God’s “Emotions” … Are They Actually a Thing?

So many wrong guesses about God
It’s my hunch that sitting in church in the 18th century was not much fun. I doubt if there were cushions on the pews, there was no air-conditioning, the preachers were long-winded and dour. One of the classic sermons of that era is Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He wanted folks to know how mad God was…at almost everyone, it would seem.

“The reason why [wicked men] do not go down to hell at each moment, is not because God, in whose power they are, is not then very angry with them; as he is with many miserable creatures now tormented in the hell, who there feel and bear the fierceness of his wrath. Yea, god is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth: yea, doubtless, with many that are now in this congregation, who it may be are at ease, than he is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell.” 

Yes, you read that right. Reverend Edwards said that God was angrier with some of his parishioners than he was with many of the folks already in the ‘flames of hell.’ He had read the New Testament accurately, of course. In Matthew 25:45, for example, Jesus seethed against people who failed to show sufficient compassion: “And these will go away into eternal punishment…” Talk about harsh. His cousin John the Baptist was good at seething as well: “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’” (Luke 3:7) The apostle Paul was confident that God’s default emotion was wrath. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness…” (Romans 1:18) That wrath was permanently in place, and only the select few will escape: “…now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.” (Romans 5:9)

Two questions should come to mind.

• Can it possibly be true that the God who manages the cosmos, with billions of galaxies and countless civilization (well, who knows), nurses grudges against a few billion humans? After all, so much of our ‘sinning’ is caused by brain characteristics implanted by evolution, e.g., aggression, territoriality, liability to superstitions, addictions, and depression. That alone should provoke doubt that God has good reason to be so pissed off.

• But the second, deeper question: Does God actually have emotions? As depicted by the most high-minded theologians, God is the Ground of All Being; he resides outside time and space, and is immutable. How would emotions be appropriate for such a being?

Devout believers, those nurtured on Bible tales that vividly represent God’s emotions, never give this a second thought. But, please, it’s worth thinking it through. A good place to start is Valerie Tarico’s essay, “God’s Emotions: Why the Biblical God Is Hopelessly Human,” in John W. Loftus’ 2011 anthology, The End of Christianity.

Valerie Tarico’s blog, with an impressive archive of articles, is an important resource. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light, and Deas and Other Imaginings. One of her recent pieces was Why Is the Bible So Badly Written?

One of the key concepts that Tarico urges us to keep in mind is that human beings indulge routinely in projection. As I write this article, a hurricane named “Florence” is just hours away from hitting the U.S. East Coast. Even the naming of a storm is projection, and we commonly hear—from professional meteorologists no less—about the storm’s wrath. That’s our interpretation of this colossal energy system, one of countless others that have swept ashore in the same location for countless millennia. But because humans are now in its path, we accuse a storm of being wrathful. One of Billy Graham’s evil spawns, Anne Graham Lotz, even knows the details; she warns that hurricanes are God’s wrath for transgender people, gay marriage, and abortion.

We can be grateful that Tarico analyzes the topic of God’s emotions with far more grace and sanity. She begins her essay with the story of a Scottish lad who was sent to bed by his mother for refusing to eat the last two “nasty shriveled prunes on his plate.” She tells him that God will be angry, and shortly thereafter a storm came up—the full treatment of thunder and lightening. His mother went to his bedroom to comfort him, but to her surprise the boy wasn’t terrified or “burrowed under the covers”…

“…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!” (p. 155) The kid had believed her, but saw the silly side of the threat.

There are plenty of angry-God stories in the Bible—of which Tarico mentions a few—and they merit as well “an incredulous, reproving” response. Do they actually reflect divine reality? “We expect God,” she points out, “not to be the kind of guy who needs anger management classes. He shouldn’t need to breathe deep and leave the room lest he, heaven forbid, do something he will regret.” (p. 156)

“We expect God…” On the basis of what? Which brings us back to projection, and three key points that Tarico makes:

• “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 brands of Christianity alone…In some ways, the concept of God is like an inkblot test. The blot is there, but what you see in it depends on who you are.” (p. 157)

• “Projection, by definition, is a matter of mistaking internal realities for external realities.” (p. 157)

• “…to come any closer to knowing what is out there, we need to start by scrubbing our god concepts to anthropomorphism.” (p. 157)

There is probably no better example of anthropomorphism than projecting human emotions onto God—essentially making him so much like we are. Everything in our religious tradition, from the Bible going forward, contributes to this assumption. Most folks, who yearn for the kindly ‘our father who art in heaven,’ the Man Upstairs, even—to put it more crassly—a ‘cosmic buddy,’ assume that God “feels” without even grasping the mistake.

