God’s Toddler

While in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport waiting for a connecting flight one day, I went into a bookstore and saw a book called “A Biography of God”, written by Jack Miles. It was a Pulitzer Prize winner, so I figured it would be hard to go wrong. It was certainly a fascinating book. It took the Old Testament (the writer didn’t consider the New Testament) at face value, as a story, whose protagonist is God. What does it say about God? In a nutshell, it said that God was a conflicted being, striving to find some resolution between the desire to create and to destroy, oscillating between lashing out in anger and then healing in repentance. The shocking climax of the book was that the book of Job was the story of God meeting someone more moral than him, and retreating thereafter into the background, and finally fading, becoming a ringing echo in the Prophets. What makes the author’s case especially convincing is the fact that God’s final response to Job has nothing to do with fairness or justice, but is a long way of saying “Who do you think you’re talking to?”

My own theology is evangelical Christian, and I’ve been a Christian for over 27 years. So the book, to me, was filled with heresy, yet seemed to have a perspective worth considering. The book and its arguments held my attention for a long time, because it was somewhat thrilling to have another person look boldy at the Bible and say what they found there, simply as a reader of a story: that God does seem to be a lot like an abusive father who really does love his kids. What has always stuck in my craw a little is the elaborate apologies that Christians make for God when it seems like the Bible itself uses language like “God repented of the evil He had done”.  Christians really do like to paint a portrait of God as an Unseen Force, always expressed in terms of extremes and superlatives, and, with the addition of perfect foreknowledge, never credibly able to experience regret or curiosity like we do. I believe that this kind of philosophy of extremes is the Hellenistic influence on the early Christian church—the philosophy of the Greeks seemed tight and mathematical to the early church fathers, and they strove, I believe, to fuse it with the stories of the Bible. But to me, this theology seems to have little foundation in the actual Bible as it reads.

What I couldn’t get away from is that whether or not the language “accurately” describes God, it is God’s own account of himself!  Words like “regret” were chosen, it seems, so that we understand that whatever emotion God felt, its closest analogue in ourselves is regret—the gut feeling of “I wish I hadn’t done that.” God may not have a gender, but he chose the word “Father” to describe his relationship to us. Not “Mother”. Is part of that because He feels more challenging than nuturing?

And what would I do with this knowledge, this new way of looking at the universe and its Creator? I think I would be inclined to pester God more (through prayer), fear Him more, wrestle with Him more.  I might question Him more. Deal with Him more as a Person.  But maybe I would also think a little less of Him. I’m not sure, because it’s hard for me to believe this new idea in my heart. I knew that I didn’t believe all of this author’s conclusions. It forced me to ask: did I really believe, as Jack Miles does, that Job was more moral than God? No. So what was happening there in the Bible?

What would make a perfectly moral Person seem tormented and barbaric?

And then I saw my three-year-old daughter’s time-out chair, and the answer came, wordlessly, at once. A relationship with a barbarian can make an exalted Being act barbaric. At least if He’s going to be an involved Father.

Suddenly I realized that Jack Miles was only half right—the Bible is indeed God’s biography, but from his children’s point of view. It would be as if my daughter, at the tender age of 18, when children believe that they finally have their parents figured out, when they’ve judged their parents’ lives and choices wanting against their crystalline adolescent ideals, decided to write a biography of myself and my wife. Suppose in fact that my daughter has a perfect memory, able to remember every scene since birth exactly as she experienced it. What would she write?

She would write, I suspect, about how the Parents welcomed her into the world with love and attention, omnipotently taking care of every need, for a year or so. Then the relationship took a turn for the worse as the Parents began, on occasion, to turn violent and capricious, without any apparent warning. Later she understood that there were Rules of the House that had to be obeyed, but these were all imposed by the Parents anyway, and seemed to be under constant revision, all with the apparent aim of putting an end to perfectly good ideas. And many times, trying to repeat a once-good experience with the Parents led to more sudden and strange censure.

Eventually she would write how she came to understand the Reasons behind the Rules, and began to negotiate with us about exceptions and extensions to the Rules. This seemed like a good way to proceed, but the Parents retained their capricious ways. Wheedling an extra cookie out of them worked once; why, when tried an hour later, did it result in such arbitrary censure? Hadn’t it been established that this particular Rule could be bent? But the relationship does improve as time goes on. The punishments and the capriciousness begin to relent.

Finally, as she grows older, she begins to see what the Parents are about, somewhat, and is able to imagine what it would be like to be a Parent herself. They seem like peers now, more than anything, and she talks with them as one adult to another. The relationship is becoming strained again, though; the Parents do not seem to understand the world she is in, nor its priorities, and it is hard to talk about some very simple and important things with them.

Eventually, as she arrives at the age of 18, she sees that the Parents have grown up along with her, but she has recognized, from her vantage point, their fatal flaws and poor choices. But her magnanimity is such that she can forgive these flaws—now that she’s no longer in the house—and simply pities them for their smallness. She sits down to write the Biography of the Parents, and does not quite realize that her Parents were already 9 years older, 9 years more experienced, 9 years wiser and more capable than she is now—before they ever even decided to conceive her.

