God is Reality Personified, Not a Person

Rudolf Bultmann

God is not a person; God is a mythic personification of reality. If we miss this we miss everything. 

Birth, life, death, the cycles and rhythms of Nature, the elemental forces of the Universe—these are undeniably real.  Like it or not, we humans have always been in an inescapable relationship with a Reality that we could neither fully predict nor control.  And given the nature of our brains, there's one thing that people in every culture and throughout history have instinctually done: we've used metaphors and analogies to understand and relate to that which is unavoidably, undeniably real and/or mysterious.  We can't not do this.  Consciously or unconsciously, we will always interpret via metaphors. 

ALL images and concepts of God are more or less meaningful interpretations and personifications.  And it didn't take a genius to figure out that if you trust, or have faith, in what is ultimately inescapable, your life works better than if you judge or resist what is real.  This is not theological rocket science. 

Religion Is About Rght Relationship to Reality, Not the Supernatural

All religions offer maps of what's real and what's important. So contends philosopher-of-religion Loyal Rue in his 2006 book, Religion Is Not About God (Youtube clip here). Religions offer practices, too, that help adherents live in right relationship with each other, their society, and with reality as a whole—regardless of how that "reality" is mythically personified.

Darwin didn't kill God. To the contrary, he and Alfred Russel Wallace offered the first glimpse of the real Creator behind and beyond the world's myriad mythic portrayals of reality.

Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Robert Bellah, Pascal Boyer, Michael Shermer, and other scholars of comparative religion and/or evolutionary psychology and neurobiology remind us that we cannot understand religion and religious differences if we don't understand how the human mind instinctually relationalizes, or personifies, reality. (Shermer refers to this deep-seated tendency as "agenticity".) Think of the movie "Castaway" with Tom Hanks. The personified volleyball, Wilson, was the only thing that kept Hank's character sane (sort of).

Evidence from a wide range of disciplines, from cognitive neuroscience to anthropology to cross-cultural studies of the world's myths and religions, all support the claim that God is (and always has been) an interpretation, a personification. Furthermore, there is no counter-evidence supporting the claim that God is a person! This fact alone makes sense of the hundreds of competing stories around the world as to what God supposedly said or did.

"God" is a mythic personification of reality, not an invisible friend or otherworldly entity. Indeed, any so-called God that is imagined as less than this is hardly worthy of our devotion and deserves to be mocked, as the New Atheists so readily do. As I regularly remind audiences...

Poseidon was not the god of the oceans, as if some supernatural entity separate from water was looking down from on high or rising from the deep. Poseidon was the personification of the incomprehensibly powerful and capricious seas! The same, of course, is true of Neptune.

Sol was not the spirit of the Sun, as if there were a separation between the two. Sol was a proper, reverential name for that seemingly eternal, life-giving source of heat and light, and occasionally a life-taking source in times of desperate drought. By saying "Sol," "Helios" or some other proper name, our ancestors experienced that reality as a "Thou" to be related to.

Whenever any story or any scriptural passage claims that "God said this" or "God did that", what follows is always an interpretation—specifically, an interpretation of what some person (or group of people) thought or felt or sensed or wished reality (life / the universe) was "saying" or "doing," and almost always as justification after the fact or to make a theological point. Such subjectively meaningful claims are never objective, measurable truth.

In other words, had CNN or ABC News been there to record the moment of "divine revelation" there would have been nothing out of the ordinary or miraculous to report on the evening news—nothing other than what was coming out of someone's mouth, or pen, or whatever folks wrote with back then. If we fail to grasp this, not only will we trivialize the very notion of the divine but, more tragically still, we will miss what reality is "saying and doing" today. As I say in the preface of Thank God for Evolution

How was the world made? Why do earthquakes, tornados, and other bad things happen? Why must we die? And why do different peoples answer these questions in different ways? The big questions that children have always asked and will continue to ask cannot be answered by the powers of human perception alone. Ancient cultures gave so-called supernatural answers to these questions, but those answers were not truly supernatural—they were prenatural. Prior to advances in technology and scientific ways of testing truth claims, factual answers were simply unavailable. It was not just difficult to understand infection before microscopes brought bacteria into focus; it was impossible. Without an evolutionary worldview, it is similarly impossible to understand ourselves, our world, and what is required for humanity to survive. 

Supernatural Is Unnatural Is Uninspiring

Everything shifts when we move from a worldview given by tradition and authority to one based on facts and empirical evidence. For example, evidence suggests that the only place that the so-called supernatural realm has ever existed has been in the minds and hearts (and speech) of human beings—and only quite recently. As Benson Saler showed in his 1977 American Anthropological Association's Ethos paper, "Supernatural as a Western Category," the very notion of supernatural—in opposition to the natural—is a Western invention. 