Tarico’s focused discussion of emotions—a five-page section of the essay—helps clear the air. Our emotions have been wired into us by evolution; we have them because they enable us to survive:

• “Our basic emotional system evolved long before the higher-order reasoning processes, and the two function in very different ways. Emotional processing is faster and more diffuse than rational processing. It activates many body systems—muscles, breathing, blood flow, thoughts, digestion, and more—simultaneously. It creates an orchestrated whole-body response, and the actual conscious ‘feelings’ are just one part of the mix.” (p. 165)

• “Emotions and reason complement each other. Too little emotion leads to paralysis. Too much floods us, and the emotion itself drives behavior. Moderate levels of emotion play an advisory role and help us distill information down into a decision.” (p. 166)

So, here we are, creatures and survivors (well, at least so far) in a complex biosphere—only two or three miles deep—functioning reasonable well because of evolved emotional and reasoning faculties. On a thousand other planets, evolution would have produced—we have to presume—dramatically different outcomes. So what do the aliens project onto their gods?

But we’ve surely got it wrong, as Tarico observes:

“I would argue that God has no need for emotions—intricate reactions designed to activate and direct bodily responses to the external environment. As wonderful as emotions are, they are made of and for the fabric of this natural world.” (p. 167)

Of course, the dumbest theologians of this natural world, Anne Graham Lotz being one of many, play to the gullible mob. But more savvy theologians know that God—as Tarico says—needs a good scrubbing; a mean-spirited God who conjures hurricanes to smite newly married gays is despicable. Hence:

• “Christian apologists, meaning defenders of the faith, argue for the possibility of the existence of a highly abstracted form of God that exists beyond the realm of human reason and the reach of science. But what they usually want is something more specific—to create intellectual space for their belief in the person-god of the Bible. They craft abstract arguments to protect belief in something more emotionally satisfying (and primitive and humanoid).” (p. 160)

• "If God is defined at a level of abstraction sufficient to satisfy many scientists, philosophers, and modern theologians, he becomes immediately uninteresting to most believers.” (p. 160)

But the writers of the Old Testament had little use for abstractions in their depictions of God, and were bothered little by contradictions or inconsistencies. “You might think,” Tarico points out…

• “…that if someone is omnipotent, then anger would be unnecessary. The force that created the universe has no need for it. For what? To make him more powerful? More able to focus? To break through inhibitions or fear? And yet it makes a lot of sense that we humans would expect God to get angry.” (p. 169)

• “Consider the situation of the Bible writers. Their image of God as the most powerful person imaginable was modeled on an Iron Age Chief or King who wielded absolute power over his subjects and who was beyond accountability.” (p. 169)

And thus were born so many of the rituals and practices that believers take for granted, which Tarico describes in some detail in the next-to-last major section of the essay, “Pleasing a High-Status Deity: Supplication, Adulation, and Subservience.” Indeed we model worship after protocols developed at royal courts, including, for example, praise: “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” But why in the world does God need constant flattery? Even simple gestures are suspect:

• “Consider for example the act of bowing one’s head in prayer. It probably is traceable to ancient postures that allowed commoners to approach royalty.” (p. 173)

• “In this world, if we understand our place, if we engage in submissive behavior, then high-status people let us hang around...” (p. 173)

• “Unfortunately our god concepts fall victim to what we know about big-cheese humans. This not only means that God has emotions but that a lot of them aren’t very nice.” (p. 174)

Not that Christians read the Bible all that much—especially the Old Testament—but its thought patterns and habits have seeped into our cultural bedrock and enjoy remarkable staying power. Ritual and tradition nurture belief in a wrathful God; the ritual especially is designed to deflect wrath and coax some love. But beneath all the pretense and posturing, and notwithstanding the good that it claims to do, Christianity is a nasty business.

Tarico nails it:

“…if we let ourselves contemplate the little that smart humans know about reality, then orthodox Christian conceptions of divinity become transparently self-centered and self-serving. It is a testament to our narcissism as a species that so few humans are embarrassed to assign to divinity the attributes of a male alpha primate.” (pp. 176-177)

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

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