For ages, people have ascribed personality to their deities. What was their reasoning?
And what would be the personality of God that speaks forth all things? How should we start thinking about this? And what about Abram, Sarai, and their family? What was the personality of God that spoke to them? How did they begin to learn Who God was in their lives, and what did they experience?
2:12 Our cognitive predisposition to belief in gods
8:40 How we ascribe personality to gods
14:39 What would be the personality of “God”?
19:00 The role of Promise in personal relationship with God
25:50 Abram and Sarai try to fulfill God’s promise themselves
30:25 God makes a separate promise to Hagar
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It is interesting how, throughout history, humanity has ascribed different personalities to the powers and forces in the world around them. For the ancients, the open sky was a person; the vast stretches of the earth was a person; the forest, the rivers, the sea, the sun, moon, and the stars, the raging storm, ravaging disease, mountains spewing fire, were all persons. Even abstract concepts like justice, wisdom, commerce, family, or war, were also persons. Belief in gods has been a near perpetual and universal feature of human cultures and societies.
What is it like to view the world this way? And is there a good reason why we do so? And more to the point, what is it like when you perceive persons not only in this or that thing in the world, but begin to relate to all of reality as Who rather than a what, that converses with you and walks with you?
Because that is the question that the Christian Bible wrestles with. The entire Bible is in that sense an extended account of how we learn to relate personally to Reality—how we learn Who God is—step-by-step, generation by generation. The story of Abraham and Sarah is an account of how that happened in their own generation, at the scale of their single family. Genesis follows their lifelong journey, with ups and downs, open roads and dead ends, warm, sunny days, and dark, dreary nights, through which they came to know God personally, one step at a time.
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So, let’s return to their story in this episode of…
"What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs, and everyone in between.
I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our fifth episode of the third season, “How we begin to personally relate to God.”
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There’s an idea that emerged in the recent decades in cognitive science, that religious belief in deities came about because of the way our human mind functions. According to this view, we perceive the world with what is called the “hyperactive agency detection device.” What this means is that whenever something happens, we tend to believe that it was an intentional action of some being. So, you’re walking on a hiking trail, and you hear a sudden sound in the bushes; you quickly turn, instinctively expecting an animal, or even a person, to appear. But, it was just a wind, or a nut falling from a tree. So, why was it your first instinct to think it was an animal or a person? Because in evolution, it is crucial for creatures to detect the actions of other creatures, such as a mountain lion, brushing against the bushes as it stalks its prey. So, our minds are constantly trying to detect other agents; in fact, this function is hyperactive.
Here’s a similar idea that may be easier to grasp. You know how we tend to see faces in things, maybe in rock formations, or even stains on the wall? We know they aren’t faces, but somehow they look like faces to us. That’s because facial recognition is a dedicated and specialized function in human cognition; that is, whenever we perceive anything, our mind—or our brain—is separately, and hyperactively, checking if there are faces in whatever we are seeing. And it flags down anything that even sort of looks like a face. That’s because human beings have evolved to be social creatures, and facial cues are our key source of information of what is going on around us. But, just as with wall stains, or say, rocks on Mars, we may see faces where there are no faces.
Likewise, due to our hyperactive agency detection, we may mistakenly believe that there is some personal agent behind what happens even when there aren’t. This has led some critics of religion (such as Dylan Evans, in his article, “The Third Wound,” in the Blackwell companion to science and Christianity) to suggest that humanity came to believe in deities in a similar way. Our mind, hyperactively searching for agents behind the things that happen in our world, leads us to believe that there are gods where there are none.
