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God Probably Isn’t Watching (But Occasionally it Would Be Useful if He Was)

“My parents always told me, ‘We might not see everything you do but God does.’” This statement made an appearance during a recent conversation with an older friend about whether or not God as “judge” is something that Christians ought to celebrate, fear, or loathe. I’m not sure what your reaction to this particular parenting strategy is. Perhaps you think it is yet another diseased expression of what is by now a mercifully outmoded attempt at social control—the equivalent of God as a kind of gleefully punitive cosmic Santa Claus, who knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness’ (or bribery’s) sake. Maybe you think this is the kind of thing we need to get back to—“Kids these days gotta be whipped into moral shape somehow!”

My own response leans more toward the former than the latter. I am strongly disinclined to use fear (i.e., “terror” or “fright” rather than the more appropriate reverence that I think Scripture almost always means by “fear of the Lord”) as a way of attempting to instill morality or piety into children. Or adults, for that matter. Fear cannot produce genuine love. Of this, I am utterly convinced. And trying to control people’s behaviour by appealing to a severe all-seeing eye in the sky sounds rather more Orwellian than Christian.

It’s not that I don’t understand the temptations of such a view. I am the father of teenagers, after all, and there are certainly moments when social control seems momentarily attractive. But only momentarily. Like most decent parents, I want my kids to do what is right because they are attracted by goodness and beauty and virtue, not because they are afraid of what God will do to them if they pursue their opposites.

And yet. The idea of a God who sees all is biblical. Where can I flee from your presence, and all that. And even for those who aren’t inclined to bother much with Scripture or God, there might just be a bit of social utility in believing that this is the case. So muses Colby Cosh over at the National Post in response to the #metoo movement that has been sweeping across most of our social media feeds over the last few days. For those who might not be aware of this phenomenon, women have been speaking up via this simple hashtag on social media to show how widespread sexual harassment and assault are out there. As you have no doubt seen by now, there are few women who have not been affected by male indecency, crudity, vulgarity, and, of course at worst, sexual assault of all kinds. Just in case we were tempted to believe we were progressing too much as a species.

At any rate, Cosh takes an interesting detour after expressing his quite appropriate support of the #metoo movement. He talks about how once upon a time we all believed in a God who sees all and how everyone expected, on some level at least, “an ultimate trial of his conduct, both seen and unseen, in the afterlife.” We don’t anymore, of course,

but could there be value in the mental habit of occasionally imagining a complete record of one’s life, or a cosmic judge, that does not literally exist? Hearing how some men conduct themselves, or even thinking of myself at my worst, I cannot help wondering if we have misplaced a useful metaphorical aid to rigorous self-scrutiny. To introspection and growth and honour.

In other words, some of these guys—and let’s be honest, guys are almost exclusively the problem here; this appears to be one area, at least, where gender norms remain rather static—might behave themselves a bit better, might be a bit less creepy and violent and inappropriate and perverted, if they believed that someone might be watching them, that they might be accountable for their actions. Wouldn’t that be something? God is, of course, mostly inconvenient superstitious nonsense for us twenty-first century sophisticates. But in this case, tricking ourselves into believing that God exists, that he cares about what we do (or don’t do), and that we will have to answer for our conduct some day might actually be a useful strategy for reigning in the raging libidos of men who seem to think that the only criteria for evaluating their behaviour is, “Can I get away with it?” Interesting.

Cosh ends his piece on an equally interesting note:

Sometimes I even suspect that perhaps the rancour and recrimination between the sexes one finds on social media today might be necessary or inevitable—that we are destined to replace our personal superegos with an apparatus of public shame. Forget imaginary trials: most every woman I’ve known well, from my mother onward, really is skulking out there on Twitter or Facebook. My reputation could be badly mangled by any two or three of them, as if I lived in a small 19th-century town—and maybe that is proper; maybe men of the future will need to re-learn it, and accept it as fact in boyhood. And, as the lawyers say, govern themselves accordingly.

We are still, evidently, some distance from pursuing what is good for goodness’ sake. Even Santa Claus can’t convince us of it without recourse to bribery and we seem unlikely to consider it on our own. We are, after all, embarrassingly human. So the God we have mostly rejected is replaced by an “apparatus of public shame.” This is an apparatus that I suspect most of us who cast the occasional glance toward social media are well acquainted with. The righteous mob has replaced God. Who among us hasn’t hesitated before posting something online for fear of how the mob will react? Who among us hasn’t contemplated pulling the plug on the whole show, so quick is the mob to rush to judgment, to pronounce the verdict, to let the hammer fall?

Perhaps the mob, like the few residual ideas of an all-seeing God that loiter about in our post-Christian consciousness, has its uses. In cases like #metoo, I think real good can be done, real pressure can be exerted upon men who might now think twice about sidling creepily up to that young woman at the bar with nothing good in mind. But overall, I am rather more suspicious of mobs than that. They are rarely as righteous as they imagine themselves to be. The apparatus of public shame is far too convenient and self-serving for far too many (particularly online). I’ll take a God who sees and knows all over a mob that thinks they do pretty much any day of the week.

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