Saturday, May 28, 2016

Our Unsentimental God

(re-post from my other blog, the now-defunct Facile Nation, 12/30/2009)

For the Niños Christmas book, 2009

I heard Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic Magazine, on the radio the other day. He was well-spoken and self-effacing and quite likable, but his thought processes revealed a series of devastating assumptions rooted in the human tendency to anthropomorphize things; in this case, God.

“How can God be jealous?” he asked and, because he conceptualized God as some kind of big human, he dismissed the possibility of God and can only conceive of God as an invention or projection of humanity. Jealousy is a bad thing, God says in scripture that He is jealous, therefore this whole God-idea falls apart — at least for Michael Shermer and other vocal atheists I’ve heard in the last few years.

But if we take a step backward and consider Exodus 20 where the word “jealous” first appears in scripture, we find another picture altogether: God is establishing the right boundary with His people Israel:
Then God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:1-6)
When God is jealous, He is outraged because that which is rightly His has been given to another. All of creation is rightly His and He may do with it as He pleases because it belongs to Him in the most profound way imaginable. The idolater makes an alliance with a rebel. How do we feel if we’ve gone to great lengths to make a sacrificial gift for someone and that someone proceeds to ignore us while gushing all over a third party, giving the third party all the thanks, credit, and appreciation for our effort.

Michael Shermer reveals his simplistic view of ‘jealousy’ — a little girl jealous because her friend is also friends with someone else, a man jealous because a coworker was promoted while he was not. But isn’t Shermer jealous of his wife? If his wife gives her body and her love to another man, isn’t Shermer appropriately jealous? So even within the context of human emotions, ‘jealousy’ can be right.

Going a step further, the Hebrew word used (qanna’) refers only to God; a different word is translated ‘jealous’ when it refers to human emotions.

I wish that Dr Shermer was a rarity in this kind of projection or that it was relegated to atheists and agnostics but I see an equally dangerous variant embraced by many Christians: anthropomorphizing God’s emotions in a sentimental way. I’ve seen some people read, “'As I live!' declares the Lord GOD, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked,’” and completely ignore the rest of the verse: “'but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?'” (Ezekiel 33:11). They are tempted into universalism by God’s statement that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, as if that means God would prefer to tolerate wickedness rather than do justice if He cannot take pleasure in every aspect of it.

Think about the kind of deity we would have, if God were sentimental: Mary wouldn’t give birth to Jesus because what kind of God would put an innocent young woman through the trauma of giving birth as a virgin, alone with a husband in a crude barn, no midwife, no mother, aunt, or family present to assist or comfort? Rumors swirling around, her virtue impugned, “a sword will pierce your heart” — no, a sentimental God would never put a favored daughter through all that.

Sentimental Father-God would never ask God-the-Son to take on human flesh and pain and sin on the cross (and think how it would traumatize the disciples! No, that will never do). Sentimental Jesus, if such a Being could exist, would not say, “Get behind me, Satan!” to Peter when he stopped listening to the Holy Spirit and started listening to the enemy – no, that might bruise his self-esteem and how can Peter go on to be pope if his self-esteem is damaged?

Maybe the best argument against sentimental God is the existence of free will: sentimental God wouldn’t allow Adam & Eve to fall, taking the species and creation with them. Sentimental God would have been amenable to Lucifer sharing His glory – He’s got enough to spare, right? No skin off God’s nose…

As much as I struggle to grasp our Very Big God, I am so grateful that He isn’t sentimental, that He is jealous and holy, just and righteous and merciful. Jesus, fully God and fully man, laying down His life on the cross for the sake of all those willing to enter into relationship with Him — what a marvel! What a miracle.

Glory to God in the highest and, on earth, peace among men and women and children with whom He is pleased.

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