How Big Is Your God?

Sabio Lantz posted a graphic asking how big your deity is, with a continuum running from abstraction to judge.

I would have had the continuum running the other way.

The sort of deity that is anthropomorphized and reflects our worst traits, looking to inflict suffering on people who fail to sing his praises (literally or metaphorically), seems to me the smallest.

The sort of deity who is beyond concepts, beyond comprehension, beyond anything we can hope to imagine or describe, may seem abstract, but is surely nevertheless far greater. Isn’t that, after all, the point of thinking of God in such terms, to emphasize that whatever God is like, it is beyond anything we can imagine?

What do you think? Which (concept of) God is smaller/bigger? Is such language even helpful?

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  • El Bryan Libre

    “The sort of deity who is beyond concepts, beyond comprehension, beyond anything we can hope to imagine or describe, may seem abstract, but is surely nevertheless far greater. Isn’t that, after all, the point of thinking of God in such terms, to emphasize that whatever God is like, it is beyond anything we can imagine?”

    That doesn’t sound like it makes any sense. Beyond any concepts or comprehension? Sounds impossible to put into practice the moment you try to think about such a being and I’m not sure there’s any reason to assume God is beyond anything we could imagine or beyond our concepts or comprehension even if not fully captured by them.

  • Hans Boldt

    Is such language useful? No. It’s just some sort of glorified pissing contest. 

    If I were inclined to believe in a supernatural creator deity, I would argue that a more powerful (bigger?) deity would have the following characteristics:

    1) Would bring all people to heaven. To suggest that a god would not do that would imply that that god is not caring. To suggest that a god could not do that would imply that that god is not omnipotent.

    2) Would have created everything in the universe in one instant 13 billion years ago. Certainly that’s a more impressive feat than the god that created this one world 6000 years ago.

  • Brian S.

    I found that graph unfair, it should go in reverse order. The God I believe in is a creator of an entire universe [and possibly many more] and transcends all the categories we seek to confine him in and my religious faith is not at all weaker because of it. In fact it’s pretty strong.

  • Robert Perry

    I like the God people encounter in near-death experiences, which, as best as he can be described is both a personal creator God–he is intensely loving, he speaks, he cares, he knows people extremely personally, he is their creator–and yet is also highly reminiscent of what people experience in mystical experiences–he is formless/boundless, defies description, and is ultimately at one with everyone. (Along these lines, NDErs often use “it” to describe this God, or at least explain that “he” is just a cultural convention.) That “best of both worlds” approach deeply appeals to me. To me, the apocalyptic Judge is the worst of all worlds, the “monster God” as I heard him described.

  • @ James:
    Thanks for the mention, James.  The previous diagram (of which this is a simplification), shows why the Judge god is “large” — because it is stuffed full of all those silly anthropomorphized traits you agree with me on.

    In next post hope to show how to use the diagram to expose theologically deceptive arguments.

    But James, using my chart, has your god always been big, or have your slowly removed the artificial traits over the years?

    @ El Bryan Libre & Brian S. :
    Indeed, if totally beyond our comprehension or “transcends all catogries”  with the world.  Then “?” would be a good enough symbol for “god”.  Heck, why even have one.

    @ Robert Perry
    You should be sure to stay away from opioids if you like that warm, fuzzy, euphoric OBE god.  The reasons opioids word is because we have receptors for them.  The reason we have receptors for them is because our body makes them in small quantities — well, except when injured enough to almost kill us.  :-)The apocalyptic Judge is a big, bad, evil dude and be the Miracle Worker is big liar.  See, we can use “big” in derogatory ways.  

    I stand by my diagram !  
    Size isn’t everything, damn it!

  • Christopher John Sissons

    This is an unhelpful diagram.  Reversing it might address some issues but it’s a mix of unrelated approaches.  The first three are varieties of Christian idolatry.  What is mysticism doing in the list at all?  The last two are something else entirely.  The diagram says more about the prejudices of whoever drew it up than anything else.

    Furthermore, the premise ‘How big is your God?’ – what exactly is being measured here?  Elijah’s still small voice?  The Jesus expected by some on clouds descending with a flaming sword?  How can we tell big is better than small, as it’s possible to know what is meant by ‘big’ in this context?

