God and Anthropomorphism

God and Anthropomorphism November 4, 2011

In discussing Hume’s Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion in my freshman seminar course, one of the major focal points was inevitably whether God can be thought of as in any way analogous to human beings (or in more technical terms anthropomorphically). We also connected this with Tillich’s treatment of myths as expressions of ultimate concern in the form of stories which talk about God or gods as though like human beings.

The ultimate is mysterious, and the mistake is not in talking about our ultimate concern in stories that depict the divine in human terms, but in believing that such stories are true rather than symbolic.

A nice illustration of this (and a great pun to boot) can be found in David Hayward’s cartoon:


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  • The fingers of God are evident in psalms 8 and 144 – they reinforce the inclusio of these two psalms – a curious inclusio – in that the what is man question is posed in two different sets of words, and the fingers are taught war in Psalm 144 where the fingers of God are what creates in Psalm 8.  I have enjoyed Harold Bloom’s quip about Yhwh in his book Jesus and Yhwh – Yhwh is the most anthropomorphic God and Jesus the most theomorphic human – or words to that effect.

  • Ian

    Funny, my wife was teaching Hinduism today (to junior school children), and opened with the same question: “What does God look like?”, as an opening gambit to teach the concept that Hindu gods are personifications of attributes of the one universal divinity. Apparently they were able to articulate something similar to your post. I was impressed at how easy they found it to separate what they thought was myth from what could be real.

    “whether God can be thought of as in any way analogous to human beings”
    Which God? The God that the students believe in? Its a question each believer has to ask for themselves, I guess. I don’t see how those who’s God is highly anthropomorphic could be “mistaken” in their answer, though, unless we can find the “one true God” and see what he/she/it is like.

    Even if they don’t see him as an old man on a cloud, some people, no doubt, have a conception of God quite literally in Ανθρωπινη Μορφη. I’m not so sure it is so obviously wrong. I wonder how much there is in theology that God does that would be considered non-human. Its fine to say God is ‘more’ and ‘mysterious’. but ultimately, anything one envisages God doing, thinking or desiring, is going to be just a bigger version of a human action, though or desire. Isn’t it?

    I’d say that’s because God is a human construct, having no existence independent of human thought. I’m sure some Christians would say that’s because God created us in our image to be an (albeit limited, and ultimately corrupted) echo of his perfection.

  • One lecturer who will remain nameless (it wasn’t me, but I know who it was) was giving a lecture on feminist theology and female images of God. “Sorry,” says one student, “I just can’t imagine God as a woman. I can’t imagine God having massive breasts.”

    “So”, says the lecturer, “when you imagine God as a man, do you imagine him having a massive c*ck?”

  • Simon, I am almost afraid to ask what, if anything, the student said in response to that.

    Ian, I remember when I used to teach out South Asian Civilizations course, when we would reach the point in the Gita when Krishna reveals his true for to Arjuna, with fangs and other terrifying elements mentioned, it led naturally to an interesting discussion of not only anthropomorphism, but also the idea of God as other and as something terrifying and beyond human control or understanding, aspects of divinity that are much less popular nowadays than they once were, at least among students.

  • Michael Wilson

    James do you think that the anthropormorphism may extend to God’s personality as well? I’m to the conclution that are whole mode of thinking and feeling is based on our existance as a carbon based life, and our reasoning and emotions have precursors in the animal. I think when we say God loves, judges, feels sorrow, or acts for his purpose, that we are anthropormorphising God, and it serves as a metaphore for what is really the activity of God. What do you think?

  • GakuseiDon

    @facebook-1355591760:disqus Your comment reminds me of Eusebius, who wrote:

    “Now you may find in the Hebrew Scriptures also thousands of such passages concerning God as though He were jealous, or sleeping, or angry, or subject to any other human passions, which passages are adopted for the benefit of those who need this mode of instruction.”
    Evangelicae Praeparationis, Book XII, chapter XXXI

    So the treatment of those Bible passages as dealing with an anthropomorphized God is a very early idea.

    • Michael Wilson

      It seems an aceptance of the muti trak mode of religous expression, one for the educated that understand the deeper spiritual signifigence and one for the superstitious masses. very interesting Don, thanks for pointing that out.

  • That is probably a fair characterization of the situation. Often if people have only been exposed to one sort of religious viewpoint, they may think that others are recent innovations to cope with cultural or scientific shifts. But in fact, more liberal religious viewpoints have been around for a very long time, as have the range of moderate ones.

    • Michael Wilson

      Could the issue of fundametalism be due to the expultion of allegorist so the whole heirarchy is literalist due to a democritization of the sect so the leadership has to tow the line of the masses? 

  • i’m not sure I would be comfortable trying to identify one set of factors that is always and only responsible. But I do know that in some denominations the very fact that congregations are the ones who hire and employ ministers means that those who have not studied the Bible academically are poised to get rid of a minister who doesn’t say what they want to hear. That is liable to leave matters to be determined by those who happen to be the wealthy, or influential, or simply the loudest bullies, rather than people who actually are well-informed about the kinds of things that Christians ought to be hiring ministers in order to become well informed about. It certainly creates some unique challenges. That’s not to say that more hierarchical structures do not also have the potential for issues.

  • GakuseiDon

    Karen Armstrong refers to “mythos” and “logos”. Mythos refers to meaning and mysticism, logos to explanation and rationalism. She writes that these were considered complimentary ways of arriving at truth. Armstrong believes that modern society is currently driven by logos, and one of the results is Fundamentalism. I think that the New Atheists come from the same foundation. Both groups only see value if the Bible provides ‘truth’, rather than ‘meaning’.

    She believes we can’t understand ancient texts if we only approach them from a modern perspective of logo. There is a snippet from her book “Battle for God” that explains further:

  • Basic problem: one can purify the concept of God of grosser sorts of anthropomorphism, but the anthropomorphism that matters is the notion that God is an agent, i.e. a person with motives analogous to human motives. Of course it’s possible to appeal to nondual versions of the godhead, but a necessary being who is not a who is of no interest to anybody, even itself.

    • PorlockJunior

      “[A] necessary being who is not a who is of no interest to anybody, even itself.”

      Very precisely put. I must steal it.

      In an odd symmetry, I find a similar lack of interest in proliferations of strictly finite pagan godlings inhabiting everything invisibly, such as are rather popular now. (I use Pagan in an idiosyncratic way that does not include philosophical versions of Hindu thought, for all their many-armed gods.) I mean, very nice, all these nymphs and driads, but what have they got to do with me?

      Now, if they’d made the whole world I live in, and all things visible and invisible, I’d have to take them seriously. If they just propagate and nurture the local oak trees, that’s nice of them; and if that makes them forces of nature that I have to take into account, so be it. But I have no need of that hypothesis, and I’d rather talk to the oaks directly. (Here in the county that gave the world Sudden Oak Death, they need comforting.)

      Again, if they offer superior wisdom, justice, love, and whatnot, then I must go and sit at their feet; but we all know from the mythologies what a bunch of duds they are, no better than we but more dangerous. So why bother? Though, in contrast to the abstract godhead, they at least interest themselves. Do they ever!

      Hence, the Godhead of exactly the right amounts of immanence and transcendance is the only one worth the effort of wondering whether it exists. I’m inclined to believe not; but at least it would matter if I were wrong.