In the Mirror of God

September 10, 2008 at 1:25 am 26 comments

So the other day I was watching my son eat lunch.

Of course, “eat lunch” sounds much more, well, contained than anything usually accomplished by most 22-month olds. He grabbed big spoonfuls and/or handfuls of his mac & cheese and shoved them, fist and all, into his mouth, depositing most of it, losing a bit, and in the process coating his face, hands, hair, shirt and table in gobs of that inimitable nuclear orange cheese sauce. This was something that did not bother him at all. I found myself wishing I could focus on anything in the world as well as he focused on his mac & cheese. This kiddo really likes to eat.

And he had not a shred of self-consciousness. He did not care how he looked or how messy he was. He simply enjoyed his meal, and with a singularity of innocence and pleasure that makes sappy, sentimental parents like me want to weep. He had no awareness in the world that I was watching him, or indeed of anything else at all. He was entirely immersed in the immediacy of his experience, with no thought to what anyone else thought. I found it both striking and beautiful.

And it got me thinking about this matter of “self-consciousness”. The capacity to lose self-consciousness – to be present and fully immersed in the messiness of one’s bodily existence, and to live (if only briefly) without pride, shame, or false modesty – is a rare quality. What a gulf separates my son’s experience from mine! I can almost never be free from some thought about how I am “seen”, by myself and by others. I can never stop caring what others think of me, no matter how irrelevant their opinion might really be. My son can, for a while at least, lose himself in the moment. I, and almost all adults I know, live in a world of funhouse mirrors of our own making, imagining ourselves reflected and re-reflected in the eyes of everyone around us, even when there isn’t anyone around us.

The ability to take one’s “self” as an object of thought – with all the attendant evaluations, judgments, and assessments, both good and bad – has been an advantage to our species, social creatures that we are. We rely on the cooperation of the group, and thus have a vested interest in predictability and a means of social control. Thus, seeing oneself through the eyes of others is both natural and necessary, an inescapable part of that social nature. But it has a cost.


Most schools of thought within psychology believe that children are not born with an intact “self” – a sense of independent identity, a sense of value and worth, a realistic self-esteem and competence, and a basic trust in the world. These things are learned, not hardwired from birth.

To simplify a lot of child development theory, children become who they are by internalizing their parent’s view of them. If a child’s parents continually tell him and, more importantly, show him that he is good and valuable and worthwhile no matter how he feels about himself at the moment, then over time he will come to see himself that way. He then begins to develop a stable and resilient sense of self-worth and confidence, a calm despite emotional ups and downs, as well as vitality, ambition, and his own internal values. The child’s parents, in essence, hold his mirror, and show him a vision of himself, that will ultimately become his own. What such a child (and all children) desperately needs, therefore, is to look into his parent’s eyes and see a positive reflection of himself.

This understanding of emotional/social development, if correct, has broad implications for many areas of life, such as parenting, psychotherapy, group psychology – and of course religion. It is not hard to see why. The God of the Western monotheisms is both omniscient and immanent, so God sees everything, even our innermost thoughts. And God is often understood to set the standards for human behavior, and show us how well we approach them. God, in other words, is the perfect mirror.

Now, without getting into the question of whether or not God actually exists, it seems fair to ask what function God, as a psychic entity, plays in the emotional life of the believer. Here is one: God can serve to solidify a believer’s sense of self by providing the mirroring functions discussed above. God, like your parents, sees you, and reflects a version of yourself to you. What version you see says a lot about who you are, what you struggle with, and who you may become.


This understanding has been important to me because, years ago, as a Christian fundamentalist, I saw myself in the mirror given me by that theology. I looked to God to teach me who I was, and what I saw in his mirror was deepest sin: ugly and defective, twisted and perverse. C. S. Lewis teaches quite uncompromisingly that we are indeed a “horror” to God, and that our worst sense of self, our deepest shame and guilt, is our truest. The fundamentalist God is an exacting taskmaster, an austere and infinite agent of moral perfection, accepting of us on his terms and his terms alone. What I saw in the eyes of my God was not bedrock human worth, not a realistic awareness of both strengths and weakness, but rather corruption, indeed “Ultimate” corruption.

