Book excerpt: Creating God in our own image

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

During my participation in Bible study groups, 12-Step meetings and spiritual direction sessions, I have frequently been encouraged to evaluate different concepts of God. Most discussions have tended to focus on a pair of competing images – Loving God versus Angry God.

The benevolent Loving God provides for our every need and wants us to love and care for each other. John 3:16 tells us God “so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

The Angry God of my childhood understanding, on the other hand, was a short-tempered bully who frankly hated people and regretted having created us. This ‘God’ reserved an especially hot place in you-know-where for kids who asked “Why?” when told by an adult to do something.

Critically evaluating the ideas we hold about God can be a valuable exercise. Many of us who grew up with the image of a perpetually angry and capricious bully have benefitted from advice often heard around the tables at 12-Step meetings: “It may be time to fire the ‘God’ of our childhood understanding and meet the real one.”

Lately, I’ve noticed another “God” wreaking havoc in the U.S.: The Culture Warrior God. This false god, I’ve come to believe, is responsible for fueling much of the toxic polarization in both our churches and our secular society.

CULTURE WARRIOR GOD appeals to our self-righteous instincts and our resentments, as well as our desire to fit in with peers. This god has many faces:

  • The god who plays favorites. Culture Warrior God favors one special group of people over all others, and – by some stroke of luck, coincidence or superior righteousness – the favored group just happens to be the group we belong to or identify with. This group may be our own church congregation or denomination. (Not to worry: Culture Warrior God assures us that members of those other denominations aren’t real Christians anyway.) But the favored group may also be a nation, a racial or ethnic group, a political party or followers of an ideological movement.
  • The god who dabbles in politics. Culture Warrior God just happens to be a card-carrying member of our own political party or ideological camp and – to make it easier for us to conflate our religious beliefs with our political agenda – has personally authored a creed that includes 650 boxes for us to check. We may suspect parts of the “creed” were developed by bending and twisting Biblical teachings until they conform to our political party’s platform. But if this editing process makes us nervous, it’s best not to say anything, lest we be cast into the outer darkness for eternity. Or canceled by our peers in Culture Warrior God’s chosen group. (Peer pressure is certainly not limited to junior high school.)
  • The god who hates Those People. Culture Warrior God encourages us to reject and condemn anyone who votes for the wrong candidate in an election, refuses to check every single one of the above-mentioned 780 boxes, or otherwise fails to look, act and think the way we do. One way to hold these nefarious transgressors accountable is to publicly call out their sins on a social media site such as Facebook or Twitter and invite others to pile on. Yes, we know the Bible says that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, and only those who haven’t sinned should cast stones. But Culture Warrior God assures us that Those People’s sins are WAY more egregious than our own. Besides, stone-casting helps signal to our peers how virtuous we are.
  • The god whose “messengers” mustn’t be questioned. If the leaders of Culture Warrior God’s chosen group say something is true, then it’s true. Period. Never mind if the Bible says something a bit different. We must never challenge even one of the 870 boxes we are asked to check as a condition of sitting at the popular kids’ table. (Ever notice how the number of boxes keeps growing? Best not to mention that little detail either.) Unlike the members of all those hundreds of other Christian denominations, we can trust we have the corner on the Ultimate Truth because Culture Warrior God has told us repeatedly our group is the only one that really “gets it.”

I HAVE TO ADMIT  that the contrarian in me often finds it easier to articulate what I don’t believe than to discern what I do believe. But I think I can safely say it’s time to fire the Culture Warrior God of our adult creation, right along with the Angry Bully God of our childhood nightmares.

What the many faces of Culture Warrior God add up to is a god created in our own image.

It’s tempting to believe this particular form of idolatry is limited to fringe cults like Westboro Baptist Church or white Christian nationalist movements. But if we’re completely honest, we must admit this thinking can pose a challenge for all of us, even if we identify ourselves with a traditional brand of Christianity such as mainline Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, Pentecostal or Orthodox. And Culture Warrior God’s siren song can appeal to us whether we lean toward the conservative or progressive side of the political spectrum.

One problem is that many of us subconsciously anthropomorphize God – that is, give God human characteristics. (Does an elderly white man with a long beard and flowing robes come to mind?) We also tend to cherry-pick Biblical teachings that match our biases – whether intentionally or not – while reflexively ignoring those inconvenient passages that challenge our cherished worldview.

Given the combination of our human limitations and our human egos, is there a way for us not to create God in our own image, at least to some extent? Is there a way to avoid putting our own spin on Biblical teachings? How do we know when we – or the group we belong to – might be doing these things?

Here are some clues I’ve come to recognize as red flags:

  • When any belief system claims God favors one group of people exclusively. (If I’m interpreting Romans 10:12, Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 correctly, God does not favor any one group of people over any others.)
  • When God starts sounding too much like a conservative Republican, a progressive Democrat or a member of any other secular political party or ideological movement. (We’d do well to focus on following the Lamb, not an elephant or a donkey.)
  • When we secretly believe in our heart of hearts that our own little group of believers – out of the thousands in existence – is the only one that gets everything completely right.
  • When we choose our congregation based on how closely its interpretation of Biblical truth aligns with our political beliefs – or at least refrains from challenging them. (For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine,” warns 2 Timothy 4:3-4. “But having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.”)
  • When a group or leader discourages questions. (A group whose leaders or truth claims can’t be scrutinized or challenged is not a religion – or even a legitimate political party or ideological movement. It’s a cult.)
  • When we feel a bit too much glee at the prospect of God punishing someone who doesn’t share our views. (A former pastor at my church once observed that some people take as much comfort in the idea of certain other peoples’ eternal damnation as they do in the idea of their own salvation.)
  • When God agrees with us on every single controversial issue and disapproves of all the same people we do. (This should be a dead giveaway.)
  • When a group hands us one of those lists titled “People God Hates.” (We can confidently pitch said list in the recycle bin. ’Nuff said.)

