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The problem with inventing your own God

I was heading to Orlando for a conference and had made preparations with friends there to have someone pick me up at the airport. I’d never met the picker-upper, so I sent not just my flight info, but a physical description of myself as well. On top of that, I wore a bright red shirt so I’d be easy to identify. In a crowded airport, you can never be too conspicuous.

The flight was uneventful, and as I passed the TSA checkpoint, I saw someone with a block lettered sign for PETE SANTUCCI. Perfect. I headed toward it and extended my hand to the sign holder.

With a puzzled expression on his face, he hesitantly took my hand and shook it.

“Yes?” he questioned. “And who are you?”

“I’m Pete Santucci. Thanks for being willing to give me a ride. I really appreciate it.”

“Uh. That’s weird,” he replied. “I’m waiting for a Pete Santucci. But you’re definitely not him.”

“Really?” I said. “There’s another Pete Santucci flying in today?” And then I gave him my flight info, including my seat number.

“Same name. Same everything,” he said. “But the guy I’m looking for is shorter than you, has a full head of black hair, has brown eyes, and speaks with an Italian accent. And you’re, well, bald, with blue eyes, and about six-feet tall.”

“That I am!” I said. And then I told him the name of the person I expected to pick me up, and he agreed that that was his name. But he wouldn’t budge on the description of the person he was supposed to pick up.

So, having no other alternative, I walked on and hired a cab to take me to my destination.

I had come face-to-face with the person I was supposed to meet, but he was so determined to stick with his expectation of what someone whose last name is Santucci would look like that we never made the intended connection.

Now, the story above is fictitious. But it illustrates what happens when we have our own preconceived notions of who God is and what God is like and refuse to budge from them when confronted with God himself.

If there really is a God, then we don’t get to invent what he’s like. If there is no God, then inventing what he’s like may be enjoyable, but it’s ultimately meaningless. So, in either case, theological invention is pointless at best. But if there is a God, it’s a disaster that keeps us from ever knowing him.

Far too many of us treat God like the man in the airport story treated me, wanting God to conform to our preconceived notions of who he is and what he ought to be like. And I include myself in this, because I find I’m not immune to cultural values and theological systems which suggest God must be one way and not another way.

But here’s the reality. God has revealed himself to us through the Scriptures and in Jesus. The Scriptures are like the email in my story above, telling my ride who I am and what I’m like. And Jesus is like me in the story, coming face-to-face and interacting with humanity.

Now, you may not agree that the Bible accurately introduces us to God or that Jesus is the face of that God, but that’s another conversation for another time. The point here is that any attempt to invent God is doomed to failure. We must start with God as he is given to us or not at all.

You see, I have met no human being who is so supremely in touch with the divine that he or she can be trusted to give new insight into who God is and what God is like. I know that I am no such spiritual giant, which is why I find it essential to not deviate from the expressions of God that have been handed down from those more closely guided by the Spirit of God.

Unless you believe you are the great enlightened one of our era, you (like me) are stuck with the God/gods we’ve been handed from the past or no God/gods at all. Theological invention is not just foolish, but arrogant and dangerous.

As J.I. Packer often said, “You’ve paid your money. Now, take your pick.” Pick from what we’ve been offered in the major religions of the world and forget your own imaginings. To stick stubbornly to your own conception of God will leave you like the guy at the airport: with no one in the seat next to you own the ride home.

God is no Mr. Potato Head that can be assembled from the pieces we like the most. Don’t miss out on the real God by trying to construct one of your own.

39 thoughts on “The problem with inventing your own God

  1. god is incomprehensible, so necessary, everything we say god is is anthropomorphic, and obviously comprehensible.

    we hope that god is the good, and god is then wherever the good is found rather than by any terms we’d apply to it.

    1. If there is a God, then definitely God is beyond us, literally supernatural (beyond nature). If he’s never revealed himself, all we’ve got is guesses. And guesses about the supernatural are pretty lame. But if God has revealed himself (e.g. in word through Scripture and in person through Jesus), then we’ve got something more substantial than just guesses.

