I believe it was H. L. Mencken who used the term “vertebrate without substance” to describe the beliefs of Christians about God; the term, of course, was meant to mock the superstitions for what they are, shorn of numinous language. Mencken was a true strident atheist, as good with mockery as was his successor Hitchens.
But my point is that this is, in fact, how many Christians (and add to that Jews and Muslims) think of their god: as a person without a body. And that person has humanlike thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
This was brought home to me today when I went shopping, as is my wont on Saturday mornings. There was no good rock music on (they don’t produce it any longer), so I decided to listen to Christian radio in the car, which I did for about an hour. I listened to two stations, and both of them constantly promoted the idea of God as a gaseous vertebrate—just like us, but more powerful.
One show, for children, was about a girl who wanted to become a personal trainer, but had shown little talent for the job, and was frustrated because she didn’t know what to do with her life. “I want to be somebody,” she wailed. Her father, who tried to soothe her, had his own problem: he was overweight and was on a diet. Eventually he told her that God would show her the way, but it would take a while, just like the long while he’d have to wait to shed his extra pounds. Then a voice-over came on and gave the lesson: God has plans for all of us, and listens to our needs, but he will effect his plans for us in his own time. We must wait. But we should be reassured that he knows what is good for us, loves us, and will, in time, show us the way.
This God, of course, was humanoid: the emotions he evinced were love, understanding, empathy, and the desire to interfere in our lives so we could be fulfilled. And, of course, he was touted as actually listening to prayer, for the child was told to consider her options “prayerfully”.
Those gaseous theologians like David Bentley Hart and Karen Armstrong, of course, decry the concept of such a humanlike God. That’s not the real God, says Hart, and those atheists who argue against it are wasting their time. The real god is ineffable (though somehow Hart knows that He/She/Hir/It loves us); it is a Ground of Being.
What I want to know is this. If Hart and his ilk think that 99% of Christians have the wrong concept of God, why aren’t they trying to correct it? Why are they writing books aimed at fellow scholars instead of, say, the average Christian, or the average Christian child? Why are they wasting time bashing atheists instead of telling their coreligionists—or all religionists—the truth about God? It would seem to me far more important for them to do that rather than argue with atheists that we’re Getting it Rong.
The reason, of course, is that theologians don’t really care what the average person believes, for their palaver is aimed at other theologians. As Dan Barker told me, “Theology is a subject without an object. The only thing theologians study is other theologians.”
And that’s the truth. Perhaps if someone like Hart got out more, and if he really cared about how religion is perceived by people, he wouldn’t be aiming his tortuous and torturous verbiage at atheists and other religious scholars. He’d be writing popular books telling everyone that he’s right and they’re wrong about God.
Finally, when I tried to find the name of the radio station and the show (without luck), I did find this on the website of a local Christian station, Shine FM. Presumably Hart would tell us that this isn’t the real Heaven!