But it worked for me, after a fashion. It did what I needed it to do; it shored up my fragile sense of self. I was taught my old, sinful self – and all the overwhelming pain, frustration, loss, and shame that existed in my life – died at my conversion, washed away in the blood of Christ. A more potent mechanism for repressing painful emotion has never been devised. I was indeed a new creation, because all the conflicted messiness of my inner life had been denied in the glorious embrace of my God. And – as if it could get any better – this particular mirror showed me my significance, as one of God’s Chosen. I found purpose and meaning in my life, and in all creation, precisely because I mattered to God.

But only because I mattered to God. This was an unseen problem, because it effectively trapped me within the faith. “Mattering” had not been internalized, not broken free of the mirror. I was completely dependent on God and my faith for all sense of importance. Mattering to myself was irrelevant and impossible – and even more, condemned as sin – because the self, in fundamentalism, is so thoroughly devalued. Mattering to God was the only mattering that mattered.

And there were even more painful costs than that. I was saved, all right, but for whatever reason I was never able to entirely repress all of my “bad” emotions. Consequently my God’s mirror caught, reflected and amplified those emotions, those failures, and my constant, losing struggle as sadness and anger became hopelessness and despair. This in turn only sparked ever-greater efforts to purify myself of these sins by forcibly shoving them out of consciousness. For me to have relaxed my vigilance, and let any genuine emotion surface, would have threatened the whole system. As a result – and tragically – there was no “immersion” in life any longer possible for me, because I could not accept my emotional experience for what it was, without evaluating it or judging it, from the fantasized viewpoint of God.

But there is no more fundamental pleasure in being alive than in feeling one’s emotional self, simply and directly. So in effect, by being conscious, all the time, of an imagined Judge that was in turn conscious of me, all the time, I committed myself to living a caricature of my humanity. I purchased my salvation at the cost of the most basic experience of life. In the end, what I lost the most was this childlike ability to do what my son did naturally – savor immediacy, the joy of being in one’s own creaturely skin.


I thought about all of this as my son ate his macaroni. I watched him, while he methodically (and delightedly) streaked cheese sauce on the table (over and over, just to see what would happen), carefully fed occasional bites to the dogs (then resumed use of the spoon for himself), and got pasta bits in his hair. I watched him eat, pure and gorgeous in his ordinary human messiness, and, I hope there is no doubt by now, the mere thought of teaching him corruption was, and is, (can there be any other word?) blasphemous. To me, my son is holy. Fundamentalism is wrong for this reason alone. For all the apologetics I have struggled to answer, this argument is unanswerable by any preacher of sin: a child eating macaroni.

Now…. I confess, I am a bit embarrassed by this language. It is hyperbolic and I am not known to my friends and family as an effusive person. But all parents know that there are few things that show us the meaning, purpose, and seriousness of life more than having children. And in doing so, I have discovered a health and vigor amidst all the rot of my fundamentalist indoctrination. Love, as philosopher Robert Solomon once wrote, sets your priorities right.

So by now in my life it matters much less to me whether there is a God than to what use he is put. An anonymous rabbi once said: humans made God because God needs us. Having children has taught me my own answer to this riddle – we are needed to revere and cherish one another and to repair the world. We are needed to be mirrors to each other, reflecting the best possible version of the Thou that makes each of us unique. We should show one another an image that says: you are good, and you have the power to be better.

So what do I want to show my son? I will celebrate, and exult in, his messy self – like the cheese on his face – and the equally messy, glorious, imperfect humanity that I share with him. I will show him the unconditional love and acceptance of all aspects of the self that is the basis for self-esteem, as well as empathy. I will teach him that through his humanity – his sadness and his loss and his finitude – comes a gut-and-soul appreciation of the preciousness of life. I will show him by example how to treat others with respect and compassion and tenderness. I will show him the image of “God” within him and within all the world.

And I will teach him – or, rather, help him remember – that it’s okay, every once in a while, to forget about the mirror, dig into your dinner with both hands, and even, sometimes, get cheese on your face.

– Richard

Entry filed under: Richard. Tags: , , , .