      1. it’d be a guess about scripture then, but god’s word is not the bible, it is logos, his divine intent.

        being incomprehensible, god’s revelations to us cannot be about himself. if they are, then what good would they be.

        the classic view is we believe we are icons of god and through comprehending ourselves, we can apprehend the divine to the extent of our likeness.

        1. You needn’t agree that the Bible is God’s Word, but it definitely refers to itself as such. Psalm 119 is a 176-verse meditation on it being so. And, yes, the Scriptures are primarily revelation. They reveal God to us and us to us as they tell the story of God. And that revelation of both who we are and who God is of supreme importance. Without that revealing of himself, we can’t know the one who is beyond nature. And without that revealing of who we are, all we’d have to look at is ourselves in the mirror and that’s a pretty broken image. The classic Christian view isn’t that we comprehend ourselves and see God through what we see in ourselves. That’s classic paganism, which images its gods as reflections of human characteristics and flawed ones at that. The classic biblical view is that we know who we are not by looking in the mirror, but by looking at God, in whose image we’re made. As we see his kindness and faithfulness and truth and generosity expressed through his interactions with his people, we know that that’s how we ourselves were intended to be.

          1. well, discounting natural theology, fitrah, and participatory pedagogy, you may have a point on what the classic view is; perhaps aquinas, ibn rushd, and maimonides had it wrong?

            anyway, mine is a logical problem no tautology will remedy, only distinction will (but alas, there’s aquinas again).

            if god is incomprehensible, then is it a coherent thing saying we can know the incomprehensible none the less?

          2. Thanks for the conversation, Steven. I’m enjoying it.
            To your last question, I’d agree that God is beyond nature and is therefore incomprehensible. And that supports my basic point that any attempts to comprehend God on my own would be mere guessing and, therefore, foolish at best and arrogantly dangerous at worst.
            But if this God beyond nature chooses to interact with nature and even enter into nature, then those interactions and that incarnation become the solid means for knowing him. That doesn’t mean that we fully comprehend the vast mystery of who God is, for he is still beyond nature. But if he has chosen to reveal himself within nature, then he has probably done so very well and in ways that we humans within nature can understand.
            The more stories I tell you about myself, the better you know me, even though you cannot comprehend the thoughts within my head. Even so, the more history we share together, the better you will be at guessing what I am thinking at any given moment.

          3. there is nothing to tell about god. i don’t appreciate the problem of incomprehensibility. i can come to know you because i am like you. if there is no thing we are like, concerning god, then nothing god can relay that we can relate to.

            we take our statements about god, scripture, jesus, all on faith because determining the truth about god is always beyond us. faith is hope. it is not knowledge.

            without the god-talk here, is there a coherent statement in “x is incomprehensible and x is comprehensible”?

          4. LOL … i mean, i don’t think you appreciate the problem of incomprehensibility.

          5. and, thanks for bearing with me here.

          6. You bet! I appreciate the push-back. I’ve found your comments thoughtful and respectful. Thanks for engaging! You’re the best kind of commenter.

  2. srong’s 1697 is “word” in the psalms passage. it that the bible, or abiding counsel?

    1. Psalm 119 is a meditation on all of the ways that the Torah — God’s Word, counsel, commands, precepts, etc. — express his wisdom and form the lives of those who follow it.

      1. oh, i have no doubt the psalmist found god’s counsel wonderful, but of course he’s reflecting on hebrew texts; torah, talmud, etc.

        apparently we don’t hold those things in the same regard however, since not all are canon, and indeed, the lingual structure in islamic texts are very similar to psalms. i suppose we guess, know, or believe a difference?

        but, i’m much more interested in a distinction between x being incomprehensible and comprehensible at the same time, and that being coherent.

        1. Psalm 119 would be reflecting primarily on Deuteronomy. The talmud wouldn’t have been written and compiled for another 1000 years after the psalm was written, hundreds of years after the New Testament. The NT views all of the OT as “God breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) and by the time 2 Peter was written, even Paul’s letters were considered Scripture (2 Peter 3:16). And all of it is considered revelation.
          I think where we’re disagreeing is on your assertion of incomprehensibility. Just because God cannot be truly known by guesswork doesn’t mean that he can’t be known at all. He is knowable and chooses to be known and proves this by revealing himself, again, through the written word of the Scriptures and through the person of Jesus. These are the two intentional revelations of God. Outside of them, we see the fingerprints and footprints of God in the created world.

