“You’re making God in your image.”
I find this accusation really interesting - well, actually I find it super frustrating when it is used to shut down conversation or belittle someone’s inquisitiveness.
A couple of observations about this charge: First, the atheist, secularist, naturalist thinks that everyone who believes in God has made God into their image, or at least humanity’s image. After all, in their view, any authoritative source you would use to anchor your “imaging” of God was the product of mere human imagination. Fair enough.
Second, theists who lob the attack “You’re making God in your image” imply that there is some standard, authoritative conception of God that evades the tarnishing effect human categories and thinking might have. Perhaps they’d point to the “whole counsel of Scripture” as a reference point by which any deviation would constitute the sin of making God in my own image.
There’s not much in the way of showing the first group that they are wrong - unless you are prepared to make an argument that some authoritative source, let's use the Bible as our example, came about miraculously and that any rational thinker would be unable to conjure a natural explanation of its development. This is a tall order, particularly as even conservative biblical scholarship routinely discovers new ways that the Bible is very much an Ancient Near Eastern text and bears the familiar and expected markings of that era.
Now to the second group. You’d think for how common this allegation is that there would be a really clear passage of Scripture to support it. The closest thing I’ve found from a bevy of articles from prominent Christian resources are (1) the Genesis 1:26 statement from God to “make man in our image” which has been flipped around for rhetorical effect and (2) the second of the 10 Commandments regarding the prohibition of idolatry, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”
Neither of these are extremely helpful or action guiding when it comes to constructing a concept of God. But that’s not my chief complaint about the accusation -
You can’t help but make God in your image.
Let’s do a quick history review - about you! At one point, you did not have a concept of God; a mental, linguistic, emotional constellation of ideas and feelings that may come to your mind upon considering the word “God.” But, then at some point, you did. Very likely someone told you about God and thus began your journey of God-concept-construction.
This probably started out as a very basic representation, and over time as you were exposed to more input from authority figures, books, life experiences, your own maturity, and a host of other things, you began either explicitly or implicitly adding threads to the tapestry that is your conception of God.
Now, think of all the ways that your conception of God might differ from someone else’s. Does your concept of God contain “deliverer of Israel from Egyptian slavery”? What about “deliverer of Muslims from the hands of Christian Crusaders”? Does your concept include a gender for God? How do you feel when you hear the prophet Isaiah speak about God, “he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked”? What parts of your history do you think God views favorably? Is God omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenelovent - what do those words even mean? Does God have other important properties and which ones? Do you personally favor certain passages of Scripture in your conception of God, which ones come to mind more frequently? We could go on and on and on.
There are an incredible number of nooks and crannies in our concepts of God that we pack with highly contextualized, culture-influenced, personal data.
“Fine, but your conception of God should ultimately answer to the authority of Scripture and what it says God is like.”
I’m happy to see what Scripture says about God. Truly. The trouble with this approach is that it comes with the assumption that the Bible is the sort of the thing that will present a completely consistent message of what God is like throughout all of its pages, and that no experiences, even purported ones from the Holy Spirit, will ever indicate something different from what Scripture says.
But why think these things? Aren’t these ideas ultimately based on a facet of a conception of God, namely “inspirer of people who wrote scriptures”?
See, appealing to the Bible, when asking people not to make God in their image, faces a circularity problem. Either the authoritativeness of the Bible is derived from one’s conception of God as inspirer or we should build our concept of God as inspirer to begin with from the Bible. You can’t have it both ways.
This isn’t to deny biblical authoritativeness - although it is worth thinking about what we mean by that. It is to deny that “you are making God in your image” is helpful to someone sorting through their theology. Instead, the advice should be something like,
1. Be attuned to what God might be doing in your life.
2. Follow the prompting of God to build the kingdom of God.
3. Test that prompting against a counsel of witnesses, such as life experience, wise voices, stories of the faith community from Scripture, etc…
So, let us go out there and build our conception of God, revising, replacing, evolving, and getting our concept closer and closer to reality. Paul said it best, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
For our full conversation on whether God cares about your beliefs and what properties are important for constructing a concept of God, you can watch on YouTube, or listen on your favorite podcatcher.
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