How big is your god?

When an agnostic says “I am not sure if there is a god”, she means something very different from a Christian who says “God told me to sell my house and prepare for the apocalypse.” The Christian’s god is much bigger than the agnostic’s god — they mean very different things when they use the same word. Thus, before discussing “God” or “god”, it is important to see how many concepts, feelings and commitments are tucked into the person’s word, “god”.

I have made these diagrams to illustrate how god gets expanded as more and more concepts are captured within its borders.  The diagram above lists the main individual qualities that get packed into each expanding god.  I brainstormed a few qualities to illustrate the principle — please offer your thoughts.

The diagram to the right is a summary which labels the type of believers associated with each larger god.  What terms would you use?  Again, I am just trying to illustrate principles.

Any particular believer will, of course, not have all these qualities in their god.  And each believer will weigh the importance of each of these god-types differently.  That is why we must ask each believer for a picture of the god they have constructed in their head.

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28 Comments

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28 responses to “How big is your god?

  1. What a great way to visualize it! Great points, too, on the difference between the Christian’s God and the Agnostic’s God.

    As I look at your diagram, I have a tendency to want to swap the tribalists and mystics on the grounds that mystics seem more individualized, but the tribalists are united, which seems “bigger.”

    #14, hope for the afterlife, I also feel inclined to lump up with the Judge category. But that also gets tricky, because some faiths may suggest God judges here-and-now, in this life, while others defer to the ultimate judgement, and still others offer some blend of both camps.

  2. Wise Fool
    Thank you. And indeed, I had contemplated both those changes during my design but somehow I let them go. So I made the changes — see what you think. Thanx for the suggestions.
    It is fun designing such things — it evolved over a week as I tried again and again to capture what I felt as a thought-before-a-thought. (see my post on “Meta-Thought“).

  3. PS: I plan to use this post to make a simple philosophical point in a while. Pictures make things so much more easy — but getting the pic is tough.

  4. Jen

    I want to reverse your entire order here. So concretely defining god as judge pins “him” down to a narrow definition, thereby making that god smaller. An abstraction, however, seems limitless. Perhaps not a helpful reversal in terms of your intended discussion, but that’s how it sits in my mind. Not that size matters, mind you.

  5. Mike

    I agree with Jen. What about God as ‘what is’ – there’s nothing bigger than that. The personal God who gets in a stew over your dietary habits or your sexual preferences seems so very small to me. The theistic deity has always struck me as a way to cut reality down to the size of a dwarfed imagination.

  6. Jen and Mike, I can definitely see your point. In fact, I was inclined to the same thoughts at first glance. After all, the unknown is so much bigger than any defined label. But as I considered what Sabio had written, I got the sense that this was really a model for how big God is in relation to our own lives. So it’s not that God, being a Judge, is suddenly narrowly defined, like say the Egyptian god Hor, who stands around operating the scale of judgement. Rather, each level of size represents an additional known attribute, and the size gets bigger based on the direct influence these attributes have on our own lives.

    God is the Judge, and the Miracle Worker, and every other attribute including the Unknown. Because what little we could say to know about God, would still be practically nothing compared to what could be known about Him.

    At least that was my take on it. :-)

  7. Nick

    @ Wise Fool

    That is quite helpful. When I first looked at this I thought the order should be reversed as well. The abstraction and mystic God have been relatively recent innovations in my understanding, and I feel like they were theological moves that added much depth. But I now see the point about relevance to life. I might share metaphysical tendencies with a panentheist, but I believe that God means more in my life than merely that. So I guess these concepts are big in different ways, and any single view is inadequate when not supplemented by others.

  8. @Jen & Mike

    I think there are a few things involved here:

    (1) Size Matters
    Though you joked, when creating images, one has to keep in mind that “small” and “bottom” have negative nuances. So atheists would probably be disinclined to like this model due to those irrational biases. Damn, is that ironic or what?

    (2) No Atheists Here
    Mystically inclined folks will we offended. But remember, us atheists really don’t care if our “god” fades to zero.
    So for any atheists out there, I suggest you conquer your biases and put up with a tiny god — after all, you are not suppose to believe in gods after all. :-)

    @ The Wise Fool

    Yes, each layer is another false attribute. So big is amplifying the deception — both of self and of others.
    So think of a “Big Fat Lie”
    See, “big” in that situation is bad.

    Thanx for explaining.

  9. @Nick

    The abstraction aspect is ancient — the most ancient. It is what humans probably felt before they had language and before they started inventing gods and spirits. Mystics and shamans came before large-scale religious specialists (priests and popes) too.

  10. Nick

    @Sabio

    Thanks for the information! I for one would take a mystic over the pope any day. Nonetheless, I find great irony in that both of us promote the abstraction at some level. You promote because you do not believe in God’s existence. My promotion of the abstraction started after reading Tillich. He stated that God cannot be fit into the existence-essence dichotomy, or the subject-object dichotomy. Essentially I realized that theism was too small to capture God (I already determined that naturalism was too small). So I adopted the language of abstraction because I thought it the only proper language to allow God to be big enough (positive bigness). Anyway, the irony amused me.

  11. @ Nick
    Whether god is big or small, I agree that as the characteristics in my diagram are peeled off, what remains becomes much more attractive and offers greater potential as it returns to the fresh mind that made it. In that way, as Jen and Mike state, bigger is better.

  12. You’ve just made a great case for ignosticism. Not all people mean the same thing by the word “god”, so it’s useful to lay out definitions.

  13. @ Ahab :
    Thanx for the thought. I looked up “Ignosticism” on wiki and see that it says:

    The view that a coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of god can be meaningfully discussed.