She doesn’t remember, for example, that when she first began to become strong, having the capability for destruction, that she ignored our gentle warnings and redirections, becoming set on a given destructive path, so that loud voices were finally necessary. She couldn’t realize that something like an extra cookie is not either Totally Evil or Perfectly Acceptable, and that our decision as to whether she should get one is based on whether we see a bad habit developing, the way she asks for it, and frankly, on our mood. She doesn’t see that the reason we didn’t share many of her adolescent interests was because they were irrelevant to who she was becoming as a woman; whereas we took great interest in those events and relationships which could be turning points in her character or her life. Nothing to do with whether we understood her adolescent interests.

And anyone who’s been the parent of a spirited three-year old knows that the experience doesn’t bring out the best in you. It doesn’t go the way you hoped, always. And how do you explain your real motivations? How do you explain balanced meals and the value of nutrition to a toddler who just wants an extra cookie, without either giving in all the time or making them think that cookies are Bad?  And if you’ve got that licked, try dealing with a group of toddlers. How do you explain that you see the long-term consequences of certain budding behaviors and habits, and that it’s not really the action that’s a problem, but the habit?

It seems like, in the process of “getting into it” with the barbarian culture with which God worked, He looks—to the barbarians—like the biggest barbarian of all, with the interesting twist that he is trying to call them to a higher moral ground. Bringing them along.  Raising them.

Is God Surprised?

There is a strong feeling in evangelical Christian theology that because God is omnipotent, and knows the future, that he isn’t surprised by anything. But the Bible just doesn’t seem to teach that to me. It seems that he isn’t surprised by much. But it does seem sometimes that people do surprise him. Like with the Tower of Babel, where the Trinity seems uneasy about man’s achievements, and they seem to take a preventative measure. Or when Jesus is “taken aback” by the faith of the centurion. Or when God tests Abraham, or Job. The whole point of a test is that you’re not sure how it’s going to come out. There are other examples as well.

As a parent of a toddler, I know this feeling. As a child grows, you can predict very accurately how they’re going to respond to certain situations, because you’ve been with them every moment, and you know them intimately. But once in awhile they will really surprise you, showing either an astonishing amout of maturity or a bewildering lack of it. You suddenly realize that they aren’t who you thought they were. A relationship with any person can be full of these kinds of surprises.

Does God Have Moods?

Can God be in “a bad mood”? I can remember many Bible studies where this was laughingly asserted, as a rhetorical question. Of course not. He has perfect self-esteem, can control the universe, has everything He wants; he doesn’t need us. What would he ever be in a bad mood about?

Again, looking at it as the parent of a toddler, I wonder. Before having children, my wife and I had everything we needed. We had a home we enjoyed, friends, work and hobbies that made us happy.  And we had each others’ company. We really didn’t need children for anything. Now that we have her she still doesn’t “give” us much. At her very best she can only help contain and control the destruction her own existence causes. Sometimes she puts us in a bad mood and then even when she does the things that we find lovable at other times, they just make us angrier. During those bad moods it’s just better if she lays low, acts respectful and makes reparations quickly.

Yet—we cannot now imagine what life was like without her. What she does “give” us is the joy of a relationship with her. The joy of teaching her something new, of watching the wonder in her eyes, of being able to give her something she wants or needs, hearing her say she loves us, and, of course, the joy of loving her.

So—God had everything He (They) needed, but He created humans anyway, and is now embroiled in a relationship with them that he doesn’t want to give up. It’s something He has learned to crave.

What! Does God “learn”? But he already knows everything! I really start to wonder about that “knows everything”. I’ve heard the definition of a “family” as “those people who stick by you through all the trouble you wouldn’t have had if you didn’t have a family.” Having children is the same way. Children teach you all those things you wouldn’t have needed to know if you didn’t have children. In other words, they teach you about themselves and what you’re like when you’re around them. There is a humbling that goes with being a parent.  You think you’re a calm person until it’s really tested.

Perhaps God made us in order to test Himself.

And maybe there is a clue in the following extremely mysterious phrase, when the Bible says of Jesus: “He learned obedience.”

Could it be that God became man in order to see what was so hard about it? Is this part of the logic that lies obscured behind the Divine Scandal? And the strangest possibility of all—was God changed by the experience? When He prayed to Himself in Gethsemane, was this his way of seeing if he could take what he dished out to the prophets? To see, even, if it was “right”?

Isn’t there a parallel between Job and Christ? Christ lives perfectly righteously, yet—is put through tremendous suffering as part of a test.

I am assuming a lot, and a good bit of it is probably heresy.  Much of what happens with the human family and human parenting ends up being accidents of our biology, I am sure. But there is a spiritual aspect that transcends our bodies and minds, something to the task of parenting that is like a self-examination, a raising of one’s own self-consciousness, nuances of self-sacrifice and self-judgment that are hard to come by any other way.

The Reality is certainly much greater. But I yearn to understand it to any degree possible.

© Derek T. Jones 17 July 1998