The anthropomorphization of God

The anthropomorphization of God July 4, 2010

Everyone in the DC area should be booking tickets asap to see New Jerusalem at Theatre J (major hat tip to Eve Tushnet).  David Ives has done a magnificant job dramatizing Baruch de Spinoza’s trial for heresy in his own synagogue.  I’ll be writing more about it soon, but don’t wait on me to get your tickets now.  (I recommend buying seats in the bench section, which puts you onstage for the trial).

In the play Spinoza questions assumptions about the nature of God, and accuses the members of his synagogue of being too quick to anthropomorphize God.  At one point during the production, I was strongly reminded of a book I’d recently finished: Martin Gardner’s The Flight of Peter Fromm.  Near the end of the book, Peter has gone through many crises of faith, but he has emerged as a kind of Christian deist, who is no longer so troubled by the longstanding mystery of theodicy.  He tells his old teacher:

Moral evil is the price we pay for freedom.  Natural evil is the price we pay for a world of natural law.  Gravity keeps us on the earth.  If someone falls off a cliff, gravity murders him.  You can’t expect God to cancel a law ever time its about to kill someone….

I don’t think it’s an evasion.  It’s just an honest confession of ignorance.  Thinking about anything finally has to end in mystery.  And why not?  After all, we didn’t make this world any more than the jellyfish did.  Why should the human race be easier to understand than time and space and matter and energy?  Faith in God doesn’t explain an electron.  Why should it explain evil?

In our highly Judeo-Christian culture, we don’t often conceive of a God without conceiving of him as a kind of superpowered human.  Someone who loves us as a Father.  And is omnipotent.  And has a big beard.  There’s not much mainstream discussion of why we expect those things of God.  Discussions of theodicy and limits on miracles are standard components of the atheist arsenal but both sides rarely engage with the fact that there have been many religions, mythologies, and even some forms of Christianity that saw no contradiction between God’s existence and the presence of evil and misfortune.


Are most theists misunderstanding God, as Spinoza claimed?

What expectations for God and extrapolations from our experience are reasonable and how are we to judge?


I’d like to crowdsource a cry for help: I now have a powerful yen to read Spinoza.  Where should I start?

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  • NFQ

    David Ives is awesome. I haven't read any of his works that I wouldn't recommend. (Haven't read them all, but I think I have a large enough sample size.) … To indulge my stream of consciousness for a moment, I'd also recommend to you the Christopher Durang play "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You." To address your post more directly: The question of what we mean when we say "god" is absolutely essential to any discussion between people of different religious persuasions (and probably of the supposedly same one, as well). I think the general more-powerful-than-us meme is easy to understand — since gods are traditionally posited as explanations for how everything came to be in the universe, how massive natural disasters happen, etc., things beyond the scope of human power. But why more-powerful-than-us feature leads us to assume any particular set of other qualities about this creature or rules that creature might have imposed is absolutely beyond me.Of course, mainstream religions have some sort of ancient book that they can point to, and that provides them with the extra details. And I suppose this issue is how some extremely liberal people from mainstream religions, and New Age types, get away with defining God as something really nebulous and hand-wavey like "the energy of the universe" and whatnot.Even if they're understandable … I don't think any of these extrapolations are "reasonable," though. They're all just random conjectures pulled out of the Zeitgeist's proverbial ass.

  • It seems to me that most people–theist, nontheist, apathetic–misunderstand most things about most religions and areligions that they're not a part of, in ways predictable to the cultures they live in. For this reason a well-read and widely-read Christian is probably better able to deal with how the "extrapolations" came about and what evidence supports these extrapolations than anyone less versed in different theologies and historical criticisms. (The same obviously holds true for any other religious, philosophic, or scientific tradition.) I guess what I'm saying is that no one should be too quick to point out contradictions or claim that this is all historically contingent (of the zeitgeist, if you like that term), unless you are quite sure you've gone through as many (and as varied) sources as that other person.And expecting them to articulate the whole breadth and depth of what they've read in a single conversation is unfair. Not only would it be impossible to precis the whole of it, they just might not remember. If you're anything like me, you analyze an argument when you hear it, decide on its probably value, choose to adopt the belief or not, and then forget half of the process. This is why I keep books or remember sources, so I can go look the arguement up again. But obviously I have trouble justifying my "extrapolations" without easy access to my library, and we must expect this sort of thing with anyone we talk to.Please don't take this to mean I expect you to agree with anything you hear without evidence; instead, I mean that you mustn't be too quick to judge belief in another person until you're sure you know the process behind adoption of that belief, regardless of the rhetorical ability or memory of that other person. Now, if they're trying to persuade you, that's a different story.

    • Rod Scholl

      Stumbled here. Drunk, and thinking I should smoke weed before my wife comes downstairs… so that will bolster my credibility with a few, and perhaps undermine all credibility with you.. From what year, letseee — h, two years ago. … so I shout into the abyss. And let it shout back, I encourage its clarification of my misguided ambition.

      Anyway, where were we… oh yes, smartness. Some people can count cards… some can’t. A lot of the differentiation is training… some is inherent ability. Nature vs. Nurture. When one is preferenced in your spiritual truth, I hope we all agree it is dubious.

      In his case, I love your observation that we should all apreciat eachother’s limited observation. That makes good sense when one is exploring new territory. However, my experience is that this is old territory… walked from left to right by ten thousand intersecting paths. And to try to ceremonilize one particular path is good for encouragement — but bad for the community. (enter Christiantiy, state right).

      In spiritualism, one should use the scientific method. Meaning, if you can apply this method to agree or disagree with your particular belief (such as evolution, marriage definition, freedom, socialism, etc.) one should realize that aplication of the scientific method is flawed! And those that discoun another belief, not matter how ridiculous it may seem, are actually engaging in the discourse of science.

      So the next time you bristle at a pagan, a muslim, jew, or christian, remember that these are all grasping at straws, with the auspices of non-grasping; celebrate human audacity to believe completely today what it discovered yesterday.

  • Spinoza's view of God follows from his metaphysical axioms, which involve a priori definitions of such fundamental notions as "substance," "mode," "attribute," "nature," and "cause." To understand why he thought his definitions fair, one has to understand the milieu of thought in which he wrote. But one of the chapters of my doctoral thesis was devoted to showing that there is no logical necessity to any of his stipulations. So I've never been impressed by his natural theology as anything more than an aesthetically interesting exercise.

  • Thanks for weighing in, Mike. I've never read any Spinoza myself, so I'm glad someone on this thread has actually studied him. Do you have any recommendation of a good companion book or guide for the Ethics if I manage to take a crack at it this summer?