Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Fred Phelps and the Angry God

The Rev. Fred Phelps and his group have put out a video called "God hates the world." I'm not linking to it, you can find it if you must, but I think you should trust me to say that it's pretty much exactly what you think it is*.

I try to be positive about people like the Reverend because being negative doesn't effect anything and just makes me depressed. I'm glad to have someone in the world showing hippies what protestors look like to people who disagree with them. (Do you give a damn what they yell or what goes on those people's signs? Do you even really think about it? Even if one or two people give them the thumbs-up, does that help their cause? Excepting the emotional damage done to mourners at the funerals they picket (which gets them nothing except the satisfaction of hurting people), do the institutions picketed suffer anything other than inconvenience? When there's media coverage of them standing there, waving their disagreeable signs, does it help them get what they want? No, No, No, No are my guesses on the first few questions, I know the answer to the forth is "No" because I know their legislative goals and they haven't even begin to have been met. Anyway, when you protest, assume people feel similarly and that the only real benefit is to your ego. Which is not to say I won't be going to the big Gay rights protest in DC this fall if only to keep the ChaliceRelative out of trouble.)

For another decent thing, maybe: these are loser rednecks from Kansas who feel like they are an army from God. I can't even imagine what that feels like.

Also, they've made "Hell's Angels" into a socially acceptable group. Hey, that's something.

But mostly, when I think about Fred Phelps, I'm confused by the angry God he imagines. The being they describe, infuriated that we who have free will won't do what he wants us to without any particularly reliable guide to what he wants us to do save people who claim to know* and books written by people who claimed to know a long time ago, reminds me of nothing so much as a little kid, too young to understand how the Sims works, having a temper tantrum because the characters in his video game won't do what they want. Indeed, a God who is freaking out in any sense over human behaviors doesn't seem much worthy of worship.

To me the idea of God having any particular plan for the world and God having the power to carry out said plan doesn't really make any sense given the state of the world unless God's plan is "give people free will and see what happens," which suggests a certain emotional divorce from the process and, again, a certain unlikliness to him getting upset at people for falling in love in ways that he allows them to do so, or really anything else excepting possibly genocide, for that matter. If God were really the cause of natural disasters and used them to punish in any consistent sense, that pattern would be obvious. If God wanted people to be happy all the time or to reward only the good, that pattern would be obvious.

Indeed, the only real patterns I percieve in the universe is that the universe is mechanistic enough to run and chaotic enough to not run predictably.

Personally, I tend to conceive of God as a transcendent force for good that doesn't cause storms or do anything else to directly impact the world other than through the actions of people. Some evolutionary explanations have come up to explain the human desire to create things, for example, but none of them are much more than theoretical as far as I can tell, and note of them explain why other animals with almost-as-big-brains haven't developed SOMETHING to suggest they are more slowly proceeding down the same path. Animals cooperate and help each other in either very basic ways, or complicated-but-mechanistic ways. Human interactions are much more complex, and working together, we help each other out and we achieve things that other creatures can't conceive of, partially because of an internal drive we have to help wach other out and to create. I tend to think that (a) there's something special about humans, which is one reason to call oneself a humanist and (b) that if I'm going to believe in this transcendent force for decency and creation, I should call it something and that something might as well be "God."

So you can see why I have so much trouble with the Reverend's faith. It seems really, really alien to me to think that there's a man up in the sky getting upset over the behavior of individual humans, especially upset enough to "hate the world."

It's a common political trick to argue with the extremists on the other side, then say that you and the ENTIRE other side can't POSSIBLY understand each other. I'm not doing that. I know Christians, even fairly conservative ones, who don't really consider Phelps one of their number any more than liberals are particularly happy to own eco-terrorists or hippies who blew up buildings in the 1960s**. I've had many a frutiful dialogue with people who disagree with just about everything I've said theologically here.

But I just don't get God hating the world.


*This seems like a good time to reiterate that I don't have to follow courtroom evidence rules on my blog.

**One could set up a business-school-style rubric categorizing these folks into "obviously crazy" and "insightful" (Early Jim Jones), "obviously crazy" and "not insightful" (Average guy in Lafeyette Park with a sign quoting Revelations) "not obviously crazy" and "insightful" (the Dalai Lama in general), "not obviously crazy" and "not insightful" (the current Pope, except that thing about condoms in Africa is pretty crazy). But any two people would almost never agree completely on which prophets go where.

Honestly, non-self-proclaimed prophets who don't even necessarily write about God but write honestly and insightfully about the Human condition have done more to provoke spritual thinking in me than anyone above. IMHO, one Jane Austen novel or even one Miss Manners book teaches more by implication than these folks can spell out, though I'll be the first to admit that the Dalai Lama has his moments.

*** Those examples took a minute to think of. Say what you will about liberal extremists, they don't generally run around killing people who disagree, or haven't since the sixties. Conservative extremists are a lot deadlier and a lot quicker to write people off as collateral damage. One shouldn't judge a movement by extremists, but still...


fausto said...

That Angry God is something that we Unitarians and Universalists have been arguing against at least since the time of Charles Chauncy in the mid-1700's, or else at least since the time of Origen in the early 200's, depending on how you count -- and our Christian predecessors at least since someone writing under the name of "John" wrote the First Epistle of John sometime in the late first or early second century.

