Monday, June 18, 2007

Is God Self Centered?

by JM
In an attempt to bring disrepute to the Christian faith, some have objected that the God of Judeo-Christian Scripture blatantly violates a moral law that his creatures are punished for infringing. God is thought of as saying “do as I say, not as I do;” an imperfect, though perhaps well-meaning paternal figure who prescribes to his children virtues noticeably absent in him.

The particular vice that allegedly plagues God is self-centeredness. God commands his creatures to practice selflessness; we are to treat others as better than ourselves; we should never look upon another as a means, but always as an end. We find numerous injunctions issued against self-centeredness and the exploitation of others. For the objector, however, the Most High seems to be the most prolific violator of this moral prescription. God is presented in Scripture as making everything for his own glory and pleasure. Consequently, it is thought by some that humanity is treated merely (and perhaps even cheaply) as a means to God’s end of self-gratification. His end is ultimately that all would worship him, eternally verbalizing how great God is and how menial we are. And what happens to those who refuse to “stroke” God’s ego? Eternal hell. For the objector, such a God deserves neither worship nor obedience.

How might a believer respond? One assumption found in this line of reasoning is that all morality is equally and categorically applicable both to God and his creatures. So that if God commands or forbids x to humans, it is necessarily immoral for God to do x. However, this assumption must be challenged. Don’t get me wrong, we would never want to say that what are vices for humans, God arbitrarily deems as virtues for him. The moral status of “taking pleasure in the torture of good men” isn’t relative to whether you are God or not. God always regards such things as heinous and vile. This raises two important questions: (1) How can one act be praiseworthy for one person and blameworthy for another? (2) How can self-centeredness be praiseworthy for God and blameworthy for humans? Let’s look at each in turn.

How can the same act be moral for God and immoral for a human without morality being either capriciously dictated or thoroughly relative? The answer is really quite simple, and everyday life furnishes plenty of examples. Life often illustrates that what may be wrong for one human may not be wrong for another given certain circumstances, though there are obviously other actions that are wrong for all humans at all times. Let’s say that a teenager protests to his father, “since you have commanded that I can’t have sex, it is necessarily immoral for you to have sex.” The flaw in the teenager’s argument is that the command universally applies to all beings at all times. The father would do well to respond, “you’re not old enough, mature enough, or married enough to have sex, and this is why it’s wrong for you.” “But I’m old enough, mature enough, and married.” “That’s why it is permissible for me.” The father is stating that it is immoral to engage in sex when conditions x, y, and z are missing. These conditions are missing from the teenager’s life and not from the father’s, therefore what is wrong for one human isn’t wrong for another. Notice, however, that the father could not make a similar case with something like “stealing cigarettes from convenience stores if one is low on cash is alright for me, but wrong for you.” This criminal activity is wrong to both son and father.

In the same way, given that God has certain characteristics that humans can never possess, it is proper for him to have the kind of self-regard that he does, and improper for us to have that kind of self-regard for ourselves. Put slightly different, pride and self-centeredness are some of those things praiseworthy for God and damnable for us precisely because he “meets certain conditions.” This will then answer question (2): How can “pride” and “self-centeredness” be praiseworthy for God and blameworthy for humans? Perhaps the best way to shed light on this question is to first present the reason why it’s improper for humans to display these traits.

When we say a child is self-centered, we mean something like he is adamant in keeping his toys to himself. If he’s proud, we mean that he’s haughty or arrogant about his possessions, reminding other children of what he has and what they don’t. Furthermore, we may even mean that he usually kicks and screams until he gets things his own way. When we say an adult is selfish and full of pride, these traits are often cloaked in garb far more acceptable to the public eye (perhaps the garb of altruism or ambition), for no one would tolerate a man who adamantly refuses all reciprocity in a relationship, or kicks and screams when he doesn’t get things his own way. But underneath this veneer, there is a drive within this individual to solicit an inordinate and unjustifiable honor from others.

At bottom, a selfish and proud person believes himself to be far more valuable than he is, and others less valuable than they are. In fact, his greatness makes sense in his own mind given the backdrop of others’ deficiencies. As a result, the proud person believes his ways to be right and insists on them being done. More often than not, his ways are neither the only way nor the best. Even if he knows his ways to be in error, he will insist on them anyways; for his person always trumps principle. In other words, he insists on his own policies or values for the often unspoken reason that they are His policies and His values, not because those policies or values are good in and of themselves. Furthermore, a proud person will use others as a means to his end, often at the expense of the happiness of others. People are regarded as opportunities to reach some goal, or obstacles to that goal. In either case, other peoples’ wishes or desires mean nothing, as the prideful person’s goal cancels out all others.

As we approach the question of whether God has the moral flaws of pride and selfishness, it seems quite clear that God does not fit the preceding description.

First off, God not only believes his ways to be right, they are right.