  • I find the diagram fantastic!  It can help people see through the confusion of conservative Christian ramblings.  🙂

  • Brian s.

    I’m saddened that your response was sarcastic, but the reason why I said that is because I think that no matter how or what words we use to describe “god” it’s never good enough or exhaust how we really feel. And my “?” or the one you assigned to me could be plenty big, When I use it, it’s not because I think of God as some abstract concept with little impact, but because whatever box we try to confine God in, he in the end is much bigger and hence “transcends our categories”, as for we speak meaningfully about the Almighty, I would answer that we use the language we inherited from our tradition, albiet responsibly.  

  • Thanks for all the comments so far. ElBryanLibre, the idea that God is beyond anything that we can describe or comprehend, and that words are inadequate pointers in the general direction of God, is a commonplace of mysticism in the Christian and other traditions. That it turns God into a reality that cannot be pinned down, manipulated, or used to serve any specific human ends is, in a sense, part of the point, I think. 

  • El Bryan Libre

    I thought it might be something related to mysticism since I think I’ve seen you identify yourself in that tradition.

    ” ElBryanLibre, the idea that God is beyond anything that we can describe or comprehend, and that words are inadequate pointers in the general direction of God…”

    Now when you say beyond, are you saying “more than’ or “different” (or something else)? I mean would you say God equally doesn’t fit into either the category of person or nonperson (categories used just for example) or that he definitely fits more into the category of person than nonperson but he goes beyond it too in a way we don’t understand?

    Why do you believe God isn’t something that can be described or comprehended? Aren’t we describing him when we say that?

    Out of curiosity what tradition of mysticism do you identify with? I’d be interested to read more up on it to understand it better.


    • Bryan, I identify with the Christian tradition, but as so often with those in mystical strands of a religion, I can appreciate some of the panentheistic and mystical works in other traditions – e.g. Sufism.

      Hams Kueng put what I think you were getting at nicely when he said that God must be “at least personal” (can he who made the eye not see?) but if God is to be transcendent, must be “more than personal.”

  • James F. McGrath

    Agreeing with ElBryanLibre, I can’t imagine your mystical god does not have traits — as illustrated by my larger diagram: offers a sense of union or love, offers nourishment, offers eternal continuity.  And as my other diagram makes clear, incorporates the qualities of the other smaller gods: The Mover (who creates, sees and knows everything, answers for the unknow) and An Abstraction (the awe inspiring and the meaning to everything).
    I’d imagine you’d want many of those qualities for what you may even consider your mystical god.  So I think even people who say they are mystically inclined are inclined to more qualities than they imagine.

    For, as I sincerely said above, if your god had no qualities, why would you need a god? That was a very serious question.

    • Thanks, Sabio. I didn’t think your question wasn’t serious. We need God as a symbol for and pointer to that which undergirds and transcends existence and which we dimly perceive. We need God as a challenge to thinker greater thoughts and reach for higher ideals rather than being satisfied with what we already comprehend and aspire to. Questions lead us on, while answers constrain us and can lead to stagnation. And so I think there is a sense in which a God who is mystery serves a very different role than, and is at least in one sense can be deemed greater than, a God who is explanation.

  • Brian

    Wonderful post James, though I have some reservations about using the word “symbol” because it sounds as if we’re denying the actuality of the existence of a “transcendent other” in favor of making God a metaphor for obtaining self-actualization or something else along those lines. That however does not mean that I don’t think that God can serve that function but if I were to use the word “symbol” it would in reference to the language we use to describe God and not God himself. Since symbols usually point to something beyond themselves, it would seem to me that my way of using it is more appropiate. That isn’t to say however that your use of the word isn’t respectable, it is.

  • @ James
    Let me use brackets to wonder about your comment:
    You said,
    We need God as …

    (a) “a challenge to think greater thoughts” [Really, “we”?  How do atheist scientists, artists, architects and such have greater thoughts — since they apparently have no such challenge?]

    (b) “reach for higher ideals rather than being satisfied with what we already comprehend and aspire to.” [ditto]

    (c) “Questions lead us on, while answers constrain us and can lead to stagnation.” [ But uncertainty, nebulosity and such stir the atheist as much as the god-believer.  No god is needed.  And you said, “need”.]

