Is God Inhuman?

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s and Vice Chair of the Ozanne Foundation


I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s book The Body. It’s a fascinating read about the wonders of the human body and how much of it – of us – is incredibly complex and still little understood. But in Chapter 11 he refers to things medical science learnt about the body through experiments carried out during the second world war by Nazis in concentration camps and by occupying Japanese forces in a huge experimental facility in China. He doesn’t dwell on them, but they were horrifying in their cruelty. Some experiments were supposedly to help soldiers wounded in battle, but others were to satisfy doctors’ curiosity by doing things unspeakably unethical just because they could. And although many Nazis were brought to justice for their cruelty, the director of the research centre in China was debriefed by the Americans to get his medical knowledge and then allowed to return to normal life, while the existence of the Japanese facility was hidden for forty years.

The Uighurs and Rohingya. Political and religious terrorism. Black Lives Matter. Child poverty and homelessness. Violence and discrimination against women, LGBTI and disabled people. Cruelty continues, and those with power who do it will find ways to justify the unjustifiable. We even do it in the Church – not only with repeated safeguarding failures, but by being complicit with society at large in structural discrimination against black people and poor people and women and LGBTI people. The Church goes further now than society does in maintaining exemptions from discrimination against women and gay people, and we justify it in the name of what is acceptable to God – which makes the Church and its God appear inhuman to many.

What is ‘humane’? What is ‘inhuman’? After all, it’s human beings who act ‘inhumanly’ some of the time. Being cruel and discriminatory is something which every single human being is capable of. That’s you and me both. Which of us is without sin and can say that we have never acted in a way intended to be hurtful? Who has never done something which another person experienced as cruel and unkind?

A healthy human body is a dynamic balance of many different systems and needs, where too much or not enough salt or other nutrients can be fatal. Like our body, our humanity is a balancing act, full of difficult compromises to enable life to happen at all, more or less good or evil. Being human means we are capable of being, not either good or bad, but both good and bad, both humane and inhuman. And yet we define acting ‘with humanity’ as being solely good: as the Oxford Dictionary puts it, being human or humane is having ‘attributes or behaviour proper or befitting to a man.’

Why do we do think that being good and kind is ‘proper’ and ‘befitting’ human behaviour, when experience is that human behaviour includes so much that we want to reject as ‘inhuman’? Discrimination, violence, misogyny, racism and slavery come from dehumanising those who are ‘different’, excluding them from being our fully human neighbour, treating them as ‘other’ or as evil or to be eradicated like germs from the social body, acting as we do so out of the evil that has not been eradicated in us. (See the useful reflections by John Root around racism and binary thinking).

The view that ‘acting with humanity’ or being ‘humane’ describes only the morally good aspects of human behaviour is not derived from the reality of the world around us. It is in the person of Jesus Christ that Christians believe humanity in its fulness is fully realised: the human being without sin, the Son of God who shows us what is ‘proper’ and ‘befitting’ to a human being, without hatred or cruelty or exclusion, bringing us together into the love of God in our redeemed humanity.

It is no coincidence that the goodness of humanity is defined by the one who takes on himself our sin for our salvation. Repenting of our sins, cruelties and lack of love, and inviting Christ to dwell in our hearts in love to transform us, frees us to acknowledge both past and present evil in us; it enables us to become more humane, by letting go of the inhumanity of believing that we are good and others are bad.

The case of Jonathan Fletcher is yet a further example of how avowedly orthodox faith can inculcate an atmosphere of fear and repression in which our humanity in Christ is denied and abused, and God is modelled in ways which are more inhuman than humane.

It’s crucial to Christian faith that God is the God we see in Jesus: that God is humane, human, abounding in steadfast love. God is not the inhuman deity who many have experienced through the Church, and of which we must repent. Any Church or Christian disciple making either God or other people become less rather than more human and humane needs to repent and change.

My former colleague Canon Mark Oakley often asks: ‘What do people become in my presence?’ More human, or less? And we might add, ‘What do people become in the presence of the God I worship?’

Through your church and through encounter with you, do people and their God become more or less human?

This entry was posted in Dean of St Pauls, Human Sexuality, Politics, Racism, Safeguarding, Sexual abuse, Social Justice, Spiritual Abuse. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is God Inhuman?

  1. Leon McRae says:

    What has been on my mind for some time you have articulated so well.

  2. kiwianglo says:

    At a time when some ‘Christians’ are wont to emphasize the ‘Wrath of God’, You, David,are nearer to the mark. In demonstrating our common human weakness, you have contrasted the generosity of God in Christ, who showed us what it is like to be God: Merciful and Forgiving – to the uttermost!

  3. williambuggins says:

    It seems to me there are two parts or roles to our being Christian and humane.
    One is the inner devotional life wherein we read the Scriptures, we give thanks to God, we worship Him, we pray and listen.
    It is this inner life, allowing God the Holy Spirit to examine our hearts and bring to our attention acts or attitudes He wishes to change, that gives focus to our outer life.
    The outer life, our interaction with others, our responses to events, our political and social interests that is far more complex.
    For example how do I behave in the workplace, what do I do when I see injustice being done, how do I use the rights I have as a citizen to express my views or support causes I believe in?
    It’s not easy.
    Working alongside a lazy or unscrupulous or even a bullying colleague, what do we do?
    What do we do as Christians when the things we believe in, the culture we have been raised in is under attack?
    Or even when we support LGBT+ rights, and then find our children are being forced to listen to views on sexual identity which we as parents feel are inappropriate for them? Or young vulnerable people are encouraged to change their gender as an expression of their freedom ‘to be who they really are’, only to find that the real problem is that the just don’t know because Mum and Dad for whatever reason split up, and the child is effectively exposed to other influences..
    It might sound great to join in and support all kinds of views, but what if the end result of that is actually some form of anarchy?
    Societies can’t be everything to everybody so that no-one need feel excluded. There has to be laws, there has to be a set of moral values which a) honours God’s revealed will, and b) gives a measure of freedom and opportunity to all citizens.
    So I think if we believe that God is love, that He created Man and knows what is best for him, then the Scriptures must be our guide, our reference book on what our attitudes should be, and what things are not good for our spiritual and social wellbeing.

Any thoughts?