A caveat: I think it’s probably impossible to say anything accurate about God. The word is too small to evoke anything but the flimsiest similes. So we must always interpret what any of us says about God with eyes that know that the most we can see are only shadows dancing on a wall. They may be good shadows, and the wall may come close to reflecting reality; but they are still only shadows of the truth.
A second caveat: Even though the preceding caveat indicates the impossibility of talking about God, we’re caught in a paradox. Because even though we can’t do it, we must. Life requires interpretation. And the earth is too big for us not to ask questions about it. For me, those questions depend on enlarging my vision. I grew up religious, and I still want to be. So talking about God is utterly necessary, no matter what the word itself may come to mean.
And so, to Judgement Day, Part 2
Many people raised in Christian circles grew up with an image of God that owes more to the Golem myth or the monsters in Grimm Fairy Tales. (For a postmodern twist, see the last sequence of ‘Inglourious Basterds’ for a vision of God-as-terror that leaves the audience in no doubt who’s in control. It’s horrifying.) The God who-is-love, who is supposed to bathe us in light, who is supposed to be a tender parent, who in the gorgeous phrase ‘knit us together’ seemed to have an evil twin, which, on the one hand, creates a certain confusion among his followers (this God is always male) and is reduced to being nothing more than an antecedent of Austin Powers, with a nice hairy side, and a horrifying nasty genius shadow.
For me, growing up, I knew two kinds of Christians – the first were the kindly ones who baked and prayed a lot, like my grandmother, who exuded grace, tolerance, generosity and welcome. She didn’t seem to think of herself as a bolted-down individual in the same way contemporary culture would have it, in the sense of being an island with a castle whose ramparts would be built higher at the drop of any economic excuse; she had responsibilities to her community, she’d been through a world war, married to a man who fought in it, and lived to serve and give to others. The other kind of Christian, who did their fair share of giving and serving, but they were also the serious kind, the self-consciously “committed” kind, who read their bibles and tried to convince others that they were going to hell if they didn’t accept Jesus. The way to accept Jesus was through a formulaic prayer, preferably said out loud in the presence of another. The way to live for Jesus was to read your bible and pray, and go to worship services, and not swear or smoke, and pretend to yourself that you didn’t have sexual fantasies, and try to convince others to do the same (and that’s before we talk about the cultural and socio-political dimensions of what it means to be a religious person in a society where religion and ethnicity are closely tied. That’s for another day.)
We were told that God loved us; that the arms of Jesus were always open to embracing us, that nothing happened in our lives regarding which God wasn’t already ahead of the game. So, whether we needed to find a parking space or to be healed from cancer, God knew about it, and might even do something, if we pleaded enough. A lifetime of such pleading would produce what they call ‘character’. ‘Healings’ would be rejoiced in; non-healings led to confusion and disappointment. Every few years, stirrings of a revival would occur; and we’d get excited by the hope that the task of saving Ireland would be taken out of our hands as tens of thousands of people spontaneously turned up at the door wanting to be Christians. Of course, it never happened; and we rarely admitted it. At the end of this character-building, miraculous life of denial, you would die, of course. And then the fun really starts. Depending on your understanding of quantum metaphysics, you’d either immediately transfigure upwards, or wait a few aeons until the end of time, at which point Judgement Day would take place. Billions of human beings would stand naked before the throne of God, as images from each of their lives flashed by on a giant video screen, a meta-level tut-tut-tut and wagging finger of admonition waved in your face before you were begrudgingly let into heaven, assuming you had paid mental assent to the right theological formula in that prayer so long ago, or thrown into an ever-burning molten lake, where you would be tortured without end.
Well, let’s try this: it should be self-evident that the two images of God – devoted and tender parent, and pyromaniac monster are incompatible with each other. Unless God is insane.
People will, I am sure, want to argue about the theological content of that statement; and I’m very happy to have a conversation on this blog about that. But it’s not my priority – I want to say something, not about God (which, as I’ve noted, is a concept I find it very difficult to talk about), but about the images of God that constitute so much of our subjective experience of the divine, or of what we call the divine.
It’s well known that Carl Jung once had a dream in which he saw God taking a massive cosmic dump on a village church, which only moments before had been basking in dappled sunlight on an orchard of a day. The church exploded; and Jung was able to find a way to see and express spirituality as an inextricable part of what makes a whole human life. It changed our understanding of psychology. It changed our understanding of theology. But, at least where I was being formed, Carl’s boat didn’t seem to make its way across the Irish Sea. And, for much of my life, I lived in fear of a God who would one day humiliate me in front of the whole human race. A God who would treat me in ways that I would never treat a friend, or my own children; in ways that no sane person would treat anyone they loved.
Where does this lead me? A few hypotheses.
Any father who would wish to expose his children’s mistakes in public, without a willingness to acknowledge his own errors or the times he did not prevent harm coming to those children is, at best, in need of psychological intervention.
The God who appears in our fantasies of Judgement(alism) Day is not worthy of the name. The God who appears in these fantasies is a projection of our own shadow; when we imagine God telling us what we did wrong, and that we can get into heaven anyway, we are ceding responsibility for our lives, and betting on a finger-crossing theological formula to get us through our fear of death.
There is no such thing as Judgement(alism) Day. The concept is a psychological projection rooted in childhood trauma, fear of authority figures, and the struggle to take responsibility for our own lives. We need to get over it. I think that’s what God would want.