Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Images of God: Pieces of a puzzle

Father. Shepherd. Judge. King.


All are common metaphors for God or Jesus that have been used in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. Perhaps you are less familiar with these, also taken from the Bible:

Mother. Eagle. Rock. Vine. Fire. Wind. Light. Door. Chicken. (Yes, chicken ... in Luke 13:34 Jesus says he wants to gather the children of Israel “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings”)

We describe the indescribable by comparing it to ordinary things.

It’s as if God is a giant jigsaw puzzle, so vast that we can’t see the edges, and each image of God, each metaphor, is just a little piece that maybe shows a bit of sky or the edge of a tree. Each image helps to fill in the picture, but no one piece is sufficient to show the whole. Expanding our array of images of God adds pieces to the puzzle.

God as father seems a perfect image for some people. But it can be a barrier for those who had abusive, critical or distant real-life fathers.

God as rock implies strength, solidity, something that can’t be shaken or blown away. If you feel the world is crumbling around you, there is great comfort in clinging to that rock. But you would not go to a rock for tenderness.

I have sometimes experienced God as ocean, moving in unceasing rhythm yet with hidden, still depths. As song, soaring in harmony. As electrical outlet, delivering power. As lover's embrace. As lightning's sudden illumination. As sunlight's warmth.

What images of God hold power for you? Have those images changed over time?

And since our atheist neighbors always wish to chime in on this blog, I ask that they consider this quote from theologian Gabriel Vahanian: "If anyone claims to be an atheist, I always ask, 'What God is it you don't believe in?' In other words, 'Are you a Roman Catholic atheist, a Baptist atheist, a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod atheist, or what?' From there, I probe to discover what affirmation lies beneath the denial -- and almost invariably there is a profound theological truth and a deep faith at the heart of this self-described atheist. Because what was rejected was not God but an inadequate image of God – in effect, an idol."

20 comments:

pornstudent said...

I think of God as an imaginary friend. I used to think of him as a loving father.

Anonymous said...

On my more cynical days, when I still have a shred of humor left, I see God as Kokopelli: impish and laughing at my confusion and frustration. At other times, when I think of the beloved pet friends that I've had over the years, I remember that a wise person pointed out that God is Dog spelled backwards--ever-loving, ever-faithful, at times playful, sometimes messy. Lately, though, God has been an extremely patient mentor/friend who has called, I now realize, for years, and when I finally quieted myself enough to hear and answer, God was there with a smile and a gentle, "THERE you are! It's about time."

Nick said...

Jane, that's a wonderful post. I want to use that with my small group.

To me, Jesus is most like a friend. That speaks of the relationship and intimacy that he longs to have with us. Above all, God is a person, and we can know him as a person. He's the best kind of friend, who will tell us when we're wrong.

In Song of Solomon he's a lover. The church, as the bride, can enter into intimate relationship with him. Paul said "That I may know him;" God is often a subject of study, of debate, of contention - but we can know him, not just know about him.

Anonymous said...

I claim to be an atheist. I guess I have to "claim" this because heaven forbid that there actually be atheists out there, but here I am. Nothing special about being an atheist. I just believe in one less god than any monotheist out there. Gods are slippery things. Always getting redefined whenever someone examines them too closely. I guess the god I have the most doubt about is the Omni-God. It's the most bizarre god because people keep talking about it as an abstract idea, but claim to have a "personal" relationship with it. I think pagan gods are more honest and more in line with what people really think about their god. No matter how abstractly they define their god, I think they really want it to be a lot like a person.

pornstudent said...

Hi, Anonymous. I'm an atheist too. I don't quite understand Jane's question to us. I used to be a fundamentalist evangelical, so I guess I'm a fundamentalist evangelical atheist. Am I supposed to see my old belief as an idol and now believe in maybe a Catholic sorta God? Or an Earth Spirit? Is the trick to see God in a way different than the way I used to see it in order to make it more believable? My prayers to Jesus weren't answered so maybe I should pray to St Peter? Should I salvage anything? Nothing? Ah-ha! Eureka! Life isn't all a bed of great sex, but I'm not going to poison my brain with another religion.

Lazarus said...

Great post, Jane!

I've had to change my images of the divine many times, but I think its been healthy. Images of God are symbols for how we define God and they should change as we change our understanding and our definitions. Our images of God are images of our own personal human hopes and fears. The divine never fails in my opinion, but we fail to recognize it in truth. Also, I've noticed many people forgetting their symbols are SYMBOLS, representing a glimpse of a greater reality and clinging to the illusions that their symbols or images ARE God defined.

As a young Catholic kid, God was on a throne somewhere, wondering why people weren't worshiping him enough, with the omnipotent power to bring peace to earth, but choosing not to do it. I didn't understand this God or feel close to "him". I was also horribly afraid of him because from the time I was about 5, I knew I was gay and according to "churchianity" was destined for hell unless I lied about who I was.