"God is love", wrote John; and Phelps, like all those before him who have embraced the same arguments and cast similar judgments, is a blasphemer.

kim said...

Did extremeist liberals kill people in the sixties? I thought they just blew up buildings at times they were likely to be empty of people (as opposed to right wing extremists who prefer to blow up buildings when they are likely to be full of people.)

Fausto -- Perhaps Phelps is sick enough to see anger as love?

Chalicechick said...

My understanding is that the liberals who did kill people in the 1960's tried to kill as few people as possible, and regarded those who did die as collateral damage when they did kill people through negligence or just because they had to.

Oklahoma City notwithstanding, in general "kill a few people and get on the news" has seemed to be the conservative extremist killer agenda, when it isn't "Kill a specific abortion doctor."

I see dying because you were the night janitor at the draft board and dying because you happened to go to a liberal church as roughly equivilent.


fausto said...

Kim, I don't think he mistakes anger for love, but I do think he mistakes hostility and combativeness for righteousness.

kim said...

CC -- Can you tell me the specific incident you were thinking of? We aren't remembering it specifically.

Fausto -- Is that a guess or do you have some reason from something Phelps said to think that?

kim said...

Fausto -- I was asking about the love/anger part.
I agree about the righteousness part.

fausto said...

Kim, God is not something tangible that anyone can see, as it says in 1 John 4. We relate to God (if we do at all) only through our own intuition and the witness of others. The witness of Genesis is that God looks upon all creation as good, and the witness of John, Luke, and other New Testament authors is that the primary character trait of God is love, especially love toward humanity.

In spite of such witnesses, however, other biblical passages (especially some of the older and more morally and culturally immature tribal-historical sections) portray a harsher image of God. The various and superficially conflicting portraits of God in the Bible are either filtered through the life experiences of individual readers, or are discounted relative to the more immediate personal intuition, emotions, values, and life experiences of individual readers. Thus, what some "believers" apprehend to be God can easily be only a projection of themselves onto the blank canvas of the cosmos -- which is why some critics say ironically, but with justification, that man creates God in his own image. Depending on the intuition and personality of the individual, these personal projections can often be harsh and hurtful rather than healing and reconciling.

I don't see any evidence that Phelps can't tell the difference between love and anger, but it's obvious eough to me that his image of God possesses little or no capacity for compassion or forgiveness. It is my guess, therefore, that Phelps does not effectively differentiate between his own uglier personality traits and the best and most noble elements of the human imagination. The loyalty of his family suggests to me that he knows what love is, but the reprehensibility of his behavior also suggests to me that he feels more comfortable nurturing the baser rather than the nobler elements of his psyche. That being the case, his God does not resemble the transcendent, benevolent God apprehended by John or Origen or Francis of Assisi or Charles Chauncy or John Murray, but rather, is nothing more than the personal fears and resentments of Fred Phelps projected onto a cosmic stage.

Why do you suspect that he may think anger is love? I've heard nothing from him to suggest that he wants to affirm love as the essential element of God's character, but misunderstands how God manifests it. Rather, I agree with CC that he sees hatred and punishment as the most essential divine traits.

Comrade Kevin said...
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Comrade Kevin said...
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Comrade Kevin said...

I don't see Phelps as religious at all. I see him as a psychopath using religion as a smokescreen.

Steven Rowe said...

Kim: this is what CC is refering to

as far as I can recall, this is the only death attributed to Vietnam War protesters. most of the killings were of protesters rather than by protesters - i won't include the various battles between the Police and the Panthers. Certainly not the violence that Europe had in this timeframe.
Certainly the left has had its terrorists - John Brown of the 1850s being the most famous.

Joel Monka said...

Just before leaving for GA the subject of conservative extremists came up in conversation with my brother. I asked him why conservative extremists were more lethal than liberal... his answer came so quickly and easily I knew he thought it was obvious I'd kick myself for not seeing it instantly:"It's just a question of cempetence- conservatives are more competent than liberals even when they turn to the dark side."

kim said...

Fausto -- You're right, Phelps doesn't seem to claim any relationship with love of any sort. His relationship with his family may or may not be a sign that he is capable of love or inspiring love. I've read an account of the family's life by two of the offspring who "escaped" from it, and if they are right, it may be the relationships of the family are the loyalty engendered by being the ones who aren't being abused while you watch the others be abused. I don't know the reality here, and don't really want to know more -- it's too creepy.

kim said...

Joel -- That's a joke, right?

PG said...


The point about competency reminds me of this WSJ editorial.

Joel Monka said...
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kim said...

Joel -- More likely the competent ones don't feel the need to be terrorists.

hafidha sofia said...

The Phelps people don't puzzle me at all. To my view, they are a small group of people who are so full of fear that they dedicate their lives to making sure God sees them disavow the evils of our modern society. They are like the little kids or that pathological co-worker who is always saying "Look, look at what so-and-so did; I told them not to, because I knew it was wrong, but they didn't listen to me!"

They really truly believe that their souls will be judged on in the afterlife, and that by standing up against the immorality of our society they are keeping their asses out of the hellfire. I mean, people have done more obnoxious things to keep themselves out of jail. Being burned to a crisp for infinity has got to be worse.