God as Parent

God as Parent September 14, 2019

To the extent that the point of this cartoon by David Hayward is that spiritual growth hurts, I agree – it can hurt.

Surely that is the reason why many prefer to remain immature, not merely childlike (which can be positive) but childish. Spiritual growth, like any growth, is a painful process.

However, I suspect I am not the only one who also has qualms about the depiction of God kicking someone off a cliff.

That, I think, is part of the challenge theology faces when it comes to theodicy.

If a human parent were to make things deliberately difficult for their child, we might well accuse them of child abuse rather than fostering spiritual development. And yet some degree of “throwing them in the deep end” is acceptable pedagogy when teaching a child to swim. Indeed, we sometimes cause harm and long-term challenges to our children both when we fail to provide support and protection they need, and when we provide too much. And so it is no wonder that we struggle with relating this to our ideas about God.

How much of the problem is in our anthropomorphism, our depiction of God in human terms? How much is due to the things we depict God as doing? And how much is due to our own assumptions about what it means to be good, or our inappropriate imposition of those values on God?


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  • John MacDonald

    I think you hit on a key issue in addressing the theodicy problem when you wrote:

    And yet some degree of “throwing them in the deep end” is acceptable pedagogy when teaching a child to swim.

    Not only God the father, but also God the teacher, is a key theme in the Hebrew scriptures. Two of my favorite passages (among many) are

    Psalm 71:17
    O God, You have taught me from my youth, And I still declare Your wondrous deeds.

    Psalm 94:10
    He who chastens the nations, will He not rebuke, Even He who teaches man knowledge?

    For more relevant verses, see https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/God-As-Our-Teacher

    It is noteworthy that the main title given to Jesus in the NT is “Teacher.”

    • John MacDonald

      Phil Ledgerwood said in his post that just disappeared (maybe caught in the filter) that

      Maybe what looks like suffering to you now is actually saving your life.

      Some say that cancer is evil. But is it? Would we call smallpox and rinderpest evil? Well, no, because as our knowledge and achievements in medicine have increased, we have overcome them. What meaning would humanity have if not its drive to overcome adversity? And consider the collateral achievements and knowledge resulting from the research into smallpox and rinderpest. What looks like evil from the point of view of the suffering individual may not be so labeled from the point of view of humanity as a whole considered from the whole of its history.

      • jh

        With that kind of logic, we could argue that owning black people was not evil because now, their descendants get to be US citizens. In fact, some whites do argue this “logic” as a means of trying to shut up black people when they talk about slavery.

        1. Evil is what the victim gets to define. Not the oppressor. When does the oppressor ever think his actions are evil? Answer : Never. The abuser will never consider himself evil even when he beats up his girlfriend for “disrespecting” him.

        2. I get it if Christians asked for this Jesus character to “teach them”. But what about the people who didn’t ask for those lessons. Do they deserve to be enrolled in the school of hard knocks?

        3. What right does a god have to determine another creature’s life? At least your real mother and father share a common experience to an extent with you. When they attempt to teach you something, they are guided by the same experiences that all human beings share. How dare a non-human being act so arrogant as to teach another sentient being anything when it cannot exist on our playing field. Sorry – going incarnate demigod doesn’t cut it. Give us all the same power of bringing people back from the dead, turning water into wine? Is that what normal human beings can do? If this god creature truly wanted to enjoy the human experience, no miracles. No magic. Otherwise, it’s just cheating. It’s like wearing the uniform but never serving even one day in basic training.

        4. and this Jesus fellow (or God for that matter) suck as teachers. A crack addict who suffers from dementia can probably implement a more successful lesson plan than this jesus fellow can. Why? It’s in the results. You see, when I went to class for a subject, at the end of that class, my teacher had successfully taught me what I was supposed to learn. That means that at the beginning of calc 1, I had no clue what differential equations were and by the end, differentiating equations and figuring out inflection points was no big deal. A good spanish teacher starts off with a classroom of white kids who may know some stock phrases, and by the end, they know at least how to conjugate the verb “ser”. What do people who choose Jesus to teach them learn? Surely, there should be some pattern and commonality that can be shown in population studies? What is it that these people exhibit that proves they learned their lesson?

        • John MacDonald

          I’m not religious. Answering theodicy is quite difficult. It is one of the issues that moved Bart Ehrman from his faith. I was thinking more about the “evils” that God would have to answer for, not just the ones that are the result of human free-will. The question that needs to be answered, from an American legal perspective, is why is God not legally guilty of Depraved Indifference Murder (for hurricanes, earthquakes, cancer, etc)? Of course, there is always the standard conservative apologetic to fall back on: God promises justice in the next life, not this one.

      • Summers-lad

        In an off-beat sort of a way, this reminds me of someone’s line (Steve Punt, I think) that medical science has enabled us to live long enough to die of cancer.

  • Vance Morgan

    What is the alternative to using human categories to try to understand what is greater than us? Simply saying that “God is God and we’re not” is both true and entirely unhelpful. If God seeks relationship with human beings (as Christianity claims God does), then we have to assume that human ways of understanding are useful when seeking to participate in that relationship.

    • As I’ve said before, we have no choice other than to draw on our experience for metaphors and symbols if we are to speak of the transcendent at all. Yet on the other hand, when we forget that such language is a pointer rather than a description we err in the other direction. It is a fine line to follow with pitfalls on both sides.


      • Vance Morgan

        It’s interesting that I’m starting my Early Modern Philosophy course this semester with the debate between Bayle and Leibniz on exactly this issue. Bayle says that human categories cannot be used to understand God, so we should essentially just shut up and believe, while Leibniz argues that since Truth is unified, reason and experience properly used will not be in conflict with what we believe on the basis of faith. As you say, the fine line to be followed falls between those two positions.

        • John MacDonald

          You’ll like Leibniz. His formulation of the Principle of Sufficient Reason in its shorter form is: “Nothing is without a Why.” Here’s a fun issue to look into: It’s fun to contrast this saying of Leibniz with the saying of a contemporary of Leibniz who is often present in Leibniz’s writings, the mystical Christian poet Angelus Silesius, who wrote “The rose is without why, it blooms because it blooms.” Clearly, there are reasons why a rose blooms, so this is not what Silesius meant. Rather, for Silesius “why” is a seeking for grounds that is not equivalent to the way “because” is seeking for grounds.

          • Vance Morgan

            I do like Leibniz–that’s why he’s on the syllabus. I’ve taught him many times.

          • John MacDonald

            Oops, I thought you were a student, lol

      • John MacDonald

        Thanks for sharing that link.

        As someone who is on the fence about “God” in the everyday sense of the term, in my own life the epekeina tês ousias causing thaumazein is what gives me pause, such as that experiences of surplus beyond the everyday when encountering the uncanny. For instance, Derrida’s friend and fellow postmodern religious Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, in his later writing, talks about the look in the face of the suffering widow, orphan, alien, stranger, and enemy that awakens a responsibility in me in a way that infinitely overwhelms my ability to respond. I think these sorts of things point to something more than just what ordinary language can effectively express. Similarly, Derrida talks about the realization in ethical action deliberation that there is never enough time, precedence, information, etc., so out of a feeling of uncanny impotence we make a Kierkegaardian leap and act, fully realizing there may be unintended violence.

        I don’t mean every experience of surplus points to God, but maybe that such experiences provide an analogy based on which we can begin to think about the numinous.