God as the Great Iconoclast

God created humans in God’s own image, and it has been said by many that we humans have returned the favor. We create God in our own image. Robert Banks, in his new book — the result of years and years of pondering and thinking, addresses the history of this very act: of humans remaking God in their own image. His book: And Man Created God: Is God a Human Invention?.

He has written a readable sketch of the history of remaking God, and it begins with the Hebrew prophets who saw this happening in false religions and then Banks skips over to the Greeks and Romans, who saw it among the populace who took the impersonal gods of the philosophers and made them too human, but the distinctive feature of this book is his focus on Feuerbach, Marx, Freud and Fromm — who in their own way have given to humans a hermeneutic that both casts a skeptical haze over belief in God and gives to humans a hermeneutic for detecting how we make God in our own image.

What is the one most important thing you’ve learned about how you (or humans) project onto God their own image of God?

From Feuerbach: we learn that God is the product of human wishes; from Marx that God is a substitute for oppressive conditions; from Freud that God is a projection of human desires; and from Fromm that God is the symbol of human potential.

It’s too easy, Banks observes so well — and this is a major contribution of his study, to dismiss these people as atheists or unbelievers, and move on. Banks reminds us that they’re actually telling us something we are all doing, and so we can learn from them how to let God be the great iconoclast who shatters our images of God as we encounter God more fully and truthfully.

How can we do this? Banks has four suggestions:

First, we need to let the force that we have made God in our own image to shatter us and our own views of God. In other words, we need to be humiliated and discover some epistemic humility. We have to avoid seeing God as so different that we can’t know God, but we also have to take the clues that God gives so we can discern God and God’s ways. Echoes of God are present.

Second, we need to learn to see God through the lens of Jesus Christ. Jesus must shatter our views of God so that all is left standing is God incarnate. We need to avoid contemporizing Jesus so that he is one of us, and we need also to avoid replacing the Father with the Son. The God we learn in Jesus is the Trinity.

Third, we need to embrace the value of the social sciences that unmask our beliefs.

Fourth, God can only be fully known if we embrace also God as lived and demonstrated by God’s people and God’s world. We must risk relating to God in order to find God by faith. It means the ongoing interaction with God in the realities of our life.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Richard

    Sounds like the “Evangelism” project of Peter Rollins meets the Crucified God of Jurgen Moltmann.

    I think the most significant piece in all of this is the hukmility with which we proclaim to “know” God because we’ve seen how easy it is to co-opt even Jesus

  • Jim

    Very helpful…RE: point 3. I teach Psychology in a Christian college and remind students that part of the value of studying the big names in Psych is to help us better understand things that we ought to know on the basis of our own story: e.g. our propensities toward recasting God, our neighbor, our world in way that serve our own selfish biases.

    I am going to read this one. Thanks for calling attention to it.

  • http://www.abcwesterville.org Mark Farmer

    Fascinating post, Scot. Banks’ first suggestion recalls to mind hearing Marcus Borg say that Christianity is a human construction. It came as a shocking idea at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw it as true.
    I have only recently practiced Banks’ third suggestion in a mindful way, and am more grateful than ever for all the psychology and sociology courses I took in the early 70s. I have recently read Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy, a brief sociological theory of religion, and Leon Festinger’s work on cognitive dissonance and religion. They help uncover how much of Christianity is of human origin.

  • J.L. Schafer

    “You thought the ‘I AM’ was altogether like you.” (Ps 50:21)

  • MatthewS

    I think the word “phenomenological” could apply to the first point. I’m too quick to interpret and react. I need to be reminded to sit back and observe.

  • Amos Paul

    “But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
    or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
    horses like horses and cattle like cattle
    also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies
    of such a sort as the form they themselves have.
    [...]
    Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed and black
    Thracians that they are pale and red-haired.”

    - Xenophanes, Ancient Greek poet and philosopher.

  • http://www.twitter.com/thedudediogenes TheDudeDiogenes

    I think there is some tension here:

    “First, we need to let the force that we have made God in our own image to shatter us and our own views of God.”

    “Second, we need to learn to see God through the lens of Jesus Christ. Jesus must shatter our views of God so that all is left standing is God incarnate. We need to avoid contemporizing Jesus so that he is one of us, and we need also to avoid replacing the Father with the Son. The God we learn in Jesus is the Trinity.”

    What makes you so sure that the second isn’t contradictory to the first? In other words, why isn’t Jesus just another god made in humanity’s image?

  • Patrick

    Dude,

    Cause Jesus was murdered and resurrected and eyewitnesses to both events were willing to die proclaiming it. That’s as impirical a piece of evidence for any faith as there can be.

  • http://www.normmacdonald.wordpress.com norm

    I’m not certain I understand his comment: “…And we need also to avoid replacing the Father with the Son. The God we learn in Jesus is the Trinity.”

    If the “God we learn in Jesus is the Trinity” then there is no risk or harm in “replacing the Father with the Son.” They are apparently one. Based on the Trinity, everything the Father is/has/shows/does, the Son is/has/shows/does. Correct?

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    Seeing God through the incarnation of the Word prevents us from truncating God into less-than/false gods. Banks takes an insightful & helpful angle to see that philosophical concerns are expressions of human desires, distortions and fears. I’m thinking of Psalm 115 – how those who make false gods become like them. We risk ourselves when we refuse to see the fullness of God, and the loving inter-relatedness of the Trinity. Further, we risk our relationships w/ other people who do have eyes that see, hands that feel, noses that smell, etc. because we won’t acknowledge how far beyond ourselves God is, how necessary God’s redemption of us is, and how knowing God – by his grace and Spirit – enables us to know one another.

    I chuckled at the 3rd point as you summarized it, Scot. So much unpacking is possible from that short sentence! I hope he also is faithful to recognize that social sciences, being what they are, are also frequently skewed by the very same problems religion is skewed.

  • Meryl H- S

    I agree with Norm.How can there be a risk in replacing the Father with the Son. Jesus himself stated ” If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. And “The father and I are one.”

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Comments 3,4, 7-11 all suggest and dance around the complex matrices of human consciousness of of the Christian God, particularly the contradictory and usually not just paradoxical expressions of it.

    I am encouraged by #2 because we tend to not take Jesus’ teaching and exampling and presence in God seriously enough. But I’m disappointed that it runs so quickly to replaying cautions and assertsions that have more to do with the god made through the images of our tradition than simply forged in our canonical texts.

    I was hoping that this posting and my thinking about the complexities of the issues involved would move me forward off the shifting sands of my awareness of god toward an unshakeable consciousness of his real presence, but alas, God just seems to evolve with His people and His world (#4).

    Still, faith, hope, and love remain, in Him.


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