Personal Gods and the Problem of Empty Toilet Paper Tubes

Another essay from my collection. Of note, this one was inspired by another poster on one of the sites I used to visit, however I don’t recall the poster’s name or what site this originally came up on. I’d like to give that poster credit for the original concept, so if the subject here rings a bell and you know who posted the idea previously, let me know. The essay is a more fleshed out and greatly elaborated take on the concept. _________________________________

I was brought up as an Episcopalian and went to church nearly every Sunday between the ages of about five through about fifteen. I recall many sermon topics and biblical teachings, but the topic that seemed to come up more frequently than others is the concept of a personal God. Certain priests and laypeople really gravitated to the idea that God was available on a personal level and claimed outright (and reiterated many times) that God wanted to have a personal relationship with everyone. This, of course, was coupled with the idea that God was also an all loving God. So, not only did this God want to hang out as buds, but in theory wanted the best for those folk it hung out with. Kind of like an invisible friend, but with the added bonus of being…well…Almighty. I confess, I really loved the idea of having God as a personal friend who was…well, in theory…really much cooler than any of my human friends. As you might imagine, I started to become a little annoyed and rather disillusioned when said supposed cool friend never actually did anything…well…cool. In fact, after a number of years it became quite clear (and rather disappointing) that this God didn’t do anything personal, at least not with me.

Let me be clear about something: my beef with the lack of personal interaction has nothing to do with my “requiring” this God to “prove” its personal friendship (which is a criticism some have leveled against my point in the past.) This is not a case of, “if you really were my personal friend, you’d give me a pet Godzilla for my birthday.” Rather, this is the recognition that over a good ten years, this supposed personal God never did anything personal or even anything that most people take for granted as normal acts of personal kindness. Over the years, I’ve come up with a thought experiment to illustrate the obvious paradox. The concept is pretty simple to grasp: if the claim that God is (or can be) a personal, loving friend, why are there empty toilet paper rolls?

Think about that for a minute or two. I mean, really think about it. Then consider this thought experiment.

Let’s say you are at home and you feel the urge to go to the bathroom. You waltz on in and sit down to do your business. You look over and discover (oh no!) the toilet paper roll is empty! Damn!

Now let’s say you’re not home alone. Maybe your spouse is home, or your brother or sister, or maybe one of your kids or one of your parents, or maybe a friend is visiting. It doesn’t matter who else is in the house really. The critical element is that someone who, at least on some level, cares about you and with whom you have a personal relationship is in the house.

So you call out to this person, “honey? The toilet paper roll is empty. Can you bring me a new roll?” Now, what are the odds this person, who supposedly loves you and with whom you have a definite personal relationship, is going to bring you a new roll of toilet paper? I submit that if you answered anything other than 1 (note: odds are a ratio of the number of desired or likely outcomes against the number of undesirable or unlikely outcomes. If there is no likelihood of any undesirable outcomes, then the ratio is 1. 1 is equivalent to 100%), you might want to start reevaluating your relationships.

The point is that the vast majority of people, if they are honest, all admit that pretty much any personal relationship loved one would bring them a roll of toilet paper. Even the antagonistic relationship siblings I’ve asked have universally all agreed that they’d eventually relent (after a certain amount of some kind of grief and teasing) and bring their sibling a roll.

Now, let’s take the same basic scenario, but this time none of your immediate family or a visiting personal human friend are at home. What are the odds of a roll of toilet paper appearing if you ask God to get you one?

I’m not being flippant here (well…not entirely). The fact is, this just doesn’t seem to happen. And the thing is, the “personal” in personal God has to mean “interactive” with a particular person. That’s the definition of personal. So, if this God can’t or won’t do some interactive something as simple as bringing someone a roll of toilet paper, how can it be considered “personal” in any sense of the term?

Of note, one of the most common responses I get when I offer this apparent paradox to folks – usually theistic folk – to consider is that, well…providing someone a roll of toilet paper would be incredibly trivial for a God. My immediate rebuttal is always, “but what isn’t trivial to a God?” I’ve never gotten an answer. Seriously. The moment I’ve noted that if we’re talking about an entity that supposedly is the creator of the universe and ask what act could be defined as “not trivial”, the people arguing for actions too trivial for such a God tend to realize there’s no honest argument. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that some folk haven’t tried to double down with the old, “God decides what is His prerogative” usually coupled with some variation of “and the Lord works in mysterious ways.” I just roll my eyes. Such responses strike me as more supporting of my point that this supposed God isn’t very personal.

Keep in mind too, if you really think about it, if an act like bringing someone toilet paper is too trivial for a God to bother with, in what sense would said God ever interact with anyone? I’ll be getting into more detail on the issues of omni-gods (that is, a God with omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and so forth), but the point is that if there is some way to actually measure certain actions as trivial for some God, why wouldn’t said God just do them? I mean, what’s the loss? Unless said omnigod has limitations or some form of action parameters, then it would seem that trivial actions would actually be something a God would do with abandon since they would definitely demonstrate the personal element to its faithful and would have no actual impact on the God’s ability to do other rather more important things simultaneously (whatever those might be.)

