What is God like?

This is one of those “Why is the grass green?” kinds of questions.  I do want to try to answer it in the third of the pieces that make up this blog, but I have two prior questions.

The first is this: Don’t we already know what God is like?  We have an entire library full of stories about Him.[1]  I am thinking here of the sixty-six volume library (Bible) that we use in the Protestant tradition.  This library contains, among other things, both stories and propositions and I am thinking here more of the stories more than the propositions. This being the case, the question becomes, “What do these stories teach us about God?”

The stories reflect the history of the Hebrew people and their continuing reflections persistent widowabout the stories of their origins and their covenant with Yahweh.  That means you could say, in one sense, that the God we know about is the Hebrew God.  But the Jews and Christians (and Muslims) are monotheists and believe that there is only one God, so the expression “Hebrew God” is not really  a good one.  It imagines that each people has its own God, so we could talk about the Hebrew God and the Babylonian God (interesting question of capitalization there) and so on.  Or we could mean “God as the Hebrews imagine Him to be, based on their long history of interaction with Him.”

I think that’s a pretty good answer, but I have to tell you that I am a modern German (by ancestry and to an unusual extent, by culture as well) and I come to this treasure house of Hebrew experiences as an outsider in every way.  I read these Hebrew stories and I note what conclusions the writers (and rewriters) drew from them and I wonder they are the right conclusions.  The God of the Hebrews is just so….Hebrew.

When I was a boy and I learned “what God is like” by spending a lot of unsupervised time in the Holy Library—everyone in my family had a Bible of his own—I learned that the conclusions the Hebrews drew were all true.  Actually, I didn’t learn that.  I took the truth of the accounts for granted, which is not exactly the same thing.  And now that I am not taking them for granted anymore, I find myself, a well-read Christian of scholarly habits, asking really naïve “Why is the grass green?” kinds of questions.  Why me, God?  Why now?

This brings us to the second point.  The implication of the foregoing line of thought is a commonplace, indeed it is a beginning place, for religious ethnographers.  Every people ever studied has devised a god (or some gods) of some sort that can serve as the repository of the highest and best traits of that people.  Where generosity is prized, God is supremely generous.  Where justice is prized, God’s justice is praised.  We decide on our best traits, project them onto a deity, and multiply for 1000.  And so on.  This would lead, in another essay, to the question of whether anyone is actually right about the nature and character of the One True God, but it will not happen in this essay.  This leads, in this essay, to a much easier question, which is, “What is a good parent like?”

Not so hard, you say.  A good parent raises children who think and feel and act as children should.  Or, from an ethnographic point of view, we say, “…as they should in that culture.”  There are cultural norms that apply to the behavior of children and children who conform to those norms—that would include the norm of adolescent rebelliousness in our culture, by the way—are “good children.”  Good children had a good parent.

But when we begin with the idea that the characteristics of successful parenthood vary from one culture to another, we can come back to our original question and ask just how God is a good parent.  Let me simplify all the possibilities by imagining that there is a Hebrew style of good parenting and a German style.  I don’t want to stereotype modern Germans, so I will use the well-known and ancient norms of the Stoics to represent “Germans.”

Imagine that a child has a desire and makes this desire known to a good Hebrew-styleask and you shall receive parent.  Let’s say that the function of an expressed desire, in this system, is to affirm and clarify the relationship between parent and child.  The child says “Please…” and parent says, “No.”  The child says, “…just this once?”  No.  The child says, “…if you really loved me…”  No.  The child says, “I’ll be good all week if you say yes.”  The parent says “Yes.”

Is this good parenting?  In this mode, which I have invented and aligned to a hypothetical Hebrew model, the answer is yes.  The request was in play for a long time.  The child and parent are kept in relationship for a long time.  The solution to the dilemma was both rewarding and instructive.  What’s not to like?  Unless, of course, this was happening at the table next to yours at the coffee shop.

Now imagine that the child has a desire and makes this desire known to a good German-style (Stoic) parent.  Let’s say the function of an expressed desire, in this system, is (primarily) to make a decision about the desire and to (secondarily) affirm the relationship between parent and child.  The parent in this system is imagined to be thoughtful and fair-minded, committed to the well-being of the child, and concerned that, over the long run, desires like this and the best response to them, will be internalized and become part of the child’s character.  The child says, “Please…” and the parent says, “No.”  The child goes off and considers what has been said.  The child returns and says [please substitute the child-like pleading language of your choice here] “I know you said No when I asked you earlier, and I will, of course, respect your wishes and your wisdom, but I wonder if you had considered X in your answer.”  The parent says, “Yes, I did consider that.”  “Ah,” says the child, “Thank you.”  And he goes off, satisfied.  Eventually.