What are the best arguments, and what are the strawmen? Onward, Christian Children

26 Comments Add your own

  • 1. efrique  |  September 10, 2008 at 2:02 am


  • 2. Karen  |  September 10, 2008 at 2:30 am

    Exquisite indeed, touching my own deconversion story more roughly than I’d expected. I was raised Catholic, in the gentle faith that followed Vatican II for a couple of decades. Throughout childhood and adolescence, I suffered from depression, but it was never diagnosed; in fact, I was often castigated at home for not being upbeat enough.

    Then, with my new non-Catholic husband, I started attending an evangelical church. Wow. Every Sunday I was told how worthless I was, and how I must submit to their god to be redeemed. I was re-baptized as an evangelical Christian, but my response to the sermons only got worse. Every week I was being told what my depressed self knew all too well: I was useless, a burden to all those around me, and an unredeemable sinner. Finally my husband insisted we stop going to church, since he couldn’t stand to see me dissolve in tears during every sermon.

    Several years later, when depression finally rendered me unable to concentrate at all, I finally got both medicine and the assistance of an excellent psychologist. We didn’t talk much about religion — there were more pressing issues — but properly medicated and with a restored sense of self-value I saw through all the religious BS very clearly.

    Husband and I are both now atheists. But I still worry, sometimes, about how many other depressed individuals are being driven further into their own personal darkness by the evangelical mindset. I can’t think of someone I despise enough to wish that they might experience that particular version of Hell.

  • 3. john t.  |  September 10, 2008 at 8:26 am


    Wonderful article. My wife thought it was so well written she had to print it out(hope you dont mind). I just wanted to say that my wife and I both are believers in a creator(god) yet we dont buy into the religious, fundamentalist approach that many people seem to do. We teach our children that there is a safety in a connectedness(god) that goes beyond just our physical senses. We dont feel a need to quantify it, but we also dont shy away from our belief that there is a driving force to all that we see. As parents your article resonated with us and we feel as you do when it comes to Macaroni ………..well at least I do 😉

  • 4. becky  |  September 11, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    I may have read this article wrong, but what I have understood and correct me if I am wrong, is one of the errors taught in modern/post-modern Christianity, which is performance-based spirituality. What has been described is spiritual denial when one neglects true thoughts emotions, feelings, pain and sin.
    In addition, psychology teaches the foundations on which human beings develop. Erik Erickson’s stages of growth is something that is innate within humans a basic necessity in order to grow and mature adequately at each developmental stage or phase in life. Research has shown that if one stage is missing inadequate growth occurs in a person and the individual will remain at that stage.
    The church to me has unknowingly developed or partnered with modern psychology thought, which is cognitive-behavior therapy. One of cognitive-behavior therapy weaknesses/shortness are in exactly what you have stated that when something is deep within you, one cannot cover over what is truly there. The church for some reason has adopted this thought, which is actually false and is not scripturally sound.


  • 5. Yurka  |  September 12, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    You shouldn’t be confusing table manners with sin. The Pharisees did it legalistically (‘why do your disciples not wash their hands?’)
    and perhaps you’ve had a bad experience with similar individuals. But the proper reaction is to realize they were wrong to equate the two, not to conclude that people are essentially sinless, as you seem to be doing.

    To say ‘fundamentalists’ preach total depravity because of bad table manners is a strawman.

    You can’t deny that we’ve all done and thought things that are just plain wrong, so what is the point of trying to say that the sight of your son being messy means people are essentially OK? It doesn’t follow. Someday he will do something that requires you disciplining him.

    So stop trying to convince yourself that fundamentalism is *necessarily* morbid and unhealthy. There’s Fred Phelpses to be sure, but there are also John Pipers and James White who have well adjusted families.

  • 6. Richard  |  September 12, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    Yurka –
    Thank you for your thoughts, but I think you’ve missed the point of my article.

    I know table manners are not considered sin; I didn’t say they were. What I aimed to say (in an emotionally impactful way, to be sure) was that fundyism preaches sin and total depravity, period (not because of manners), and that that is destructive and psychologically toxic. I also wished to point out that parents have a whole lot to do with whether this message is conveyed or not, and my own experience with having children. Which was that teaching fundamental corruption – intrinsic badness – is immoral, in my view. And unhealthy.

