This ain’t your Ground of Being

December 14, 2012 • 2:08 pm

Today’s Bizarro comic, by Dan Piraro, is funny but also a bit sad.

Picture 2

Sophisticated Theologians™ tell us that God is indescribable, that he’s “outside of space and time,” a Being Whereof We Cannot Speak, a “ground of being”—anything but a humanoid being. Well, for most believers that’s not true.

I’ll quote here from the book I’m reading, When God Talks Back, by Tanya Luhrmann, which is an anthropological study of an evangelical Christian sect: not an ultra-loony one, but one that comprises intelligent and well-off people (one branch Luhrmann studied is right here in Hyde Park, Chicago).

Luhrmann describes the very personal relationship that members of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship have with God.  They talk to him constantly, pray with him, and one even has “dates” with him, sitting on a park bench and imagining Jesus sitting next to her with his arm around her and chatting.  Why, one person even pulls out a chair at breakfast and pours God a hot cup of coffee, conversing with the imaginary deity as if he were right there with the java!

The whole nature of God for these people (and for many, many Americans) is that of a personal God, something with the characteristics of a human. To deny the ubiquity of this concept of God belies profound ignorance of religion. Either many theologians are ignorant in that way, or simply feel that such people have wrong belief.

Here’s a statement from one of the booklets on God that members of the Vineyard Fellowship read, Bruce and Stan’s Pocket Guide to Talking With God:

“It’s really important to understand that God is not an impersonal force. Even though He is invisible, God is personal and He has all the characteristics of a person. He knows, he hears, he feels and he speaks.”

Tebow 1, Kierkegaard 0.

h/t:  Tommy R.

88 thoughts on “This ain’t your Ground of Being

  1. Either many theologians are ignorant in that way, or simply feel that such people have wrong belief.

    There is, of course, another, even more likely option: that they are Lyin’ for Jesus, in exactly the same way the Eusebius advocated lo these many many centuries ago.



  2. creepy “They talk to him constantly, pray with him, and one even has “dates” with him, sitting on a park bench and imagining Jesus sitting next to her with his arm around her and chatting.”

    well that explains the disturbing Christian songs that are nothing more than poorly written pop love songs. It’s also a great window into the minds of people who think that god approves of all they do and agrees with all of their hatreds and desires.

    1. There’s a lot of thinly-veiled homoeroticism in those songs, too — or, at least, the ones I’ve involuntarily been within earshot of on occasion.

      It’s none of my business, but I think it’d be a lot better for them to live out their fantasies with a real flesh-and-blood person rather than only dream about them with an imaginary friend.


      1. It ain’t so thinly veiled. Here’s a lyric from “The Potter’s Hand”:

        Take me, mold me, use me, fill me.
        I give my life to the Potter’s hand.
        Call me, guide me, lead me, walk beside me.
        I give my life to the Potter’s hand.

        Here’s something from “Forever Reign”:

        Oh, I’m running to Your arms
        I’m running to Your arms
        The riches of Your love
        Will always be enough
        Nothing compares to Your embrace
        Light of the world forever reign.

        1. Here is one I still remember:

          I come to the garden alone
          While the dew is still on the roses
          And the voice I hear falling on my ear
          The Son of God discloses.

          And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
          And He tells me I am His own;
          And the joy we share as we tarry there,
          None other has ever known.

          He speaks, and the sound of His voice,
          Is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
          And the melody that He gave to me
          Within my heart is ringing.

            1. Now that IS fun… lets see if I can embellish the lyrics, just a scosche:

              Would you live for Jesus, and be ready for His choad?
              Would you mess with Him within his dank abode?
              Would you like to bear his children, swallow all his load?
              Let Him have His way with thee.

              His bat’r can make you what you ought to be;
              His pud can pack your fart and take a pee;
              His love can fill your hole, and you will see
              ’Twas best for Him to have His way with thee.

              Would you have Him take a pee, and swallow at His call?
              Would you blow the flute that comes and give your all?
              Would that He enslave you, penetrate and work the wall?
              Let Him have His way with thee.

              Would you in His dungeon let Him whack you with a cane?
              Wash you with His drops of golden rain?
              Leave you in His service, wracked with never ending pain?
              Let Him have His way with thee.

              It was kind-of difficult preserving the correct number of syllables; the original was such horrible poetry. At least it should still fit the original tune, however it sounds.

