Sunday, 12 May 2013

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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