    My kids already do things that require discipline, like anyone’s. But I do not (and never again will) interpret that as a sign of some inborn inner flaw, weakness, or corruption. There’s all the difference in the world, psychologically, in saying someone is basically good (or even basically neutral) and sometimes does bad things, than saying they are basically bad whose best efforts at good “is as filthy rags.”

    And, for the record, I do not believe all religion or all Christianity is destructive in this manner. Far, far from it. I do maintain the specific teachings of total depravity and original sin can be quite destructive.

  • 7. Richard  |  September 12, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    Becky – the teachings that I received years ago were only slightly tempered from the stark picture I have painted. My church elders would not (to be fair) have said that feeling pain is sinful, or grief, or anger, or whatever. They would most certainly have said that anyone whose pain is not easily or quickly cured is failing, in some way, to trust, to turn it over to God, and allow his transformative grace to heal you. It was okay to hurt, but you had better get over it fast. My own experience was with difficult problems that were not easily fixed, and thus I spent many years in self-flagellation wondering what I was doing wrong.

  • 8. becky  |  September 12, 2008 at 3:29 pm


    it is an unfortunate teachings that many have experienced from the church. Sometimes I wonder if they grasp the full meaning of the Bible. The book of Job demonstrates this very issue his friends kept telling him it must be this or it must be that and Job always countered the their retorts. In the end of the story, God was furious at Job’s friend for their treatment of him.

    You are not alone in what you have experienced and described.


  • 9. Joan Ball  |  September 12, 2008 at 8:41 pm

    This is a very interesting post for me. I grew up without any of these notions you describe. No notion of sin. No God. No faith. Right, wrong, good and bad were determined by what my parents taught me. If it was okay with them (or if they didn’t find out) it was okay with me. It was, in many ways, the ultimate legalism. While I am confident it was not their intention, they became God to me. My “conscience” as it was, became completely situational based upon whether or not my actions would result in a punative result from them, a teacher, police, etc. My parents expressed love and attention when we did the “right” thing and disapproval when we did the “wrong” thing. So, I lied, cheated, stole, disrespected myself and disrespected others without concern as long as my parents never found out. I had no internal compass that kept me from taking an action just because it was wrong (kind of like a kid putting macaroni on his head). At the same time, since I wanted love from my parents, I kept up appearances, doing the things they liked on the outside and living a shadow life where I could “be myself” which meant being flawed and unique with desires that were different from my parents best estimation of what was right. It was the same situation many fundametalists describe without God. My theory is that conditional love in any form–from an authoratative interpretation of God as father or an authoritative interpretation of father as God–is damaging to the human psyche.

    I am very grateful, after 37 years of atheism and agnosticism, to have come to an understanding of/relationship with an unconditionally loving God.

    And I am so glad that I am not the final arbiter of what right and wrong looks like for my kids. That would be way too much responsibility for me.

  • 10. Richard  |  September 12, 2008 at 10:34 pm

    My theory is that conditional love in any form–from an authoratative interpretation of God as father or an authoritative interpretation of father as God–is damaging to the human psyche.

    Joan, I couldnt agree more! That is my conclusion as well. And that is exactly my point about teaching sin and depravity — especially original sin. That sort of love is blatantly and obscenely conditional, in my view. Although to be more precise, I should perhaps draw a distinction between unconditional love and unconditional acceptance.

    In my fundamentalist training, we were taught God loved us unconditionally — enough to sacrifice his son and all that — but the message was clearly “He loves you despite how rotten and undeserving you are.” Even feeling certain feelings (which obviously we cant control) is proof of how rotten you are.

    Some parents convey this message to their children — perhaps yours did; I dont know. I dont think such parents are necessarily indifferent to their children (or mean to cause harm). Some, like Yurka (#5) above hints at, just automatically interpret children’s behavior (disobedience, impulsivity, aggression) as “evidence” of that original sin. “You dont have to teach children to be bad.” This view is, tragically, part of our culture.

    The paradox is that there is no more effective motivator to bring out the best in people than teaching them, at a young age, that they are okay just as they are.

  • 11. Joan Ball  |  September 12, 2008 at 11:22 pm

    Richard: We are in full agreement until the last line…

    “The paradox is that there is no more effective motivator to bring out the best in people than teaching them, at a young age, that they are okay just as they are.”

