God

It's customary for people to think of their gods as bigger and better versions of themselves. The gods are like us, only bigger, stronger, smarter, wiser, superior in all possible ways. In this respect Christians are no different from others. In the 18th century Christians devised the "great chain of being" as their way of understanding God and us. There were degrees of being, from the least and the lowest--lifeless rocks and minerals--, then in an ever increasing order from inferior to superior, plants, animals, women and children(!), men, angels, and, finally, God, the one "than whom no greater could be imagined."

In this way of thinking about God, God is assimilated to the way we, as small children, think about our parents. They are like us, but bigger, stronger, smarter versions of us. We--small and weak and incapable as we are--are utterly dependent on them to protect us, instruct us and discipline us, and provide for all of our needs. Heinz Kohut has written of the small child's need to idealize its parents, to believe that they are wholly capable, wholly dependable, wholly worthy of trust. That need is understandable; without their parents' watchful care children will not survive.

Parents usually provide for their children without being asked to do so. They feed, clothe, and care for their children without requiring any pleas or petitions. Children wouldn't normally think of saying to their parents, "Could you please give me food today? Could you give me something to wear so I can go to school? May I please have a place to sleep tonight?" And parents don't expect such requests. Parents provide these things because they are parents, and providing for their children is what parents do. When children ask their parents for something, they ask for something specific, something special, a particular food or item of dress or toy.

Christians, following the lead of Jesus, are explicitly taught to think of God as a father, or nowadays, a parent or even a mother. And, as Freud has written, they will tend to project onto God the thoughts and feelings they carry toward their own father or mother or toward some idealized version of a parent who might function as a divine surrogate for their own. When a child's parents take care of them lovingly and dependably, the child will find it easy to imagine a divine parent who is at least as loving and dependable as its father and mother. If the child's parents are unavailable, uncaring, cruel, or abusive, either the child will find it impossible to trust that God should be any different or the child will fantasize a god who is everything its parents are not--kind, loving, understanding, protective, generous, always present, always accessible, the ideal father or mother.

Kohut also describes the child's need for "twinship" with significant others, the need to fit in and be like another rather than an alien in a strange land. Friends come to fulfill that need for clones of oneself, others who think and feel and experience life as I do. "Twinship" relationships with peers help adolescents to move away from parents toward adult autonomy. They test being themselves by attaching to peer friends whom they experience as mirrors of themselves.

For Christians God becomes such a friend. In Christian mysticism God becomes a partner who shares life's most intimate experiences with the devout. Renouncing marriage or even close friendships with others, celibate members of religious orders devote themselves exclusively to their relationship with God, their sole friend and companion. The hymn "In the Garden" describes a God who "walks with me and talks with me and calls me his own," and many Christians talk of sharing their day with Jesus, conversing with him, asking his advice, describing their feelings, confessing their shortcomings. For them the admonition to "pray without ceasing" means spending their lives with Jesus, their daily friend and companion.

Although it is congenial to think of God as a parent or friend, when we do so we are, of course, inescapably assimilating God to human models and subjecting God to the limitations we know to be characteristic of human parents and friends. Inevitably God becomes for us a parent or a friend like the parents and friends we know, except a superior version of them. We will imagine God gathering information and then making decisions about the world as we do. We will imagine God reacting to the world as we do, with emotions like our own. We will imagine God acting in the world as we do, causing things to happen or preventing them from happening through specific acts of will and exercises of power and intention, just as we do.

As a result we pray to God as though our prayers will influence God the way a request might influence a parent or a phone call might influence a friend, as if God might "act" differently if God were not to hear our prayer. Yet, in the Lord's Prayer it is clear that we pray for what is happening already. "Holy be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as in heaven." Martin Luther, aware of the incongruity, writes, "To be sure, God's name is holy in itself. To be sure, the kingdom of God comes of itself. To be sure, the good and gracious will of God is done without our prayer." In this prayer we then ask God for things any good parent gives without our asking--food, acceptance, protection. Again, Luther writes, "To be sure, God provides daily bread, even to the wicked, without our prayer." Presumably God accepts us and protects us (even the "wicked") also without our prayer.

We pray to God because we imagine God to be simply a bigger, smarter, more powerful version of ourselves. In specific prayers we inform God of some problematic situation important to us, as though God might need to read the morning paper or check the internet or wait for our daily phone call to learn what is going on. We then request from God a response that is either vague and general--a blessing, comfort, care--or specific and concrete--healing from a particular disease, winning a particular race or game, passing a particular course, being offered a particular job, surviving a particular danger. Then God is left to make a decision whether to comply with our request, just as any one of our parents or friends might do. If God grants our request, we are immediately happy and feel confirmation in our faith. If our request is "denied," we resort to a variety of explanations, the most positive of which is that God "in his infinite wisdom" has determined that what is "best" for us is not to provide what we ask.

