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Jeffrey Small

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Moving Beyond A Human Image Of God

Posted: 01/30/11 05:38 PM ET

When you think of God, what images come to mind?

Do you think of a supernatural being who sits outside the four dimensional (space + time) universe who created us as a potter might? Do you picture God as a supreme designer who built the intricate laws of the universe as a watchmaker assembles a fine timepiece? Do you see God as a grand chess master who has an elaborate plan for the figures on his cosmic chessboard? Do you imagine the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where the outstretched hand of Michelangelo's God (who looks like someone's muscular grandfather!) reaches toward Adam?

Many popular images of God resemble a Zeus-like figure, who lives in "heaven" rather than on Olympus. When we think about it, this God seems a lot like us, only much more powerful. He has emotions: he can be a "jealous God"; he can be an "angry God" or a "loving God." We may address him as Father, Lord, or Judge. We even use the personal (and masculine) pronoun "He" in referring to God, but we capitalize it to show that "He" is greater than we are.

In other words this God is strongly anthropomorphic, a Greek word whose roots mean "human" and "form." In the fifth century BC, Greek philosopher Xenophanes wrote, "If horses had gods, they would look like horses."

To me these classical images of God are fraught with problems. As a teenager, when my interest in science blossomed, I began to question the theology I had been taught as a child. Why would God allow millions of children to starve in Africa or die in a genocide, yet "He" just might intervene on behalf of our favorite sports team if we prayed hard enough? Why is it that two and three thousand years ago (when human understanding of science was very different than it is today) during the age of the Biblical writers, God seemed to intervene in the world a great deal more than he does today: causing worldwide floods, parting seas, speaking from burning bushes, stopping the sun from moving across the sky, raising dead people, and sending angels to earth to deliver his message?

The common view of God as a supernatural being like us, only more powerful, is one of the principal reasons behind the rise of atheism in the Western world and the spiritual apathy of many young people today. It certainly contributed to my own questioning of the usefulness of religion. This view of God opens itself up to critiques from the likes of eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume who pointed out the logical fallacies in the traditional arguments for the existence of God, Sigmund Freud who characterized such a God as nothing more than a "projected father figure," and twenty-first century biologist Richard Dawkins who points out the incompatibility of this God with science.

Our modern lifestyles depend on scientific principles working, not some of the time, but all of the time: would you fly in an airplane if the laws of aerodynamics only worked occasionally? We take for granted the physics behind our cell phones and TVs. We understand that solar eclipses are not a divine omen in which God turns day into night, but are predictable astronomical events caused by the moon passing between the sun and the earth. We have faith in the biological principles that allow for the medicines we create to treat our diseases - diseases that we understand today are not caused by evil spirits or divine punishment but by bacteria, viruses, and biochemical processes.

In this post-modern age in which reason and science underlie every aspect of our daily lives, which concept will lose out in the battle between God and science? I think we are seeing (unfortunately) that God is losing this battle.

Even more problematic than the incompatibility of the classical view of God with modern scientific and logical thought is that this God opens "Himself" up to the critique of being an incompetent watchmaker, an unartistic potter, and a cruel chess master. The world we live in is a messy, complicated, imperfect place, ripe with tragedy, sickness, and injustice. The traditional view of God leads to the philosophical problems caused by the existence of evil, the reality of human suffering, and the multiple religions around the world with opposing doctrines about God. How can such a God be omniscient, omnipotent, and loving at the same time?

Finally, for me, the ultimate critique of this God is that "He" is too small. A God that is seen as some kind of intelligent being living in an extra-dimensional heaven becomes just one more thing in the universe (although a powerful thing nonetheless). A God that chooses when to tinker in the workings of the universe and when not to is not only capricious but begs the question of why God didn't make things right the first time around? In other words, this God is finite.

Does this critique of our traditional understanding of God mean that the only alternative is the atheist one?

That is what writers like Dawkins, Hitchins, and Harris want us to believe. I actually agree with much of their criticism of religion, but ultimately, I think that the version of God they are trying to disprove is nothing more than a straw-man.

As much as my rational mind wanted to reject God, something deep in my core sensed a fundamental meaning to existence. What I needed was a different way to conceive of God that didn't require me to close my eyes to scientific knowledge, to reason, and to personal experience. How could I be true to both my intellect and my soul: my mind that must see the world in logical terms and my heart which yearns for a greater spiritual connection? In my next post, I'll explain how my current view of God attempts to reconcile these seemingly conflicting goals. But for now, I'm interested to hear from you.

How then do you think about God in a way that works in the 21st century?

 
 
 

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