And of course, this is quite possible; our mind may be leading us astray. However, just because we can be mistaken about something, does not automatically mean we are mistaken. I mean consider again how we see faces. We do sometimes see faces even when there are no faces, but, most of the time, we see faces because they are faces. In fact, it’s quite remarkable how we can recognize that something is a face, since faces of people can look quite different from each other. Not only that, we recognize depiction of faces even in crude drawings or carvings. We can do this even with the faces of other creatures, which can be vastly different from us, such as that of lobsters or ants. And if we are mistaken, we can usually correct ourselves. Likewise, our agency detection function is remarkably developed. So, while it may be that our hyperactive agency detection has led us to believe that there are gods, but it may also be that in doing so, we are sensing something that is genuinely true about our world.
Now, perhaps we can say with some confidence that a rock, or say, a mountain behind your house, is not some super-powerful, person. But, the Christian idea of “God” is not about some super-powerful entity in a rock, or a mountain, or even the sky; it is rather about Reality as a whole; and reality includes us—conscious, personal, active beings. Again, remember what we said in the 1st season. Whatever we say about God are analogies; they are the best that we can say with the language available to us, and some analogies are better than others. So, saying that God is personal, is saying something like, Reality as a whole is much more like a personal, active being, than like some impersonal, inert mass. And that is why we relate to Reality personally.
Now, according to the Genesis creation account, that is why humanity was created—to form a personal relationship with God. That in turn means what God spoke to bring humanity into existence, included the capacity of human beings to perceive and relate to God in a personal way. We can think about that point this way. In the 1st season, we examined how for Christianity, the laws of nature that govern everything—every such law, including the principles of evolution—is the Logos of God, or what God speaks. And that in turn means, the evolutionary process that produced our hyperactive agency detection, is also God speaking. Now, we’ve evolved as a species that possess the kind of rationality that enables us to recognize that reality—with its structure, principles, and laws—is rather like a rational language, or Logos. And likewise, we’ve evolved with hyperactive agency detection that enables us to perceive Reality as a personal, active being that speaks to us, rather than some mindless, dead heap. For Christianity, that was all God speaking, so that we’d evolve to recognize God.
In fact, this is more or less the view of Justin Barrett, the experimental psychologist who was the first to propose the concept of “hyperactive agency detection device.” Barrett is a devout Christian who firmly believes in God—a professor at the graduate school of psychology at Fuller, which is a Christian seminary. When someone asked him if his scientific account of why we tend to believe that gods exist undermines his Christian belief in God, he replied, “If science presents a convincing account of why I believe that my wife loves me, would that mean I should stop believing that my wife loves me?” He instead believes that God created humanity with hyperactive agency detection, so that we are able to “detect” and form a personal relationship with God.
But, there is an aspect of humanity’s belief in gods that our discussion of hyperactive agency detection so far does not quite cover. People do not merely believe that there are gods; they hear their voices, and interact with them. The powers and forces in their world are not merely persons; they have personalities. These deities can be strong, stern, severe, wise, cunning, courageous, calm, capricious, cruel, and so on.
So, why do these deities have these specific personalities? Well, in previous episodes, we observed how there are, for lack of better words, voices that speak to us—voices that represent the kind of life, or pattern of actions we can follow. So, for example, when you feel you are wronged by someone, you may find yourself with conflicting voices to choose from: one that calls you to consider the matter fairly and justly in response, or one that entices you instead toward violence and vengeance, or perhaps even one that pulls you back fearfully, telling you to just ignore it and pretend it never happened. And these aren’t just about what courses of actions you can follow. Each has an emotive force and character—a distinct personality: so, calm, yet stern call to fairness, or an angry clamor for vengeance, or the fearful tug to retreat. And when you choose one of these voices, you do not just follow their actions, you take on their personality—at least for that moment—and that will change who you are accordingly.
Now, those of us living today tend to think that these voices are just part of “us,” our motivation, our thoughts, or maybe different aspects of our personality. And that’s true in a way; they are part of us. But, there’s more to it than that; you can review why in the 10th episode of the 1st season, “What do you mean God speaks to you?” One point we considered back then was that these voices—and the pattern of actions they represent —speak not only to you, but to everyone. The analogy I gave was that it is like an app you download on your phone, so the app is inside your phone, but it’s from somewhere “outside” your phone. The voices that speak to you are like that; they are inside you, but that is merely your personal version of something larger, which exists beyond you. And gods that human beings believed are sort of like that. They speak from within you, but they are also inseparable from the larger aspect of reality “out there”—principles, or values, which define and structure our world and experience, such as order, wisdom, life, justice, war, and so on.
