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Everything we need to know about God

I was a conservative, Bible-believing Christian until I was in my early forties, and as a believer, the one thing I wanted more than anything else was to understand God. Ironically, it’s only now, after a decade and a half as an atheist, that I’ve finally reached an understanding that truly does explain everything that seems odd or mysterious about God.

It’s not that I’ve discovered anything that’s really all that new. I’ve just found a way of framing what I know that immediately expresses exactly what we need to know about God in a way that’s both obvious and unavoidable. And here it is: God is a character in a story you tell yourself. You can tell yourself the story any way you like, and you can make God do and say and think whatever you want within the story. But it’s a story, and God is a character in the story, and He cannot do anything outside of that story. The limits of storytelling are the limits of what God can do.

The trick is that you can take elements of the real world and incorporate them into your story, and then God can interact with them inside the confines of the story. That’s why you can, for example, take the known universe and make it part of your story and then have God be the creator of your story’s universe. It’s your story, and you can tell it however you like. If you want to take something like rock strata, and bring them into your story, and make them all into layers of sediments that God deposited during the Great Flood, you can do that. It’s your story.

Likewise, if something happens in real life, and you want to make God be the cause, you can incorporate those events into your story, and then make them God’s wrath or God’s blessing or God’s merciful providence, however you like. If you’ve been in a disaster, and people have died, but you survived, you can incorporate your survival into your story, and make it a story of how God intervened to miraculously save you. And here’s the trick: you don’t have to incorporate the people who died at all. You can just leave them out. Your story does not need to make God be the kind of person who would deliberately choose to cause the deaths of innocent people. It’s your story, and you can tell it however you like.

But it’s still just a story. If you’re preaching a sermon about God to an auditorium full of people, and you accidentally drop your Bible, God can’t pick it up and hand it back to you. He’s just a character in a story. You could tell yourself a story in which you dropped your Bible and God did hand it back to you, but that would only happen in the story, not in real life. The limits of the story are the limits of God.

This is why every miraculous proof of God only happens in stories. Everything there is to know about God comes to us from stories. It may be the ad hoc kind of invention we make up on the spur of the moment, like when we see a beautiful sunset and spontaneously tell ourselves a story about how God creates beauty, or when we recover from disease or injury and tell ourselves a story about God healing us. It may be beautiful and inspiring, but it’s still a story (and a superstitious story at that). And stories like that are our sole source of information about God. He is a character in the stories we tell ourselves, and He is limited to interacting with the things that are in our stories because we put them there.

The thing about stories is that they don’t have to be true. They can have holes and inaccuracies and self-contradictions, and nobody cares as long as they like the story. That’s why you can take a universe full of visible stars billions of light years away, and make it part of a story in which God created them only 6,000 years ago. In real life, a 6,000 year old universe would limit us to seeing only stars up to 6,000 light years away, but who cares? It’s just a story.

That’s why you can tell yourself a story in which your source of moral authority is a Trinity consisting of an unmarried Father, an illegitimate Son, and a Spirit who got someone else’s fiancée pregnant—in other words, three males, who together form an eternal same-sex union who is a God who became incarnate by getting His own mother pregnant. And in your story, you can use this moral authority to condemn homosexuality and promiscuity and whatever else you feel like condemning, because you are the one telling the story, and God has to do whatever you want. Truth and self-consistency are subordinate to your narrative objectives.

But the one thing God cannot do is to exceed the boundaries of your storytelling. If there’s something you can’t put into your story because you don’t know it or don’t understand it, then God can’t touch it. That’s why God can’t create evolution. Creationists don’t understand it well enough to incorporate it into their stories, so God can’t understand it either. In creationist stories, God can’t figure out how to make mutations produce beneficial characteristics, because that knowledge is not available to Him. Creationists don’t understand it well enough to incorporate it into their stories, and therefore it’s out of God’s reach as well.

Likewise, if you grow up in a culture where slaves and concubines and war are pretty much taken for granted, you’re going to tell stories in which God sees no problems with such things either. God can’t condemn such practices as selling your own daughter to another man for sex (Exodus 21:7-11) unless you, as the storyteller, incorporate your own moral objections against it. You may want to tell a story in which God is the most morally-excellent Person in existence, but as story-teller, you determine what moral standards He has to measure up to, and you can’t give Him better morals than you know yourself.

Even if two believers try to cooperate in telling the same story at the same time, each story will be isolated and unique. Believer A can tell herself a story in which God is the same God as in Believer B’s story, but they’re not the same God. If you put Believer A in one room, and Believer B in another, God cannot carry messages from one to the other. You can show Believer B a sentence on a note card, and Believer B can tell himself a story in which God carries that message to Believer A, but Believer A cannot tell herself a story in which God receives that message and reveals it to her. The God in her story only has access to the things she puts into the story herself, and she does not know what the message is. God can’t do it for her because the God in her story is not the same as the God in Believer B’s story. No matter how similar they may appear, the two Gods are as isolated from each other as Believer A and Believer B. Each is only a unique, individual character in a story each believer is telling themselves.

Of course, the believers can always tell themselves stories in which God has some plausible reason for being unwilling or unable to behave like an independent, objectively-real Person. You can make your story sound as plausible as you like. You can pick whatever reasons you like, and even change your reasons on the fly as needed to fit the topic of the moment. It’s your story, and you can make it be whatever you like, and spontaneously change it however you like, whenever you like, regardless of any gaps, inaccuracies, or contradictions.

But the one thing you can’t do is to enable God to transcend the boundaries of your story. The story’s limits are God’s limits, and He can’t go beyond them, even to communicate with another instance of Himself in some other believer’s story.

