way to name what we put out of ourselves, and the good that can come of it, in a gathered meeting. It also reminded me of the lessons of that class. And although I still feel grounded and committed to listening within for the welling up of the Teacher to speak through me in meeting, I am beginning to feel like the hovering angels of our best nature are there, too, within and without, calling us to commune, and move, and grow together.

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