Let’s begin with a story.
When I worked at a university writing centre, some of my trickiest clients were in the Master’s of Divinity program. Generally, these students were admirable humans who’d served their communities for years as parents, support staff, and care workers. Most were also lower-middle-class, and after so much personal struggle, they now wanted to help others through ministry. Most were insecure about academic writing, but unwavering in their spiritual convictions. This made one of the most important academic questions especially difficult. While we reviewed their papers together, I would point to places where they had simply written, “God wants us to…” and I would ask, “What’s your source?” Almost all would draw a blank. Almost all had forgotten that, when 7.44 billion people reference “God”, there are at least 7.44 billion variations on its meaning.
For 6.24 billion of these people–the spiritual 84% of the human species–this lapse is unsurprising. For many, their deity is so innate a concept it’s difficult to remember how they came upon related moral assumptions. And why shouldn’t these assumptions take time to unpack, when the nature of a deity is so personal? In 2009 a group of studies, “Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs,” illustrated that “reasoning about God’s beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person’s beliefs” (Epley et al.). In other words, when asked what they thought their god(s) believed about a given subject, participants answered as if thinking about their own beliefs, not someone else’s. And when a subject’s personal beliefs were changed in the course of related testing? What they reported to be their gods’ beliefs changed, too.
Thus, when I was asking clients “What’s your source for ‘God wants us to…’?” I was as good as asking students to explain, on the spot, their gut-instinct moral codes. Wasn’t it obvious that X was morally right and Y was morally wrong?
But the other 1.2 billion aren’t off the hook, either–and these people, “my people”, have some owning up to do. The non-religious all have specific ideas of a god in mind when thinking about, say, Christianity. Sometimes we have a few! And so we also have to be clear about our sources when discussing spirituality in the world.
Here, then, are five faces of ‘god’ that I waver between, when reflecting on today’s Judeo-Christian narratives of faith. As a humanist, I try my best to pay more attention to #5… but it’s not always easy. In essays going forward, I will lean sometimes on #4 (my personal reading of the New Testament). I will also invoke the dangers of #1 and #2. And, of course, I will discuss #3 extensively as it relates to Colombian Catholicism. As often as I can, though, I will own up to which of these “faces” guides my understanding of the term. My hope is that readers across the non-religious spectrum will do so, too.
Oh, I know: it’s frustrating to aspire to precision in so imprecise a world. I mean, if so many spiritual persons take their own terminology for granted, why should humanists aim greater for precision?
But this is the problem with all knowledge: those who have it have a responsibility to use it, irrespective of others’ decisions. This is why the allegory of Plato’s Cave doesn’t end with an educated cave-dweller basking in the light forever. Once shown the truth, even if he will never be believed, it’s back into the cave with him! Why? Because now it’s his duty to temper the wisdom of higher learning with that of everyday life.
Likewise, as humanists, it’s important to remember what we’re arguing against in any given moment. Are we appealing directly to our fellow human beings? Are we seeing them as human beings, with individual relationships to their faiths? Or are we talking over their heads to bask in our own cleverness? Have we prioritized esoteric pedantry over attention to how our spiritual associates draw strength from the idea of their god(s)?
I err in these last ways, too, but like to think I can improve–which is why it helps to ask myself, when embroiled in debate with Christians… which of these 5 faces am I invoking? And how close are they to the gods in which my fellow citizens believe?
1. Yahweh the Cranky, Pantheistic God of War
So! Let’s get this one out of the way, shall we? Because we atheists lean far too hard on it.
Yes, any good rationalwiki-, Karen-Armstrong-, or Bart-Ehrman-reading atheist knows from whence the Christian god was formed. All hail Yahweh, the god of war, and maybe storms and metallurgy! He who lived up on a mountain, and came down to help his nations wage war and genocide… except when technology like iron chariots were too much for his powers!
We know that Yahweh belonged to a pantheon including the likes of Ba’al and Asherah.
We know, too, that when the Israelites found their tribes diminished, some attributed the situation to society’s neglect of their war-god. (And ever was it thus, no? When a people are frightened they tend to turn to harder and harder authorities.)
Deuteronomy in particular, as any “in-the-know” atheist can tell you, was in part conveniently “discovered” (or written) when it best suited Yahwist King Josiah’s efforts to rally a people to reclaim their land by brutal conquest. A forgery? A repurposed document from ancient times? Either way, as its use and the gradual construction of its later components illustrates, Deuteronomy is a clear example of the Old Testament as warmongering text for a pantheon god dedicated to violent enterprise.
And We Can’t Keep Poking Fun at It Because…?
Sure, I get it. It’s satisfying to point to Christian scripture’s moral failings. Listening to someone try to defend a text that tries to scare people by envisioning a world where, say, they’ll have to eat their own children… has its entertainment value, I suppose.
But if we truly consider ourselves rational thinkers and compassionate humanists, we should know better than to play into easy strawmen. Why uphold versions of divinity that very few Christians today claim as their own? (Unless you know such Christians–in which case, oof, good luck!)
