Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Images of God

In my recent Ethical Musings post Arguing against capital punishment, I posited a dichotomy between individuals who have an authoritarian image of God being more likely to support the death penalty and individuals who have a benevolent image of God being less likely to support it. In response, a reader emailed me this comment:

Seems to me such a dichotomy has profound implications and helps to explain raging debates on other topics within and across religions and denominations: evangelical Protestantism vis-á-vis liberal, Orthodox Judaism vis-á-vis Reform, and Sunni Islam vis-á-vis Shia. Perhaps this dichotomy is even more significant that religious affiliation itself.

My correspondent’s examples cloud his point. For example, Sunni Islam has historically adopted a broad, generous approach to diversity that suggests a benevolent God. However, the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam and other linked groups (e.g., the Deobandi in Pakistan and al Qaeda (an Islamist terrorist organization and not a Muslim sect)) have a narrow, authoritarian image of God that sharply contrasts with historic Sunni Islam. Ultra-orthodox Judaism offers a sharper contrast to Reform Judaism than do most expressions of Orthodox Judaism. Similar diversity exists within both liberal and evangelical Protestantism, although liberals tend more toward a benevolent image of God than do evangelicals.

As with any stereotype, exceptions exist. However, a stereotype’s power derives from the insights facilitated by its broad description rather than the accurate characterization of each particular instance. That caveat warns against judging individuals based upon stereotypes. Conversely, ignoring the analytical power of stereotypes impoverishes insight and retards progress.

The dichotomy between benevolent and authoritarian images of God (which, in fact, emphasizes two extremes between which lies a spectrum of gradations) perhaps transcends particular religious affiliation because it reflects a person’s personality or psyche more than anything else. Obviously, environment and genetics help to form that personality or psyche.

If one accepts that God is one, and that only one God exists, then substantial and radical differences in the image of God have little to do with God and much to do with religion, culture, and personality.

The world is both benevolent and cruel. For example, without the world life would be impossible. Reciprocal altruism and human social gregariousness both point to human interdependence. Our capacity to love and to be loved is one of the elements of the human spirit that distinguishes humans, at least in degree, from other species. All of this suggests benevolence. But life is finite. Species exist in competition with one another. Even within Homo sapiens, competition exists in tension with the need for interdependence. We necessarily treat some species as food sources – even vegans do this. Ergo, one can easily perceive the world as a cruel place.

One’s dominant view of the world as benevolent or cruel to some extent shapes that person’s image of God. For atheists and agnostics, my choice of terms – benevolent and cruel – will often be problematic because the terms imply a value judgment they are unwilling to make. The world simply is; no reasonable basis exists for imposing a value laden adjective. Yet my sense from conversing with atheists and agnostics over the years is that most of them approach life with an optimism or pessimism that is strikingly similar to characterizing the world as either a benevolent or cruel place.

These musings prompted two final thoughts:

1.    Nobody knows the future, so prepare for the worst and hope for the best, a policy that incorporates the wisdom of pessimism with that of optimism, i.e., bad things do happen, adequate anticipation can mitigate or even minimize negative consequences, but hope is essential for living abundantly and joyously.

2.    God is more likely benevolent than cruel. The world’s major religions all associate benevolence or bliss with the ultimate. Seeking a benevolent image of God helps to open the windows of one’s life so that God’s light may illuminate one’s life and path more fully.

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