Friday, August 27, 2010

Metaphors for the Divine

People have been trying to understand the Divine pretty much for as long as there have been people. Christians, in particular, have the impossible task of wrapping their minds around our conception of who God is. While it is not possible for us to fully comprehend God, we are required to try, and it is hardly correct to say we know nothing about Him or His character. Naturally, being human beings, and therefore demonstrably fallen regardless of the ethical schema one is using, our first attempt to grok God comes out as projection. That is, we make God basically a bigger and more powerful version of ourselves. Sometimes we take this a step further and make ourselves God :-) When you think about it, this is our first cut of a mental model of another mind, be it a mind or The Mind. In a lot of cases, projection works really well, as in when we ourselves are fairly neurotypical and we're interacting with someone who is similar and also neurotypical. We assume they'd want what we'd want in their position. A programmer might view this as instantiating a copy of their own mind inside the other person's body and circumstances and using that instance to predict how the other person feels and how they will react. Unfortunately for them, most programmers are NOT neurotypical. Worse, many of them do not realize how deeply non-neurotypical they actually are. Needless to say, on the other side of the relation, God is most assuredly not neurotypical. We know this from His writings and our own interactions with Him.

So what do we do? Well, like in our own human relationships, we try to build some sort of a mental model of the other person. We do this based on our own experience and folk psychology and what others have told us. If your model inputs are pretty good, your success will in general be pretty good. In short, we construct a metaphor for the other person. Hopefully we realize that the metaphor isn't the other person, but rather a useful construct for understanding that person.

Christians have been at this metaphor construction business with respect to God for an awfully long time. The Gospels, for instance, are full of them. The first one is God as Father.

This metaphor is one of the best ones, IMO, and perfectly adequate for almost all purely ordinary theological purposes (i.e., what does God expect of me, how should I try to relate to Him, and how does He feel about me?). It doesn't help much when one attempts to understand why God made a world that He knew would fall, or what is His purpose in allowing evil or pain, but for most people, most of the time, it does the job. Why does a father love his son? Having recent experience with a very small son of my own, I can simply answer, because he is mine. A programmer would say that the son inherits some fraction of the father's love for himself, as well as some fraction of his love for the mother. The impulse is biological, and strong, I do not have a choice as to whether to love him or not, I simply do because that is the sort of creature I am. The little boy has a strong nonrational claim on my loyalties and my affection, even when he is being difficult. I first encountered this with my older brother's children, and I was honestly somewhat taken aback by it despite it being significantly attenuated from the feelings I experience with my own son.

The Father metaphor fits the narrative of the Old Testament very well, with Israel continually following the misbehavior->oppression->suffering->repentance->deliverance-Misbehavior cycle. As time goes on, they started frequently skipping the repentance stage. How does God feel about that? His actions are very consistent with those of a good father, trying to bring about the best for his children. He suffers when He must chastise and discipline. Frequently in the latter part of the book of judges, He delivers them, not because they repented, but because He simply could not bear to see their suffering any more. One could say this is a very human feeling, or conversely, that when we feel this it is a very divine one. We are after all, in His image, although we are fallen. What does a father want from his son? In general they want to love their son, and to be loved and obeyed in return. They desire that their son realize his potential and live a good and moral life. Many fathers want other things, but I think most want at least those. But God is far more than merely a father. When one considers the problems of evil and pain, we find ourselves reaching for another metaphor. I'll talk about some more of these metaphors in my next post.