        2. Maybe so — though the two of you seem awfully interested in the thickness of the guys’ veils.

          No denying that what you’re suggesting exists, but there may be a (small “p”) platonic explanation, too: For some of these folks — particularly the ones trapped in the economically strapped neck of the woods where “they cling to guns and religion” — God probably seems to be in the shrinking pool of grown-up English-speaking white guys they still have left around to talk to.

    2. Andrew Newberg, etal in Why God Won’t Go Away, says that the area of the brain that lights up during sex is the same part that lights up in religious ecstasy. So, religious fervor = sexual passion. Bottom line: they want to have an affair with Daddy.

      1. Approximately how many basic brain areas did they divide the brain into in order to determine what counted as the same areas lighting up and what counted as different areas lighting up?

    3. My aunt, the nun, tells a story of a convent who talk about jesus, their husband, as if he is in the next room. Just around the corner and about to walk in. Very creepy. She’s a catholic nun and more sophisticated in her belief so she looks down on those ideas.

      1. It’s not uncommon for Catholic nuns to be referred to as ‘Brides of Christ’ and in some orders, to be given a wedding ring to wear.

        They’ll tell you it is only symbolic and they get most uncomfortable with the idea that Christ has many hundreds of nuns as wives.

  3. As god gets more abstract and unknowable, one begins to naturally wonder why he is worth worshiping. He gets so unknowable that agnosticism becomes a real live option that it wasn’t before for many people. As he gets more like us, it again begins hard to see why he is worthy of worship. This is a real dilemma–no one ever suggests some midpoint that is acceptably knowable and acceptably worshipable. I think that many xians, even the ones like Luhrmann studies, trade on these options, different conceptions for different conversations. When you need god to be knowable, use it. When you don’t, don’t. It’s part of the inherent slipperiness of the whole idiotic idea.

  4. “Either many theologians are ignorant in that way, or simply feel that such people have wrong belief.”

    Classic response of the religious when confronted; the ‘no true Scotsman’ ploy. Someone recently tried telling me about all the horrible things done in the name of atheism by people such as Stalin. When I pointed out that Stalin had a religious upbringing this was dismissed as irrelevant as ‘The Russian Orthodox lot don’t count.’

    1. I generally agree with the religious that it was Stalin’s atheism that led to the purges. If only he had abandoned his atheism and welcomed the loving embrace of the great god Quetzalcoatl we would have been spared the horror!

      …wait. What?


    2. The Russian Orthodox lot don’t count.

      Of course they don’t count. What good is a millenium-long schism, if you’ve still got to count them?

      That Eastern crew was a stone in the Pope’s red leather slippers long before any Reds started giving him grief.

    3. With Stalin, Hitler, the North Korean dictators, Pol Pot, and even the recently deposed Saddam Hussein, there was such an incredible syncophancy and reinforcement around such authoritarians, that the dictators themselves took on deistic beliefs and tendencies. God on Earth, and visible! Saddam Hussein increasingly (so reported) felt more and more immortal, which explains his dismissal of life in exile. The late “Dear Leader” in North Korea was described in newspapers as “never having the necessity for a bowel movement.”

      The religious-like fervor surrounding these dictators might as well be defined as a religion (e.g. Hitler claimed to receive hundreds of thousands of letters in 1933, each month). It certainly follows then, to look at all the slaughter brought down in the Old Testament??!! Certainly, it is the moral obligation of Him shepherding the Chosen People, to destroy those who would defy the Lord.

      As I’ve said before, IMHO it is severity of punishment for apostasy that defines whether an ideology is a religion or simply a social club. Solzhenitsyn describes (apocryphally) the man he met in the Gulag, who was incarcerated there because he was the first to stop clapping after a Stalin speech.

  5. Some of those Vineyard people live near us. They are truly scary. Or maybe I should say ‘scared,’ because I believe people who aren’t very bright are afraid of just about everything, and they look for easy answers in the form of an all-knowing, all-seeing Daddy.

    1. The willingness and desire of people to put themselves under an invisible authoritarian figure is a scary psychological construct. What’s worse is that these same people will follow despots and dictators without question.

      1. Frightening, isn’t it. Some people believe we are lumbering robots controlled by our genes. And get this, some even think it’s an entity called Lossoff Fissicks who pulls the strings. When will we ever be set free?

    1. Rather than ‘sad’ I would tend to go with ‘fucking annoying’. If people keep assuming that someone else is charge* we’ll never understand that we have to fix our damn problems.

      * See the immediately prior post for a perfect example.

