Sunday, 12 May 2013

The necessity of understanding God anthropomorphically - as a person, as a Father


Before I was a Christian, I was very interested by animism (treating nature as sentient) including such things as the anthropomorphism of treating animals as persons with distinctive character, motivations etc (which is normal among hunter gatherers; and seems to be the most effective way to understand many large animals, and to hunt, farm or train them).

I believe that this way of thinking is fundamental to being human - to the extent that not thinking animistically or anthropomorphically causes alienation: causes that distinctive sense of isolation from a meaningless world which is endemic among modern adults.


I am also increasingly convinced of the necessity primarily to think of God in an anthropomorphic way - to regard God as a person - specifically as a Father, the Father to us all.

Indeed I think this is a key to Christianity, and that to think of God as primarily an abstraction (to think of God as being His attributes, for instance) opens the door to infinite error and provides a short-cut out of Christianity.

To understand God, we need to think of Him as a perfect Father - and this kind of understanding is almost universally available to humans - it is not restricted to philosophers.


When a difficult question comes up about God and mankind, then the main way to answer it is to imagine how we would behave if we were perfectly Good and mankind were all our beloved children.

So, for example, the question that so tormented the medievals about the fate of unbaptized children and virtuous pagans who died before Christ's incarnation. Were they consigned to hell merely because they were unbaptized and did not know Christ (through no fault of their own); or, if they were saved, then did baptism and faith not really matter?

I would suggest that the way to answer such questions is to assume that God is at least as Good as we are and that therefore he regards all of mankind much as a loving Father regards his beloved children.

This means that whatever the answer, it cannot be that unbaptized children and virtuous ancient pagans are consigned to hell.


The difficulty of capturing the behaviour of a Good and loving Father inside a theological, philosophical and legal set of principles is so great that the task is actually hopeless - and if we insist in reasoning from abstract principles to determine how God actually does behave - then the end result is likely to be either a monster or else so vague as to be worthless as an object of personal devotion.


So, for a Christian, God must be regarded primarily anthropomorphically, as a person - and this applies to God the Father just as much as to Jesus Christ His Son.

Of course, God is much more than we are, and cannot be wholly captured by modeling his behaviour on ours - but as we are enjoined to love God and this means He must be regarded anthropomorphically, primarily as a person, and the metaphor of personhood we have been given is Fatherhood.


Some people may be able - for specific purposes - to regard God as something other than a person (rather as economists might regard persons as rational, utility-maximizing agents) - but this is hazardous (and for the same kind of reasons that economic Man is a hazardous concept).

So, although often seen as evidence of greater insight, I strongly doubt whether it is legitimate to regard non-anthropomorphic (abstract) concepts of God as being higher than the simple concept of God as our Good, our perfectly loving, Father in Heaven.



The Great and Powerful Oz said...

You have just worked through a lot of the reasoning for Universalism. I've been through a lot of the same reasoning and have wound up becoming a Universalist, unfortunately one who doesn't care much for Unitarians.

Your writings have had a significant effect on my journey, thanks.

The Crow said...

Religion: The science of steadfastly knowing nothing at all about the most important part of one's life.

Arakawa said...


After reading George Macdonald's Unspoken Sermons, I came away with the impression that the doctrine of Universalism answers basic questions from entirely the wrong end. Macdonald is held to be a universalist, but he did not use universal salvation as a rallying cry.

Though Macdonald's arguments imply Universalism as a logical consequence, it's not the focus of the sermons, is indeed nowhere explicitly mentioned, and Macdonald rather stresses the duty of love, and the necessity of freely chosen obedience to the commands of the ever-loving Father and to the Son, aiming to show that such obedience is not prerequisite to salvation and sonship, it is salvation and sonship. (Macdonald's arguments in this respect seem to me convincing and satisfying on a level deeper than, say, the Westminster Confession's opaque "the purpose of mankind to glorify God and enjoy Him forever" and similar formulas in other theologies.)

(Indeed, the theology the Unspoken Sermons most closely remind me of is that of Dostoyevski's fictional Fr. Zosima. Zosima generally stresses the duty of universal love, and as a consequence hopes for and guesses at a 'kind' or 'semblance' of universal salvation -- though he claims himself unable to put into words his underlying notion of how this could be accomplished or how the term 'semblance' should be understood.)

It strikes me that there are three basic observations of spiritual warfare that need to be addressed by a theology:

(1) Sin is spiritual death. (Not just in an unseen future Hell; but in the very moment that it is committed. Sin roots itself in the soul and seeks to beget more of itself, forcing out all natural and supernatural capacity for life and joy.)

(2) Through God's grace and through the atonement of Jesus Christ, the repentant sinner can be healed, and indeed repentance is a significant action in light of Eternity. (For example, possibly leading to eternal salvation.)

(3) However, the consequences of the prior sin are not undone by repentance. Through penance and atonement, they may be transcended, but the end result is something different from the original state before sin. (This is expressed, for instance, by the Martyr's scars in Heaven being preserved, though glorified. The Resurrection did not undo the fact of martyrdom, thus did not unmake the transgression of those who killed the martyr.)

(Thus, in conventional theology, (1) sin (partial death of the soul) foreshadows Hell (total death of the soul, an existence of suffering without any capacity for Good), and (2) repentance (partial resurrection of the soul) foreshadows the promised Resurrection of body and soul alike.)

The upshot is that every choice for Good has Eternal consequences and every choice for Evil has Eternal consequences.

To what extent we can say these observations are the truth, based on the intuition that we should certainly act as though they are the truth, seems to me the deeper issue.

Making the question of 'who is saved?' paramount seems to me relatively ignorant of observation (3), which suggests that to be saved as a saint or spiritual athlete, is a thing entirely different from being saved as someone like JRR Tolkien (an intellectual -- thus relatively decadent -- artistic seeker), is a thing entirely different from being saved as an ordinary, decent family man, is a thing entirely different from being saved as a sinner and alcoholic who threw away most of his life and repented near the end. Certainly this problem is hardly unique to Universalism.

Gabe Ruth said...


I'm going through the Unspoken Sermons right now, and I fully agree with your description of GM's so-called universalism. Accepting universalism as true usually means a person sort of relaxes. GM's theology has quite the opposite affect, at least on me.

"The upshot is that every choice for Good has Eternal consequences and every choice for Evil has Eternal consequences."

From David Elginbrood (Euphra has been freed from the control of a hypnotist):
It had been a terrible struggle, but she had overcome. Nor was this all: she would no more lead two lives, the waking and the sleeping. Her waking will and conscience had asserted themselves in her sleeping acts; and the memory of the somnambulist lived still in the waking woman. Hence her two lives were blended into one life; and she was no more two, but one. This indicated a mighty growth of individual being.

"I woke without terror," she went on to say. "I always used to wake from such a sleep in an agony of unknown fear. I do not think I shall ever walk in my sleep again."

Is not salvation the uniting of all our nature into one harmonious whole—God first in us, ourselves last, and all in due order between? Something very much analogous to the change in Euphra takes place in a man when he first learns that his beliefs must become acts; that his religious life and his human life are one; that he must do the thing that he admires. The Ideal is the only absolute Real; and it must become the Real in the individual life as well, however impossible they may count it who never try it, or who do not trust in God to effect it, when they find themselves baffled in the attempt.