    Christians (and other theists) believe they have a coherent definition of God. I think it is incoherent, but only by laying out the particulars, can a non-confused conversation begin. Usually conversations jump between the The Mover, The Miracle Worker, The Judge, The Presence and never work on settling the coherence of individual qualities — instead, by jumping around one can distract from recognizing the inconsistencies.
    Hopefully the diagram is accurate enough that even a believer could agree to it in a qualified way.

    So, I don’t see how I made a “great case for ignosticism”? For to do so would entail showing each of the qualities (or level) to be incoherent. No? I am not really familiar with the word.

  14. Sabio — I just meant that your post was good at pointing out the many different concepts of God that people have.

  15. Our God is so big that He does not require an inerrant Bible. He does not require a Pope. Nor a decision to be made for Him. Nor any seriousness on our part to obey Him. He is so big that He chooses to save whom He will save, apart from anything that we do, say, feel, or think. Now that is a real, big, God.

  16. @ Ahab
    Ah. I was exploring the word “ignosticism” with you. I had not heard of it.

    @ Steve Martin
    Christians are welcome here, but my comment policies demand interaction with the post and not just pure proselytizing. Your comment does not address anything substantial in the post.

  17. I think you could make another chart based on how abstractly people conceive of their deity. That is, a chart progressing from a god conceived of possessing many concrete qualities to a god conceived of possessing no concrete qualities.

  18. I forgot to add: I think a chart based on how abstractly people conceive of their deity would be much like yours, but not identical.

  19. Sabio,

    I thought it addressed the title of the post.

  20. @ Sabio

    I like this post. I,too, would like to like to actually get more from the theist’s viewpoints to answer the title of the post and to justify their answer without bloviating about their deity being too big to define and pigeonhole.

  21. @ Paul Sunstone :

    Sorry, I don’t follow your comments.
    My chart *does* progress from a god with lots of concrete qualities (big) to no concrete qualities (small).

    Let me know what I am missing — cause I’d love to draw another diagram. I am already scheming how to please those who hate having a small mystical god.

    @ Steve Martin :

    Yeah, read the post or don’t comment. I don’t need folks reacting to just a title — duh! And then we certainly don’t need to hear their sermons on top of that.

    @ zqtx :

    Thanks. I hope my upcoming post helps illustrates another use of the diagram.

  22. Sabio, I got interrupted a couple times while commenting this morning, so I’m afraid things came out half-formed. One thing I might suggest — and it’s only a suggestion — is that you place mysticism at either end of the chart. I think a case can be made for either end, so I am uncertain which would be best.

    Here’s my thinking. Mysticism involves the immediate (read “non-conceptual) experience of “deity”. That is, deity is not a concept but an experience to the mystic. It only becomes a concept to the mystic after the mystical experience is over.

    Now, according to W.T. Stace, there are two forms of mysticism. First, there are the mystics that experience the One. The One is so abstract that nothing else exists besides the One. Think, for instance, of the Jains.

    Second, some mystics experience a sense of Oneness. In their case, everything within their field of perception appears to them as part of a One. But they still perceive the trees, birds, and dog poop that is in within their field of perception.

    So, the first kind of mystical experience is about as abstract as you get, while the second kind of mystical experience is about as concrete as you get.

    If Stace is right, and there are two kinds of mystical experience, then you might need two circles in your diagram to represent each. But that’s your call, and not for me to make.

    The last thing I’d like to mention is a pet notion of mine that, to many mystics, “God” is little more than a convenient term — a sort of variable, like x in mathematics. They use it more out of tradition than anything else to designate something they have no other terms in their culture for. But that’s just a pet notion of mine.

  23. Sabio – Once again a wonderfully thought-provoking illustration. At first blush I, too, thought you had the size progression backwards. But you’ve just depicted it from a fresh perspective (to me).

  24. To Readers:
    I did a post today which I hope makes clear my choices of “size” and “direction” in my design, no matter how painfully counter intuitive they have been for some of you. Thanks for looking.

    @ Paul Sunstone :
    There are several different mental experience that people label “mystic”. You are right, it is important to separate them. I think there are far more than two. Either way, I am trying to keep the diagram simple for the purpose of the post I put up today. But I essentially agree with your points — thank you.

    @ Andrew : Thank you. Hope you like the follow-up post. It is nothing new, of course, but I think the illustration is a contribution to the argument.

  25. I don’t agree with the correlation of the numbers with the size of the circle. A clearly defined god who tells people what to do is a small god IMHO. A god that is the ground of being and in and through everything would seem to be a much bigger god than a tribal-fetish god.

    It does not seem to correlate with your statement of “I have made these diagrams to illustrate how god gets expanded as more and more concepts are captured within its borders. ” It seems as though a mystery god would be a broader and more expansive concept than the judge concept which is defined simply by the name: judge.

    If I were making the visual, I would reverse the circles and numbers with #1 being the biggest circle and then narrowing down to 21.

    Unless I am missing something…?

  26. @ Luke
    Others had your complaint too Luke. Even James McGrath misunderstood. But I put a post up after this explaining why I used this model. Take a look at the next post about “Arguing for a Tiny God”.

    Everyone wants their god to be big, that is why people reacted to this post. But even James McGrath agreed that he understood my point when I put up the next diagram. See if it helps you too. His post is Big God, Little God.

  27. So your claim is that no matter what, the god attempting to be defined is always, at it’s core, tiny.

  28. @ Luke
    Please go over to the other post to discuss this. I am not sure I understand your comment. I think you are misunderstanding me — but I am not sure. If you have time, read the next post carefully and comment there.

    Your statement above is false — it is not what I am saying, nor what I am not saying. “Size” is not an important point in this post. The word “size” is stopping a clear reading. Please read the next post carefully. Thank you.

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