“The precepts of the LORD are right” - Psalm 19:8
Since they are right, it is right to insist on these things being done. So the image isn’t of a child kicking and screaming for ice-cream to be served for dinner, but of an upright magistrate insisting that the righteous law be upheld.
Also, though a selfish person would have his wish prevail at the expense of our happiness, God’s commands are quite different in that they result in the complete felicity of those obeying.

“In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” - Psalm 16:11
God’s ultimate end is his glory, but glorifying God doesn’t require the debasing of his creatures, but rather results in the elevation of those obeying creatures to their divine design. It’s when creatures operate according to God’s design that happiness results. What smoke is to fire, so is happiness to glorifying God by obedience.

Though a selfish person believes himself to be more valuable than he is and others less valuable than they are, this is not parallel to God’s own self-estimate. Scriptures affirm that we should not think more highly of ourselves than we ought to (Romans 12:3). The idea here is that pride is in part the sin of imagination in which we act and expect others to treat us according to our own grandiose and bloated evaluation of ourselves, not altogether different from a madman who demands all to worship him because he’s deity. So the charge of pride in the Most High would only stick if he was not “Most High;” that is, God had a bloated view of himself. However, we assert that God’s command to give honor and glory to him is the fulfillment of treating him in the way that he ought to be treated.

An illustration may be of use here. Compare a rock and a diamond. A rock has very little value; as such we may throw it, spit on it, or do with it as we please without the gasps of disgust from those around. A diamond, on the other hand, has far more value than a typical rock. Its value “demands” for it to be treated a certain way. The person who throws it, spits on it, or disposes of it is looked upon as failing to “grasp” the value of the object he is mistreating.

My point is that there are “gradations” of being, and as such different expectations as to how we should treat those beings. A caterpillar isn’t worth as much as a toddler, and so someone who treats a caterpillar as she would a toddler might be labeled “odd,” perhaps even “perverted.” Conversely, a person who treats a toddler as a caterpillar will be labeled “wicked.” In both cases, people did not treat subjects in the way they “ought to have.”

Just as there is a seeming infinite gap between the value of caterpillars and toddlers, there is an infinite gap between humans and God. A person who treats another human in a way reserved for God, or treats God as if he were a human has failed to treat both humans and God respectively in the way they should be treated. I suspect that the charge that God is “proud,” meaning that God has failed to do what he commands of his creatures, loses its steam as we consider the respective value of God and humans. God is infinitely worthy, and so deserves attention commensurate with his value.

“Ascribe to the LORD, O sons of the mighty, Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due to His name;” - Psalm 29:1 & 2
Some might agree that God is far more valuable than humans, but protest that God is overly vocal about it. “He keeps bringing it to our attention.” So a man who has justly worked for his new car (therefore deserving it) seems in the wrong when he constantly tells everyone else about what he has and what they don’t have. However the situation isn’t the same. The analogy may be more appropriate if people were negligent around his car, perhaps by continuously throwing a hard ball over it. Or, what if they are even deliberate about trying to devalue it by throwing rocks at it? In these cases, we don’t fault the owner in bringing to their attention the value of his new car, his own efforts spent to procure the car, and perhaps the reminder that they’re not in a position, nor do they have the right to debase the value of his car. This is what one might expect.

In this, I think, we can see the numerous injunctions by God to be careful and cautious with what is his only. The Ten Commandments were posted in a world which grossly violated them. The command to worship God only was one given in a world engrossed in idolatry. A person wouldn’t post a sign “do not trespass” unless some have trespassed, or it is likely that some will trespass without it. In short, the numerous injunctions to give God his just due are given in a background where we have consciously maligned what is his.

So, is the Judeo-Christian God the most notorious violator of pride and self-centeredness? At the beginning of our journey I asked two questions which were relevant to answering this allegation: (1) How can one act be praiseworthy for one person and blameworthy for another? (2) How can “pride” and “self-centeredness” be praiseworthy for God and blameworthy for humans? The answer to the first question revealed that there are clear cases in which the same action is right for one person and wrong for another. This is due to certain conditions that are met (or characteristics that are possessed) by one person and not met by another. In answer to the second question, I affirmed that God possesses the following characteristics that make the kind of self-regard he possesses not only appropriate, but necessary. So, God’s ways are right, and his insistence on the right thing being done is the right thing to do. Also, God’s ways do not necessarily mean the pain or debasing of others. In fact, a creature who acts according to God’s will ultimately experiences joy. Lastly, given that God is infinitely worthy, it is only proper for all other conscious beings to treat him the way he “ought to be treated.”


1 I will use “self-centeredness” as being closely related, though not necessarily identical to pride. It may be the case that although all proud people are self-centered, perhaps not all self-centered people are proud. For example, someone who battles with depression related to low-self esteem might be considered someone who is self-centered, though not haughty or arrogant.