  6. Don’t imagine that this is something specific to this one sect either. All the believers I grew up with and know from a different fairly large U.S. denomination are like this. While I’ve never known anyone to go on a “date” with God all the rest sounds perfectly ordinary to me, as newsworthy as “the sky is blue” or “the sun is hot”. I have no idea what Sophisticated Theologians think of these believers, but I know what most of these believers think of Sophisticated Theologians: they are heretics.

    This is important to remember because a lot of effort spent trying to engage the arguments and ideas of Sophisticated Theologians is wasted, because that’s not really what the people in the pews believe.

    1. That’s what I was thinking as well.

      The “sophisticated” theologians are presenting gods that no christian I’ve met believe in. All the christians I have met think that their gods are very personal and interactive. I’ve even met a couple that think the whole universe was created for them personally to gain experience for an after death mission they are preparing for. All other animals including humans are just puppets in the exercise. Christians would be hilariously funny if they weren’t so destructive.

  7. I think it’s a third option: theologians talk of God in a way that’s enigmatic and mysterious, but believe in the same anthropomorphic deity that every other believer does.

    1. There’s also a fourth option: theologians believe in a God that’s enigmatic and mysterious AND they believe in the same anthropomorphic deity that every other believer does.

      But how? How can they believe two completely opposing things at the same time?

      Theologians believe belief is enigmatic and mysterious. Believing in opposites? There’s a miracle in that. Faith itself is a miracle.

      And then they’ll make an inappropriate and sloppy analogy to something ambiguous which looks like it’s a contradiction if you don’t think too hard about it and go “see…?” like they’ve proven they’re not doing anything unusual, anyway.

      Doublethink masquerading as Deep Insight.

      1. Yeah, that is probably likely too. I do remember hearing something similar from a theologian – that while God is this infinitely mysterious and enigmatic ineffable transcendental grounding of being, it’s both a convenience and somewhat accurate to explain God in terms of the personal theism that we’re used to.

        It does come down to a matter of faith – which is the standard atheist objection to a belief in God – but it doesn’t stop the absurdity of looking at it as an outsider. It’s not only nonsense, it’s unintelligible nonsense!

      2. A similar phenomenon is known as the “tragedy of the theologian“. From John Loftus’s blog:

        Some work done by Justin Barrett is interesting in this respect. Barrett designed some experiments intended to distinguish between what people claimed to believe about God and how they actually thought about God when reasoning about religious matters. It turns out that while people may claim to believe, for example, that God was omnipotent and omnipresent, in practice they assume that he can assist only one person at a time. This leads to what Boyer calls “the tragedy of the theologian”: whatever sophisticated notions theologians may develop about God, in practice people keep thinking about God in the same old, anthropomorphic way.

        It seems that many theologians aren’t immune to this either.

  8. For some believers it is both things at a time, depending on whom they’re speaking with. If they’re speaking with an atheist, God is an ineffable Force at which you arrive only by examining things like the regularity of the creative love of the cosmos and the objective truth of moral reality; then, the christian turns around towards his parishioners and tells them to open their psalms book at page 23897 and pray for Baby Jesus.

    Related cartoon.

    1. It can also vary according to which “part” of themselves they’re dealing with at the time. Feeling skeptical? Ineffable force. Feeling vulnerable? Daddy, I love you, please help me.

  9. In a relationship with a being who has deep relationships with millions of other people at exactly the same time? (He’s omnipresent you know)

    Not very special and rather icky.

  10. I would dearly love to see an interview with a player from a team that just lost the big game saying, “I just wanna say, “F*&k Jesus! We prayed our asses off and he totally screwed us over. Our opponents are a bunch of godless heathens and Jesus didn’t give a shit. What an asshole.”

    1. Or, as I read somewhere not too long ago, “No one ever points to the sky after hitting into a double play or striking out.”

      1. You’d think, for consistency’s sake, before heading back to the dugout, they’d at least give The Devil The Finger.

      2. Many do actually. The tennis player Novak Djokovic, eg, regularly casts a glance upwards, palms outstretched, when someone gets, say, a lucky net-cord against him.

    2. You’re not a football fan, are you? After he dropped the game-winning touchdown pass two years ago, Steve Johnson of the Buffalo Bills tweeted as follows:


      I think the “Thx tho” was a quote from one of the Psalms.

  11. For all of his faults, I think Wittgenstein simply slays all of theology with this:

    “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

    1. Probably best read him again. Wittgenstein being, for what it’s worth, a deeply religious person, albeit in a fairly idiosyncratic manner.

  12. @clubschadenfreude: “It’s also a great window into the minds of people who think that god approves of all they do and agrees with all of their hatreds and desires.”