So, back to why each deity has the kind of personality that they do. How did people ascribe a particular personality to a particular deity? Well, there are likely many, many ways they have done so, including literary imagination and story-telling, but there is at least one way that I think we should closely explore. And we can describe it this way. Each god tends to manifest the personality of human individuals whose way of life embodies the essence of their particular domain. Now, what do I mean by that?
Take war, for example. What is war? We can present a long list of things that constitute wars—political or social factors, tactics, strategies, logistics, arms, as well as violence, valor, terror, cruelty, and death. But, war is what certain kinds of people do. It is carried out by men of arms, skilled in combat, violent, and cruel, rather like the Greek god of war, Ares; the course of war is directed by those with wisdom and valor, rather like the Greek goddess, Athena. Their personality reveals what war is. Take another example: justice. We can list many different examples of justice: specific actions, laws, practices, which are just. We may even try to formulate a philosophical definition—try, because we’re still working on that. But, justice that we actually experience in our lives, are what people do. It is a just person that generates every just action, practice, or law. We can say, the personality of such a person is the personality of justice. And people connected these personalities to the voices that have been speaking to them.
But, we may ask at this point, what about gods of nature? How would this apply to people believing that natural objects like, say, thunder and rain, or the sun, or the sky, had personality? Again, there are likely many different reasons why people ascribed various personalities to nature. However, there’s one reason among them that I think is relevant to we’ve just considered. In the 2nd season, we learned how for the ancient world, natural things in the world represented larger ideas. So, water wasn’t just water, and it certainly was not H2O. Water represented—or rather, water was—the substance of life and chaos, or as I put it in contemporary terms, possibilities. The natural world, in this sense, was a kind of symbolic language for more abstract ideas, such as order and chaos, power and sovereignty, justice and retribution, and so on. And the gods would manifest the personality of the people who embodied such ideas concretely.
So, we finally come to this question. What about God of Abrahamic religions, such as Judaism and Christianity? What is the personality of that God, and why?
That question poses a number of challenges. Other deities have a particular domain or power: the god of war, the goddess of justice, the god of order, the goddess of life, and so on. But, the Christian concept of “God” is not limited to any particular domain, but encompasses every domain and every power. What’s the problem? Well, for example, the personality of wisdom would be that of a wise person, and the personality of justice, a just person, and so on. But, what is the personality of, well, everything? After all, the concept of God is about Reality as a whole. So, the question is, what is the personality of Reality—all of reality? How would you even begin thinking about this?
And this is where “truth,” comes in. This is what we explored in the 9th episode of the 1st season—we seem to be doing quite a review of that season this episode! Every truth is God speaking. That is because all of reality is God speaking: everything that happens, everything in the cosmos, every principle and law, every possibility that can ever come to be. So, to learn the truth about any of these is the same thing as hearing God speak. This is why the traditional formulation of God in Christian theology is that God is Being itself—which is to say, God is Reality as a whole—and God is thus Truth itself. In that formulation, God is also Goodness itself and Beauty itself, but we’ll leave that aside in this episode.
Now, there is truth, and then, there is truth that generates other truths. This second kind of truth is about what kind of person can learn or recognize truth, because knowing who such a person is, will enable us to reach other truths. And this is not simply a question of intelligence, but also of moral character, since a genius can be prejudiced, or be too proud to learn, or lie, or twist the truth. So, every truth is God speaking; but, a person who can teach us truth, undistorted and whole—truths about reality, truths about what is good, meaningful, or beautiful in life—and embody these truths in their lives, is the best analogy available to us for God that speaks every truth. Their personality is the personality of Truth, which in turn points to Reality, and God.
