A God We Can Manage

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 30, 2014

Exodus 31:18-32:24 CEB

I appreciate that statement by John Shelby Spong that serves as our thought for meditation this morning, when he says, I love the quotation from Xenophanes, a Greek philosopher who said that if horses had gods, they would look like horses.  Such is a roundabout way of saying that from the time that man and woman had the ability to think and ponder the mysteries of the universe, there has been the tendency for humans to create God in their own image.  Spong continues his thought, “Human beings have gods, and they all look like human beings.”1

 If, however, human beings don’t create gods in their own image, then they do so in the image of some earthly creature or inanimate object.  Such is the way in this morning’s story from Exodus.  I have always found this story quite intriguing and wondered why it was included in the Jewish canon.  It doesn’t shed a very positive light on the Israelites.  What compelled the children of Israel to fashion a golden calf as a representation of God, then proclaim that it was the golden calf god that had brought them out of the land of Egypt?

Theologian Walter Brueggeman says of this story, “Nowhere in the OT are we given any clarity about the calf. . . [But] It may . . . be that the calf (i.e., bull) is a powerful symbol of some form of Canaanite fertility religion (cf. Hos 13:2).  In that case, the calf symbolizes a way to secure one’s own existence, to govern fertility, without recourse to the commands of Yahweh.”  Psychologically speaking, Brueggeman notes that later in the story when Moses confronts Aaron and the people over the golden calf, “Aaron deftly ‘triangles’ with Moses against Israel, seeking Moses as his ally, skillfully exempting himself from the crisis.”  Finally, Brueggeman observes, “Israel . . . cannot tolerate the risk of faith (exemplified by the absence of Moses), so it incessantly seeks to reduce that risk by domesticating God to manageable proportion.”

With that last statement, Brueggeman hits the nail on the head in my thesis for today: the Israelites sought to domesticate “God to manageable proportion.”  As already hinted, this story can prove to be an exercise in religious psychology.  Another key psychological word that this story seems to hinge upon is “anxiety.”  More than one study of this story points out that it was the anxiety of the people that led them in part, at least, to form a golden calf that they proclaimed to be their god that had led them out of Egypt.  Putting it all together, one way of looking at the impetus behind the Israelites molding and worshipping the golden calf was an attempt to manage their anxiety.  It was anxiety over the absence of their leader, Moses, who had led them from Egypt into the wilderness and had disappeared upon the mountaintop.  And it was their anxiety over needing a tangible god they could grasp and understand, as opposed to the mysterious I AM that was unseen and beyond their comprehension.

Could it be that the actions of the children of Israel casting their own god—stemming from their anxiety and need to fashion a god they could manage—serves as a paradigm for peoples of all ages, including our own?  Is it not possible that our needs, our perceptions of reality, our notions of morality, and our anxieties about life and death influence the perceptions of God that we fashion in our own minds?  Is there not some truth to the supposition that our history and experiences color our ideas about God?  Could it be that often the ideas we have about God illuminate more about ourselves than they do about the Sacred?

Perhaps a few examples would illustrate the point.  People who live in countries where political and religious freedoms are repressed and who feel the need to be liberated may tend to see God as the great Liberator.  Some years ago, there was a significant movement in Central and South American countries called “Liberation Theology” that sought to picture God as such.

Females who were abused by their fathers often have a problem with the Father God imagery, and may prefer to visualize God as the feminine.

Those who are scientifically-minded and believe in God may have a very scientific conception of God as the Energy or Creative Impetus of the universe.

You get the point: The conceptions that each of us might have of God may be colored by our own needs, our perceptions of reality, our notions of morality, our anxieties, our experiences, and history.  Sigmund Freud, you may remember, contended that humanity created a father god figure that will take care of us as a means to manage our anxiety.   Now, I would not go so far as to say that humankind has completely created the concept of God, or fabricated God.  And I don’t think Bishop Spong does either.  But both of us agree, I think, that humans create images of God that are far removed from the way God really is.  To put it another way, just because humans have perceptions of God that may not necessarily be true, that fact does not negate the existence of God.  Bishop Spong continues in his comments about humans creating God in their own image by saying, “I think we can experience God.  I don’t think we can define God.  And yet, we’ve drawn these magnificent portraits of God.  We’ve made God a man, a supernatural being, a miracle-working deity, and sometimes that God is quite immoral, even in the Bible. . .  In the organized religious world, we’re far more concerned [with finding] security than truth,” he says.

And so, we are faced with the question: Is the fact that humans tend to create or fashion a god that can be managed or that helps alleviate anxiety a bad thing or a good thing?  After giving thought to this question this past week, I guess I have to concede that the habit of attaching attributes to God in order to help make sense of life and alleviate our anxiety doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.  Often—as in the case of catastrophic natural disasters like we witnessed in Washington State this past week—the perceptions that people have of God enable them to cope with extreme loss.  And that is okay.

However, I also feel that when humans create or fashion a god that can be managed, but leads them to inflict hurt or death upon other people, it is a terrible thing.  For instance, those whose ideas of God lead them to persecute others because of their race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation; or those whose perception of God convinces them they are to kill others who do not believe as they do (as in the case of terrorists); or those whose idea of God lead them to demonstrate at the funerals of fallen soldiers as a way of condemning “national sin” (such as the late Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas); when human perceptions of God bring hurt upon the world instead of help, then there is a huge problem!

Now, as I said earlier, to say that humans tend to fashion God in our own image, or fashion a god that is easily managed, is not to say God is a totally human fabrication.  It is simply to say that an idea about what God is cannot be equated with the true nature of God.  The bottom line is, God or the Sacred is beyond human comprehension.  When we consider the number of galaxies in our universe, and the billions of stars like our sun, how could one comprehend the Creator of the cosmos?  And when people tell you they have God all neatly tucked into a box of certainty, beware!

It is inevitable that each of us will have our own ideas and perceptions of God or the Sacred that fit our worldview, perceptions of reality, our anxieties, needs, and desires.  That being the case, such is okay as long as such ideas of God are a help to us and not a hurt to anyone else in the world.  And my basis for saying that is this: the God perception and religion of Jesus of Nazareth as revealed in Luke’s gospel is One of inclusiveness, love, compassion, mystery, and service to suffering humanity.  Such may not be a God I can easily manage, but it is an image of God I can live with.  Amen.

 1John Shelby Spong.  Interview by Deborah Caldwell, http://www.beliefnoet.com.

2Walter Brueggeman, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. I.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.  Pp. 931, 932, 934.


About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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