    I thought/hoped that teaching my kids that they were okay just the way they were was the “right way” to bring out the best in them. In fact, my husband and I had many discussions about this over the years because it was quite important to me to employ this strategy. But ultimately, while I always made clear to them that I loved them, I was forced (especially in the case of my daughter who is now 18) to make clear that she was not okay. In fact, despite my best (albeit imperfect) efforts to help her accept herself as she is, she shared many of the same insecurities and depressive/addictive tendencies that I did.

    Following a messy transition, she is now doing great. And, now that the dust has settled, she is the first one to say that she was not okay just the way she was and that she is very grateful that we called her (and continue to call he) on her crap. It just goes to show that any rules applied absolutely (even good ones) can lead to challenges…but that’s all part of the journey.

  • 12. ordover  |  September 13, 2008 at 12:56 am

    Calling someone out on their “crap” and helping them identify areas of their lives where they need help or moderation isn’t quite the same as saying they are, at their core, evil sinners not worth their weight in shit.

  • 13. silentj  |  September 13, 2008 at 8:54 am

    I agree with Ordover.

    I also think a lot of the issue is what kinds of things we tell our kids at a developmentally appropriate time. While I’m no expert, it seems to me that you do need to address actions with kids at a young age. However, bringing up who they are as a person (bad kid, good kid, etc.) isn’t especially helpful.

    When they’re older, you can reason with them on why their actions are inappropriate or wrong.

    Now seems to be a pretty interesting time because of the so much research going on about the mind. It’s an interesting time to be a parent, but a little scary, given that there seems to be opposing views on parenting with evidence to support each.

    What I’m quickly finding out is that as long as you love your kids, care for them, support them, and show them right from wrong, you’re probably going to be o.k. I know plenty of well adjusted kids who got spanked and plenty of well adjusted kids who got time-out. I know smart kids who watched TV and not so smart kids who read books. All in all, I think as long as we’re doing an o.k. job and not terrifying them with fears of hell or screaming to them about how bad they are, they’re going to be o.k.

  • 14. Joan Ball  |  September 13, 2008 at 11:55 am

    I was not raised on being “bad”. I was raised that “you could do anything you put your mind to.” We were all smart, accomplished kids, so this axiom became truth. If you are smart and work hard enough, you can do anything you put your mind to. And so I accomplished and I accomplished, but inside I knew something was off with me. Something was not right. There was a disconnect that all of my application of mind over matter was just not fixing. I am sure that had I been told I was sinful by nature and damned or something I’d feel the same way you guys do. I just want to weigh in on the other side because the polar opposite–being taught that you are good by nature (and therefore all those failures and shortcomings would get better if you just worked harder, tried harder, were a little smarter, etc.) can have a downside as well. That is why, as silentj notes, parenting is such a tough job.

  • 15. becky  |  September 13, 2008 at 12:53 pm


    great thoughts and points. somewhere in all this it is almost as religion has adopted the principles of the American Dream and has damaged many.

    something is not right within us all and how to clearly communicate that sometimes get lost in translation.


  • 16. john t.  |  September 13, 2008 at 1:12 pm


    I think the problem is that of absolutism. The problem as I see it, is we are neither all good or all bad. Were somewhat of both. Unfortunately much of Christianity professes that we are inherently bad and it seems from your upbringing you were told anything is possible. Do you think that maybe if we chose the middle way things in life would go much smoother? There is a great Myth called Icarus that really shows that point well.

  • 17. john t.  |  September 13, 2008 at 1:16 pm


    Even the bible talks about the duality of life. Seems God has it too.

    Isaiah 45:7 (King James Version)

    I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

  • 18. Joan Ball  |  September 13, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    Johnt: Here’s where I have landed on this. I really don’t mind thinking of myself as a sinful mess. That may be because I was never beat over the head with it. As a matter of fact, for me it came as something of a relief. It explained a lot for me and gave me something tangible to go after. Since I first came to the “sin nature” concept through a 12 step program, there was also a different language that may have been a gentler introduction for my then science-oriented mindset. Instead of sin, recovery refers to “character defects”. Did I have character defects? Yup. Were many of them traceable back to childhood? Yup. Was I able to get rid of them by brute force? Nope. Was I willing to lay down my ego and try something different? I sure was.

