Paring down God’s identity

Christian blogger Matt Appling at The Church of No People wrote an article yesterday called “I Stopped Believing in god” (lowercase g deliberate). It’s the sort of post that’s clearly bound to rile up the believers — or excite them with edginess — and bring some bittersweet hope to the nonbelievers. He writes:

Many times when talking beliefs with atheists, they’ll start a sentence with, “I just can’t believe in a God that…”

And I say, “You’re right…”  I’ve got a lot in common with the atheists.

In my experience, Christians try to get me to start sentences like that. They literally say, “Tell me about this god you don’t believe in.” I don’t like to play this game, because there are so many gods and the person I’m talking to generally only believes in one of them, so 99.999% of what I could say is irrelevant to them. So I reply, “You tell me about your god, and then I’ll explain why I don’t think your god exists.” They don’t like the game as much when it’s reversed.

As Matt illustrates, it’s much easier to explain what properties God doesn’t have than to list the ones that he does. (We disagree on the reason for this difference, of course.) While I obviously agree with his conclusions about these particular gods, I have to say I’m really not sure why or how he’s reaching them. He still considers himself a Christian for some reason, and as far as I can tell still values the Bible as an important and meaningful reference at least, divinely inspired scripture at most. So, what distinguishes the “real Christian god” (so to speak) from these false gods Matt lists? Let’s go through a few of them and see.

I stopped believing in a god who doesn’t need me to do anything to save myself…except have enough faith, and don’t lose it, ever.

This does sound pretty silly. It makes a small bit more sense when you account for the fact that when Christians talk about being “saved,” they don’t mean from earthly suffering, but from an afterlife in hell. Still, it does seem like a strange system to invent, doesn’t it? You can be the biggest jerk you want, but as long as you hold this one (obscured, unwarranted) thing to be true in your mind, you’re all good in the eyes of the almighty. But … there are lots of Bible verses that say very explicitly that this is how it works. Here is just one, from Acts 16, which I pick because it’s so straightforward. “How do I get saved?” asks a dude, and the apostles answer, “Believe, and that’s all there is to it.” Then they rejoice.

And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

So … I guess we’ll just toss out all those bits of the Bible, because they don’t really click for Matt, but we’ll keep the rest. What’s next?

I stopped worshipping this idol god who rallied us like troops to fight our neighbors instead of being a light to our neighbors.

Whoa, yeah, that god would be awful, wouldn’t he? It’s a good thing the real Christian god never rallied believers like troops to fight their neighbors –

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places. And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. … But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.” (Numbers 33)

Oh. Right. Well, I guess we should throw out those verses too. But keep the rest, because that’s probably the part that explains the real God!

I beheaded this god who prefers swords to plowshares.

Um…

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)

So that strikes out this direct quotation of Jesus in one of the Gospels, then. Yeah, probably safe to ignore that because it makes us feel icky….

There are a bunch of other rejected gods in Matt’s list that I would love to talk about (especially “I stopped believing in a god who gives people what they deserve”), but this post is long enough already, and I think my point is clear enough: the truth doesn’t care whether you like it or not. Reality is reality, regardless of what we want. If the Bible is a reliable source for information about God, then it’s a reliable source and you have to care about what it says even if it’s unpleasant.

On the other hand, if you’re going to reject all the parts of the Bible that are cruel, or bizarre, or illogical, or have been proven wrong by scientists or archaeologists, intellectual rigor demands that you be thorough about it. It’s ridiculous to decide to ignore the illogical bits that you personally dislike, but keep the illogical bits you happen to enjoy. (And no, it’s not sufficient to wave your hands in the direction of “context,” as Matt does in one of the comments. You need to look at the whole context, including when, how, and why the Bible was written, and what we know now compared to what people had to work with then.) You need some basis for ignoring this thing Jesus says, but believing that one as absolute truth. Or, perhaps, once you’ve trashed that much of the Bible you could acknowledge there’s no real reason to trust the remaining tatters.

Matt writes, “As I’ve believed fewer things about God, God has only become bigger.” Maybe it seems this way because the parameter space in which his god exists has become less defined and more mysterious. But that isn’t a description of God; it’s just baroque trappings disguising an “I don’t know.” I’d love to see Matt write about the identity of the god he does believe in, and why he thinks his god has those attributes. Until then, I have to echo his own sentiment from the close of his post — I, too, expect that there are lots more things he’ll one day stop believing.

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7 Comments

  1. Well, NFQ, I’m honored to have been the subject of an entire post! I will attempt to clear some things up.

    First, I “gave up” the gods I did, not just because they did not click with me. Many of those gods are believed in and taught. But a study of scriptures does not provide a witness for those gods.

    Take “being saved.” You correctly mention Paul, but every time Jesus is asked by someone what they must do, he gives a different answer. My point is that Christians are able to acknowledge that we are not saved by good deeds, but we have come to the point where we think it is our faith that saves us. In essence, it’s just another good deed that helps us climb the ladder to heaven. Contrast that to Jesus describing God as a shepherd who goes after a lost sheep. The sheep didn’t have one damn thing to say about being rescued, much less a choice in the matter.

