I was just reordering some of my computer files — in particular, notes taken on books read, which are easily added both to a bibliography and to a searchable database in the academic word-processor Notabene (available at notabene.com — and no, I don’t get a commission) which I have been using for years — and which is now in the process of getting a major upgrade which is going to make it un unbeatable research tool — when I came across a note on Carl Sagan’s Gifford Lectures which were published by his wife Ann Druyan as The Varieties of Scientific Experience. Let me preface what I read in that note with the observation that Carl Sagan often reflected on the smallness of the earth, and the relative insignificance of the existence of life on earth, and, in particular, the relative insignificance of human beings. He does this in Pale Blue Dot, for instance, making much of the fact that, looked at from the Voyager spacecraft as it left the solar system, the earth becomes just one pixel in the picture taken from that point of view.
In the text surrounding the note that I had jotted down ages ago, Sagan reflects that the god of the theologians is a small god, reminding me of the book published by J.B. Phillips long ago, Your God is too Small, only Sagan is making a different point. It also reminds me of Scott McKenna’s point, made in his response to my response to his speech to supporters of assisted dying in Edinburgh, where he says:
God is bigger than that. It is precisely because God is compassionate that we have nothing to fear. [my italics]
This concern about the “size” of God is interesting, because it suggests that our gods are our own creations, and we can edit them as we will. If one account of God does not measure up to expectations, we can transform it into something more comprehensive, a being who can take into consideration much more than it had been given credit for. God is bigger than we imagined. But, as Sagan says, the god of the theologians
is a god of one small world, a problem, I believe, that theologians have not adequately addressed. 
This is a problem of considerable importance, because, in fact, knowing, as we do now, how vast the universe is, the supposition that the “Creation” has been brought into being expressly with us in view seems ridiculous and self-centred; and yet this is the kind of god that we end up with. No matter how big we make our gods, we end up with one that is concerned about a form of life on what is, from many other points of view within the universe, a small suburb in a marginal galaxy. How do we get to pick ourselves as, in some sense, the purpose of the whole?
Thus even Scott McKenna’s god is, by any standards, a fairly small, tribal deity, no matter how much “bigger” it is compared with the gods of other tribes. Scott McKenna’s god is, without a doubt, “bigger” than the gods of those who think that the god with which we have, as earth-bound humans, to do, cannot accept the free moral decisions of morally responsible parts of its creation. That indeed may be seen as an improvement on gods which are thought not to leave any moral discretion to its creatures, but still, we have to wonder, why we should think that there is any god which, out of all the planets in the innumerable galaxies that comprise the universe as we know it, is concerned about the moral choices of insignificant specks of life on this planet that we call earth?
But now we come to the quote for which all this is a prelude. Let’s begin with a quote, as Sagan does, from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, from the last book, “The Passing of Arthur” (I include words which Sagan denotes with an ellipsis) — the dying Arthur is speaking:
I found him in the shining of the stars,
I mark’d him in the flowering of the fields,
But in his ways with men I find him not.
I waged his wars, and now I pass and die.
O me! for why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would … [my italics; the passage is very early in the twelfth book of the poem]
Sagan takes exception to the first line:
To me personally, [he says,] the first line, “I found Him in the shining of the stars,” is not entirely apparent. 
The Victorian habit of capitalising pronouns referring to the deity is not, to me, anyway, an appropriate usage, so I have simply dropped Tennyson’s capital aitches, while Sagan preserves them. (This is, by the way, a bad habit which many atheists have picked up, but has not been the rule amongst all except fundamentalist theologians for over fifty years.) As Sagan says, “It depends on who the Him is.” And then he continues:
But surely there is a message in the heavens that the finiteness not just of life but of whole worlds, in fact of whole galaxies, is a bit antithetical to the conventional theological views in the West, although not in the East. 
And then we get, at last, to the point that I want to emphasise here, for this, says Sagan,
suggests a broader conclusion. And that is the idea of an immortal Creator. By definition, as Ann Druyan has pointed out, an immortal Creator is a cruel god, because He, never having to face the fear of death, creates innumerable creatures who do. 
And then, he might have added, people come up with the idea that, despite this incongruity of an immortal creator creating mortal creatures who are destined to die, this immortal god has objections to the way these creatures may opt to die, rather than face the full fury of their dying years or moments.
But of course gods are creations of the human imagination, and they are, all of them without exception, limited by the minds of those who create them. And theologians have particularly small, unadventurous minds, for the simple reason that, if there is to be a god who is somehow personally involved with and concerned about our doings, it is bound to end up looking a bit like a schoolmaster dictating to children, rather than an adult dealing with other adults. God may have gone slumming in Jesus, as Christians suggest, but that Jesus, sadly, ended up as the stern, forbidding authoritarian Christ, indeed, the Christos Pantokrator, Christ the Ruler of All Things, whose picture adorns many Eastern Orthodox churches, having apparently forgotten all that he learned in the slums. Or, as many theologians suggest, he came to the slums to rescue us from them — for we’re all in it together, and need rescuing. And this can only be done by furious self-denial and self-loathing for the perfidious, loathsome slum-dwelling beings that we are, until we can measure ourselves by the full stature of Christ.
