Everybody Else’s Biggest Problem: Let’s Build-A-God!

Welcome to the third installment of act three of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s […]

Mockingbird / 5.17.16

Welcome to the third installment of act three of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s biggest problem but your own. If you missed one or more of the previous installments, the entire series can be found here.

“You like your church, right?” My friend’s question came from out of the blue. “I tried bikram and meditation, then Buddhism for a while, then my own thing but none of it’s working for me. I need to try something different. Work is killing me.”

“Do you believe in God?” I asked.

“Well … I believe in a divine energy that unites all things in the universe with love and harmony.”

“Where does it come from?”

“I don’t know. It’s just what I believe.”


Last time we looked at our nation’s collective despair – skyrocketing suicide, record high fatal drug overdoses, off-the-charts depression and anxiety – and pondered a connection with the rise of the “nones.” We learned that many commentators argue that our culture is struggling with a spiritual void, an existential emptiness, a “psychic angst,” and, based on the tragic data, we are losing the struggle.

Today, in our year-long quest to define greed, we are going to examine one way we attempt to fill that void, to “quell the psychic angst” as Time magazine noted in 2013. While it may appear we are going off on a tangent, I assure you, we are not. How we process and live out our existential angst is at the heart of how we define greed. Only by undertaking this disconcerting psychoanalysis will the truth rise, like hidden fingerprints under a detective’s brush. So let’s get to it!

Yes, the number of nones — people who self-identify as atheists, agnostics or say their religion is “nothing in particular” — has increased dramatically over the past decades, but, paradoxically perhaps, “feelings of spirituality are on the rise,” according to a 2016 Pew Research headline.

What? How is this possible?

Author Rick Heller, Twitter handle @SecularMeditate, explains: “I suspect most Americans now have a personal interpretation of God.” Heller argues that “New Age spirituality has gone mainstream” and its essence is for us “to take responsibility for our pathway to the divine.”

Nobel laureate author Mario Vargas Llosa provides historical context, writing about his days living in London’s “hippy” counter-culture: “It is instructive that so many nonconformists and rebels against the dominance of Christianity would later fall under the spell” of a litany of new age gurus, from Timothy Leary to Sun Myung Moon. Llosa notes that, as opposed to rejecting religion, a segment of our culture simply swapped repressive old for liberating new. The practice continues today.


“Americans view religion in an individualistic way,” The New York Times Magazine wrote in its The Me Millennium issue in 1999. Reporting on a typical American sentiment, the Times quoted a 42-year old small business owner: “Faith means something I found myself … It’s very much a personal thing.”

Fourteen years later, in 2013, in an article titled “The Gospel According to Me,” the Times reported:

Despite the frequent claim that we are living in a secular age defined by the death of God, many citizens of rich Western democracies have merely switched one notion of God for another – abandoning their singular, omnipotent (Christian or Judaic or whatever) deity reigning over all humankind and replacing it with a weak but all-pervasive idea of spirituality tied to a personal ethic of authenticity and a liturgy of inwardness.

In an interview with Pew Research, NYU sociology professor Michael Hout says that one demographic group, millennials, “are harbingers of the ‘make your own way’ or ‘do-it-yourself’ religion.” Professor Hout believes “spiritual experiences are still attractive for people who don’t go to church” and do-it-yourself is today’s preferred – and I would add politically correct – path.

Without a doubt the overwhelming cultural trend, if we choose not to reject religion altogether and join the nones, is to manufacture our own personal god, a self-authenticating, supernaturally sublime experience, but for deities. After all … “It’s very much a personal thing.”

So, how might we personally interpret our god du jour?

Well, like my friend, we might conjure up a unifying divine energy that harmonizes with our innermost desires. Or we might build the always-popular “loving god.” You know the one, the god of only love, with perhaps a dash of peace and hugs to wash down the Xanax on stressful days. Conversely, we might whip up a non-god god, an inner resolve self-powered by pilates, spin class, weightlifting, a quarterly juice cleanse, plenty of red wine, brown whiskey and an on-again-off-again vegan (or maybe paleo?) diet.