The solution to the dilemma was both rewarding and instructive.  What’s not to like?

Two “good parents.”  Two “good children.”  Two irreconcilably different styles.  One of these represents “What God is like” as I learned His character from the Bible as I read it as I was growing up and the other represents the culture in which I was raised (to a certain extent) and my own cultural preferences.  Is God really like “that other style?”  Really?

Let’s consider some texts.    I have three stories in mind.  Each of these can be interpreted in the Hebrew mode or in the German mode or they were written down to be compatible with the Hebrew mode.  If you don’t know that there are many styles of interpretation, you read every example as if it were a window to the Truth.  If you know that there are many styles, each window has a truth of its own, and you have to choose.  You can’t, after all, stand at all the windows.

One of the best-known Jews of the first third of the First Century used this logic once.  “If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give good gifts to those who keep on asking Him?”[2]  You noticed the “keep on asking” did you? The verb is in the present tense in the Greek, a tense that presupposes continuing action.  You need to ask and ask and ask; you need to keep on asking.

Or this one.  God is said to be like a judge.  A widow brings a legal case to this judge, demanding that justice be done.[3]  The judge, for reasons we are not told about, is not particularly interested in justice in this case.  But the woman won’t leave him alone.  She pounds on the door.  She scratches on the window.  She leaves notes in the mailbox.  She hacks his computer.  Finally, the judge—the judge is the God-figure in this story even if He is not the main character—gives up and makes the judgment on behalf of the widow just so he can have a little peace and quiet.  The story is told so as to approve the persistence of the woman.  Asking, even when it reaches a level that looks very much like harassment, is not too much.

The final story has to do with bargaining behavior, but I will indulge myself in a personal story on the way.  When I was young, I learned the expression “to jew down” to mean to bargain aggressively to bring down the price of an item.  I knew “to jew down” long before I knew what “Jew” meant or that the expression “to jew down” was pejorative.  You know how this goes.  When you learn that it is offensive, you stop using it, but you never actually forget it.

Abraham bargainsSo God is about to destroy Sodom and Abraham, the good guy, doesn’t want him to.[4]  “Will you spare the city for the sake of 50 righteous people,” Abraham offers.  “Well OK,” says God, “but you have to find the 50 people.”  Abraham looks and comes up short.  “So, what about 45 righteous people?” he says.  “Would 45 be enough?”  If I were reading this, I would play it for comedy.  Abraham offers, after God accepts, 45: 40, 30, 20, and 10.  Here’s Abraham, the Prototype Jew bargaining with God—please remember my introduction to this notion, when I was young—to bring the price down.[5]  It just tickles me.

In this story, we have not only the continual bargaining, but a divine tantrum as well.  God is angry and wants to destroy everything, but He can be sweet-talked out of it if you know how and if you stay at it long enough.

These three stories align perfectly with God as the Hebrew parent.  Here’s a way you could characterize it.

The request [to save the city] was in play for a long time.  The child [Patriarch] and parent [God] are kept in relationship for a long time.  The solution to the dilemma was both rewarding [for the community of faith, in whose repertoire this story is kept and treasured] and instructive.

None of this makes any sense in the Germanic model.  God would have had a really good reason for saying No in the first story and perpetual nagging [asking and asking and asking] is not going to change that good reason.  “No, you may not tidy up your little brother’s hair with those scissors so he will look nice at the photographer’s studio.  No.”  God’s having a good reason for what He said casts a new light on the behavior of the “good child.”  In this model, God is not a fearsome tyrant.  You get to ask why, if you do it respectfully and only once, but when the answer has been reaffirmed, you accept the wisdom of it and arrange your own plans accordingly.

God the Judge, in the second story, is a good deal more oriented to justice than any of the participants is likely to be and much more acute about what justice actually entails.[6]  That means that the widow is not only entirely out of control, but also mistaken.  She doesn’t see the whole picture; she is fatally self-interested; she has no proper respect for the magistrate.[7]  She’s not putting the team first.

God the Vigilante in the third story has a really good reason for destroying the city and if it would take 50 righteous men to save it (and if Abraham can find them), then 45 righteous men aren’t really going to do the job and agreeing to the lower number would be either foolish or stupid.  God is not foolish or stupid.

So what is God like?  Here’s where we (Christians, Jews, and Muslims) are.  We have the stories.[8]  We understood what they are meant to teach in the cultural settings of their origins.[9]  If the God of those stories conforms to what “good parent” means to us, then our job is done.  If not, we are faced with the choice of changing what we mean by “good parent” or changing what lessons about God should be drawn from the stories. 

