Excremental Deity

In his diary, Evelyn Waugh reminisced about his friend Randolph Churchill’s response to reading the Bible for the very first time: “My God, what a shit God is!”

Yeah, I say with a sigh.

For a text supposedly inspired by the grand deity himself, the Bible sure presents the Almighty as something other than a decent fellow.  God comes across as an anal-retentive and vindictive gardener, a schizophrenic rule-giver who sets standards no one can live up to, an artist who loathes his first draft and takes vengeance out on it, and an aloof warlord who commands angels to obliterate cities and armies to conquer and do what conquerors do.  And then there’s the whole eternal torment in Hell thing.  “A shit” sure seems to sum it up.

Before the blasphemy police arrive and take me to see the grand inquisitor, let me dig myself in deeper qualify that I don’t really believe that God is comparable to excrement.  Having, as I do, something of a postmodern faith, I approach the historical images of God as, well, historical images.  Images rooted in the human psyche that arise from quirks in human personalities.  Images that fulfill deep desires.   We’re a deep-in-dung species, morally-speaking, so it’s no wonder that our images of God rarely rise above the filth.  Even the most lofty images of God–the heavenly associations we make between God and love, mercy, and compassion–carry the smell of something human.  In a sense, the Bible is a record of attempts to make God out of the sometimes morally ugly images of humanity.  That divine inspiration may function through this imaginative process is an exciting and fascinating idea, but no inspiration takes the human out of the productive process.

As we imagine God, so we imagine the journey of faith toward God.  This too we approach from within the messiness of human life.  Take spiritual warfare, a form of spirituality that emphasizes the spiritual life as a perennial contest between God and the demonic, a battle which, to win, one must erect barriers before temptation and proactively fight against sin.  This approach to the spiritual life obviously has its roots in scripture and religious traditions, but I submit for consideration that it initially grows out of the human being’s proclivity toward violence.  We’re inclined to imagine the way to holiness as a path through a war zone because, at our core, we’re creatures of violence.  War, broadly speaking, is one of our primary modes of being in the world, and so it shapes and colors how we perceive and interpret the world, the “spiritual” world included.

Am I saying that we should abandon the use of military imagery in speaking of the spiritual life?  No.  I wouldn’t say so.  The imagery has its truth.  So too, I believe, do the less than savory images of God depicted in the Bible.  What’s important is to remember that these images are ours, our doing, done sometimes consciously and sometimes not, but always done by us.  No image of God falls from the sky.  Not even the revealed ones.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

You may also like...

14 Responses

  1. GordonHide says:

    I wouldn’t judge humanity by the standards of those who wrote the bible. Remember these are people who have already taken the wrong fork in the road and are bound for never-never land. It would hardly be surprising if their obvious poor judgement had not caused them to deviate in terms of moral outlook long before contributing to the bible.

    Ancient peoples may not have had access to modern knowledge about the world to improve their decision making, moral and otherwise, but on average there social emotions and instincts will have been very similar to ours.

    So the people who wrote the bible may have been special but only in the sense that they were specially screwed up.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I wouldn’t judge humanity by the standards of those who wrote the bible.

      I don’t. I judge the Bible by the measurement of humanity.

      Ancient peoples may not have had access to modern knowledge about the world to improve their decision making, moral and otherwise, but on average there social emotions and instincts will have been very similar to ours.

      Without discounting the reality of moral progress, I would note that 1) modern “knowledge” doesn’t necessarily lead to improved decision making and 2) if we were to round up the five wisest moral thinkers ever, the ancients would be on the list.

      • GordonHide says:

        “modern “knowledge” doesn’t necessarily lead to improved decision making “.

        I don’t know why you should put the word “knowledge” is quotes here. Is our greater knowledge of reality in some way suspect?

        Anyway, you can think of our knowledge of the real world as a model of how the real world works. The better our model the more we can predict the consequences of our decisions and therefore we are likely to make better decisions. A reliable model of reality probably improves our selection of viable goals also. Explain why you believe this is in doubt.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          What we call knowledge isn’t always really knowledge. It isn’t always true knowledge.

          • GordonHide says:

            I think a long time ago scientists ceased seeking truth in terms of absolute correspondence with reality. What they look for now is better explanations, in terms of explanatory and predictive power, than they had before. So, if you define knowledge as the current consensus of science and related disciplines you won’t go far wrong.

  2. Will H. says:

    Kyle, I feel you, bro. I feel you from the heart. And I’ve got to tell you something.
    If God lived in a book, He would have made us all librarians, so the He would be accessible to us.
    You want to find God, then put down the book, and live.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Are the two mutually exclusive? Seems to me that reading and reflecting on a book is one way to live, one way to have an experience that one might call spiritual or religious. It is, of course, not the only kind of experience worth of a religiously-inclined person’s time. Religions get this. They’re not book clubs or bible studies, but ways of living. Those that have a sacred text incorporate the text into their rituals and way of life.

  3. I think there’s more to the idea of spiritual warfare than just the proclivity toward violence, though I certainly think that’s a large part of it. In my experience in a Christian tradition that focused a great deal on that aspect of spirituality, there was a lot of emphasis placed on the power invested in believers by the Holy Spirit, which gave them the ability to cast out demons and bind them from harming others. As I look back on it, the way it felt had less to do with enacting violence than on feeling special and set-apart, and being powerful. It gave people who subscribed to it a reason to feel good about themselves. They have divine power over the forces of darkness! What’s cooler than that?

    It’s one of the many ways that a certain kind of spirituality can offer reassurance in an uncertain world.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I agree with everything you say here, Russell, and didn’t mean to imply that the proclivity toward violence was the sole underlying cause of this kind of spirituality. I do think, however, that the enticement of power that you’re describing relates to the tendency toward violence on which I focused. The power over the “forces of darkness” implies acts of force or violence, illustrated in, say, the image of St. Michael brandishing his sword above the head of Satan.

  4. Kimmi says:

    Rules are focused on “keeping Us Alive” — the “us” is the important part in that. War is not the constant state of the human being, but pretense — that we are something more than smelly beasts acting on our own urges. Hell, occasionally we succeed — momentarily at least.

    War or the lack of it, is far less important to a society’s survival, than sex and the “regulation” of sex (where it should be understood that all the regulations were designed to be broken in strategically advantageous ways).

  5. Serena says:

    Yale has a series of “Open Courses” online where one is on the Old Testament, I’m only about 3 classes in, but what struck me from the first few classes is that the contrast of the God of Israel vs. the Gods of Mesopotamia is more that just numbers. The Mesopotamia Flood Story and Noah are virtually identical with the exception of how the role of God/Gods. In the Pagan story one of the Gods unleashes a flood because humans are rebelling against being the slaves of the Gods; where the God of Israel sends a flood to punish immoral actions. The significance of this is the in the Tankah humans are moral agents whereas the pagan story humans are completely under the control of the Gods.

    In the first class the Prof. states that the purpose of these stories wasn’t to set up theological framework (that came much later) or to give examples of good moral characters (the characters in the bible are all to human) but to describe the relationship with the God of Israel and these morally challenged creatures.

  6. Patrick Cahalan says:

    > In a sense, the Bible is a record of attempts to make God out of the
    > sometimes morally ugly images of humanity.

    I’m going to steal that line.