When I was a younger man, I built my own god based on my education and material accomplishments, my stellar résumé. My god was built to give me what I wanted, a vending machine for my Robb Report lifestyle and shopping list. And, for a while, he did. I had a BMW, a lucrative career as a corporate lawyer, an Upper East Side condo, and a matched set of arrogance and attitude. In retrospect surely I was insufferable. I thought my god performed really well for me until, well, he didn’t.

I had no trouble creating my personal deity, but what if others struggle to find their individual pathway to the divine? No worries, a host of self-help books fill the need. For example, we can take matters into our own hands and read A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, which offers plenty of “practical suggestions for crafting one’s own religion.” Or we can buy God on Your Own: Finding A Spiritual Path Outside Religion, a “self-help guide designed to shepherd readers from religion to personal spirituality.”

Build-A-Bear offers “more than 30 furry friends to make and hundreds of outfits and accessories to choose,” but our own personal build-a-god is limitless! Say we want a traditional god outfitted in a flowing robe and accessorized with a white beard, a loving smile and shepherd’s crook? We got it! Or perhaps we’re in need of a police officer god, a disciplinarian dedicated to keeping us on your goal-oriented path to wellness (and hopefully compel us to deny those midnight ice cream cravings!). I think today I want a soothing universal religion overseen by an exotic eastern goddess accessorized with lotus blossoms and a tambourine. And, absolutely, I will take the optional incense for $19.99 to give my religion that authentic aroma I look for in a faith.


Mario Vargas Llosa, a self-identified agnostic, comments on the many “religions” we humans have manufactured in our “new age”:

Not many people have taken seriously this revival of superficial religious sentiment, with its picturesque aspects, its naivety and its movie paraphernalia … commercial products for domestic consumption … at times grotesquely fraudulent … they take advantage of the lack of culture, naivety and frivolity of their followers … helping them to fill a void in their lives….

I disagree with Llosa on one point: We take our monogrammed spirituality very seriously, for so long as it suits our needs. I speak from experience. If career and relationships are going well, we stick with the meditation or the prayer or the regular worship or the diet or the Soulcycle. But when the inevitable occurs – we don’t get that promotion or a marriage fails — our god has let us down so we try on something new. “Each Build-A-Bear experience is a new one,” the website promises. And so is each build-a-god experience, a new attempt to fill the void with what is functionally an elaborate toy.

And that is, in my opinion, the essence of what we “take home” when we manufacture our own religion: a mere plaything, ephemeral, ultimately forgotten and discarded, and usually replaced with something more suited to our needs (of the moment).

Speaking of playthings, our personalized Build-A-Bear is cute and cuddly, whimsical and unique. What characteristics do our build-a-gods possess?

unnamed-7The answer depends on why we’re visiting our local build-a-god. What needs do we want satisfied? What void must be filled?

Many of us want an all-powerful personal assistant. When that’s the case, our personalized god will most likely be loving, patient, helpful and, occasionally when we’re feeling tempted, gently stern. Our god may be eastern or western, traditional or modern, a soothing energy swaddled in cumulus clouds or Michelangelo’s bearded berobed grandpa.

The bottom line is, we’ve invented a god to help us out when times are tough, or even not-so-tough. We may ask our god for help with a demanding boss, or for money for a new car, or even for the line at Starbucks to move faster. Maybe we won’t bother with her, him or it unless serious trouble arises, in which case we can then fire off an emergency flare prayer, a frightened petition for mercy, perhaps when a career is in jeopardy, or when a marriage is on the rocks, or when a medical test reveals a lump.

But if we actually believe our build-a-god is able to intervene on our behalf, to save a career, nurture our nuptials, sanitize a biopsy, is this really a force that should be our personal assistant? If in times of distress we believe our deity has that kind of power, should she, he or it be relegated to the vestibule outside our office?

Author and theologian Timothy Keller speaks often on this topic, teaching “we should trust God because he is God and not as our personal assistant or life coach. We should trust him because it is his due, he is worthy of it, not because it will get us something.” But hold on! Why would we take the time to build our own god and if it will not get us something? That’s the point, right? If we can’t score actual, material benefits, surely we deserve to get at least a cozy sense of well-being, or a hint of stress-relieving spiritual wonderment that is only surpassed by a visit to lululemon. At least we can hug our too-cute Build-A-Bear!

