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God's Emotions - Why the Biblical God is Hopelessly Human (Part 1)

By Valerie Tarico ~ 

Also available at the Huffington Post: God's Emotions - Why the Biblical God is so Human.

Do you remember the joke about the little Scottish boy who refuses to eat two nasty, shriveled prunes on his plate? His mother cajoles and pleads. Finally she tells him, as she has many times before, that if he doesn't obey her, God will be angry. Usually it works, but this time the stubborn child holds out, and the mother, herself angry, sends him straight to bed. No sooner does he get there than a storm sets in, with lightning and thunder crashing around them. Feeling contrite and thinking that her child must be terrified, the mother sneaks to her son's room to reassure him. She opens the door quietly, expecting to find him burrowed under the covers. But no, he is at the window, peering out into the night. As she watches, he shakes his head and says in an incredulous, reproving voice, "Such a fuss to make over two prunes!"

In the Hebrew Bible, in the book of 1 Samuel, the Philistines are battling with God's chosen people, the Israelites. The Israelites have a very special object, which you might recognize from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is the Ark of the Covenant, a box made of wood covered in gold, with sculptured angels on top and a golden jar inside. Maybe it contains manna -- food that dropped from heaven. Or maybe it contains fragments of stone tablets. At any rate, the Philistines capture it in battle. The Israelites are angry, and God gets angry, too. No sooner do those Philistines cart off the box than plagues befall them -- a plague of mice, for example. Then the ark is taken from town to town, but the men of each town get hemorrhoids, which must have been particularly wretched in the days before toilet paper and Preparation H. (Don't miss the full story; the resolution is awesome. See 1 Samuel 6: 1-15.) Mice and hemorrhoids -- such a fuss over a golden box!

In other stories from the Bible, both Old Testament and New, God gets angry and does things that strike us as a rather big fuss. In 2 Kings, for example, the prophet Elisha gets mad because some kids (boys, of course) are making fun of him and calling him Baldhead. Elisha curses them, and apparently God is mad, too, because he sends two female bears out of the woods, and they maul and kill 42 of those boys (2 Kings 2: 23-24). In the book of Matthew, Jesus is traveling along and he sees a fig tree. He is hungry, so he goes over to it. But it is bare because -- as the writer tells us -- figs aren't in season. So Jesus gets angry and curses the tree, and it withers and dies on the spot (Matthew 21:18-19).

In all of these stories, what jumps out at most of us is a sense of disproportionality. God's reaction seems so out of scale with the transgression! That is what makes us laugh at the joke, because the little boy notices it when his mom doesn't expect him to; and it is what makes biblical literalists squirm about the other stories. We expect God to not be the kind of guy who needs anger-management classes. He shouldn't need to breathe deeply and leave the room lest he, heaven forbid, do something he will regret. (Note: If you research these stories, you will find all manner of convoluted apologetics arguing that God's reactions were in fact proportional. Those 42 lads were Crips and Bloods carrying switchblades, for example...)

Adolescent psychologist Laura Kastner recently wrote an acclaimed book about parenting during the teen years. The book, Getting to Calm, is about "emotional regulation," getting yourself into a modulated, sensible mental space so that you can teach self-regulation to your kid, whose frontal lobe isn't quite all there yet. According to Kastner, calling in the she-bears means that we, as parents, have failed at our own mission -- we're in meltdown right along with our teens.

We expect God to be good at emotional regulation, even better at it than Dr. Kastner asks parents to be when faced with teens gone haywire. (If I have to "be the adult in the room," then God does, too; after all, He should have this stuff mastered.) Another way of saying this is that we expect God to have a very high "E.Q." (Emotional Quotient). When this seems to be violated, we experience dissonance, and we may laugh, question our beliefs, or make intellectual moves to restore a sense of consistency.

What doesn't strike us as bizarre, in fact, what we tend accept without thought, is the storyteller's assumption that God has emotions. We don't expect Him not to have emotions, or that would be crux of the joke: Isn't it funny -- the kid and his mom think that God gets angry! We simply expect Him to have a sense of proportion. The idea that God has emotions seems so natural that most people who believe in gods never question it. The God of the Bible gets angry, has regrets, gets lonely, loves, has loyalties, is jealous, feels compassion, and is vindictive. In the incarnation of Jesus, he also is afraid and weeps.