PERHAPS ONE ANTIDOTE to our tendency to create God in our own image is a dose of humility. While I do believe there is an Ultimate Truth, no mere human being, including me, will ever have a corner on it – at least not on this side of eternity. “For now we see through a glass darkly,” 1 Corinthians 13:12 reminds us.

We can also use the mind God gave us to develop our critical thinking skills. When people say we mustn’t question God’s will, I suspect what some of them really mean is, “Don’t question my interpretation of God’s will.” Whether or not we question God’s will, we can certainly question another human being’s interpretation of it. Sometimes this is exactly what we need to do.

If we want to take the first step toward healing the divisions in our churches and our larger society, we need to stop asking, “Is God on our side?” Instead, we need to ask, “Are we on God’s side?”

Question for readers: What helps you avoid the pitfall of creating God in your own image? I’d love to hear your response to this question, as well as your comments on the article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Images of God

During my participation in 12-Step groups over the years, I’ve often been encouraged to evaluate different images of God. As they like to say around the tables at these meetings, we may need to fire the God of our childhood understanding and get in touch with the real one. 

Here are just some of the competing images I’ve encountered – whether in church, in 12-Step groups or in my reading:

The angry God.  “The God I was taught to fear was an angry, capricious bastard with a killer surveillance system who is constantly disappointed in me for being human,” said ELCA Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber in a recent interview. (Link HERE.) I could relate. The God of my own childhood was a short-tempered bully who really kind of hated people, especially kids who asked “Why?” when told by an adult to do something.

God as loving parent.  While the stern, authoritarian God who always seems angry at us about something appears often in the Old Testament, the Bible – especially in the New Testament – also offers the image of God as benevolent parent. This God loves us, takes care of us and wants us to love and care for each other. This is the image I like the most, but I must admit I struggle constantly with the question of why a God like this would allow so much evil in the world.

The distant and uninvolved God.  According to this concept, God created everything that exists but has a big, wide universe to oversee and isn’t particularly interested in the day-to-day affairs of humans. God created people and other living creatures, gave us all the ability to reproduce and perpetuate our species, and then went on to other things. I’m most tempted to believe this theory when it seems that God is not answering my prayers.

The God immanent in all creation.  God is not a totally separate entity “out there” somewhere, but dwells in each of us as well as in animals, trees, all other living things and all of nature. At this point in my life, the immanent God is the image that resonates with me the most, at least when I’m taking walks outside.

I HAVE TO ADMIT I find it easier to articulate what I don’t believe than to decide what I do believe. Despite the confusion I’ve felt over who or what God is, here are a few concepts and images of God I have pretty confidently rejected.

The God who plays favorites.  I have an innate suspicion of any belief system that claims God favors one group of people over another, and – by some stroke of luck or fate or coincidence – the group God favors just happens to be the group we belong to or identify with. I get especially suspicious when God “intends” for us to have something that belongs to someone else (land, for example). If Romans 10:12, Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 are correct, God does not favor any one group of people over any others. “In God, there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.”

The God who mustn’t be questioned.  I also tend to be innately suspicious when any person (or religious denomination) does not want me to ask questions. Especially when the main reason we have so many Christian denominations is that we have so many different interpretations of Biblical truth. When people say we mustn’t question God’s will, I suspect what some of them are really saying is, “Don’t question my interpretation of God’s will.” I haven’t yet decided whether it’s worth the effort to question God’s will, but I can sure question another human being’s interpretation of it.

 The God who hates “those” people.  A former pastor at my church observed that some people take as much comfort in the idea that certain other people will face eternal damnation as they do in the idea of their own salvation. Personally, when I see lists of “People God Hates,” I just laugh.

The God who founded the One True Religion.  No matter which denomination I’ve been part of, and no matter how many other religions I’ve read about, the argument often boils down to the same thing. “We’re right. They’re wrong. Stick with Us. Stay away from Them.” When I was a teenager, I was sure the Bible verse warning us “do not be conformed to the world” meant I should beware of peer pressure. (This was probably not a bad interpretation for a teenager to make.) But then I learned that, to the Amish, it meant don’t drive cars or use electricity. So how do I know that one sect or denomination has all the right answers to all the theological questions and that no one else does? The answer for me is, I don’t.

The in-our-own-image God.  We human beings do seem to have a gift for creating God in our own image. In so many of the religions or denominations I’ve experienced personally or read about, we anthropomorphize God – that is, give God human characteristics. But given the combination of our human limitations and our human egos, is there a way for us NOT to do that, at least to some extent? And how do I know when I’m doing this?

I like an observation shared around the tables at 12-Step meetings: One clue that we might be creating God in our own image is when God agrees with us on every single controversial issue and disapproves of all the same people we do. Of course, I’m never guilty of this sort of thing. Right??