    I see you putting an abstract word to the traits of human mind we all share without gods.  Brian is right to bring out his “heresy book” and realize you venture into symbol land.

    Mind you, I prefer theists-mystics like you any day of the week.  I just wanted to address the “We Need” part of your confession.  For as that idea is furthered, it implies that atheist are thus deficient is some very important traits.  Atheists are accused falsely of being immoral.  Your confession can imply that they are uninspired and stagnant because they don’t have a god.

    As my diagram illustrates, your god may have a small number of traits, but you took them from that which is part of the human experience and has nothing to do with a god and then by confession excluded us who don’t feel a need to use a similar support symbol.

  • Sabio, you fairly criticize me on saying “we need” when many would disagree. If I had suggested more humbly and appropriately that many find such language useful – not only to point to the mysteries of spirituality, but even in the realm of physics, acknowledging fully that when people like Einstein, Hawking or Davies use the term “God” they are not doing so in a theistic sense, would that have seemed to be more on target?

    Does the length of that last sentence make writing “we need” seem like any more acceptable a shorthand? 🙂

    Brian, you are right that I blurred the use of language as symbol and God as symbol. Of course, there is a sense in which from a human perspective we may not be able to tell the difference. But I certainly wasn’t trying to say the reality is wholly symbolic – if that even makes sense to say…

  • @ James
    Yes, many use theistic language.  Einstein, Hawking and Davies used god-talk because they were raised in a cultures where god-talk was the default.  Had they been raised in a culture where it were not a default, they would have used other language.  For the experience is human, not divine.  

    But, yes, if your scope would have been smaller, I would have been less critical.  But I think it was not a mere slip but shows a deep seated prejudice of theistic thought which sees nontheism as empty.  But that should not be surprising, for that is why you embrace theism — it gives you meaning you can’t see any other way to get though millions do just fine without it.

    So, no, that writing does not make “we need” seem any more acceptable.  I would hope you would see how it is very unacceptable.

    • I do indeed. I was being facetious when I suggested that my short but more less suitable phrasing might be better than the longer but more acceptable and precise wording. Sorry. 🙂

    • P.S. Sabio, I wouldn’t say that I embrace theism, unless all ways of thinking that involve using the term “God” including panentheism fit under the heading of “theism” as you are using the term.

  • Ooops, thanx James, I missed the facetiousness.  My bad.  Interesting about you not embracing theism but instead panentheism.  I think many atheist embrace a panentheism without knowing it!  Smile.  Thanx for the engagement.

  • Brian S.

    Isn’t panentheism simpily a way of describing God’s action, whether this god be theistic or deistic, and place in the universe. Theism, as traditionally conceived, imagines God as being outside of his created universe, which could be taken he is in opposition to the world, an invader if you will. Whereas panentheism, allows for this but states that all that is exist within God, in his “womb” for an example.
    As for me taking out my “heresy book”, I hope you were teasing me, because I would hate if I gave the impression that I’m overly concerned about boundries or if I champion my own religious beliefs over and against James.

  •  Hey James,
    I did a follow-up post today which hopefully explains the usefulness of the diagram.  I am curious what you think.  The post is: Arguing for a Tiny God

    • Thanks, Sabio! Your post makes an important point about arguments for a “small God” in the sense of having few attributes (first cause, for instance) not demonstrating that such a God is the “bigger” (i.e. more specific claims about attributes) God of this or that tradition. Thanks for writing on this!

  • Thanks James

  • Angie VanDeMerwe

    If you start with a “tribalist god”, which is what anthropologist term as the cultural meme, and you educate within a text or tradition, then you have the “RIGHTEOUS JUDGE” or an ABSOLUTE UNIVERSAL, whereas, if one educates across disciplines, then one becomes more agnostic, as to and about “God”. These are skeptics concerning any certainty about “God”.

    Agnosticism doesn’t presume about a “universal”, that one is to defend and define, but promotes co-operation, diplomacy, etc.

    Atheists are those that have come to a point of understanding themselves and their lives within their own value system. Atheists do not seek to promote “God”, but an enlarged view of the world and life, in general. Atheists are their own persons and defend that right without question.