    Thus began a movement in the direction of less self-sufficiency, which eventually became a belief in a power greater than myself which later became a faith in God, which then emerged as a faith in Jesus as the son of that God. I don’t get into the tit for tat over whether those “character defects” are sin or genetics or if sin is genetic, etc., etc. I have (finally) come to learn that I am just not smart enough to have all of those answers.

    So, long way to a short answer, I have found the balance you describe in what I still perceive to be a surprising place…my faith.

  • 19. john t.  |  September 13, 2008 at 1:40 pm


    Ah, you have developed the ability to use what works. Kudos.

  • 20. Joan Ball  |  September 13, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    Johnt: Not sure what you mean…

  • 21. john t.  |  September 13, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    Youve found a faith that helps you deal with life and its complexities, and from what ive noticed dont get too caught up in the many details of that faith. You seem to use what works, and avoid the other aspects.

  • 22. Joan Ball  |  September 13, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    Johnt: Actually, I get quite quite caught up in the details and spend many hours seeking to have a deeper understanding of what this faith is about. That is part of the reason I love this site so much. What I don’t do is argue about it. To clarify, I actually do not believe that I get to pick and choose what parts of this to believe…that would mean that I am making up my own religion, which is pretty scary.

    Instead, I am working on conforming my life to my best understanding of it. Of course this will be a life’s work since I must live in the uncertainty of constant change in the face of a continually evolving understanding of the faith.

    The result is actually the opposite of “finding a faith that helps deal with life and its complexities.” In fact, in many ways it has created new and more challenging complexities in my life and the lives of my family members.

    It is actually a very rich and exciting existence…which is not how many people I know tend to describe their experience of Chrisitianity.

  • 23. john t.  |  September 13, 2008 at 3:35 pm


    I just finished reading a very interesting and entertaining book called “The year of living Biblically, One mans Humble quest to follow the Bible as Literally as possible”. Its my opinion and it seems that the Author has the same, Everyone picks and chooses from the Bible. I heard a nice quote, you might like this.

    “Wherever your Heart is, your exegesis will follow”

  • 24. Richard  |  September 13, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    Joan – I appreciate your thoughtfulness and your insights. You have helped me refine my view and stimulate some thought. Although I am still convinced that teaching children they are fundamentally wicked is psychologically destructive, perhaps that is more sure than the opposite; namely, that teaching them that they are good = psychologically healthy. But its probably more complex even than that.

    There are a lot of variables and influences that go into child development and not all of them (or even most) have anything to do with religion. For instance, have you ever read Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child? She argues, persuasively to my mind, that an exaggerated emphasis on the success of the child, and excessive praise, can actually be harmful. It gives the child the message that she is valued more for what she does than for what she is. I.e., as a “narcissistic extension” of the parent – as though her sole purpose in life is to reflect well on the parent. It can result in a profoundly fragile self-esteem. Very much like my “mirror” metaphor in my post.

    That’s just an example. Its hard to generalize much about child development, since it is so complex. There are also biological predispositions or concepts like “goodness of fit” between a childs temperament and that of his (often loving and well-intended) parent. What I take away from my own experience is that the labeling of thoughts and feelings into the categories of good and bad is what I found to be so destructive for me. Emotions and thoughts are morally and ethically neutral, in my view, which is a good thing because convincing ourselves that they are “bad” is a pretty awful mess to be in. We cant control our feelings and by and large cant control our thoughts by force of will (“whatever you do, do not think of a polar bear.” Now what just went through your head?) Of course, what we *do* based on our thoughts and feelings matters quite a lot.

    And that’s the take home message for me. I want to teach my kids that they are okay no matter what they think or feel. That’s what I meant by “okay” in #10. Not that anything they *do* is okay, but that there is a difference between their feelings and thoughts and their core selves. That’s the distinction that Christianity, as I experienced it, tried to obliterate, and I spent years crawling out from under it.

  • 25. Derek  |  September 15, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    I’m going to have to re-read this again, when I’m not hungry.

  • 26. LeoPardus  |  September 15, 2008 at 12:57 pm


    Husband and I are both now atheists.

    I asked you about this over on the forum site. As I recall, he was still a believer only a year or two ago. Come on over the the forum and tell me the story please.

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