    Perzackly. Do you ever meet a believer who says, “Damn, god wants me to do/say/believe/vote other than how I want to. I’d better change”? I’m not saying it *never* happens, but anyone who has been in an evangelical/fundamentalist church for awhile knows that it certainly isn’t very common. This lines up perfectly with the old saw that “the bible is full of good things that other people should do,” as seen in the religious right’s focus on things they personally don’t do (here one might want to contrast how often Jebus spoke against homosexuality vs. how often he spoke about the danger of riches).

    @Ceiling Cat: “Tebow 1, Kierkegaard 0.” While I understand the sentiment, I’d only score it like that if said personal god actually existed. Since these people are putatively having a personal relationship with a non-existent being, which strikes me as some kind of neurosis, I’d score it as “Tebow -1, Kierkegaard 0.”

    @corio37: “Julian Baggini wrote a whole series of articles about this, finishing with the astounding (to him) conclusion that yes, Christians REALLY DO believe all this crap.”

    But, that is the whole point. I certainly believed it during my period of dementia. And didn’t Sam Harris point out that the reason why certain muslims flew planes into the WTC was precisely *because* they believed what their religion teaches, and that that is a much more parsimonious explanation than the ones the media was trying to come up with for why people practicing a peaceful religion would do such a thing? As was remarked by several others above, this is scary.

  13. “one branch Luhrmann studied is right here in Hyde Park, Chicago”

    Jerry, given your recent post in opposition to zoos I’m surprised you condone this sort of captive study. Anyone would think they were animals.

    1. Ah, these were in their natural habitat.
      At least this study did not require the taking of DNA samples in the same manner as Japanese whale “research”.

    1. I’m so hoping that “egnored” isn’t just a typo, but a divinely intense form of being ignored, or at least being left alone — because that would be something, finally, worth praying for.

  14. The thing that struck me was this sentence,”He knows, he hears, he feels and he speaks.”

    I wonder in what sense they think “he feels.” Obviously, they haven’t given it much thought. Certainly, a deity, supernatural being, or omnipresent force would have no use for typical senses such as sight, touch, or taste. The other interpretation is that this deity feels emotion? That would be truly scary. Of course it would explain a lot of the scriptures that describe the anger, jealousy, revenge, etc.

    I’m thinking, “That’s great, they worship a god that would benefit from Lithium.”

    1. You’ve finally hit on the explanation for why descriptions of The Hereafter sound so much like a Lithium trance.

      Maybe they keep a dosed salt lick in the middle of the joint so all the saints and all the angels and all the dieties can just help themselves whenever they start contemplating the implications of spending Eternity there together.

    2. “He knows, he hears, he feels, he speaks … ”

      … he palpates your prostate?

      Criminy! How’s a guy supposed to get any privacy?

      1. At Landover Baptist’s web site you can get “Jesus is watching you masturbate” and “Jesus is watching you fornicate” bumper stickers. The implications of omniscience are, shall we say, not fully realized by believers.

  15. “That God is a person, yet one without a body, seems the most elementary claim of theism. It is by being told this or something that entails this (e.g. that God always listens to and sometimes grants us our prayers, he has plans for us, he forgives our sins, but he does not have a body) that young children are introduced to the concept of God.”

    (Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. p. 101)

    1. “God is that being than which nothing more inconceivable can be conceived.”

      I dearly hope you meant that to be sarcastic.

  16. I can feel their loneliness Quote “It’s really important to understand that God is not an impersonal force. Even though He is invisible, God is personal and He has all the characteristics of a person. He knows, he hears, he feels and he speaks.” The imaginary friend is very common in children and it is supposedly helpful in the learning of language. But meeting Jesus in the park? Going out on an imaginary date? How sad.

  17. How could a bodiless person without any sense organs perceive anything?
    Knowledge is a dispositional mental state. But where and how could a bodiless person store any knowledge or memories when it lacks any such thing as a neural hardware?

    “Much of the difficulty with talk of God likewise derives from our insistence in making him in our likeness, and so attributing to him a mind, and even a personality—everything except the body needed to give it all sense.”

    (Rundle, Bede. Why there is Something rather than Nothing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. pp. 12-3)

    1. Knowledge is ultimately memory. That is the great problem in every avenue, with theology. Memory, until the 19th Century, was the province of metaphysics, and “science, do not come near…this is strictly soul and religion.”

      So, if there is some deity, how are its memories first generated, then stored? Model please!

  18. If anyone wants to read more about the Vinyarders and Luhrmann’s book, here is a good by Joan Acocella that came out earlier this year.

Leave a Reply