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…

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

  1. Robin:
    CharlieM: Parents who love their children gradually allow them progressively greater freedom to live and act as they themselves see fit. Do you see this as dubious?

    Robin: No, but then I do not believe omni-gods would (or could) ever be in the same role or relationship to us humans as a parent-child role/relationship.

    What about other divine beings? The Bible mentions many other beings besides God and humans. These beings were later ranked by Dionysius the Areopagite.

    CharlieM: The Old Testament contains an understanding of God from the point of view of the Jewish people at that time.

    Robin: Absolutely! And this is my point exactly. The depictions reflect a projection of the Jews’ experience with petulant, erratic, fickle, unforgiving kings. This is a very anthropomorphic depiction, something I do not myself believe in.

    Which is your right.

    CharlieM: So is it that you find dubious the concept of a God who is willing to relinquish power because you would then have to consider the possibility of a less-than-omni-god?

    Robin: Sort of, but it’s also that I just don’t accept the concept of anthropomorphic or anthropocentric gods. As I note in my essay I’m Special, the idea that an omni-god would create an entire universe and then, for some “reason”, focus only on some ridiculously minute element of the whole thing is bizarrely absurd to me. Couple that with the idea that such an entity would relate to, let alone have, a similar emotional appreciation and perspective to this ridiculously minute subset of the entire enchilada strikes me as close to impossible.

    Of course it is not just you who should be having problems with the Biblical account of creation and how to interpret it. In Genesis we read, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. This plural form has always proved difficult for scholars to make sense of.

    CharlieM: There is a Christian initiation process based on the Passion of Christ follows seven stages. The first stage is termed “The washing of the feet”. At this stage the candidate acquires a feeling of gratitude for the whole of nature. An understanding is developed that we owe our existence to the lower kingdoms of nature.

    Robin: Ok. I can go along with this philosophically.

    Good.

    CharlieM: So you are arguing against a transcendent God and not an immanent God?

    Robin: No, I would say I find both problematic. Immanence suggests that a God is manifested in the material world itself. I’m don’t really buy that. In Creating the Anthropocentric God essay, I try to illustrate my issue with the analogy to a human trying to live within an enormous HO scale train model – a creator living within what It created. I just don’t see it as something that could possibly work.

    I think we both agree that the white-bearded old man God is a non-starter.

    Goethe:

    What God would just push the world from without,
    And let it run in circles on his finger?
    Him it behooves to move it in its core,
    Be close to nature, hug her to her breast
    So that what lives and weaves in him and is,
    Will never lack his power and his spirit.

    But perhaps with Goethe we can see, God in Nature, and Nature in God.

    You are asking me to describe something that is beyond our imagination. How would that be possible?

    Robin: You stated that you think the suffering of Christ is continuous and beyond what we could really imagine. My response is that first and foremost, suffering is not beyond imagination – not even immense suffering. The families and friends of 19 children and two teachers didn’t suffer simply on the day of the shootings in Uvalde; they will be suffering for the rest of their lives and likely in ways we can’t fully appreciate. But I dare say some of us can imagine it to some extent. Ditto the literally millions of folk in Ukraine who are suffering and will continue to feel suffering for decades and beyond. So, just to be snarky about it, I am suggesting that I actually can imagine (well…not only imagine…) pretty immense suffering. What people choose to believe or try to believe about some deity-in-human-form’s ability or level of suffering is, to put it bluntly, not all that impressive to me.

    Well we can all begin to imagine immense suffering. But how are we to describe ultimate suffering?

    CharlieM: It is not so much God testing us as us testing ourselves.

    Robin: Yeah…that was WJM take as well. I don’t buy that either.

    And it’s not my place to sell it to you. All we can be is true to ourselves.

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