As congenial, warm, and pleasant as all of this may seem, this understanding of God is transparently fraught with difficulties. When Sandy was 13 years old, her father, a minister, was dying of an inoperable brain tumor. She prayed devoutly and fervently to God to heal her father and save his life. Of course, no miraculous cure resulted from her heartfelt prayers, her father died an excruciating death, and she was left desolate and determined never again to test God's mercy with any such innocent prayer requests. All through her childhood, Joan was sexually molested by her father. Each night she would wait in terror for the sound of his footsteps outside her bedroom door. She would pray nightly to God to deliver her. But these nightly invasions went on for years. Only when Joan, at 14, grabbed a kitchen knife and told her father that if he ever touched her again she would kill him did the injury stop. Joan finally saved herself, but today she has no use for the God who did nothing to help her in her time of need. Tom had difficulty learning to read. Throughout elementary school his teachers would call on students to read aloud in class. He dreaded the times his name was called and he would once again humiliate himself in front of his classmates as he struggled painfully through sentence after sentence. Tom was a serious Christian, who attended Sunday School each week without complaint. Nightly he prayed to God to help him read or to get his teachers to skip him during oral reading. But he remained one of the worst readers in his class and knew he was the butt of schoolyard jokes. A deep pain remains today as he continues to wonder why God never rescued him from the torments of his childhood.

Despite trumped up pseudoscientific claims to the contrary, there is no evident cause-effect relationship between prayer and natural events. Prayer appears to have no effect on the weather ("God sends rain on the just and unjust."), natural disasters (earthquakes, fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, or other "acts of God"), historical events, or individual lives, all manner of anecdotal reports to the contrary notwithstanding. For every happy Christian enthusiastically reporting an answered prayer, countless others are forced to engage in pathetic rationalizations to explain why their prayers have made no difference at all. Many, like Sandy, Joan, and Tom, are left bitter and disillusioned.

The image of God as doting parent or faithful friend, as a bigger and better version of us, is simply what it is, an image, a limited symbol incapable of capturing the fullness of the transcendent God. If God is merely the pinnacle of a great chain of Being, then God is one of us, a creature alongside the rest of creation, and not GOD, the wholly Other, Creator and Source of all, Being Itself. Our images of God are very much like us, limited, time-bound, contingent, fickle.

And that is to be expected. Linguistic scientists tell us that all language is based on concrete physical experience. All language is metaphorical. We talk about love as the language "of the heart," as though the pump in our chests that drives blood through our systems is somehow the center for love and emotion. If we use the word "love," various physical associations will pervade our consciousness--being held like a baby in its mother's arms, being fed, having a wound kissed and made better, being seen and recognized and admired. We use an abstract, disembodied word like "love," but the word has meaning to us only because of its associations with particular bodily experiences that we have construed as love.

If language is metaphorical and its reference is to concrete physical life experience, then the language we use for God will also be limited to our actual life experiences. We have no way to think of God except in language and images already familiar to us. It's common knowledge that many Christians even today continue to visualize God as a grandfatherly man with white hair and beard, perhaps dressed in flowing robes, somewhat as Michelangelo portrayed God in the famous frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Christian women today are finding new images for God, visualizing God as a woman. Black theologians have proposed a black God. Asian Christian art often displays a God with Asian features.

Jesus can be understood by Christians as their preeminent metaphor for God. To say that the "Godhead dwelt fully in him" means that Jesus represents to those who follow him the fullest truth about the nature of God. If they want to know about God, who is beyond human experience, they look at Jesus, who is a human historical figure just like us. His history; his story; his recorded, reconstructed, and fabricated teachings; and biblical and later commentaries on his life and teachings form our images and shape our language for describing God. In personal piety and public worship we reinforce those images and that language until they become for us self-evident expressions of the divine.

There is nothing else for us to do unless we prefer to think and say nothing about God, an option that Buddhism has chosen as the more honest and more helpful path for humans. The problem is that when we speak of God in the terms available to us, we are inevitably reducing God to finite categories. We are not really speaking of the infinite God who is not a being, but who is Being Itself. We are speaking only of an inadequate, limited representation of that God that turns God into an image of ourselves. When that finite image is equated with the infinite God it represents, religion becomes harmful. It is then that we pray to God as we might phone our mother with an urgent appeal from some favor and are deeply distressed and disappointed when God apparently fails to respond. It is when I equate our limited images of God with God Itself that I imagine God has "a plan for my life," which God is attempting to communicate to me through various intermediaries, a plan which I am obligated to discern and follow. It is when God becomes just another person like my father or mother that I worry whether God approves or disapproves of the things I feel, think, or do, as though God is watching me like Big Brother ready to punish me for disloyalty or perversion and to reward me for obedience, compliance, and moral purity.

