Home » Barth » Is God Really Love? How an Orthodox Understanding of God can Set Us Free From a God of Self-Projection

Is God Really Love? How an Orthodox Understanding of God can Set Us Free From a God of Self-Projection

John writes of God:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.[1]

God is love. Growing up in, and still inhabiting, in many ways, the evangelical sub-culture in North America this pious idea of God is love is floated around almost ubiquitously. I remember years ago while attending a particularly large and popular evangelical church in Southern California, this well known pastor said “God will become whatever you need him to be.” I needed God to be all types of things for me back then; I needed emotional stability and spiritual foundation. But maybe you can already see where I am going with this, maybe you can see the theological problem associated with thinking of God under these constraints.

Is it really true that God is love? Yes. Is it true that God will become whatever we need him to be as the body of Christ? What happens if we couple the Johannine idea that God is love together with this idea that God will become whatever we need him to be? To help us answer these questions, and I want to keep this as un-technical as possible (so don’t be scared by this quote, keep moving on), I thought I would bring up 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. The following quote comes from a brief summary of Feuerbach’s critique of the Christian approach to God and this within the context of Karl Barth’s engagement with it. But the point I want to highlight by this quote is simply the critique that Feuerbach made of the Christian’s projection of a God-concept.

His primary avenue for accomplishing this goal lay in his assertion that “God” is nothing more than a projection of humanity’s essential ideals as distilled from embodied existence. God is, in Barth’s paraphrase, the “religious feeling’s mirrored self” (522). Feuerbach positions himself firmly against any thought system that introduces an unnecessary abstraction from the totality of sensory experience in which the only real distinction is the encounter between the objective I and the otherness of the Thou. “Truth, reality, the world of the senses, and humanity are identical concepts” (521) according to Feuerbach and, in the last analysis, “divinity” is just another item in the equivalency series. Thus, “the beginning, the middle, and the end of religion is Man” [#1] his own and his god’s alpha and omega.[2]

We don’t want to give Feuerbach too much shrift, but along with Barth I think we should actually appreciate Feuerbach’s critique of the pietistic conception of God; at least to an extent. I believe that his critique is apropos to what I was describing above; this concept of God that really is contingent upon what we need him to become for us. We end up constructing a God to meet our perceived needs, and thus projecting an uber-concept greater than ourselves who we believe is the living God who can meet all of my emotional and other needs in just the way I might think they need to be met; typically meaning that we will feel a certain way, or have an experience of God that we deem worthy of the God we worship.

What is prompting this post, really, was that I was listening to a local Christian music radio station, and they were interviewing the lead singer of one of the groups they play on their station. He was sharing some personal stuff he was dealing with in regard to doubt about God’s love and presence in his life. He said that he was in a dark place with that when he wrote his song, but that in the midst of that God’s light began to break through the darkness and he began to have an experience of God that began to assuage his feelings of darkness and angst. What I sensed though, as I listened to him, was this type of pietistic mood and conception of God, like the one I’ve been describing above. The idea that God becomes what we need him to be, and typically that is resident within a particular experience or feeling; of the kind that a song could capture.

I too, years ago, and for many years in my life, experienced deep angst, anxiety, and depression; I struggled deeply with doubt of God’s existence, and doubt of reality itself. The only way I could describe that season was that it was hell. The kind of God I was being pointed to in that season, and because of my evangelical context, was the kind that this singer above seems to be thinking from; this God who will become whoever I needed him to be. But this, in the end, never really helped me; in fact I would say it prolonged the dark season of my soul by placing all of the weight and onus on me to construct a God, to muster a feeling, wherein I finally felt like the ‘light was breaking through the darkness’ and I was having a real experience with the real God; the God who indeed is love.

The concept of God that Feuerbach was primarily critiquing in his historical period would be something like Friedrich Schleiermacher’s concept of God; a God known primarily by a ‘turn to the subject’. A God who was more contingent upon how I ‘felt’ about God, or we felt about God as the community of Christ, rather than believing that we could actually be confronted by God by way of direct encounter with him as revealed in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. While the relationship between the evangelical concept of God and Schleiermacher’s concept of God might only have tenuous linkage, I believe there is enough to make my particular point stick. In other words, whether Schleiermacher or a Western evangelical, we all have the propensity to construct gods of our own making by way of self-projection; in other words, in line with a Calvinian theme, we are all idol-manufacturing people who bend that way over and again, and constantly. If we find ourselves within a community of faith wherein we are fed theology that reinforces that bent, that’s the direction we will turn. And then we fall prey to Feuerbach’s critique; we are simply worshiping a God of our own making and projection.

Contrariwise, the reality is that the living God is, of course, not of our own making; he’s not a projection of us. Indeed, the living God has spoken in Christ; he has revealed himself over the long period of salvation-history as mediated through Jesus Christ. What finally “cured” me, and this was significant towards bringing me out of my long long season of doubt and anxiety, was to be confronted with the fact that God isn’t who we need him to become. All of that presupposes that we actually know who we need him to become for us; that we can search our own hearts and minds at the depths that only he can. When I realized that God is not who we need him to become it began to liberate me. I was able to come out of myself, and realize that the life I needed was found ecstatically; he was God in Jesus Christ. I didn’t need to engage in self-psychology anymore, I could simply begin the life giving process of doing doxological/worshipful theology and constant meditation upon who the actual living and true God is. I.e. The God who broke into my sinful human nature, and recreated it in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I could begin living out of the new creation and first fruits that Jesus was and is for me, as the new creation of God in his humanity for me.

The irony of the ‘God becomes who I need him to be’ approach is that it not only dehumanizes us (by putting us in the position of God), but it dedivinizes God (by reducing him to a human projection). Coming to know God more accurately, or rightly, more orthodoxly meant for me a way of escape; it indeed did bring God’s genuine light into the serious darkness of my soul. I was set free indeed. My hope is that I can help other people experience this same freedom by introducing them to God who is indeed love, but who defines what that means for himself.

[1] I John 4:7-10, NASB.

[2] Daryl, “And Was Made Man”: The Witness of Feuerbach’s Anti-Theology, Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007), accessed 05-29-2017.

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3 thoughts on “Is God Really Love? How an Orthodox Understanding of God can Set Us Free From a God of Self-Projection

  1. I struggled mightily with deep existential issues for years about if I am saved and how I know I’m saved. Doing theology doesn’t always help with those issues, unless you are pointed to the objective fact of God’s action in the event of Christ. This changed everything for me, I have Barth and Torrance specifically to thank for this. Even though they are really using language that has been a part of the deep well of the tradition, but they were my gateway drugs into the deep ocean of the holy catholic Church.

    🙂

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  2. I agree, Anthony! For me, really, it was Luther’s theology of the cross and Calvin’s twofold knowledge of God that functioned as my gateways, which finally led to Barth Torrance et al. But yes, the dynamic event of God’s being in becoming in Christ and the reality of all that set me free. Glad you’ve had the same experience!

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  3. Anthony, it amazes me to think about how many Christians suffer out there with no real help. I have a heart for them, because I was one of them for years. Too many people get pushed under the mat simply because leadership and other brothers and sisters aren’t putting in the work to bear each other’s burdens. Sometimes it requires more than just telling people we’re praying for them. It drives me crazy really to see all the energy people will put into other ventures, but won’t put that same energy into getting to know God. Especially in our country we have so so many resources available to people nowadays, but it seems that most Christians just, well, are lazy. We’re in a real battle, as you obviously know, and we need to take up our weapons of warfare; which in my book is what good theology is for.

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