And just remember, it took the torment and torture of the slumming god — that is, as a human sacrifice – to release us from the prison-house of our humanity. If the human sacrifice of the slumming god is necessary in order to free us from the slums, and if we must constantly advert to his righteousness, because we have nothing of our own to offer — do Christians really attend to what they are doing when they are pleading Christ, or offering the Eucharistic sacrifice? — it is because we are truly nothing, and must subordinate ourselves to Christ, so that, as Paul said in First Corinthians, God might be all in all:
When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. [1 Cor 15.28]
There’s the smallness that Sagan was looking at, but it is a deceptive smallness, because, subordinate to Christ, and Christ subordinate to God, we get to be part of the all in all! And it’s all done by means of repression and sacrifice.
Of course, this great ”drama of redemption” is all pretend thought, for there isn’t an iota of evidence that any of it is true. Couldn’t be, because it all takes place on a plane that is not of this world at all. But, as Sagan reminds us, using Ann Druyan’s suggestion, there is something not only incongruous about this, but cruel. The god who sent Jesus slumming, is the god who imposed upon its creation something intolerably cruel. If it was responsible for our being, it either had no moral imagination at all, or had a demonic one. For what kind of being would create, though itself immortal, beings who had to face up, not only to finitude in every respect, but to the finitude that means that they would, in the end, cease to be, and know that that was to be their fate?
Moreover, that finitude meant that they would often morally go wrong. It is ridiculous to suppose that any god who created us by means of the processes of evolution would not know that any being resulting from evolutionary processes would tend towards cruelty and self-centredness. Evolutionary processes are about survival. Wouldn’t it have entered the creator’s mind that the result of producing self-motivating agents by this process would not only be tempted, but would necessarily often act in such a way as to ignore the consequences of their acts on other such agents? But then, to top it all off, for their creator, who had made them finite, with limited intelligence and limited compassion, and with an irrepressible drive to survive, to hold them accountable for its failure to create beings prone more to good than to evil, is absurd. One can only sympathise with Omar Khayyam’s sentiment:
Oh Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin*
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
Thou will not with Predestined Evil round
Enmesh, and then impute my Fall to Sin!
The problem is not sin so much as finitude, not evil so much as natural selection. The whole Christian drama of salvation is not only speculative, but perniciously so. Instead of recognising, as it must, that we are the products of evolutionary forces, and that our morality, such as it is, is a latecomer on the scene, it pretends that our very thoughts and feelings, even unexpressed, are of the greatest significance to the little creator god who has nothing better to do than to invigilate the spoken and unspoken thoughts of billions of individuals, and writes them all in a book of remembrance, where, if we fail in our religious duties, they will be held to our account, despite the fact that it was this creator god who set up the context in which, of course, there would be multiple failures in this respect.
Human beings are, broadly speaking, morally better than the gods they imagine, and it is time for us to recognise that it is our moral vision that needs to be addressed and understood more fully, rather than trying to imagine the kind of god that can underwrite lives of goodness and compassion. In Ireland we see religious morality at work, trying to hew to a straight moral line ascribed to a god, and finding out how deeply unsatisfactory morality carried on in this way really is. Certainly, we can, with J.B. Phillips or Scott McKenna, or other imaginative people, try to conceive of a god who would somehow be a sufficient ground for a full and free humanity, one which expressed itself in loving and humane actions. But what is the point of doing this? The gods so far conceived of tend to constrict our actions, and make us far less caring than we might be. Why don’t we simply recognise that there is no god, there is no ultimate meaning and purpose of our lives, and therefore we need, not only to make the most of our lives in the short period during which we have to live them, but to do the best we can to make the lives of others, whose lives are fated, like ours, to be short and often full of trouble, the best that they can be, without adverting to gods at all?
Gods simply get in the way, and are an imposition on natures that can, with thought and consideration, be much better than our gods ever dreamed it possible for them to be. After all, we create our gods, and then imagine them giving laws to rule our conduct. It would be much better to recognise ourselves for what we are, and on that basis try to discern how it is best to live. Perhaps — who knows? — in such a world my wife Elizabeth, despite her pains and indignities, might still be alive, knowing that, when it became simply too unbearable for words, she could be helped to go in peace, surrounded by her family. Imagined gods determined that she should die when she did. I do not intend to let people forget that. But for those gods, she might still be alive, for our gods are always too small, and are soon outdated by events, and cannot possibly compass the full spectrum of the goodness of which human beings are capable.
*The word ‘gin,’ by the way, is an archaic word meaning trap, not the rather tasty beverage enjoyed by the British in malarial outposts of the Empire.