Besides, there are other “faces” that better deserve our time, and our critical-thinking skills, if we’re going to create a kinder world for all. For instance:
2. Buddy Christ, the Feel-Good Socialist
If atheists aren’t taking pot-shots at #1, the non-religious often affect bewildering allegiance to the idea of a free-loving-hippie-Jesus. You see this rhetoric emerge when right-leaning Christians advocate for more militaristic approaches to immigrant crises, or condemn non-traditional family structures. This smug, selective allyship emerges in reposts of the “Did I Fucking Stutter?” meme, or nativity scenes that point out Joseph and Mary’s migrant status.
We very much enjoy this, don’t we? It’s tempting to act like maybe we know Christ better than Christians… even if, in so doing, we’re actually demonstrating how little we know the Bible ourselves.
Because–as I’ve discussed elsewhere–the character of Christ described in the gospels is by no means chill. I mean, sure, if folks choose to see him as a non-judgmental lover, good for them! They are enacting a Christianity that serves humanism well.
…But scripture is not so easily aligned with that version of Christ–not when it also illustrates a Christ who uses slavery as a positive example; suggests that people trying to atone do not deserve aid; advocates lying to get back into good graces, because loyalty even unto Mammon is necessary to demonstrate worthiness for true riches; has no qualms suffering animals to suicide themselves; foretells end times in his generation that will traumatize the most vulnerable; and speaks in parables punishing those who do not maximize even a master’s ill-gotten gains.
Seriously, how anyone gets “socialist” from Matthew 25:26-30 is beyond me.
Pros and Cons
Now, I have a great many religious friends, and many believe in Buddy Christ. Many thus do a double-take upon discovering the severity of Christ’s doctrines against, say, divorce and idle thoughts of extra-marital attraction. Turning the other cheek is one thing, but does being a follower of Christ really also mean never fighting a lawsuit? What does it mean when gospel claims that Christ came not to bring peace but a sword? When he upholds every “jot” and “tittle” in the old law, how many Draconian ideas about the legal management of society does this mean he supports? The writer of Hebrews insists that Christ has his own priestly tradition, but how much can and should Christ’s rabbinical counsel be applied to today’s affairs? How much is out of date?For the most part, though, these of my spiritual friends put aside such fiddly Biblical questions. They’re busy enacting lives of full confidence in the support of a loving creator: a creator, that is, who wants them to do right by themselves and others through positive political and social actions. And good for them.
…But others, rightly troubled by such contradictions, turn to orders dedicated to serving as spiritual intermediaries. Orders with doctrines strictly outlining how to apply ancient texts to modern problems. All they ask, in turn, is submission to rituals of the faith. And thus do we come upon the faces of divinity found in institutional Christianities.
3. Christ as Paul’s Prop for Peter’s Rock
Now, there are many institutional Christianities, but here I am going to focus on just one. Why? Because for people like me, people raised outside of faith entirely, Catholicism can be an especially fascinating form of institutional Christianity. While no one knows the real writers of the gospels, Paul’s comments inspired a tradition specifically tethered to his ideas about what Christ-worship should entail. And… good grief, is that ever puzzling to outsiders.
How Pauline is modern Christianity, exactly?
Granted, most Christians ignore quite a bit of Paul’s counsel. (And thank goodness for that, because the Huldahs and Deborahs of the Old Testament would not fare well under his societal prescriptions for women!). However, whether or not he’s the writer of Ephesians and Thessalonians, Paul still serves to clarify the church’s role in Christianity. He also affirms a tradition of miracles post-Resurrection–and that last is really where Catholicism thrives with notable distinction.
In particular, Paul’s purported meeting with Christ on the road to Damascus establishes a new line of divine visitations. As evidence of ongoing spiritual intervention, this in turn frames a tremendous amount of Catholic narrative in ensuing centuries. Think of Catholicism as the “Alexander the Great” of Christianities. Alexander, after all, dominated more easily by tolerating local adaptations to his abiding rule. Likewise, Catholicism’s approach to spiritual visitation allows for the easy assimilation of local faiths into overarching narrative. (And this is especially true in Colombia, where preceding mother-goddess worship fits ever-so-neatly within Marian tradition!)
Consequently, Catholicism permits a dynamic body of spirits to tell new stories on Earth. It does this, though, while firmly adhering to the Word of the Old and New Testaments through Vatican degree.
Institutional Faces, Personal Encounters
For most Catholics, then, their institutions make the way clear for personal relationships with Christ. By deferring to the clerical order on higher affairs, Catholics can focus on direct spiritual awakening through a material Christ. This means Christ as blood and body, present and waiting at the tabernacle. This means a real-time manifestation of their faith to complement the presumed constancy of the Word. The Catholic world is a powerfully symbolic place, and the mystery that binds ongoing earthly narrative with scriptural decree is not meant to be solved so much as submitted to and revered.
