The notion of a personal God has made it possible to envision the human relation to God as one of love. This is one of the notion’s most important roles in traditional religion—not merely in abstract theology, but in the lived experience of a great many religious people. The notion that they enjoy a love relationship with God serves as both hermeneutic aid and source of solace for them. That is, through it, they can imagine their relation to God in terms taken from their lives with other people. And, in conceiving of that relation as the central pillar around which the rest of their life turns, they can extend these terms to aid them in understanding the fundamental stakes of that life. They see every bit of it in terms of things like devotion, obligation, trust, caretaking, faithfulness, and the like. In doing so, they find the kind of solace they take in their love relationships with other people—except that, because of God’s place as the greatest among all persons and all love objects, it strikes them as being of incomparably greater significance: at its best, the fullness of a life led in all its respects as an expression of love.
One way in which traditional religion has used the notion of a love relationship with God is to re-furbish its own image in the face of a certain line taken by its critics. The most famous example of the latter is perhaps found in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality. However, by now it’s become reflexive among many secularists who have no particular familiarity with that text, or any other like-minded philosophical works. On this line of criticism, traditional Abrahamic religion propagates an ethos of servility and self-abnegation, and for this reason ought to be rejected. God is the punishing sovereign before whom we must bow, and whom we must obey, lest we, for example, burn for eternity in the fires of hell. The life that results from submission to him is thus a life of fear, in which we punish ourselves for ever daring to seek our own empowerment, and become craven before authority’s watchful eye—a condition all the more perverse because those in it take themselves to be blessed.
In the face of this criticism, traditional religionists have often put the emphasis on love rather than obedience and punishment. Instead of acquiescence before a divine autocrat eager to torment us, they urge us to trust in someone who knows us better than the most intimate human lover, and who has our best interests at heart. In place of the God of fire and brimstone, they offer us God the beloved, and the one who loves us.
However, I remain unconvinced. And this is because I have a hard time recognizing what traditional religion offers us as genuine love. Hence, the title of this post: why isn’t God a stupid weakling? If it’s love that really matters, why must God be an omni-being? That is, why must God have the famed omni-attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence)? The people we love never do. They, like we, are confused and ignorant in any number of respects, and incredibly limited in their power. We love them nevertheless. Why, then, couldn’t God be like them?
Traditional religion has an in-built response, which is to portray God as a cosmic father. The proposal, then, is that our love for God is akin to that of a small child. A child looks to her parents with trust—a trust in which she surrenders herself to them, assured of their benevolent power and knowledge. In doing so, she sees them, as we sometimes say, as if they were gods: the ones who can live up to her assured surrender. God, then, is simply the perfect embodiment of what childlike love sees in a parent, and thus the one who will never betray the love that we, his children, have for him.
When people say that children look at their parents this way, I often find myself puzzled. I have no memory of ever doing so. As far back as I can remember, I was aware of flaws in my parents, and loved them still. And while the flaws in those we love can take the form of betrayals of the trust and assurance we have in them, their flaws are not as such betrayals. The people we love fall short in any number of ways, and sometimes in doing so cause us harm, or at least fail to benefit us in ways they otherwise could have.
The image of childlike love is, indeed, appropriate to the kind of relation traditional religionists have in mind. But this is because in children (and, in fact, in many adults), love co-exists with demand. What I have in mind is a demand familiar in many small children: the demand for their parents to satisfy their every desire. In having such bottomless demand, a child is in a sense motivated by the notion of unlimited power and knowledge in his parents: namely, he insists that they be so. From this comes the weariness many parents must cope with when their child explodes into tantrums of rage on the assumption that when he wants the scrape on his knee not to hurt, or to be made into Superman, and they don’t give it to him, they’re refusing to grant him something within their means.
Small children have such demand because they haven’t yet learned how to love properly. They haven’t learned the kind of trust and assurance that a mature lover has, which ought to be capable, at least to some extent, of surviving the limitations of the beloved. If our relation to God is as described, then to the extent that it can be said to be love at all, it’s childish love: love that isn’t or hasn’t yet been purified of bottomless demand. There are certainly people who love other people like this, but when they do, it’s because they’re development as lovers has been stunted.
Ought such immature love be what we aspire to in our relation to God? Suppose that God can provide none of the things that traditional religion tells us he can. Instead, the lives we lead are full of all kinds of pain and indignity. They’ll remain so for a time, and then we will die. No moment is forthcoming when all the suffering will be removed, so that our lives will be revealed to have been worth all the hardship. Our existence, quite simply, will be over and done. The question I often want to ask of traditional religionists: would you still love such a God? If not, then it seems to me your love is stunted, like that of the toddler who kicks and screams when he doesn’t get his way. Why, then, do we need to see God as an omni-being? Again, why can’t God be a stupid weakling?
Of course, Christians have a response: God is. Or at least he was—in particular, in the guise of Jesus. God took on a fragile, human form. He made himself, in fact, one of the lowliest: Jesus was among the poorest and weakest of us, and made others of the same kind his constant companions rather than courting the powerful and knowledgeable. And, the most important manifestation of this was, of course, the fact that God, in the form of Jesus, was tortured, mocked, degraded, and murdered on the cross.
Despite being what most traditional religionists would call a decadent secular atheist, I still find the character of Jesus to be of substantial ethical and religious interest. And, I do so in part precisely because of his lowliness, his fragility. However, in traditional Christianity, Jesus becomes Christ: the sacrificial lamb whose death made possible our salvation. God, the omni-being, entered into the world in which all things are limited, in order to lead us by the hand to the same old goodies we want from him. Hence, the oft-mentioned similarity between the figure of Christ and that of Siddhartha, who, having attained Nirvana, ventures back into the world of Samsara to lead others to the very same blessedness.
So, my question repeats, in a slightly different form. What if Jesus were ‘just’ a man? What if he were ‘only’ someone with incredible wisdom and insight that was out of tune with his time and place? What if he ‘simply’ died for his convictions, without any prospect of being made some heavenly king, or of being able to secure goodies for us in the eschaton?
When we’re tempted to describe these remarkable qualities in such minimizing terms (‘just’, ‘only’, ‘simply’), this is due, it seems to me, to being caught up in the grip of the same childish demand. Forget exemplars of striking human nobility. We want goodies. We want our way. And, we mistake this demand for love. Under the sway of this confusion, we make God the beloved fundamentally akin to God the cosmic dictator. For why else would we be servile before the latter, if not because we want him to look down on us with favor, and to give us everything we want out of life?