          1. there’s two issues and yes, the first is what can we know about an incomprehensible god. second is what we make of scripture. for the jews, they have their own including the talmud which collectively equal their “word”. for the christian, it includes some jewish scripture, but not all. same is true for the muslim.

            for a christian to think the bible is god-breathed but not include all jewish texts is odd. i could say more but the thrust is this … if god is incomprehensible, then it must be that we cannot know any scripture has anything to do with god at all.

            appealing to a book or a man does nothing for us. we first must rationally assume nothing without a reason and come to some belief for good reasons.

            it seems to me that people have an impression of god or do not have that impression and that is wholly relative to the person and their experiences and their perceptions.

            either way, and this is exactly what natural theory and fitrah tell us, it is what we apprehend that gives us the question of the gods. it is through contact with reality and exploration of our ideas of god that make is possible to perceive the divine more clearly, but in all cases, it is none of these that tell us about god. it is a growing revelation about ourselves, our humanity, as icons of god, that draws us deeper into that forever unknown, unknowable.

            i would ask what test we could devise to know we’ve said something true about god. for instance, in our integer world that only adds and subtracts, what could we know about a decimal god? let’s say someone comes up with the maths of multiplication and division. if god has attribute 1.5. if we divide 1 by 2, 3 by 2, 4 by three … how would we know whether 0.5, 1.5, or 1.3 had a thing to do with god; one, a few, or all of the products?

            so again, what distinction can you rationally make so that saying “x is y and not y at the same time”?

            if god is incomprehensible then he at best is only apprehendable. and whether or not there is a god is dubious for the very fact we are completely guessing because he’s beyond even that answer if he does exist.

          2. I don’t think you get the talmud. It’s not the level with the Tanak (the Torah, prophets & writings, which Christians refer to as the Old Testament) by any stretch of the imagination. It’s rabbinic commentary on the Tanak, written and compiled years after even the books of the New Testament were written. The talmud isn’t Scripture for Jews. It’s revered writing, but not God-breathed, which Christians agree with Jews about the Tanak.
            And I guess we’re at loggerheads about God being “forever unknown, unknowable,” as you put it. If God has chosen to reveal himself, then he’s knowable. You may disagree with Christians about whether the Bible and Jesus are true revelations of God. We know this to be the case not by any scientific method — since we’re talking about God, we’re talking about the supernatural, something science cannot comment on — but by the Holy Spirit, God’s own spirit/being/mind/will within us. This is the same Spirit we believe authored the Scriptures and confirms them in our hearts and minds. This is experiential knowledge, an experience shared by billions around the world over hundreds of generations.
            I know that God is knowable because I know him and am known by him. He is no theory. He is my living reality.

          3. i wouldn’t focus on splitting hairs on jewish texts. the point is, they give the jew “counsel” in the same way the bible and quran give “counsel” to the christian and muslim.

            the question is, since we can only know a claim of any scripture’s source being from god in some way, how do we know which is the case.

            and this problem with incomprehensibility isn’t a christian problem. to say it is a supernatural problem affirms it is beyond our ability to know.

            surely you appreciate the fact that what you believe about god, jesus, scripture, is epistemologically settled for the christian in the same way it is for the jew or muslim. we make presumptions about god and we basically prefer one way of talking about him versus another.

            to say you know god is knowable and know god by definition is unknowable is incoherent.

            on the other hand, as i’ve said before about “classic” theology, it is about the only rational thing to say we have a likeness to god, that we are drawn to the good because of our nature which resonates with it, and atonement must entail at least in some significant way, understanding our full humanity; which is also the distinction between two otherwise contradictory statements: anything not of faith is sin, and, all things are permissible. sin being the thing that keeps us from union with god because it muddies the only means we have to him; our nature.

            that’s not pagan gnosticism, by the way; like augustine’s election, original sin, and total depravity he got from manicheanism. it is through pure reason and scripture and the view of all three abrahamic faith traditions. but, i digress.

            the question is an epistemological one. how can you know the unknowable. if at the bottom of it is what you believe about a man and a book, then given god is not an examinable fact of any matter, it’s something you believe, not something you know.

            the discussion of what i know or you know about god is irrelevant here because the question is about how we know what we know. what i’m saying is that there is no test and the best we can do in attempting one is by measuring a belief by the fruit it bears.

            with me?

