Note: This is Part Six in a series, “God’s Emotions: Why the Biblical God is so Very Human.” Parts 1-5 are available at www.awaypoint.wordpress.com.
Imam Muhammed Baquir is said to have related this illustrative fable: “Finding I could speak the language of ants, I approached one and enquired, ‘What is God like? Does He resemble the ant?’ He answered, ‘God! No, indeed—we have only a single sting, but God, he has two!” —author unknown
Do people think I am crabby? Or insecure? Or jealous? Do they think I am easily pleased? Happy? Contented? One way to tell would be to ask them. Another would be to watch how they interact with me. Christians spend a lot of time interacting with God, or at least attempting to. We may not be able to tell what is happening on God’s side of the conversation (that is highly contested), but we know a good deal about the human half. How humans attempt to approach, influence or simply relate to God tells us about how they perceive him.
The writers of the Bible provide pages and pages of advice on how to relate to God. Consequently, we have information about how they perceived him too. According to cognitive scientist, Pascal Boyer, most supernatural beings regardless of their physical form, have human psyches, including emotions. The God of the Bible is no exception. I have said that biblical ideas about God’s anger may come from how humans expect powerful people to behave toward those of lower status. In actual fact, sermons and sacred texts that wax eloquent about God’s anger are just one of many clues that most of the Bible writers related to God as a high status human. Most Christians since do too.
Another bit of evidence can be seen in biblical notions of what gives God pleasure. The counterpoint to the threat of God’s anger is that certain ways of relating to God please him, and so court favor. Making burnt offerings for example: He is to wash the inner parts and the legs with water, and the priest is to burn all of it on the altar. It is a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the LORD. (Leviticus 1:9.)
Besides gifts/offerings (burnt or otherwise), what kinds of attitudes and related behaviors please high status people? My daughters recently negotiated the middle school world of queen bees and wannabes. Queen bees want to be the center of attention. They like being admired and imitated. (After all “imitation is the highest form of flattery.”) They like exclusivity and often will reject girls who spend time with outsiders to their clique. They like calling the shots. They like bequeathing special favors and getting pathetic gratitude from the lowly in return. If we think about this list, it is remarkably, even painfully similar to what the God of Christians desires from his followers:
- Attention (On thee will I meditate night and day);
- Praise and admiration (For the Lord is great and greatly to be praised);
- Subservience (I will bow before the Lord my maker);
- Dependency (Ask and it shall be given);
- Uncritical Compliance (. . . receive the kingdom of God like a little child)
- Exclusivity (Thou shalt have no other gods before me . . . For I am a jealous god);
- Gratitude (. . . for this unspeakable gift . . .).
These components are central to how Christians relate to God. In searching to demonstrate this point, I went to my browser and typed in, “Prayers for children.” The first one that came up, a rhyming prayer to start off a child’s day, illustrates beautifully. Notice bowing (a gesture of subservience), gratitude, praise, compliance, and dependency:
Lord, in the morning I start each day,
By taking a moment to bow and pray.
I start with thanks, and then give praise
For all your kind and loving ways.
Today if sunshine turns to rain,
If a dark cloud brings some pain,
I won’t doubt or hide in fear
For you, my God, are always near.
I will travel where you lead;
I will help my friends in need.
Where you send me I will go;
With your help I’ll learn and grow.
Hold my family in your hands,
As we follow your commands.
And I will keep you close in sight
Until I crawl in bed tonight.
— Mary Fairchild
I would offer other examples, but the point I am making seems almost trivially true. What may not be so obvious is the hidden assumptions underneath this anthropomorphism. The “submission displays” described above are valued by powerful humans because our species developed under conditions of insufficiency—inadequate food supplies, not enough high quality mates for every man to have as many as he wants, limited fertile land, and so on.