Kind of makes me wonder why coffee isn’t just ready for drinking every morning…

106 thoughts on “Personal Gods and the Problem of Empty Toilet Paper Tubes

  1. CharlieM: You need to ask yourself, “how relevant is my hypothetical situation to the Christian idea of God?”

    No I don’t. The exercise is merely to point out the inherent contradiction with the religious claim (the Christian God is a personal, loving entity) and the available evidence. I’m well aware the theological, epistemological, intellectual, definitional, emotional, etc. gymnastics that many Christians will go through to try to reconcile such paradoxes and contradictions. Perhaps I’ll attempt to address some of that in another essay. For now, this works perfectly well for the point being addressed.

    Christianity would not be Christianity without the inclusion of the struggle between good and evil, without opposing forces such as the adversary, the tempter, the devil, Satan, Lucifer, the serpent, the dragon and other supposed evil spirits.

    Which is irrelevant to the point. The struggle between good and evil doesn’t require a personal, loving god concept.

    Do you think that God would best serve individuals by satisfying every need they have for their own comfort without regard to the wider consequences.

    I don’t think any god concept serves any element of creation by interfering or tweaking with it. But then I’m not the one making the inherent contradictory claim that a god both perfectly created a plan and set it in motion AND is also supposedly personal. To put it bluntly, if a god is not going to satisfy any individual’s needs, let alone all, then by definition it isn’t a personal, loving god.

    If I was aware that God was catering for my every need, then, through His actions I would have no reason to doubt His existence. My belief would be conditional on outer circumstances. But if God wished us to believe in Him as a free decision, not feeling any compulsion to do so, then His interference in the way described cannot happen.

    And this is yet another incongruence my essay implies: one cannot doubt the existence of something that is personal. Seems to me that by making such a claim, Christians are contradicting the notion of faith.

    Sitting on the toilet realizing there is no paper and there is nobody available tobring some to me, I can react by becoming angry and frustrated, but this won’t change the situation. I could equally not allow the situation to rule my emotions. I react with equanimity and figure a way out of my dilemma. It is by overcoming the first reaction and following the second option in everyday situations like these that we advance as human beings.

    By catering for our every need, God would deny us this opportunity.

    This is a non-sequitur to my point. The various ways we can react to the realization of a problem has no bearing on whether the claim of a personal, loving god is valid.

  2. CharlieM: Do we imagine that the idea of God should be as and over-arching “mother”? You will never run short of toilet paper when “mother” is around. “Mother is going to keep baby healthy and clean”

    No, I absolutely do NOT view God that way. But again, I’m not the one claiming a personal, loving god.

    If our idea of God is as Universal Spirit, is it he, she or it, how can this be anything personal? Do we worship some vague entity, some unknowable spirit? Christians have a focal point for their worship, and that is Christ. Many will claim a personal relationship with Christ and Christ made it clear that to follow him meant giving up certain things. If he asked followers to give up their possessions, why would he then supply them with the possessions they have been asked to give up? I think Christ would like us to “grow up” and learn to distinguish that which is important from trivialities.

    The point, Charlie, is that many Christian institutions want it both ways. God is both inscrutable and beyond imagination, and yet personal. The two concepts are not logically reconcilable.

    Life leads us into situations which will not be to our liking. We can sit there thinking, “why me?” Or we can see the situation as an opportunity. Obstacles are there to be surmounted and if we have the personal strength to overcome them without seeking help from without at every stage, then we will get a sense of achievement.

    Oh good grief…this was Phoodoo’s misunderstanding rebuttal tangent too. Again, I’m not complaining that some god I don’t believe in doesn’t do my bidding. That has nothing to do with my essay at all. It has nothing to do with asking, “why me?” It is very specifically focused on the inherent contradiction of two separate claims about the Christian God. That’s it.

    It would be good if those believers in an omnipotent God would contribute to this discussion. I have already given my views in that regard.

    Here’s hoping…

  3. Robin:

    For the record, Charlie, I have no problem with any of the scenarios you describe above. Any of those of clearly a possibility. In writing the Toilet Paper hypothetical, I’m hoping that others, particularly supposedly “devout Christians” examine their notions of their god as a personal, loving entity and begin to consider other possibilities.

    I would hope that Christians do feel that they have a personal relationship with Christ no matter how this relates to their concept of God. This is a matter of personal experience, and they cannot hope to convince others of it through intellectual argument.

  4. keiths:
    Philomena Cunk on the Problem of Evil.

    Heh! Thanks Keiths! I am familiar with that perspective.

    Just for clarification, I personally do not have a philosophical or intellectual problem with the idea of gods existing and evil being present in the world in general. My problem is quite specifically with the idea or claim that some god (or God) is characterized as “loving and personal” and yet does nothing loving or personal. Few people (if any) would characterize an absentee mother or father as “loving and personal”, yet there are a number of religious folks who have no qualms about such contradictions with regard to their particular god or gods. I find that compartmentalized perspective rather absurd.

  5. Robin,

    I completely agree. The presence of evil and suffering in the world doesn’t conflict with the idea of god(s) per se, but it does conflict with the standard Christian concept of a tri-omni God.

    Other logically possible Gods include

    1) a God who is indifferent to suffering,
    2) a God who is loving, but too weak to eliminate evil and suffering,
    3) a God who is malevolent, but too weak to eliminate goodness and happiness, 4) a God who enjoys having the drama of good vs evil in his universe, much like we do with our TV shows,
    5) a God who is really more of an impersonal force for good, but one that doesn’t completely pervade the universe,
    6) a God who is really more of an impersonal force for evil, but one that doesn’t completely pervade the universe, and
    7) a God who is focused on something else and considers our suffering to be an unwelcome distraction.

    I could go on, but I won’t.

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