Fleas, Spiders and the Nature of God

A common aphorism goes, “Human beings arguing about the nature of God is like the fleas arguing about the nature of the dog.” This stinging quip gets to all of us because it is very apt in indicating the scale of the differences between human beings and God.

We must develop some sense of proportion here – we are talking about GOD, the transcendent, divine, immortal Author of everything that exists. We are attempting to see how far we can get with our intellectual resources in deducing what God might be like. And in this task we must be prepared for some unpleasant and daunting revelations.

Fleas and dogs are separated by quite a chasm, as far as their consciousness and intelligence are concerned, but the thing that gives me the courage to persevere is this realization: I have something that fleas do not have: a rational mind that is capable of thought.

In this I differ from, say, Sam Harris, who seems to believe that human beings are not capable of thought, although I don’t know how he came to that conclusion without it. Fleas, on the other hand, cannot be condemned for not having rational minds, although some of our multi-legged relatives seem to have some kind of intelligence.

But if we turn to Scripture, we must take into consideration the immense importance of the time involved as human thought and theology developed from worshiping creatures to worshiping the Creator. Add to this the belief of Jews, Christians and Muslims that we have been the recipients of revelation. What kind of God do we claim, and what kind of God do we consent to worship?

The first thing we must realize is that the prehistoric Hebrew culture did not differ much from other cultures around it. Abraham would have killed his son, Isaac, with a knife, because he believed for a short time that God wanted him to do so. We don’t understand why Abraham didn’t refuse this and do his job as a human being, protecting his child. But he did not.

There is a fortunate codicil to the story, though, because in this instance we learn that God did not intend that Abraham sacrifice the child, but was “testing” him. So instead of rejecting the murder of a child we can reject the cruel testing scenario, which we can understand is unworthy of the Creator God. But in doing that we fall afoul of the confusion that reigns in Scriptural circles today.

The major theological project of Christian theologians has been to try to reconcile the Old and New Testaments. In contemplating acts that were clearly evil if they were really “acts” of a powerful conscious being, instead of coincidental natural events, we try to excuse God instead of rejecting the ideas that he is a mass murderer. The Flood story says that the human race had become corrupt and evil, so I guess that makes the mass murder okay?

Again that flies in the face of reason. It is simply not possible that every single human being, born and unborn, was worthy of this punishment. It may reflect the Hebrew culture, that did not recognize the importance of individuals, but it cannot be an accurate portrait of the perfect, loving, righteous God that they worshiped.

Along comes Moses and he says to Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” and the Pharaoh’s reply is, “The hell you say.” For that, Jews and Christians agree to the preposterous idea that God unleashed the Plagues in order to break the will of Pharaoh. Never mind the thousands of innocent bystanders, to say nothing of the Egyptian children and the charioteers who ought to be thought of as soldiers acting under orders.

Are we to think that God forgot about that? We have forgiveness in our hearts for the German army during World War II, but we just assume that the Pharaoh’s charioteers had it coming when they were washed away.

We have to sort this out. Beginning with the Old Testament, Christian theologians must disavow murder, torment and hate and realize that the “Prophets” and Hebrew theologians were simply mistaken when they attributed such motives to God. As C. S. Lewis wrote, to paraphrase, God is “not a tame lion,” and when you begin to think of him as sitting in Heaven waiting to condemn billions of people to eternal torture, you are not quite sure that you are not one of those billions. That is why primitive Christians live in fear and rage.

Psychologically, it is a huge and dangerous lie to claim that you love such a monster God, or that you worship him with this in mind. Emotions such as love and worship must be directed towards proper objects. For this exact reason, the slave does not love the master.

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