I use these family terms intentionally because it seems to me that identifying the finite image of God (a being) with the infinite GOD (Being Itself) is the religious version of identifying our parents with absolute truth, with Reality Itself. We do that as small children. We idealize our parents. We imagine them to be gods holding up our universe, titans who can do no wrong, giants in whom we place our trust and to whom we commit our lives, and for good reason--all good things come from them. Our fate rests in their hands. When we view our parents as gods, we want to merge with them, be one with them, become like them. We assimilate to them, we act like them, we share their ideas and values and habits. It is amusing and sometimes embarrassing to see small children aping their parents' habitual gestures and favored phrases. Even adolescents may continue to mouth their parents' attitudes and opinions as if they were their own.

What psychologists call "differentiation" or "individuation" is the process over the life span of deconstructing parents and siblings and of reconstructing them as fallible, finite human beings like oneself. "Differentiation" is the process by which a person takes ownership of his or her own identity, assumes authorship of his or her own story, accepts the responsibility and authority for his or her own decisions and choices. Differentiation is the term psychologists use to describe a person who is able to remain connected to the significant others in his or her life (parents, siblings, other relatives, other authority figures, other peers) while no longer feeling the need to be their clone. If I have achieved some measure of differentiation, I can disagree with you and still love you, I can notice and acknowledge your limitations and defects without needed to disown you, I can respect your opinions while choosing to hold others of my own. I can love you without needing either to control or be controlled by you. I can be angry with you and not fear that my anger threatens our relationship. Differentiation is a normal, healthy part of human development to mature adulthood. It allows me to connect with the world as an equal alongside my parents, siblings, and all other human beings.

When we treat our images of God a though they are the same as the God they represent, we are relating to our images of God the way undifferentiated children who have not yet "come of age" relate to their parents. Just as children attribute to their parents power, authority, knowledge, and wisdom far beyond their capacity to deliver, so we attribute to our finite images of God an authority that can only rest with God Itself. Our parents can't take care of our adult lives as they tended to our childhood. They, like us, are limited and flawed and can only make their contribution, while our lives remain our gift and our responsibility. The images of God we grow up with can't manage and provide for our adult lives either. Those images are themselves flawed and limited like the humans who created them. God as the Ground of Being, or as Being Itself, transcends those flaws and limitations, but is no more accessible to us than Power, Authority, Truth, Beauty, Wisdom ever were accessible to our parents or will be to us. God, as the Ground of Being or Being Itself, is "in, with, and under" the whole creation guaranteeing its existence and essential benevolence. We tap into that resource of Being, not by addressing it with prayers and petitions, but by learning more and more about the world that this God has, in effect, "given" us as the arena for our activity.

Belief in God, then, is not belief in a gray haired and bearded grandfather, who sits us on his knee like Santa Claus, asks us what we want for Christmas and then, depending on whether we have been naughty or nice, dispenses gifts to us from his bounty. Belief in God for differentiated adult Christians is more like trust in the fundamental dependability, consistency, goodness, and--yes--goodwill of the universe that is our home. The popular metaphor of God holding the whole world in the divine hands is a pretty good one, as though God is like a nursing mother forever holding, sustaining, nourishing, and gazing with delight at her infant child. We, for our part, are like the nursing infant, continuing to be held, sustained, protected, fed, and exposed each day to the smiling face of the universe, but lacking the speech either to comprehend or express what is happening to us. We murmur, we goo and gurgle, laugh, sometimes shriek and sometimes cry, but our language remains quite inadequate to express or explain what it is to be held in the divine arms of the Ground of Being, of Being Itself.

If we are like infants in our relationship to God, we grow up to be adults and agents of our own destiny in this world God provides for us. As adults we have the authority and the responsibility to carry out our lives within the human, global, and cosmic communities of which we are a part. We have our physical sensations and the reason and emotion (themselves physiological processes!) to process them. We have one another as consultants and conspirators in the human agenda. We have the legacy of past generations of stars and planets, plants and animals and humans--astronomy, geology, biology, anthropology, history, all the sciences--to guide us on our path. We have been given everything we need to make a life and to make meaning of our life. The whole cosmos is at our disposal. What more do we want or need?

I resonate to Gerard Manley Hopkin's poetic evocation of God as Ground of Being. It is overtly and obviously metaphor. It is culturally conditioned and limited by the finite capacities of the British Victorian male Jesuit imagination. Yet it languages an image of God which approximates as well as any the cosmic comprehensiveness of God as Being Itself:

 

God's Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade: bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights of the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

 

Implications

These reflections on the nature of God as the Ground of Being or Being Itself suggest a fundamental reorientation of Christian life away from God and toward the world that is our home, our opportunity, and our mandate. The goal of our spirituality will be to increase our trust in the fundamental dependability, consistency, goodness, and--yes--goodwill of the universe that is our home. With such trust and the experience of profound safety and love that comes from it, we are enabled to live our lives positively, productively, and generously.