And that becomes the first, primary character of God that speaks to us; among all the voices that speak within us, the voice that speaks most truthfully, undistorted and whole, manifests the personality that is closest to that of the Christian God. Of course, as it turns out, there are other aspects of this personality—but we’ll get to that later.
Yet, there is one more critical question that still remains. These personalities, as we considered so far, are simply a way for us to understand certain aspects of reality—or in the case of “God,” all of reality. It may be an interesting, or even an insightful way to understand these things—that there is kind of a personality to war, or justice, or even Reality as a whole. But, in the end, these are still just lenses with which we see the world; and lenses don’t really have their own will and purpose. They are not agents. They may speak to us, but why should we believe they are something more than just a particular way we are experiencing reality? Let’s specifically consider the idea that God that speaks to us is the voice that speaks every truth, without distortion or deception. But, when that voice speaks to us, why should we believe this voice is something more than a particular way we connect with reality?
The point is: in what we considered so far in this episode, it is still all us who initiate this relationship. We hear the voice speak, we choose what to do, and we live them out. We are the agents. Reality unfolds what it unfolds—which is to say, God speaks what God speaks; we hear and act accordingly. There is no real conversation; no reciprocation; no interaction. But, that means there is no genuine, personal relationship.
We are still missing a key piece to understand how the Bible describes humanity’s relationship with God. And this is where the theme of covenant—that is to say, the theme of God making a personal Promise to people—becomes central to the biblical narratives, especially from the account of Abraham and his family.
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The story of Abraham begins with a promise. God will bless Abram, and make him significant, so that he will in turn be a blessing to the world. This is followed through with a series of more specific promises. Abram and Sarai will have descendants, who will inherit the land they are currently residing in as a foreigner.
But, a promise implies uncertainty. It has not yet become true, and it may very well never become true. There is uncertainty in what God speaks to Abram; or, to put it more bluntly, there is an uncertainty regarding the truth, of what spoken by the voice that speaks every truth. And at several points in the life of Abram and Sarai, what God promised is challenged and threatened, as it happened when the ruler of Egypt took Sarai to be one of his wives. And when such a challenge was overcome, especially ones that seemed unassailable—like the one in Egypt—the truth of this voice gained a gravity beyond what Abram, Sarai, and others ever thought. It became more than just what Abram experienced, or heard. The voice that spoke to them, was unfolding the events around them, with a will and purpose beyond their own.
Then, from the meeting with a priest named Melchizedek, Abram was able to identify this voice to a deity—“El,” the Deity that was believed to be the Creator of the cosmos, the highest Deity that rules all things. That was an important step; when you are able to put words or names to experience or ideas, they become clearer. Did you ever play a puzzle game, where you try to find a hidden pattern in a picture? Once you find that pattern, like say, a face, then afterwards, you can see that pattern easily whenever you look at that picture. It’s sort of like that. Of course, this is but one of the first steps in a journey. Abram would need to learn more, and during the generations after him, people would even need to correct some of the older views and ideas.
But, this was a start. Next time God speaks to Abram, from Abram is able to draw from everything he has experienced and learned, and engage in a conversation.
“Don’t be afraid, Abram, for I am your shield, and great will be your reward,” God said.
Abram then responds. “O Lord GOD,” he says, “What can you give me since I still remain childless, and my heir is one of my servants?”
Abram is no longer merely being presented with truth—or at least, what is possibly true; he does not merely hear God speak. He levels a question to the voice that speaks to him. So far, things did not turn out as the voice spoke; Abram has no descendants. There is now a clear line of separation between how Abram perceives what has been happening, and what the voice of God speaks. There are now two truths: one that Abram sees, and one that is being presented by the voice that speaks every truth.
And the voice responds back to Abram. “That man will not be your heir. Your own child born to you, will be your heir.” Then, the voice prompts Abram to go outside, and look toward the starry sky. “Count the stars, if you can, because that’s how many your descendants will be.”