Jesus was a mystery of unattainable goodness and self-sacrifice. A lot of the quotes and parables attributed to Jesus in the Bible didn't make much sense to me growing up. Mostly, it was the people that claimed to be the heirs of Jesus' teachings that turned me off to Jesus the most. With few exceptions, I encountered people that were materialistic, prone to violence over peace, classist, racist, and fully comfortable with a self-imposed religious superiority. I also found that these people were gracious as long as they thought you would agree with them. I was once "witnessed to" by a very nice woman with good intentions, but when I declined her interpretation of God, she refused to look at me or speak to me for two years. I one attended a funeral of a gay teenager who was murdered and the "faithful" appeared with signs saying "God hates Fags" and "Got AIDS yet?". I wanted nothing of the God of these people. Small examples that shouldn't be used to paint an entire community, but it is representative from my perspective.

I've spent 6 years entering into and exploring the Wiccan mysteries, where we encounter the Divine as a duality of God and Goddess, of which the sum of creation and the ebb and flow of life is represented by their unending cycles of birth, life, death, and re-birth. There are Wiccans that insist their version of the Divine is "correct" and take the Goddess and the God quit literally, completely missing the more important insights of what the Gods represent and teach us through myth.

Where the modern Christians were seeking absolute certainty about God, the Wiccans were doing the same in many ways, although they would probably disagree. There was just as much dogma and showboating going on with the Witches as it was with the Bride of Christ.

As a Wiccan you encounter images of Maiden, Mother, and Crone, and the two-faced God of life and death. Light and dark are not opposing forces of good and evil, but two sides of the same coin.

Our images of the divine are either the stones we stub our toes upon or steps leading us upward to greater intellectual and spiritual understanding.

I've left behind the pissed off old white dude on the throne, the bleeding and dying human sacrifice of Jesus, and even the greeting card images of Goddess and God. To cling to these images is spiritual suicide, in my opinion.

I've come to think that God is truly "in" everything and everyone because I have seen and felt God in me. Asking God for help or forgiveness is like a fish asking the ocean for water. In my interpretation and current understanding, God is intelligence, not blind obedience to dogma. God is life, death, and rebirth. God is freedom from error in understanding or living. God is love as energy and ability, not as a "feeling". My "images" of God have now faded to black and in this darkness and stillness, I hope the light of truth to emerge. I hope I am done projecting my images onto the Divine and i'm paying attention enough and listening in stillness enough to let what is already there emerge into the light of understanding.

Lazarus said...

One thing I forgot to mention. Studying Wicca, having initiation and elevations in the tradition, living through those experiences and hearing the voices of the Gods brought me to finally understand and love Jesus. I know that sounds crazy and Christians will probably freak out about that, but now I'm able to see Jesus for what he was, Master and Savior, not a blood sacrifice for my ancestor's sins against an angry God, but bringer of light to the world. Jesus teaches us how to step out of the way and let the Divine show through. He teaches how to live, not how to suffer and get rewarded in some spiritual Disneyland after death. As mystic, ascended master, as healer, and human psychologist, Jesus teaches those willing to learn.

Too bad most of Jesus' life is not in the bible and too bad what is there most people do not see anyway. As Thomas Jefferson said of the bible, "It is dung covering diamonds". I had to leave "the church", walk into the mysteries of the Goddess and God of the ancients, in order to emerge with a love and appreciation for Jesus.

Danbo59 said...

It's hard to believe that some people can become so lost in the span of a single lifetime. Thank God directions are always available to those who seek them.

Jane Pope said...

Thanks, Lazarus, for that thoughtful response, and for giving us insight into a lesser-known religion.

D.J. said...

Lazarus said…
“He teaches how to live, not how to suffer and get rewarded in some spiritual Disneyland after death. As mystic, ascended master, as healer, and human psychologist, Jesus teaches those willing to learn.”

I’m genuinely curious – how have you formulated this concept of Jesus? Doesn’t this concept contradict many of Jesus’ statements about his own identity and purpose? For example…

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” – Matthew 10:37-39

“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” – Matthew 16:24-25

It seems Jesus emphasized a call to suffer for his sake, and he several times claimed divinity. This is the Jesus that history records, so I’m wondering what you base you Jesus concept on?

Soli Deo Gloria

Anonymous said...

Pornstudent, I understood the question and its implications well enough. Simply put, it was an argument that atheists are atheists because they disagree with concepts of "god" that are somehow idols and not the "real" god.

The fact that most people probably believe in an idolatrous corruption of "god" and not the "real" god isn't my problem and doesn't make me think there is anything more to it than that.

eclectic said...