The "supernatural realm" only came into being as a thought form after we began to understand things in a natural, scientific way. Only when the concept of "the natural" emerged was it deemed necessary by some to speak of "the supernatural": that which was imagined to be above or outside of nature.

As we have collectively learned ever more about the natural, the supernatural has become ever less. After all, supernatural and unnatural are synonyms. Anything supposedly supernatural is, by definition, unnatural. And most people find unnatural relatively uninspiring when they really stop and think about it.

It should not surprise us that young people en masse are turning their backs on religion and that the New Atheists are riding bestseller lists when "the gospel", God's supposed Great News for all of humanity, is reduced to this...

An unnatural king who occasionally engages in unnatural acts sends his unnatural son to Earth in an unnatural way. He's born an un- natural birth, lives an unnatural life, performs unnatural deeds, and is killed and unnaturally rises from the dead in order to redeem humanity from an unnatural curse brought about by an unnaturally talking snake. After 40 days of unnatural appearances he unnaturally zooms off to heaven to return to his unnatural father, sit on an unnatural throne, and unnaturally judge the living and the dead. If you profess to believe in all this unnatural activity, you and your fellow believers get to spend an unnaturally long time in an unnaturally boring paradise while everyone else suffers an unnatural, torturous hell forever.

Rudolf Bultmann: What Does the Word 'God' Point To? 

Rudolf Bultmann, arguably the most influential theologian of the 20th century, wrote an important essay in 1931 titled, "The Crisis of Faith" In it, he tries to move discussion of God in a modern context beyond beliefs to universal experience. (I first learned of Bultmann's essay reading Gene Marshall's, A Primer on Radical Christianity, chapter 4: "What Reality in Human Experience Do We Point to With the Word ‘God'?", which I highly recommend.)

We are all concerned with what it takes to be safe and secure. We naturally and inevitably partake in activities designed to provide the essentials of living: food, water, warmth, enjoyment, and so forth. But just like the biblical story of the man who filled his barns with grain only to learn that he was going to die before he could use what he stored, we all experience unexpected misfortune. Plans go awry. Our efforts to be secure prove fruitless. The unexpected happens. Perhaps a spouse divorces us or we lose our job, a loved one dies, or our home is damaged by fire or flood. I experienced this myself last September when I was diagnosed with cancer and underwent treatment to shrink then remove a tumor attached to my spleen. I was quickly reminded of how insecure and fragile life is.

Being a frail, finite, mortal being dependent on other frail, finite, mortal beings and things means that I am always vulnerable to having my achievements and things that make me feel secure ripped away from me. If it were up to me, I'd be secure. My insecurity comes from something—some power, some force, some inescapable something—other than me. Whatever we may choose to call this reality, it's beyond belief or disbelief. It just is. We all know it through our experience. It is this inescapable reality that Bultmann calls "God".

Similarly, we all long for true and beautiful moments that we'd love to hang onto. We all know what it's like to wish for time to stand still, for the moment to stop, but of course this doesn't happen. If it were up to me it would, but I'm simply not able to stop time or make some temporal thing eternal. No matter how much I'd like the pleasure to continue, I can't even smell lilacs for more than 30 seconds and have my senses un-dulled. I can't make the clock stand still or a beautiful moment last. Time moves on. Whatever it is that controls the temporal and eternal is not me. Bultmann calls it "God".

Another example: because we are social animals almost all of us are driven by a desire for love and connection. If we cannot be forever secure and content, we can at least know true friendship and nourishing companionship. And of course, for most of us, most of the time, this is true. Many of us go long periods of our life rich in relationships. But as we all discover sooner or later, we must make our own big decisions. We must do our own living, and certainly must do our own dying. No matter how many friends and family we have, in a very important sense we are also alone. In the end, we are finally and unavoidably alone. As Bultmann says, "The power which drives us into that final solitude is what I am pointing to when I use the word ‘God'."

Similarly, we all know that our knowledge is limited. After years of learning skills and acquiring knowledge we often find ourselves back at the starting gate, a beginner once more. In the words of Gene Marshall,

The honest study of reality is somewhat like this story: I went on a long trip, and while I was gone my closest colleagues began doing entirely different things. When I came home they were using a new set of words. I did not know what they were talking about. They were doing new things that I did not know how to do. All my hard-won wisdoms of the past were irrelevant to what was now going on. Without consulting me, things change. Reality moves on ahead. I come off as someone who does not know what is going on anymore.

We also experience our limitations re our actions and accomplishments. Even the Egyptian pyramids will eventually wear away to nothing—rather quickly on a geological time scale! The power that sets a limit to knowing and doing is what Bultmann means by "God".

