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God’s Emotions 8: God Cares About What I Care About

By Valerie Tarico ~

Note: This is Part Eight in a series, “God’s Emotions: Why the Biblical God is so Very Human.” Parts 1-7 are available at this website or at http://www.awaypoint.wordpress.com/.

You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do. --Anne Lamott

Divorce, fags, figs, workers of iniquity, homophobes, Lady Gaga, remarriage, Ireland, techno, furries, war, a coward, shrimp, lying lips, abortion, your outfit, bad manners, amputees, begging, Haiti, religion, complaining, Canada, haughty eyes, murmuring, anal sex, mobile homes, haters . . . . The Internet is full of articles about things and people God hates. Some of them are tongue in cheek. A remarkable number are not.

Fear God, Hate SinImage by buildscharacter via Flickr
Through history, the prevailing consensus on what and who God despises has drifted on the cultural currents. A seemingly continuous anchor point for Christians has been that God hates sin, although whether he hates the sinner too is contested.

Even more contested is which sins he hates. Does God really hate shellfish consumption and blend fabrics and beard trimming as much as he hates anal sex, for example? The book of Leviticus seems to say so. But most modern Christians and Jews simply can’t bring themselves to care about these things, and so they find it almost impossible to believe at a gut level, that God does. A similar laissez faire attitude can be seen among young people toward homosexuality. Having been raised on Modern Family and Little Miss Sunshine and Glee; having encountered openly gay relatives and friends from childhood on, they simply can’t find it in themselves to think that God cares terribly much who we love.

Half a century ago, a social psychologist named Fritz Heider made a series of observations that he distilled into what he called “balance theory.” His theory is useful in thinking about why our images of God change. Heider found that positive and negative feelings in relationships need to be balanced to be stable. For example, if I love my gay brother (positive), and I worship the biblical God (positive), but the Bible says gays are an abomination (negative), then my loyalties are in conflict and so unstable. In this case, I might start feeling more negative about my brother, or I might start feeling more negative about the Bible. Either would help me resolve my conflict and create balance. Over the years, other scholars have refined Heider’s theory, but the general ideas of balance and stability persist.

Think about social balance as it relates to me and a god. This is a relationship in which one party (the god) either exists exclusively in my mind or is highly ambiguous, which means I have a great deal of latitude in what I imagine his attitudes to be. In a human-to-human social relationship, I can’t resolve conflict simply by adjusting another person’s attitude, at least not without putting out some good arguments and evidence. But in the human-to-god equation, I can. And, in fact, adjusting a god’s attitudes to fit mine may be quite a bit easier than the reverse.

At the heart of humanity is a sometimes sweet, sometimes not-so-sweet narcissism that makes it almost impossible for us to get outside ourselves. This narcissism is visible in a small child who can feel another person’s distress but doesn’t know quite how to respond and so offers the comfort she herself would want. A two-year-old may offer her crying mother a stuffed animal or a soggy cookie. But even adults make a similar well intentioned error. What makes you feel really loved by a partner? For some people the answer is sex. For some it is gifts. For some it is being told, “I love you.” For some it is having a task or burden taken off of their shoulders. To communicate love effectively, one has to know what makes a specific recipient feel loved. But spouses often make the mistake of offering whatever they most want to receive. When a partner is feeling distant or sad, they ramp up efforts to give what they themselves would want—and then are disappointed in the reaction.

Have you ever noticed how utterly indifferent God is to how humans treat fish?What I’m trying to illustrate is that by default we use ourselves as the measure of the world. The Golden Rule acknowledges this: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, start with what you know—yourself—and imagine that others want the same (and you’re likely to treat them fairly well). By contrast, the Platinum Rule, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them,” can bring us a mental screeching halt, because it asks us to step outside ourselves. That’s tough. In the XTC song, “Garden of Earthly Delights,” the refrain, “don’t hurt nobody” is repeated –and then, just once, it is followed by “ ‘less of course they ask you.” The listener is startled and maybe laughs. Most of us don’t want to get hurt, even for titillation, and so we don’t expect the exception.

In a similar vein, we tend to assume that God shares our perspective and priorities. Have you ever noticed how utterly indifferent God is to how humans treat fish? Jesus himself magically multiplied fish so they could be hoisted in nets and subjected to slow suffocation. Fish brains are very unlike ours, and the more alien a mind is, the less we are able to empathize. This may be why we concern ourselves less with the treatment of octopus than chimpanzees, even though scientists tell us that octopus are some of the most intelligent creatures on the planet. Unless we can somehow resonate with an animal’s experience, meaning feel it, at least at a tentative hypothetical level, it falls outside our moral sphere—and God’s priorities.

Our ability to empathize with other humans, though one of our great gifts, has similar limits based on whether they are familiar or alien to us. We care about their happiness and suffering in proportion to several factors such as attachment, proximity and similarity. In other words we care about people more if we spend time with them and they are like us—same country, same religion, same race, same gender, more shared DNA . . . . When other people get hurt, it hurts us less if they are more alien. Our moral outrage at a child being “collateral damage” isn’t the same if they live in Iraq as it would be if the bombs fell in our neighborhood.

We relate only distantly to most people on this planet. And even though believers insist that “Jesus love the little children of the world”—equally-- their behavior in the practice of Christian living suggest otherwise. Consider: Thoughtful people sometimes balk at football prayers, the idea that God will favor one team over another. But who balks at grace before dinner? Almost no-one. And yet, those who believe God loves the children of the world equally should. If you had two children, one who had goldfish crackers and juice and cheese sticks and peaches for lunch and then an after school snack; and one who hadn’t eaten since yesterday—and then only a thin gruel—which would you feed meat and potatoes tonight? In a less self-centric world, deities wouldn’t be thanked for directing the food to American dinner tables; they would be scolded or politely declined.

“Jesus loves the little children.” “His eye is on the sparrow.” “Ask and ye shall receive.” – these soothing verbal mantras work their magic because what is really at stake for each individual believer is a vortex of well-being that centers on him or her, thinning as it reaches beyond family, friends, countrymen and co-religionists to a hazy netherland of alien cultures and creatures. Unfortunately, those of us who lack person-gods have little cause to be smug. The vortex is the same; we merely lack the validation that comes from a deity sharing our personal priorities. Only a mindful commitment to compassionate living can carry us through life in a manner that draws the world into the self-- whether or not the self includes some concept of God.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light, (Revised ed. of The Dark Side) and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.


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