Those who disparage religion like to say that humanity creates God in their own image and then worship their own creation. With the Gods we find in many places of worship, it is easy to believe. We have monotheism and polytheism. We have vengeful gods who will kill or punish everyone who doesn’t believe in a single version of a creed. We have gods whose love is nonjudgmental and all accepting.
Then, of course, there are various versions of the afterlife. In some religions, people seem to delight in the idea that all the “evil-doers” will be punished. In other versions, the afterlife will be an undemanding time of “Peace in the Valley.” In all these cases, it is easy to see what kind of person could create the scenario and why they would find it comforting or satisfying.
In the fourth century, Christianity, by a declaration of the Emperor Constantine, moved overnight from a persecuted religion to the state religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine called for a council of the church leaders to define the religion in a way that could be commonly understood.
It is hard for those in the twenty-first century to understand the kind of people who participated in this council. We are used to seeing church leaders surrounded by pomp or evangelical preachers flying from one preaching assignment to another in private jets.
Many of the bishops who met at Constantine’s orders became a bishop when their predecessor was martyred for his faith. Others who came were missing arms, legs, eyes or tongues because of their refusal to deny their faith. To put it bluntly, these people were not about to politely compromise to come to agreement on a doctrinal statement. Their God was real to them and they had proven their willingness to sacrifice.
The God they described is “one God in three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).” This was the god they experienced and the one they proclaimed. More than that, the nature of the relationship between the three persons was critical to their understanding of the nature of God and, surprisingly, the nature of man. As my parish priest explains it, “the Church’s experience of God is one God in three persons who are united together (dwell within each other) in an unceasing movement of mutual love.”
Given this understanding of God’s nature, why was humanity created and how are we supposed to interact with God? Here comes the part I find it hard to believe humans just made up.
The Trinity, or three-in-one God, sharing perfect and continuing love among them, wanted to share that love with others. In order to have more persons to participate in this love, He/they said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…”
We are not here to be servants to a ruling monarch. We are made not only to love God but, believe it or not, to be loved by God. We are made to be the beloved children of God, not just servants. But there is more to it than that.
We are called to “Theosis” which literally means we are to become like God. Since we are always the created and God is always the Uncreated, we will never be God. Exactly what is being asked of us? We are being asked to love like God so we can enter into the Trinity’s “unceasing movement of mutual love.”
God’s love is shown in the parable of the woman caught in adultery. It is not a soft, “That’s OK, dear” kind of love. The command “Go and sin no more” shows that the sin is real and since it is real, the forgiveness is also real.
Science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card quoted San Angelo’s Letters to an Incipient Heretic. This balance of sin awareness and forgiveness “is noteworthy because is so startlingly rare in our experience…. [Jesus] dared to expect of us such a perfect balance that we could preserve the law and still forgive the deviation. So, of course, we killed him.”
This is the love and forgiveness we are called to in theosis. It is not a glib acceptance. We will know that what we have done was harmful to ourselves and others and we will know that we are forgiven. Also, since we ask to be forgiven “as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we will be asked, or rather expected, to understand the reality of sins committed against us and grant forgiveness and love to other people.
So this is the kind of God these people “made up” so they could worship a god in their own image. It is a three-in-one God who created us to love us and wants us to join in an eternal circle of love. That love is the pure love that truly recognizes real faults and yet loves and forgives.
There is only one aspect of this “made up” God and afterlife that makes perfect sense to me. We have all of eternity to learn to love as God loves. That sounds real to me. Eternity might just be enough time for people like me to learn to love like that.