          4. Again, I disagree about unknowability. Something that is supernatural cannot be known according to the scientific method, which requires things to be observable, measurable, and repeatable. Without those three, science can say nothing about a topic. One-time events, like the incarnation of God in Jesus, are outside of the things that science can comment about.
            And when it comes to whose scripture is valid and whose isn’t, we’re in a whole different conversation. And please know that I’m not splitting hairs about Jewish texts. Only the Tanak (what Christians call the Old Testament) is considered Scripture by Jews, a belief Christians also share with the addition of the New Testament. Again, you may reject the notion that God has intentionally spoken these words to us by his Spirit and that would be where we disagree.
            Also, if we go back to my initial post, if I show up in an airport and you say I’m not me, the truth that I am who I am remains, regardless of whether you believe it or not. The only difference is that you exclude yourself from knowing me.
            As a Christian, I believe that God entered his world in the person of Jesus, wanting to make himself known through Jesus. To tell God that his revelation of himself in Jesus is invalid excludes that person from knowing God in Jesus. It doesn’t make Jesus not God.
            Now, you may tell me that I’m wrong in believing that Jesus is God’s expression of himself to the world, and that’s your prerogative. But I would counter that you’re wrong, since everything about Jesus matches with who God has already revealed himself to be in the Tanak. Again, you could reject the Tanak. But I look at 2000 years of revelation in the Bible’s 6 books and how they speak with a united voice and I will continue to say, “This is the voice of God, revealing himself to the world so that we might be in relationship with him.”
            So, my question is: Why don’t you want to know God and be in relationship with him? Because everything you’ve written so far seems to be an attempt to keep God at an unknowable distance. But I say to you, he is not far off. He is knowable. And he wants you to know him and be in relationship with him.

          5. i’m a christian! the problem is one of reason, not science. again, disagree but i have no idea, other than as a statement of belief, what you mean in saying you know the incomprehensible. it’s just incoherent. you either mean incomprehensible or you mean comprehensible, but both at the same time is like saying p = ~p

          6. I stand corrected! I apologize for the assumption.
            God is not incomprehensible. He is knowable and has made himself known.

          7. ah, now that, we can talk about!

            i would think we’re limited to understanding reality, and if god is comprehensible – that is to say, imminent – then there is a problem of attribution. any experience we have could be attributed to nature or god or, “god” in that sense is identical to nature.

            but any part of god that transcends reality is by nature, incomprehensible.

            i can understand rationally asserting god has made himself known in that our thoughts are all contingent to “place”. i can also see denying the question of god exists because god exists; attribute the idea to anthropomorphizing existence.

            and what we in either case are saying is that we know the question itself exists because once again, the “reality” of god is not our reality but beyond.

            with me?

          8. The beauty of both the Scriptures and the incarnation is that the transcendent becomes imminent. The here and the beyond juxtapose in them. Fully human, fully divine at the same time. In this way, the Creator is knowable by his creation. And by knowable, I mean relatable.

          9. i totally get that. my question is HOW you “know” any of that to be the case. this is a statement of faith because god himself is a genuinely dubious idea.

            it’s a serious question, why jesus instead of thor. know what i mean?

          10. I’d have to point you to scholars like N.T. Wright on the Jesus v. Thor question. Suffice it to say, Jesus is actually historical and did things only Israel’s God was expected to do. There’s also that resurrection thing. I point you to Wright’s books Jesus And The Victory Of God and The Resurrection Of The Son Of God on both of those points.

          11. well, then there are folks like robert m price and richard carrier, even bishop spong sometimes has a suspicion that jesus was a jewish invention.

            we’re just going on faith.

          12. Ah, I see. Those guys are the lunatic fringe. I didn’t realize people still took Spong seriously.

          13. well, in mentioning nt write, you realize his life’s work in pauline literature leaves him with the conclusion that paul invented his own christianity … so going with the theme of your article, paul’s dangerous? 😉

          14. as for the fringes, it doesn’t matter. that’d be a genetic fallacy. as price would say, truth isn’t ad populum and his commentary is based on facts, having no interest in harmonization or the preservation of dogma.

            there’s a great discussion between price and wright on all this on youtube if you’re interested.

