Critics of theistic understanding have asserted that ‘Man creates God in his own image’! Sometimes the play on Genesis 1.26 is to make the point that the way in which human beings perceive the nature of God is derived from the ways in which they perceive their own nature. Sometimes it is to claim that God is a human invention and exists only as a figment of believers’ imaginations. Although at the end of the chapter we will comment on the latter charge, it is the former one that will receive most attention as we consider this aspect of the anthropological conditioning of theological understanding.
Claims that talk about God is talk about the human
Claims about the human source of notions of the divine are not new. Just as modern Western portrayals of Jesus often lack Semitic features, so in the ancient world Xenophanes pointed out that the gods of the Ethiopians are ‘black with snub noses’ and ‘those of the Thracians are blond, with blue eyes and red hair’. It has also long been claimed that the nature of the gods is the product of human attempts to make sense of what is disturbingly puzzling. Cicero refers to Cleanthes’ view that the ‘awe’ evoked by terrifying natural phenomena and the desire to understand what happens in nature has helped to produce the image of the divine. Statius echoes Lucretius when he bluntly states that ‘Fear first made the gods’.
During the past three centuries this kind of charge has had powerful advocates. Thomas Hobbes suggests that the ‘seed of religion’, which is the ‘fear of things invisible’, comes to flower in creatures of the imagination.