So here’s the third piece.  I know it’s been a little bit of a hike.  If you need a nap or a breather or something, now would be the time.

If you come from what I have been calling “the Germanic model,” you can look at how very Hebrew the stories are and call those characteristics of God “artifacts” of the story.  They aren’t really, that is to say, what God is like; they are just  the costume the storytellers have dressed God in so that He can be understood and revered in a culture like theirs.  Since we of the Germanic mode know that God isn’t “really” like that and since we still have those same stories to work with, we reinterpret them.  We are now free to reinterpret them.  In fact, in this way of understanding it, we have the obligation to reinterpret them.

This returns us to the original question: Don’t we already know what God is like?  The answer now is, “Not really.”  We know what clothes God has been given to wear in the stories the Hebrews told about their God.  We can see how completely aligned the Hebrew character—we have considered only the parent/child roles—is with “God’s character.”  We have stopped trying to model our own behavior after this very Hebrew-like God and have begun to wonder whether God could not be understood differently if the stories could be understood differently.  This would give us the possibility of a Germanic or Stoic God whose character is an extrapolation from the values we hold most dear, rather than from the values they held most dear.  This God is a thoughtful, a caring , and a decisive God.  Wheedling doesn’t really work.  Pouting really doesn’t work.

Here’s an example.  The awful wrestling Jesus enduring in Gethsemane before his crucifixion can serve as an example of the two styles.  In the Synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—Jesus arrives at a place that makes as much sense to the Hebrew culture as to the German.  “If this cup cannot pass away unless I drink it, it is not what I want, but what You want that matters most.”  His mother said the same thing to the angel Gabriel.  “Let it be done with me as you have said.”  The process Jesus went through to get to that acceptance is gut-wrenching.   It is fully in accord with the Hebrew notions of what “doing it right” looks like.  It is not in accord with Stoic conventions and the depth of Jesus’ distress had to be justified somehow to Gentile hearers.

The values of the Hebrew people, in other words, are no longer taken as determinative of the character of the One True God. Their stories are earlier, but they are not better.  They reveal a Truth to us and distort that truth at the same time.  This leads directly to the project of re-envisioning God according to our own values.  We would have a God, let’s say, who is not so vulnerable to tantrums; a God who actually has a good reason for doing what He is doing.

Anthropologists and theologians speak knowingly of “creating a god in our own image.”[10]  You have to admit it is witty.[11]  On the other hand, if what these faith traditions give us is a costume for God not a culture-neutral insight into God’s true character, then every community creates the costumes that represent “what God is like” for them. This ought to work as long as you remember that you are talking about the clothes, not the Person. 

And consider the alternative.  We would continue to construe God as a person of traits we disdain in every other context of our own lives.  That’s hard.  And eventually, you learn not to care.  That’s worse.  Then you learn not to notice and the game is over.  And you lost.

[1] This might be a good time to reiterate my solution to the “gender of God” dilemma.  I think it is ridiculous to imagine that God has a gender.  The solution I was taught in elementary school was that for circumstances where a gender designation is unavailable or inappropriate, one uses the neuter from of the pronoun.  The neuter form mirrors the form of the masculine pronoun, but is not the masculine pronoun.  I know now everyone is happy with that solution, but it keeps me away from three alternate “solutions” that I find nauseous.  One is to refer to God in the pronoun form as he/she/they.  Another is to invent the pronoun “Godself” to refer to Him/Her/Them.  The third is to foreswear pronouns entirely and repeat “God” where the pronominal form would ordinarily be.

[2] That’s Matthew 7. I’ve skipped around a little in verses 7—11.  The language is in the archaic King James Version, which is the form imbedded in my memory.

[3] Wonderful story.  See Luke 18.

[4] This one’s in Genesis 18.

[5] I had the discipline to refrain from calling Abram the Ur-Jew in the text, but here in the footnotes, my normally steely self-discipline has given out.

[6] In our faith, we say that God is a God of both justice and mercy.  I admit that is more complicated, but it is a complication for another day.

[7] Since this is a mostly religious post, I’ll pause to note that the magus in magistrate means “large, great” while the minus in minister, means “small, humble.” 

[8] There is additional literature in all three cases.

[9] Just don’t get really fussy about “origins.”  The Hebrew people picked up a lot of well-used local stories from their neighbors and Hebraized them so that they taught the right lessons to their own people.

[10] The literal meaning of “idolatry,” by the way.  The Greek for “image” is eidolon; for “worship” is latreiuo.

[11] See Genesis 1for the original version of this line.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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