So really, everything you need to know about God can be summed up in one sentence: God is a character in a story you tell yourself. Those ten words sum up exactly what God can and cannot do, and what you can and cannot do with respect to God, and pretty much everything else that’s curious, perplexing, or frustrating about God.

Comments

  1. coragyps says

    That is brilliant, Deke! I think I knew most of that twenty minutes ago, but getting it into words was way beyond my abilities. And you got it spot-on right!

  2. B Cazz says

    In the beginning there was the Word.

    And people liked the Word.

    And people wrote about the Word they heard.

    Eventually, enough people wrote about the Word, and enough people liked the Word that they called it Religion.

    Today we’d call the Word fanfic, and Religion fandom.

  3. M can help you with that. says

    So religious wars are wars between different fandoms. Intra-religious wars (Catholic v. Protestant, Sunni v. Shia, etc.) are fights over preferred ships.

    Religion: the only set of fandoms where the fanwars actually kill millions of people.

  4. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    Well said.

    But don’t forget the best part: you can CHANGE the story at any time, and the new version is no less true than the previous one. I think you’ve just about summed up the common sentiment that “they’re ALL true.”

  5. Otto Tellick says

    What makes this insight especially intriguing to me is the way it unifies religious thinking with other common forms of imagination, like daydreaming and fantasizing. Whether we’ve flipped through a comic book, heard a folk tale, read a novel or history or biography, watched an episode of a TV drama, or just happened to think of someone we “know of” (closely or loosely, or merely by reputation or conjecture), when a character “captures our imagination,” we’ll be inclined to spin a story for ourselves where we get to interact with that character, and maybe we thereby get to accomplish something that we haven’t accomplished in real life (or maybe we just get some sort of satisfaction from the interplay).

    This seems like such a common and natural behavior, I wonder whether its absence in any individual might be regarded as an abnormality.

    Given the innateness and intrinsic pervasiveness of this behavior, it’s especially valuable to be able to clarify, as you have done here, Deacon, the sense in which this is the foundation for all descriptions of all deities.

  6. aziraphale says

    That’s really good. And the nice thing is, all the Sophisticated Theologians, who think it’s naive to ask whether God exists, and all the postmodernists who think truth is relative, ought to have no problem with this. They ought to be queuing up to support you.

    You think?

  7. thebookofdave says

    Or as I always like to describe to believers: “God is an invisible being who demonstrates his power by agreeing with everything you say.”

  8. Kevin Kehres says

    I like this…

    your source of moral authority is a Trinity consisting of an unmarried Father, an illegitimate Son, and a Spirit who got someone else’s fiancée pregnant—in other words, three males, who together form an eternal same-sex union who is a God who became incarnate by getting His own mother pregnant.

    I’ve had this same thought about god-as-story.

    My short version of explaining is — The difference between the bible and fairy stories is that one begins with “once upon a time” and the other begins with “In the beginning.”

  9. Tony Hoffman says

    You are a gifted thinker and writer, and this is one of your finest contributions.

    Thank you for taking the time, as always, to share your well-considered thoughts.

  10. quarky2 says

    Thanks for your very well written article. It’s miraculous how often god’s wishes so magically coincide with those of the believer.

    I too grew up in a conservative environment (Calvinist). Some of my questions never did receive good answers:

    Why did a perfect god who needs nothing create anything, and then why so defective?
    If heaven is the goal, why not just create that directly instead of the universe?
    If the Bible is so important, why didn’t Jesus write it (or just magically create it)?
    Is there free will in heaven? If so, there’s plenty of time for everyone to screw up.
    Why would a good god raise people from the dead just to torture them after the game is over and no one

  11. birgerjohansson says

    busterggi beat me to it :-)

    BTW stories are not true? You mean John Wayne and Ronald Reagan did not crush the Nazi defences on D-day? That’s downright unamerican!

  12. sawells says

    This also feeds into the agnostic/atheist question, I think. I don’t see any point in taking the “there might be a god, but I don’t know” stance, because it sounds to me like “there might be a Gandalf, but I don’t know”.

    Gods are fictional. Unpacking that a little: everything which gets referred to as a god is either (i) a completely fictional entity existing only in a story (Yahweh, Thor, Zeus etc.) or (ii) something else which could just as easily not be referred to as a god – Love, Beauty, a recently deceased emperor etc.

  13. peterwhite says

    I missed you while you took a hiatus from blogging. This was the first thing I read when I checked to see if you had returned. This is possibly the most brilliant insight into religion that I have ever seen. Thank you for all the brilliant, insightful writing you have produced.

  14. says

    I think this is brilliant and totally agree. Why the hell do you keep capitalizing pronouns used for God, though? It must be a habit left over from your Christian years.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      That plus I find it a handy way to disambiguate the pronoun’s antecedent. For me that’s useful enough to justify not bothering to change my habit.

  15. Collin Merenoff says

    This is absolute nonsense. If God exists, It created the entire universe. So you’ve just said that everybody is in a universe of their own. You’ve also just said that nothing exists except what can be comprehended by someone stupid enough to be a fundamentalist.

    I’m guessing this article is a belated April Fool joke.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      If God exists, It created the entire universe.

      What makes you say that? And what if God does not exist?

  16. pocoworee says

    This comes close to my idea, that “god” is a concept, a metaphor of sorts, to try and describe what is perceived as a “total consciousness” that must be out there… At some point, people must have sensed that the story of life is a story of expanding consciousness, and started to conceive of such a thing.
    The book “evolution of god” by R. Wright got me thinking about it this way.
    Once I was able to grasp this, I had a much easier time dealing with believers and their angsts. Now I let them quote their manuscripts and then nudge them towards a new allegorical take, which has a much better chance to make them think than if I just try to corner and destroy their superstitions.
    Curious to hear your thoughts on that !

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