We expect God to not be the kind of guy who needs anger-management classes.For a psychology nerd like me, that is fascinating, and I think when you finish reading this series you'll understand why. Starting just from abstractions or the evidence of the natural world, it isn't a given that the force that designed the DNA code would get mad or sad or jealous. Or rather, I should say that it isn't a given in the abstract. We will see that once we add a human interpreter, the idea that God is loving or angry or lonely become as natural as the idea that angels have two legs. We can understand our god-concepts only if we understand ourselves.

In religion, people make guesses about what is real based on highly ambiguous evidence. If the evidence weren't ambiguous, there wouldn't be so many disagreements -- literally thousands of branches of Christianity alone. But those same ambiguities that make it so hard to come to any agreement about God make religion very interesting from the standpoint of understanding our own psychology. In some ways, the concept of God is like an ink-blot test. The blot is there, but what you see in it depends on who you are.

All of us engage in a process that Sigmund Freud called "projection," and in fact, those ink-blot tests are known in the trade as projective tests. Projection, by definition, is a matter of mistaking internal realities for external realities. If I look at a random ink blot and I see exploding bombs, a therapist might wonder if I am angry or worried (or living in a war zone). Projection happens particularly in social situations, and when we are faced with ambiguities. We are angry, so we assume family members are angry at us. We feel rejected, so we assume our colleagues feel rejecting. We are dishonest, and so we mistrust the people we deceive.

How about our images of God? Which ones come from something outside us and which are projections of our own psyches? Answering this question is a process of elimination; to come any closer to knowing what is out there, we need to start by scrubbing our god concepts of anthropomorphism -- or projection. We now know quite a bit about the human mind, how it constrains our imaginations by forcing information into boxes called ontological categories, and what kinds of cognitive errors (including projection) it is prone to. Two years ago I wrote a series entitled "Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science." This article is intended to complement that one by examining another chunk of what is known (or at least highly probable) about the human psyche, in this case human emotions, and looking at the biblical god-concept through that lens.

You have probably heard the saying, "In some ways I am like no other person, in some ways like some other people, and in some ways like every other person." For anyone who has a god-concept, all three of these dimensions shape it:

  • Your personal upbringing and present state of mind. If you have more authoritarian parents, you are more likely to see God as a strict parent. If you are lonely, you are more likely to see god as wrathful (Schwab & Peterson, 1990). If you feel good about yourself you are more likely to see God as loving (Benson & Spilka, 1973).
  • Your culture. If your culture is bellicose, your God likely approves of war. If it accepts homosexuality as part of a natural spectrum, you God is likely to become less disapproving of it.
  • Your species. If your species has a mammalian, primate, homo sapiens sapiens mind, your God probably does, too. Not that we have a great sample to consider. We have one species with god-concepts on this planet, to be exact. What we can say is that across cultures, regardless of what physical form gods may take (male/female, animal, tree, spirit) these deities have strikingly human psyches. (Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained).
It is this third dimension that will be the focus of this series. Specifically, we will be looking at how God's emotions are depicted in the Bible, what is now known about emotions as physical and social phenomena, and how these two intersect. In the process, we may learn something useful about ourselves. Coming segments will address the following topics:

  • Part 2: What Is Psychology Capable of Telling Us About the Mind of God?
  • Part 3: Emotions 101 - Form, Function and Evolutionary Psychobiology
  • Part 4: God's Temper - Social Hierarchies and Anger
  • Part 5: What Pleases God (and High-Status Humans)?
  • Part 6: Jesus - Perfect Friend or Stepford Friend (Love, Narcissism, and Introjected Parents)
  • Part 7: God Cares about People to the Same Degree I Do (Cognitive Dissonance Theory and Projective Processes)
  • Part 8: If God Were a Dog -- Or a Homo sapiens sapiens

If you don't want to miss this series, you can subscribe to Valerie Tarico at this blog, or email her at vt at with the word "Subscribe" in the subject line.