    Moving on to the God who asks us to fight our neighbors. Yes, it is recorded that God helped the Israelites drive people out of the promised land. But then you have prophesy after prophesy that declared that God will bring peace to all nations, and under God’s rule, people will beat their swords into plowshares. I think many Christians today simply prefer the attitude of warhawks and not peacemakers. When you quote Jesus as saying he brings a sword, I believe you fall to your own logical fallacy – not looking at the whole context. Did Jesus ever pick up a literal sword? No, he is using a figure of speech.

    The whole point of the post is my rejection of the way Christians are taught to behave with no reference to the Bible. The point is not to cut out icky parts of scriptures.

    And when I say I don’t believe in a god that gives people what they deserve – I mean grace, and punishment. Scripture after scripture has God saying he will not remain angry, will not punish forever, and will not pay back our iniquities what they deserve. Modern Christians often forget this while they fetishize hell, where they fantasize people like you will go, based on your use of your God-given faculties of reason. Doesn’t that annoy atheists? That God would supposedly give you a brain, and then send you to hell for using it? I don’t think He will do that.

    Thanks again. I hope that clears up a couple of things!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Matt! I really appreciate you engaging with me on this.

    Surely we could quote the Bible at each other until we are blue in the face. I don’t think that will actually get us anywhere … because the fact is, there is scriptural support for all sorts of different gods. Do you think you are the only Christian who cares about what a study of scriptures provides a witness for? Every Christian denomination and sect thinks that the scriptures support their interpretations. And they dismiss (because of “context”, or other contradicting scriptures, or whatever) the verses they don’t like.

    I think I should clear something up here: when I quote scripture, it’s not because I’m telling you you should believe it. It’s because I think that there is exactly the same basis to believe that rejected verse or two as there is to believe that Jesus was the son of God who atoned for humanity’s sins through his crucifixion. That is to say, none.

    If you reject some parts of the Bible because they are morally repugnant or nonsensical or totally unsupported by evidence (as these different aspects you refer to certainly are), why keep all the other parts of the Bible that are also morally repugnant, nonsensical, and/or totally unsupported by evidence? Like, I don’t know, all that supernatural stuff for example?

  3. Matt:

    “every time Jesus is asked by someone what they must do, he gives a different answer”

    So how are Christians supposed to know what they should do, if there is no consistent message from Jesus on this?

  4. Matt:

    “Did Jesus ever pick up a literal sword? No, he is using a figure of speech.”

    Of course he didn’t actually pick up a sword. But listen again to what he said just before that: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.” Jesus is clearly and explicitly rejecting your belief that his purpose is to promote peace.

    If you cannot accept these very plain words of Jesus for what they are, then I think you’re deliberately denying a part of the Bible simply because you don’t feel comfortable with it.

  5. Jojo the hun

     /  May 16, 2012 at 12:23 am

    “I stopped believing in a god who doesn’t need me to do anything to save myself…except have enough faith, and don’t lose it, ever.”

    I think that what Matt is rejecting is not a good characterization of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which Martin Luther espoused. Luther held that faith in Jesus Christ was the key to accepting the gift of God’s grace. One naturally does good works in accordance with one’s faith, following Christ’s example and teachings. It is in direct opposition to the idea that one should do good works in order to achieve salvation. It’s the subject of much debate, but in one form or another is important to most Protestant theology.

    My take is that Luther wanted to be right with God, and tried sincerely to live according to the doctrines and practices of the Catholic church of his time for many years, without feeling success. He was intelligent, had access to the Bible, studied the Bible, and used his own judgement in reading and interpreting it…a rare combination at the time. He found this idea that one needs faith alone to be the missing piece in his journey; now he felt righteous, unburdened by sin, saved, however you want to describe it. And he had enough positive feedback in preaching it to others to suppose that it was universally true.
    So, I don’t think the idea allows you to be “the biggest jerk you want”, I don’t think “and that’s all there is to it” is an accurate translation of the apostles’ words, and in general I don’t see the idea as silly. Yet, if Matt sees things a different way he certainly wouldn’t be the first nor the last Christian to do so.

  6. “He found this idea that one needs faith alone to be the missing piece in his journey; now he felt righteous, unburdened by sin, saved, however you want to describe it. And he had enough positive feedback in preaching it to others to suppose that it was universally true.”

    So basically he was unhappy, revisited the Bible to find an interpretation that made him feel better about himself, and settled on that. What this has to do with the actual truth seems extremely unclear.

  7. Carl de Malmanche

     /  May 18, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    When looking at God/gods. I look at the “powers of ten” video and ask “is my god here”.

    Any god that is not, is likely to be a human projection.

    I love the splash panel comment. So to the point any God truly worthy of the identity is so removed from the limits of the human consciousness to make nonsense of the rest. So what is the rest. Wellll….profile it.

    How much of it breaks down to ‘brand’ (corporate product, position, price etc; solidarity of identity “this bible”/”that koran” or product lines)

    How much of it is personal projection/salespitch . “gGods’ of love” vs “Wraithful gGods”. “My” belief. “My” relationship. “My” behavioural and ethics systems.

    When I look at the powers of ten, much of what I read in many of the religious tracts aligns more closely with the psychology texts I’ve read than God.

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