          15. Hmm. I guess I go back to what I said before. You see like someone who uses argument to keep God at a distance to avoid the messiness of having to listen to, love, and obey God. From everything you’ve written so far, I can only conclude that this is a mind game for you and not a living relationship. You’re exactly like the guy in the story I told in the original post. You say you’re a Christian when Christ is right in front of you. Set your arguments aside and pray this simple prayer: “Lord, if you’re real, show yourself to me.” If you are a Christian, praying that way shouldn’t be an issue. If this is just a mind game for you, then praying relationally will be a stretch.

          16. that’s actually a very presumptive an demeaning way of saying “i know. i don’t have faith.”

            yes, what i’m asking is a rational question. the answer shouldn’t be an emotional response. the question is about how we know we all aren’t making up things about god, when god is incomprehensible?

            my answer is fruit. yours seems to be fiat. i would just appreciate a distinction from you that makes sense of a claim taking the form p=~p other than avoiding the question.

            were there something more than faith, we’d all likely have the same religion, or, only one religion would offer encounters with the divine. neither are the case, so each image of god we have is necessarily anthropomorphic because the image is comprehensible and makes god very much like us. in that, each religion is an expression of humanity reaching out into the unknown and experiencing the meaning in the pursuit.

          17. some things to think about …

            Equivocal God-talk leaves us in total ignorance about God. At best, one can only feel, intuit, or sense God in some experiential way, but no human expressions can describe what it is that is being experienced … [As for univocal] Our understanding and expressions are finite, and God’s are infinite, and there is an infinite gulf between finite and infinite. As transcendent, God is not only beyond our limited understanding, but He is also beyond our finite expressions.

            (Norman Geisler, ‘Systematic Theology, Vol. 1’, Bethany House Publishers, 2002, pg. 615)

            … when we speak of God by using the word ‘God’, we do not understand what we mean, we have no concept of God; what governs our use of the word ‘God’ is not an understanding of what God is but the validity of a question about the world [Why anything at all?] … What goes for our rules for the use of ‘God’ does not go for the God we try to name with the word. (And a corollary of this, incidentally, is why a famous argument for the existence of God called the ontological argument does not work.)

            (Fr. Herbert McCabe, ‘God Matters’, Continuum, 2005, pg. 6)

            For if the existence of such a god were probable, then the proposition that he existed would be an empirical hypothesis. And in that case it would be possible to deduce from it, and other empirical hypotheses, certain experiential propositions which were not deducible from those other hypotheses alone. But in fact this is not possible. It is sometimes claimed, indeed, that the existence of a certain sort of regularity in nature constitutes sufficient evidence for the existence of a god. But if the sentence “God exists” entails to more than that certain types of phenomena occur in certain sequences, then to assert the existence of a god will be simply equivalent to asserting that there is the requisite regularity in nature; and no religious man would admit that this was all he intended to assert in asserting the existence of a god. He would say that in talking about God, he was talking about a transcendent being who might be known through certain empirical manifestations, but certainly could not be defined in terms of those manifestations. But in that case the term “god” is a metaphysical term. And if “god” is a metaphysical term, then it cannot be even probable that a god exists. For to say that “God exists” is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance.

            (A. J. Ayer, “Language, Truth, And Logic”, Dover, Second Edition, 1952, pg. 117)

            To exist beyond the sphere of natural law means to exist beyond the scope of human knowledge; epistemological transcendence is a corollary of ‘supernaturalness’. If a god is a natural being, if his actions can be explained in terms of normal causal relationships, then he is a knowable creature. Conversely, if god can be known, he cannot be supernatural. Without mystery, without some element of the incomprehensible, a being cannot be supernatural – and to designate a being as supernatural is to imply that this being transcends human knowledge. Epistemological transcendence is perhaps the only common denominator among all usages of the term “god,” including those of Tillich, Robinson and other modern theologians. While some “theists” reject the notion of a supernatural being in a metaphysical sense, it seems that every self-proclaimed theist – regardless of his particular use of the term “god” – agrees that a god is mysterious, unfathomable or in someway beyond man’s comprehension. The idea of the “unknowable” is the universal element linking together the various concepts of god, which suggests that this is the most critical aspect of theistic belief. The belief in an unknowable being is the central tenet of theism, and it constitutes the major point of controversy between theism and critical atheism.”

