Advent calls us to prepare for the coming of Christ into the world.
Since the dawn of psychology in the nineteenth century, critics of religion have employed the concept of psychological projection to criticise our tendency to form images of god(s) which are – they argue – parts of ourselves misleadingly externalised. For example (Peter Singer writing in 'Hegel: A Very Short Introduction', Oxford University Press, p 84):
Hegel’s target is any religion which divides human nature against itself – and he asserts that this is the upshot of any religion which separates man from God, putting God in a ‘beyond’ outside the human world. This conception of God, he maintains, is really a projection of one aspect of human nature. What the unhappy consciousness does not realise is that the spiritual qualities of God which it worships are in fact qualities of its own self. It is in this sense that the unhappy consciousness is an alienated soul: it has projected its own essential nature into a place forever out of its reach, and one which makes the real world in which it lives seem, by contrast, miserable and insignificant.
The bursting of an incarnate God into this world, affirming this life as the opposite of miserable and insignificant, argues against this characterisation of religion. But, equipped with the insights of psychology, we should take some care that the God whom we welcome at Christmas is indeed God, utterly Other, and not a projection. One of the Biblical God’s most frequent injunctions in the Old Testament is to abjure the worship of manufactured gods, such as carved images. These days we do the carving in our minds.
The classical Advent images of preparation for the incarnation are of darkness and of watchfulness; of waiting for the light of God’s revelation. In many churches an additional candle is lit each week during this season, marking the approach of Christmas. A different way of marking Advent would be to put out candles, increasing the darkness as Christmas (closely following the northern hemisphere’s longest night) approaches. For the candles can represent our inadequate, and partly projected, symbols and conceptions of God. We can put them out to make ready for a new birth: the arrival of One who cannot be captured by our preconceptions.
You created the first darkness as well as the first light.
Help us make ready for your arrival
by emptying ourselves of fixed images
and by putting out familiar lights.
So may we with more open eyes and greater joy
receive you into our lives this Christmas.