Dominance hierarchies appear in virtually all social animals that need to compete for resources, and submissive displays on the part of underlings allow this hierarchy to be established and maintained without physical violence. For example, weaker chickens duck and move away from food or off the most comfortable perch if their superiors in the pecking order arrive. In chimpanzees, a subordinate may crouch, hold out a hand, or squeak. Humans show submission through both words and behaviors, and these signals are so pervasive that actors are trained to incorporate hierarchy signals into every conversation. This is because acting and improvisation tend to fall flat unless social hierarchy is established among the characters.
As social information specialists we depend on each other but we also compete with each other, and to minimize how much energy we spend competing, we establish hierarchies. Our desire to get as good a position as we can in the hierarchy makes us emotionally insecure. We are unsure of where we stand. Signals that other people will submit to us are reassuring. Pleasing.
Most people find it uncomfortable to be told that Islam means submission. The images of forced submission can be a little too graphic. And yet the reality is that dominance and submission are an integral part of human relations, and of religions with person-gods.
Even though humans are creative communicators, some of our religious behaviors may have specific biological roots. Consider for example the act of bowing one’s head in prayer. It probably is traceable to ancient postures that allowed commoners to approach royalty. The word grovel today means to show exaggerated deference or contrition in order to appease someone. But its medieval root appears related to the word prone and may have to do with the physical posture required to approach the king. A parallel word, “kowtow,” means to behave with extreme submissiveness to please an authority figure. But it derives from the traditional Chinese practice of bowing so low that your head touches the ground. But these behaviors in turn may derive from something far more ancient. In other primates, a bow communicates submission to an animal of higher status. It can be a means of avoiding a fight when tensions are high.
In this world, if we understand our place, if we engage in submissive behaviors, then high status people let us hang around, and we ourselves gain status from the proximity. I recently was invited to an investment club meeting at the home of a powerful woman. Because I was working on this article, I couldn’t help but notice the actions of the guests (who were mostly less wealthy and less social). They expressed gratitude for the (exclusive) invitation. Praise for the catering was effusive; and for the garden. The words of the hostess got extra nodding. We all felt lucky to be a part of her circle.
Christians gain status, at least in each others’ eyes and in their own minds, because of proximity to God. I am not suggesting that Christians are particularly arrogant, because I don’t believe that to be true. I think, simply that all of us are wired to orient ourselves according to hierarchical assumptions—they are inescapable—and to seek advantage within the hierarchy. I think also that these hierarchical relationships are mediated by emotions, and that we instinctively expect them in any being with a humanoid psyche. Since the Christian Bible describes a person-god who relates to humans, it is inevitable that believers respond to these contingencies.
If the world were different, biblical Christianity might center on release from desire or ethical study or acts of compassion as in some forms of Buddhism. It might focus on ahimsa or nonviolence like Jainism. But that, I think, would take a different Bible. Like the God of Islam, the God of the Bible is interested primarily in worship. That is what the sacred texts tell us, and believers respond. As a consequence, intellectual assent, accompanied by submission behaviors and displays of devotion are core to both religions. The way that believers interact with God, both in the Bible and in modern life tells us who they think they are talking to. Unfortunately our god concepts fall victim to what we know about big cheese humans. This means that God not only has emotions, but a lot of them aren’t very nice.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light, (Revised ed of The Dark Side) and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at awaypoint.wordpress.com.
Larissa Z. Tiedens and Alison R. Fragale, (2003). “Power Moves: Complementarity in Dominant and Submissive Nonverbal Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 84, No. 3, 558–568. http://www.unc.edu/~fragales/Tiedens&FragaleJPSP.pdf
John S. Wilkins, “Social dominance psychology in humans,” EvolvingThoughts.net, July 2, 2009. http://evolvingthoughts.net/2009/07/02/social-dominance-psychology-in-humans/
Tenzin Gyatso; The Fourteenth Dalai Lama. “Compassion and the Individual,” His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, http://www.dalailama.com/messages/compassion
Wikipedia, “Ahimsa in Jainism,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahimsa_in_Jainism