            (George Smith, ‘Atheism: The Case Against God’, 1973)

            The message of Christ is I’m dying but my death itself is good news. It means you are alone, left to your freedom, be in the Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit, which is just the community of believers. It’s wrong to think that the second coming will be that Christ as a figure will return somehow. Christ is already here when believers form an emancipatory collective. This is why I claim that the only way really to be an atheist is to go through Christianity. Christianity is much more atheist than the usual atheism which can claim there is no God and so on, but nonetheless retains a certain trust into the Big Other. This Big Other can be called natural necessity, evolution or whatever. We humans are nonetheless reduced to a position within a harmonious whole of evolution or whatever, but the difficult thing to accept is, again, that there is no Big Other. No point of reference which guarantees meaning.”

            (Slavoj Žižek, “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology”)

  3. sorry. stupid phone. strong’s 1697

  4. In our times, an authentic faith in God only seems to be possible in the context of a praxis of liberation and of solidarity with the needy. It is in that praxis that the idea develops that God reveals himself as the mystery and the very heart of humanity’s striving for liberation, wholeness and soundness. The concept of that mystery, which is at first concealed in the praxis of liberation and of making whole, is only made explicit in the naming of that concept in the statement made in faith that God is the liberator, the promoter of what is good and the opponent of what is evil …

    The ancient ideas about salvation … do not in themselves place us under any critique, except in so far as, in their own way, they posit the criterion of Jesus as final source of salvation. Anyone who fails to see this distinction is proposing not Jesus Christ but one particular bit of religious culture as the norm of Christian faith — and ceases to be faith in Jesus of Nazareth … In him we find final salvation, well-being. This is the fundamental creed of primitive Christianity.

    Edward Schillebeeckx

    1. So you don’t pray. Set aside the mind games and give it try for a couple months. Just that simple prayer: “Lord, I want to know you. Show yourself to me.”

      1. oh, man! why now have you become this? you do not know me at all, so don’t talk as if you do.

        put away your rhetoric for five seconds and tell me how you can, despite the whole of theology telling you that no one can, comprehend the incomprehensible.

        p=~p

        make that coherent, plain and simple. the law of non contradiction is trivial if there is but the slightest of distinctions. what is yours other than you really, really, really, believe what you believe about god is actually about god, and no matter of faith at all, but of knowing instead … knowing the incomprehensible, just to remind.

        1. You keep saying God is incomprehensible, which simply isn’t true. I know him and so have billions. Our experience trumps your lack of it. But it can be yours, too. So, I say yet again, pray. If you’re unwilling to do that, then this conversation has no purpose and I will move on to purposeful conversations with others.

          1. who says i DON’T have an experience! you’re simply disengaging from the question. see geisler, see mccabe, see ayer, see smith … see ANY theologian or philosopher. to transcend reality is to be beyond our knowability and understanding.

            as to the problem of divine experience, that too is a matter of faith, in attribution, for it is not impossible for those experiences to occur, and, there is no way to suggest they cannot occur naturally … else you may claim your $1M from james randy for proving the supernatural.

            the consequence of sola fide is the admission, sola fide is all their is to justify any god-talk at all.

            why are you suggesting i don’t pray or that my christian life is anything but exactly like yours?!

            i simply asked you a rational question you refuse to answer. if you want to move on, move on.

          2. if for instance, the very same premises lead to more than one conclusion, upon what other basis would there be for adopting one in belief versus the others?

            how does one then tie a natural experience to a supernatural source, other than it is truly queerer than normal experiences. and if we are more assured of a supernatural source given the extent or degree of oddity, then surely that has implications for saying god is revealing himself to humanity. as the more true we hold that idea, the less it can be true! if revelation is comprehensible, then the more so it is, the less supernatural it appears and the more dubious the claim the source is god.

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