Maybe today we don’t need a personal assistant; we need a cheerleader build-a-god, a compliant “yes man” to confirm our actions and whisper in our ears how great we really are. Tim Keller calls this god a “Stepford God,” a robot that won’t challenge or contradict or participate in our decisions, much less our lives.


But what transpires when we need more than a robotic cheerleader? Behind those hollow eyes, does our Stepford God have the power to act independently of ourselves? Of course not. If she did, we wouldn’t have created her and taken her home in the first place.

Perhaps we build a god because we assume we must, because we were raised in an oppressive church, and our consciences can’t bear the thought of the alternative. This god is the Build-A-Bear equivalent of a grizzly, occasionally in hibernation but always ready to pounce on us when we do wrong, ready to heap guilt and fear on us, to condemn us in our weakness, to bury us in a hole we dug for ourselves. Eventually most of us tire of this “grotesquely fraudulent” Frankenstein of our own creation, and we turn our backs not only on the monster, but on the urgency of our aching need for the real thing.

In the end, there are as many reasons to build-a-god as there are of us, and that is what we all ultimately create. Our build-a-gods are cookie-cutter versions of ourselves. Instead of being stuffed with soft, safe, high-grade polyester fiber, our gods are stuffed with fears, anxieties, aspirations and desires. As the Times argued in “The Gospel According to Me,” our self-made mirror gods “do not really require a belief in anything, and certainly not a belief in anything that might transcend the serene and contented living of one’s authentic life.” Our build-a-gods reflect ourselves, in all of our joy and despair and happiness and pain and success and failure. In that reality, our mirror gods are no different from the stuffed toy we take home from the mall. Our god-toys are products built for our consumption, powerless and frivolous and stuffed with nothing more than the existential equivalent of polyester fiber.

If you build a god for yourself, you have become your own god. At the conscious level, this truth is repugnant to many of us. But not to all. Research shows that millennials are the generation most likely to skip the build-a-god charade and simply trumpet their own divinity.

Examples are legion, but here’s one. The Odyssey is a website for “millennial voices on topics that matter most to them.” Recently, a young writer penned a post entitled “You Are Your Own God.” He writes:

unnamed-2Achievements are derived from being your own god. You are the determining factor in the course your life takes. You are the power that will make your success tangible … You are your own god. Put faith in your ability … You determine your future, not anyone, any god, or anything.

One might label it our twenty-first century mantra, a Stuart Smalley satire resurrected as a wildly out-of-touch but pervasive worldview, a cruel manifestation of our decades-long collective journey – dare I say odyssey? – to self-centered individualism. A pessimist might proclaim Ayn Rand has won the war for our souls.

Reading the naïve screed, I can’t help but feel sorry for what awaits the young writer. What happens when he fails to achieve? What happens when a “determining factor” in his life is out of his control? What happens when he’s unable to strong-arm his tomorrow? I painfully recall when my résumé god failed to perform up to my specifications. I was insufferable; I suffered.

In Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, the goddess Athena intervenes and saves Odysseus from the consequences of his actions. Who will save us? Our personal, self-authenticating build-a-gods? Our impotent, frivolous, cookie-cutter deities with only the power to fail and force us to eventually try on others?

Justin Chiarot writes in An Innocent Generation:

From a Christian point of view, God gives no room for individual representations or theologies. When God revealed himself to Moses, he gave his name as: “I am.” God, in his very name, eliminates perspectivalism as a legitimate theological tool. Understanding who God is is not something that is open to the interpretation of the individual. I am who I am. Take it or leave it. There is no second option of making a cookie cutter God of one’s own liking.

“Do you believe in God?” I asked.

“Well … I believe in a divine energy that unites all things in the universe with love and harmony.”

“Where does it come from?”

“I don’t know. It’s just what I believe.”

If we build a toy bear, we get a toy bear. If we build a god, we get a lie. What do I believe? What do you?