Where, then, do these last two faces leave me? How does a humanist negotiate between happy-go-lucky Buddy Christ and the more institutionalized symbology of a godhead that permeates objects, texts, and specific places alike through sacred ritual?
Well, quite honestly, I waver–because whenever I read from the New Testament, I see at its centre something else entirely. I see a man, not a god. Or as I call him,
4. Jesus the All-Too-Human Street-Preaching Rabbi
Whenever I read a kernel of wisdom in the New Testament, I tend to find a frustratingly dunderheaded comment nearby. I have mentioned quite a few above, under #2, so let’s just focus here on the parables of The Unjust Steward and The Talents. Which are these? Oh, right, the ones that advocate lying to get back into a master’s good graces, and just punishment for someone who does not multiply even his master’s ill-gotten fortune.
Who, post-Nuremberg, would ever position loyalty to one’s earthly master as a necessary demonstration of worthiness for true riches after death?
And yet, to me, this kind of lousy moral counsel (and the cursing of pigs and fig trees, and getting the end-times wrong, and advocating systems of slavery and related mastership…) does not simply demonstrate that Christ of the New Testament is absolutely not a god. Rather, these signs illustrate that the New Testament was definitely inspired by at least one real street preacher. Maybe even by a whole pastiche!
Because there’s just something so ploddingly human about the advice given by this 30- to 33-year-old man. This human so plainly beholden to the astronomy and biology and legal case law available in his era. This human so plainly framed, too, by the general mores of a slave-owning polygamist culture.
A Humanist Role for the Street Preacher
Simply put, I can imagine quite a number of people today making the same crapshoot of good and bad ethical counsel. (And I similarly cringe at the thought of any of them being seen as a god 2000 years hence!)
Whoever this ancient street preacher was, though, I don’t doubt he was a good rabbi for his day and age. After all, the writers of Genesis and Psalms also showed great interest in the whys and wherefores of their world. Why so many languages? What causes different patterns in the same species? Against the vastness of the cosmos, what is man? How can one not read curiosity into so many Biblical just-so stories? The writers had questions about how they came to be, and they contrived answers with the best intel then on hand. What more could be asked of them? And who’s to say they wouldn’t write those stories differently today, with the intel now on hand?
But many still read Genesis and Psalms as absolute truths rather than embodiments of past human curiosity. In so doing, they diminish the wonder and history in both. And in like manner, I would contend, are the greatest contributions of Christ the Man to human history also ill-used.
…Now, granted, if you take Christ to be a god, even his antiquated rabbinical counsel kind of has to be taken as universal truth.
But hey, I don’t! And so, I am freed up to say that much in the gospels is just awful.
Bits and pieces, though, reflect a philosophy well worth humanistic study. We just need a different lens with which to view it–and I call mine…
5. The 2.3-Billion-Faced God of Christianity
Bar none, as a humanist this is my favourite version of the Christian god. This is the God with 2.3 Billion Faces. This is that questing spirit from ancient times, brought forward to the present, and indisputably alive in every believer’s heart.
Over the years I have counted among my friends and loved ones people from across the religious spectrum. I have lived with extreme Evangelicals and liberal Black church members. In my circles are United Church members, Pentecostals, devout Catholics, lapsed Catholics, and of course, Anglicans. I know people who feel that their god is best seen in evolution, and people who feel that their god is best seen by denying evolution. Some friends talk to their god every day. Others feel their god lies beyond the veil of nature, waiting in the next life to fully reveal itself.
And just how on Earth is such organized chaos possible?
It’s simple: as noted in the 2009 study mentioned above, when I’m talking to people about their gods, their answers reflect them. 2.3 billion brilliant faces of divinity!
In asking them about their gods, I thus learn about their aspirational selves, their communities, and their worlds. And what could possibly be more vital to humanist practice than attention to the perspectives of actual human beings?
The ‘Good’ Humanist’s Take-Away
If you haven’t guessed, then, this “face” is where my column’s main argument lies.
The human heart is where people on the non-religious spectrum need to be focussing our attention. Sure, it can be idle fun to poke ethical and factual holes in scripture. But in so doing, are we getting to the crux of what our believing friends, family members, and global citizens really mean when they invoke the names of their gods? Are we talking to them, dialoguing with them… or simply showing off our cleverness and selective esoteric knowledge?
My writing-centre clients taught me that when believers say “God wants us to…”, they’re invoking a personal relationship. Even better, they’re invoking their most aspirational selves. As such, if we want to gather together all the humanists from our 7.44 billion, it strongly behooves my fellow atheists to pay attention to whatever words might follow.
Because these will be the words that tell us what sort of company we keep. Are we among people who want to carry forward the very best of their religious stories… or folks employing their faiths as ideological shelter for far worse?
So let’s lay down the pedantry, shall we? And let’s find our tribe instead.
Let’s listen with greater care to what fellow citizens mean when they invoke the names of their gods… and use greater precision, too, when speaking of the same ourselves.