And now, Abram has a choice. And it’s different from the one we examined earlier in this episode, having to choose from different voices that call out to him. He is faced with a single voice, and the truth it promises, standing over what Abram himself thinks the truth is. He does not have even a single child, and he is already old; but, the voice of God declares a future where the number of his descendants will be beyond counting. It’s a face-off between two truths, two wills, two persons.
And Abram decides to believe the voice.
Should he have done so? After all, the voice could be lying. Or, it could be that Abram is just imagining the whole thing, because of his desperation for an heir. At this point, he cannot know, any more than he knew years ago whether it was the right decision to listen to this voice, and journey to this land, leaving his home and relatives.
But, his wife, Sarai, was rescued from the ruler of Egypt, and he did become strong and prosperous, enough to raid a powerful army and rescue his nephew. Then, there was that encounter with the priest, Melchizedek, where he came to learn Who the voice is—or at least, so he believes. Things beyond his expectation or imagination came to pass as he followed what this voice spoke, so perhaps he should continue to do so.
So, Abram believed. But, when God speaks further, confirming that Abram was led to this land from his home, so that his descendants can one day, inherit it, he questions again. “How can I believe this is true?” he asks.
God then has Abram bring animals, which are cut in two pieces. Then, during the night, Abram sees something like a smoking pot and a torch move between these pieces, which in that culture, signified a very strong promise—namely, I am willing to be cut to pieces like these animals, if I don’t do what I promised. But, this promise is about a time far into the future, a time Abram himself will never see; the voice that spoke to him and made this promise, is the One that will fulfill it, without Abram, long after he is gone.
And so, through this encounter, Bible sketches another aspect of the personality of God. God that speaks to us, is the voice that speaks every truth; but, some of the truths that this voice speaks is a Promise of things that have not yet happened, and what often seems will never happen. Yet, God will bring them to pass. Thus, the voice of God speaks not only what is true, but will sometimes speak what is not yet true, and reality will unfold so that it will become true. God will make it true.
But, this poses a dilemma for those who hear God speak. What do you do if God spoke something that is not yet true? Do you just wait? Or, should you make it true? After all, everything that happens is God speaking—and that includes things that you can do. What if you are supposed to do something to make what God spoke, true?
That is how Sarai and Abram decide to get a surrogate to produce an heir.
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Sarai had a handmaiden, named Hagar. Btw, I keep using the words, “servants,” or “handmaiden,” but, the actual words are “slaves,” because slavery existed in the ancient world. But, in our time, the African slavery by European settlers cast a large shadow over what that word means—which is not to say slavery in other times and peoples were actually kind of nice or something. But, they were different; after all, even in this story, slaves could become the heir of master’s entire wealth, or become the mother of the heir. Anyway, Hagar was a slave, her mistress, Sarai had the legal right to offer her as a concubine to her husband, Abram.
“As you can see, the LORD has kept me from having a child,” she pointed out to her husband; that was reality. But, God has also spoken that they will have descendants. So, to make what God spoke true, Sarai decided to “take one for the team,” so to speak. Some other woman will have Abram’s child, and that child will be their heir.
And Abram agreed. It seemed like a win-win proposal, after all. Abram and Sarai would have an heir; Hagar would go from a servant-girl to the mother of the heir, and as for God, what God spoke, as the voice that speaks every truth, would become true. And what God speaks calls people who hear it to act in response; Noah builds an Ark, and Abram and Sarai had left their home, and traveled to this land. So, Hagar conceived and became pregnant with Abram’s child.
But, in all this, they had missed something. When God spoke to Abram that he will have descendants, God did not present him with any call to action. It was not like how Abram felt called to leave his home and relatives. It was rather more like the first promise that God will bless Abram and bless the world through him, or the later promise that his descendants will inherit a land of their own. There was nothing that called Abram or Sarai to do, other than to believe. But, what was even more significant was how this would affect Sarai and Hagar.
