“Biblical Parenting” and Parental Images of God

David Hayward has a cartoon today that gets at the heart of an issue many of us have with the depiction of God in some Biblical stories as well as elsewhere:

We would be horrified if human parents did these things, and yet few seem to reflect on the sort of impression they give of God when they depict God along these lines – the allusions of course being to the story of Noah and the concept of hell.

This was my point in my post about not worshiping a God who is less loving than you are. What we are talking about are human depictions of God. Unless you view God as genuinely morally abhorrent, then you should not attribute to God views or actions that you would consider worthy of condemnation in humans.

That would seem obvious, but to many it isn’t. And of course, the irony is that those who claim to be most beholden to Biblical imagery, and say that any compromise on Biblical authority represents an abandonment of the “one source of objective morality,” then have to bend over backwards to avoid the impression given in Biblical passages such as those in view in the cartoon.

It is better, I think, to acknowledge that whether the images used come from ancient authors or our own time, they will all be by definition inadequate and laden with human shortcomings, and to then do our best to avoid projecting our own narrow perceptions and our worst failings and shortcomings onto God.

  • Scott F

    So, why assume that God is as loving as/more loving than we are? Is this not as arbitrary an assumption as depicting God as an out-of-control parent figure?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Part of it has to do with the definition of God within most monotheistic traditions. If one claims that God is transcendent and greater than human beings, then surely depicting God as worse than many mediocre parents is inappropriate.

      Of course, for those of us who are not thinking about God in anthropomorphic terms, the point has to be made somewhat differently. That which does not transcend us cannot serve as an appropriate metaphor for ultimate reality.

      • Ian

        But why transcend us in that way?

        If ‘ultimate reality’ has some reality that isn’t merely constructed by our concerns, then why would a wholly good metaphor be more likely to be a fitting one than a wholly evil metaphor, or a wholly indifferent one?

        Perhaps we might think that we couldn’t possibly know what would be a better or worse metaphor, so something that kisses our moral wounds is preferred, regardless of how well it matches what it signifies.

        If we hold that some metaphors could be better than others, then it seems rather incredible that love and goodness are the best we can do. Based on our knowledge of the universe, supreme detachment and indifference seems to me to be more likely to be a good metaphor for ultimate reality. Aren’t progressive buddhists more likely to be right than progressive Christians?

        If we admit that talk of ultimate reality is really nothing more than ultimate concern, however, then the problem disappears: we no longer pretend to talk about something that isn’t a function of our psychology. The ultimately good and loving God returns to credibility as a metaphor for the combined moral longings of homo sapiens.

        • Beau Quilter

          I have to agree with Ian. Even if one were to credit the variety of cosmological or fine-tuning arguments for the existence of a supreme creator, why do we look to ancient biblical texts as a guide for understanding such a creator, when the texts themselves carry such clearly abhorrent (and, yes, human) characterizations for such a creator?

          One could point to some redemptive elements in biblical writings (you can find them in other religions), but there is so much to ignore as well – extreme tribalisms, assessments of people as property (women, slaves. and captives), and (as the cartoon points out) genocides and hell.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            Thanks for all these comments! On the one hand, love emerges out of the processes of the universe, as do perception of beauty and creativity and much else that we find valuable and precious. Finding ways of thinking about the universe which give those aspects of existence the prominence and importance they are due is something that most human beings do. The question is how to best do so. Cosmology is a branch of science today, but the truth is that nearly all human beings have worldviews or cosmologies which add layers of meaning which go beyond what science can tell us.

            As for the Biblical writings, as a liberal Christian I view them as part of the human heritage of my tradition, and think that, however much we may remain influenced by those ancient texts, we can and must try to do better, whether the subject is cosmology, morality, or theology. After all, that is what the Biblical authors themselves were doing, each in their own turn.

            • Beau Quilter

              Would that all Christians thought the way you do. I rather think your attitude toward scripture is rare.

    • Steve

      I guess the point of this comic is to prompt the question: If you’re going to believe that God is cruel and evil then why are you a Christian? What would make such a God worthy of worship?


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