Bultmann's last example relates to our desire for self-mastery. Again, no matter how we conceive what it is that we want to do, or what we think we should do, our conscience ends up pronouncing us guilty of wasted time and lost opportunity, impure thoughts and mean actions. Whatever kind of excellence and success we aim for, we realize, if we are honest with ourselves, that we fall short.

All the aforementioned ways of experiencing human limitations are, of course, unavoidable. Life itself makes us finite. I am not making myself finite. Some mysterious "more than me" is making me finite. This mysterious power, this undeniable reality, says Bultmann, is what cultures throughout history have meant by the word, "God".

It is God who makes us finite, who makes a comedy of our care, who allows our longing to miscarry, who casts us into solitude, who sets a limit to our knowing and doing, who calls us to responsibility, and who fills us with guilt when we fall short. But it is also God who allows us to experience the gift of life, who drives us to care; who fills our hearts with love and trust and gratitude, who gives us knowledge and the strength to work, and who blesses us with the seemingly never-ending dance between self-interest and responsibility to others.

Now Bultmann has focused our attention: we see an enigmatic power operative in our everyday lives, giving us our life and all good gifts yet also limiting us in nearly every conceivable way, and finally taking our lives away. This is real life! This is reality as it really is, whether or not we like it. There can be no argument whether or not this reality exists. If you don't want to call it a power, call it a force, an up-against-ness, or simply the universe as it really is. As Bultmann points out in his essay, we are not talking about some metaphysical idea here. We are talking about an unavoidable actuality. Words may fail us, but we all know this reality intimately, personally.

Now that Bultmann has focused our attention on our common human experience, he asks,

"Why call this mysterious power ‘God'? Why give the enigma, the mystery that drives us this way and that and hedges us in, any other name but ‘the enigma', or ‘fate'? Or, if there must be a name, why not equally well ‘the devil'? Doesn't this power play a cruel game with us, destroying and annihilating? Is not unfulfillment the distinguishing mark of every life? Is not death and nothingness the end?"

These questions reveal that it matters how we name what is undeniable so, how we think about the inevitabilities of life, because our naming will influence how we will relate to our own finitude—indeed, to all aspects of our lives. If we call this enigmatic power or force, "the devil", we are thereby proclaiming reality to be fundamentally evil and untrustworthy. Such a stance toward life can only lead to despair. If reality is seen as evil, then we are estranged from reality. Yet because we are also inextricably bound to reality—we cannot escape it—we despair.

But despair is not the only option. Bultmann suggests that faith has nothing to do with beliefs; it's about trust. Trust that reality is okay just as it is. Reality is not too tough for me; I was made for reality! This trust gives meaning to our lives. For me to look into the awe-filling fullness of life and pronounce the name "God" means a commitment of my life to reality-based living. That's why I say, Reality is my God, evidence is my scripture, and integrity (living in right relationship with reality and helping others do the same) is my religion. Life as it really is, with all its warts and glory, this is the primary object of my trust, my loyalty, my love.

I foresee the concept of a "personal God" imaged as an unnatural being with the best and worst of human traits—now the hallmark of evangelical Christianity—being replaced by a reality-based view of God within a few generations. Despite how it appears in the Bible, ultimate Reality does not have the deranged personality and character flaws of a Bronze Age warlord. Indeed, evidence suggests that God has no character traits or personality at all, other than what we embody and/or project. God is a personification, not a person. This fundamental shift in the ‘root metaphor' of the Abrahamic traditions will, I predict, be seen historically as perhaps the greatest theological transformation in millennia. This shift, and what follows naturally from it, will also go a long way toward reconciling science and religion. It will do this not by accommodating science to religion, but by naturalizing, REALizing, religion. This shift leads to a serious upgrading of our map of reality. It opens the door to thinking about "God ways" and "God's guidance" via science rather than ancient texts. In the words of Frank Lloyd Wright, "I believe in God, only I spell it Nature."

Beyond theism, atheism, deism, pantheism, or even panentheism, this nested holarchical view, which celebrates evolutionary emergence and the fact Universe itself is creative, I refer to as "creatheism" in my book, Thank God for Evolution. However we may refer to it, I believe this evidence-based perspective can move us beyond old arguments and into a new world pregnant with fresh possibilities.

PLEASE DO READ: "What Reality in Human Experience Do We Point to with the Word, 'God'?", a pdf of a short essay by evolutionary theologian and bioregionalist, Gene Marshall. This chapter from one of Gene's books is foundational to an evolutionary understanding of the divine. (The pdf shows up sideways, so you'll need to open it with Adobe Reader and, under the "View" menu, rotate it clockwise. Otherwise you'll need to print it out. It's only 10 pages and well worth it!)