Note: This is Part Seven in a series, "God's Emotions: Why the Biblical God is so Very Human." Parts 1-6 are available at this website or at www.awaypoint.wordpress.com.
I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does -- The Smiths
In Ira Levin's satirical thriller, The Stepford Wives, a young mother named Joanna discovers that her small town friends have been replaced by sophisticated robots manufactured over time by the town's men. How does she figure it out? The women seem too unidimensional, too perfect, too content to be exactly what their husbands want them to be. Joanna visits the library and realizes that the cheerful, docile women around her had once been intelligent and complicated, with interests of their own. Now they serve beautifully as beautiful adjuncts to their husbands.
Levin's book is meant to be a commentary on the sexist narcissism that lets some men treat women simply as a means to meet their own desires. But in reality, we all have a little bit of the Stepford husband in us, in our personal lives and in our religious lives.
In marital therapy, couples often uncover a "be spontaneous paradox" that has them locked into a no-win situation: I want you to know how I'm feeling, but I don't want to have to tell you. Or I want you to bring me roses on our anniversary, but you should have realized that long ago. Now that I've told you, if you bring them next time I'll just get mad. We want our spouses to have intuitive access to our thoughts, wishes and preferences (though only sometimes, of course, and they should know when).
There are similarities between what we want from our spouses and what we want from God. In particular, we want the psychic fusion that is achieved mechanically in Levin's novel, when the replacement wife becomes simply an extension of her husband's dreams and desires. How many times have I sat through the wedding ritual in which one lit candle is handed to the bride and one to the groom so they can simultaneously light a third candle, then blow out their individual flames? How many times have you?
In a similar vein, Christians sing, "We are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord," evoking fusion of mind and purpose in the spiritual community. The quest of the mystic is to be one with God, to be consumed by his presence. The quest of the "servant-leader" is to be the hands and feet of God in the world. But because we are human, those individual candles never really go out. What people want, inevitably, is that God becomes a channel through which they can work their will in the world. That is the point of intercessory prayer.
What is at the very heart of human desires? To be loved. The Smiths said it. And isn't it interesting that according to Christian teachings, love for us is the emotional core of the risen Jesus, the one who dwells in human hearts and hears the prayers of little children? We move through the world with all of our imperfections and he loves us unconditionally. So, he intervenes for us when it comes time for taking math tests or finding parking spaces, and he forgives us everything short of voting Democratic.
I'm being ironic about how small-minded our self-god fusions can be; how small mine was when I was a believer. But in reality the feeling of being loved and consequently forgiven (and consequently deserving) is both powerful and tremendously empowering. It allows us to love and forgive ourselves and to ask so that we may receive. This benefit accrues to believers whether the Jesus who loves them is real or not.
Approximately sixty five percent of preschoolers, especially those who are firstborns or onlies, meet some of their social needs by creating imaginary friends. One of the appealing aspects of the imaginary friend is that she is at her creator's call -- perfectly available when needed, perfectly absent when not, ready to engage in whatever play activities, conversations or even spats that a child may prefer. Research suggests that these imaginary friendships have real world benefits. For example, they appear to help children hone their verbal skills or explore difficult feelings.
I might ask whether a loving Jesus-friend (again whether real or not) plays a similar role for adults. But before I could ask that, a preliminary question would have to be addressed, because I'm not sure that I know what "Jesus loves me" means. At a feelings level, love means having a sense of tender affection for another person, gaining pleasure from their proximity or even their mere existence. At a hormonal level, it means being flooded with oxytocin. At a functional level, it bonds parents to children and, secondarily spouses and friends to each other so that social interchange doesn't have to be based on rational calculus (which isn't nearly as compelling).
But God loves me, what does that mean? My Encarta dictionary says that within Christian belief God's love is the "mercy, grace, and charity shown by God to humanity." That sounds close. But the Bible says in many places that God is merciful, generous, and full of grace. It also says that he is loving, and I think the writers meant it -- in part because we humans don't know how to conceive of a person-god without emotions. How would we relate to a Spock-god? How would he respond to our emotions? Imagine baring your deepest feelings to an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent supercomputer in the sky -- who doesn't love you. Persons without emotions are the stuff of comedy or tragedy.
To reiterate, it makes sense that we expect Jesus to have emotions. That we say his defining emotion is his great love for us, that we imagine him to offer the unconditional affection that we couldn't get from our parents -- perhaps this should make us a little sheepish. It could be true, but it sounds indistinguishable from wish-thinking. The Jesus of the gospels is emotionally complex. He is not as complex as the God of the Hebrews, but he gets angry at times and he weeps. His emotions, usually, have a sort of proportionality that provides a foil against Yahweh's mood swings. But the Jesus of modern Christians -- especially liberal Christians -- has a bit of that same two dimensionality that caused Joanna in Stepford to become suspicious. Perhaps it should make us suspicious too.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light, (Revised ed of The Dark Side) and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at awaypoint.wordpress.com.
Paul Watzlawick. The Situation is Hopeless but not Serious, New York: Norton, 1993.
Evan Kidd. (2009). "Imaginary Friends with Evan Kidd," La Trobe University, http://www.latrobe.edu.au/news/articles/2009/podcasts/imaginary-friends-with-evan-kidd/transcript