To orient Christian life toward the world instead of toward God means to seek knowledge of the world and then to use that knowledge in the service of the world. Christians need to be vigorous and enthusiastic supporters of every sort of educational enterprise--scientific, aesthetic, philosophical, moral, spiritual. Earlier Christian communities established schools, liberal arts colleges, and universities to support the growth of knowledge. Today religious devotion should involve personal and corporate support of every kind of modern critical learning.

Some Christians may wish to focus their efforts on study--professional or avocational--of the bible or church history or the history of dogma. They, however, will be and should be a minority among Christians. Most Christians will focus on one or more of the sciences--astronomy, geology, botany, zoology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, political science, economics; literature or the arts (music, painting, sculpture, dance, drama, athletics); practical fields (gardening and landscaping, engineering, computer programming, auto mechanics, cooking, midwifery, carpentry, plumbing, and the thousands of similar enterprises); or any of the almost limitless interests that have occupied human attention, including every kind of contemplation, meditation, and paranormal explorations. No realm of existence is exempt from or unworthy of study. All human beings have the ability and the invitation to find their particular interests and to explore them, as their act of religious devotion.

The function of this vast learning project is to unveil the manifold dimensions of the richness and beauty of the cosmos. Hobbes and others have stressed the cruelty and competition of the natural world. They point to its apparent violence and viciousness, the struggle for survival carried on by plants and animals behind the apparently peaceful landscape of a forest or grassy plain. They fail, however, to acknowledge the character of the natural world that ameliorates that violence.

So far as we know, minerals have neither sensation nor consciousness and "suffer" nothing in the course of evolution. Plants have sensation, but not the consciousness to experience pain or suffering. Animals have sensation and consciousness, but their consciousness is severely limited. Possessing no meaningful reflection on the past or anticipation of the future, they are freed from either regret or anxiety. They live in a blissful present innocent of the dangers surrounding them, dangers against which they have been programmed by nature to protect themselves instinctually without the need for planning or premeditation. And, when attacked by predators, their pain is minimized by physiological processes that numb the senses and accelerate death. Humans, for their part, have sensation and a highly developed consciousness that intensifies the pain they continue to feel for past injuries and their fear for future dangers. But their sophisticated mental processes have equipped them to learn the heights and depths of the natural world and to gain a certain mastery of their environment. Through their study of the world they have increased their life span and improved the quality of their life as well. And though it is clear that humans suffer more intensely than other animals (leading the ancients to ask whether it is better to be an ignorant, but blissful, pig or an intelligent, but suffering, human), they have the mental apparatus to construct meaning for their suffering and thereby to transcend it. Study of the world in all of its aspects, in my view, tends to support rather than refute its beneficence.

To be sure, the benefits of the accumulation of knowledge are unequally distributed among human classes and societies. The second function, after learning, of the Christian life is service, that is, the deployment of the resources of increasing knowledge throughout the human and natural world. Like learning, service is already well known to Christian communities. Besides their schools, colleges, and universities, churches have traditionally established social service agencies to help human beings for every sort of need. They have built hospitals, children's homes, homes for the elderly, counseling and social service centers, immigration and refugee services, schools for the deaf and physically or mentally challenged. They have engaged in social action for economic, social, and political justice. Countless individual Christians have devoted themselves to service occupations or hours of volunteerism for others.

With a focus on the world rather than on God, the priority of learning and service for Christian devotion will be accentuated and promoted. These, rather than formal religious ceremonies like conventional Sunday worship, become the core of Christian life and devotion. Christians will gather to share what they are learning and to organize for service rather than merely to sing songs, rehearse and repeat religious rhetoric, and pray, all of which often enough divert time and energy away from the world where life actually happens. They will invent new ritual expressions derivative from the actual experiences of learning and service that form their lives. Ritual, rather than functioning as a retreat from the world into an enclave of religious escapism, will express and celebrate the real duties and delights of worldly learning and mundane service.

The reorientation to learning that I have been describing would position the church as an ally with all persons and institutions of good will in opposing ignorance, prejudice, superstition, pseudoscience, and other confusions of our time, while promoting informed, knowledgeable electorates with the critical skills to decipher and evaluate the complicated questions and solutions that face democracies today. The reorientation to service would redirect the church's energies away from itself toward the solution of the many ills that trouble advanced industrialized nations as well as the disparities between them and the developing countries. Rather than endlessly debating God and religious doctrines, the church would focus its intellectual as well as its physical resources on real, potentially manageable problems and possibilities for the enhancement of human life and the survival of the planet, our home.

Healing Religion's Harm
Gary Pence, Ph.D.