When Hagar became pregnant, it confirmed a terrible truth. It really was Sarai who was unable to have a child; it was her fault that they had no heir. Today, being unable to bear a child may be a great loss and tragedy, but it was far worse in their time. You would have been considered a profound failure; you’ve failed to leave a legacy, to secure a future. And now that Abram and Hagar had a child, it was Sarai who was the failure. Now, Sarai would legally be the mother of the child Hagar would bear, and in that sense, she would still be part of the promise God made with Abram. But, that was mere legality. It would have felt as if God had left Sarai out of the promise with Abram; Sarai was the reason why what God spoke to Abram had not yet come to pass; she was now a mere outsider, with no part in what God spoke.
And Hagar realized this—or at least, she knew enough that she began to treat her mistress with contempt, a failure. Struck with grief and humiliation, Sarai went to Abram and cried out, “This is all your fault! I gave up everything, so that you could have an heir, and now look at me! What would God think of this?”
But, Abram loved Sarai, far more than he would ever care for the servant-girl of his wife. Legally speaking, Abram could have taken other wives to secure an heir long ago, but he had not, and it was only at Sarai’s behest that he did so. So, Abram tells Sarai to do with Hagar as she wishes, since she is, after all, her mistress.
So, Sarai strikes back harshly at Hagar for every insult, real or imagined. Defenseless against Sarai’s anger, and unable to endure her treatment, Hagar runs away into the wilderness, and rests by a spring of water. There, the book of Genesis recounts, an angel of the LORD finds her.
The ancient Hebrew word for Angel means “messenger,” because angels are depicted as beings that speak for God. So, as a reminder: all of reality is God speaking, every truth we learn is God speaking, and in the case of Abram, God can speak, as the voice that speaks what is true, or what will become true. But, in the Bible, there are also entities—whether human individuals, of superhuman beings—who relays what God is speaking to other people. We will explore this idea in other episodes, however. For this story, it is enough to know that a messenger from God converses with Hagar.
“Hagar, slave to Sarai, why are you here and where are you going?” The angel asks. Hagar replies, “I am running away from my mistress.”
The angel then speaks what God is speaking to her. “Return to her,” God speaks, then follows with a promise—a special promise to a slave girl, hiding in the wilderness. “Your child will become a numerous people,” God says. “He will be like a wild animal, who can overcome hostility. And you shall name him Ishmael, which means God hears. For God has heard your hardship.”
And with this, God declares that not only does God speak, but God also hears. God not only speaks to Hagar, as the voice of truth, but hears her; indeed, God speaks to her, because God heard her. And Hagar is deeply moved and awe-stricken, and she says, “You are El-roi,” meaning “God sees.” God has seen her, and so now, she has seen God. She then returns, to give birth to a son named, Ishmael—God hears.
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We hear God speak in every truth, we see God in all of reality; but those who encounter God learn that God also hears us, and God sees us. And what God speaks to people is more than just some truth—however significant—that we can learn or discover; they can involve a personal promise. And whether God has truly heard us, and has spoken to us personally, will be demonstrated by whether the Promise is kept—whether reality unfolds as the voice of God said it would.
And this is how God spoke to Abram. But, in the wilderness, unknown to Abram, this is how God also spoke to Hagar, a slave-girl in his household. In this way, God speaks to people—great people, insignificant people, people we know, people we never noticed, people overlooked and forgotten, calling them all to their own respective journey, calling them with a Promise, specially for them.
And it is through these journeys, people will learn whether God that spoke to them, really is the voice that speaks every truth, and makes His promise come true.
But, then this brings us to Sarai? What of God’s promise to her? Or, was God speaking only Abram? Was she left out even while her servant-girl was given a promise of her own? Did God see Hagar, but not Sarai?
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So, please join me next time, as we continue to explore how the Promise of God unfolded, for Abram, Sarai, and Hagar.
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