When I finally walked away from the archaic and immature and narcissitic concepts of what has been given to us as the "truth" of God through the centuries,I found it to be one of the most liberating and powerful experiences I ever have had. These infantile myths that we continue to be chained to only prolong our immaturity and keeps seperated form each other and the reality of our existence. It also gives us a convenient excuse to ignore our collective responsibilities and push it off on some imaginary power or friend.

Danbo59 said...

eclectic said, "When I finally walked away from the archaic and immature and narcissitic concepts of what has been given to us as the "truth" of God through the centuries,I found it to be one of the most liberating and powerful experiences I ever have had. These infantile myths that we continue to be chained to only prolong our immaturity and keeps seperated form each other and the reality of our existence. It also gives us a convenient excuse to ignore our collective responsibilities and push it off on some imaginary power or friend."

That is pure bilge. A summary of that paragraph is, "It's more convenient to be my own god than to acknowledge my responsibilities to the One True God."

eclectic said...

Being a responsible human being to higher ethics and standards requires no alliegance to mythical beings.

Responsibility and intellectual maturity is the mark of a human who realizes the universe does not revolve around him/herself or their country or religious/political beliefs.

D.J. said...

Eclectic said...
"Being a responsible human being to higher ethics and standards requires no alliegance to mythical beings."

What makes one ethic "higher" than another?

Soli Deo Gloria

eclectic said...

By ethical standards that humans have over much time come to agree on as wise,humane and geared toward facilitaing, respect, trust,the protection of life and harmonious relations amomg us. Higher ethics are not hard to see if one is willing to look for them. It did not take some proclamation on stone tablets for our species to know what is good behavior I just took much trial and error to figure out what is good ethics to practice to promote stable societies. We can take what principles that some religions have found as ways to live virtuously and honestly but the requirement for a God to worship and obey is not necessary.

I would say the so-called Golden Rule comes close to being a adequate measure of how we conduct our selves as rational but also compassionate thoughtful beings.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree that the Golden Rule as it's come to be known is a pretty good rule. I've seen a few variations of it, but in general it seems like a pretty fair rule of thumb for interacting with others. Even atheists such as myself don't find much fault with it. It also is not a strictly Christian idea, as some may believe.

D.J. said...

eclectic said...
"I would say the so-called Golden Rule comes close to being a adequate measure of how we conduct our selves as rational but also compassionate thoughtful beings."

You would say so, but what of the jihadist Musilm who believes that the execution of converts to other faiths is a better ethic. How can you say that your ethic is "higher" than his, since they are both simply social constructs?

Soli Deo Gloria

eclectic said...

Everything in human culture is a social construct. We have no absolute objective proofs of any outside or supernatural sources of information.


Non-human nature itself is based on instinctive survival and not subject to our anthropocentric ideas of morality. But we have evolved to a different level that embraces ideas beyond just survival.

There are barbaric standards that at one time may have been seen as "normal" but I believe that many of us on this planet have risen to a civilized level where respect for human rights and common decency are a priority.

Obviously there are exceptions to the rule and ideas like you mention are still thought of as ethical. They are the ones in my opinion, who have not risen above the lower(less socially evolved)aspects of human/animal consciousness.

I am not a moral relativist, I just believe that when humans through the pursuit of knowledge and excellence seek the most rational and logical choices we can create a decent society without believing that only one religion or philosophy has all the answers. I think on the whole humans are increasingly embracing the idea of universal human rights and the necessity to maintain peaceful,non-dominating groups through the free exchange of ideas and goods.

I will agree that Christianity and other religions has given us some wise rules and standards to live by. It's all a part of how human culture has advanced in regards to honoring our respective lives. It does not mean we have to stay captive to supernatural notions that in my opinion no longer serve us or help us in the coming hard choices we will be making to ensure our future common survival on this planet.

D.J. said...

eclectic said...
"They are the ones in my opinion, who have not risen above the lower(less socially evolved)aspects of human/animal consciousness."

Yes, but as you stated, that is merely your opinion. Those others would disagree. What makes your opinion inherently "higher" or "better?" Who are you to suggest that they abandon their ethical construct to fit yours?

eclectic said...
"I think on the whole humans are increasingly embracing the idea of universal human rights and the necessity to maintain peaceful,non-dominating groups through the free exchange of ideas and goods."

Who is to say that human rights is a good thing? Hitler and Stalin weren't convinced they were. Who are you to say that your ethic is "better" than theirs? By what objective standard do we judge the two?

I hold to a morality that is outside of me and outside of human society - one that has been ordained by the creator of the universe. Thus, when I proclaim that your ethical standards are "better" than those of jihadist Muslims, I have a solid philosophical foundation from which to make that claim, since I can evaluate your claims against an objective standard. If no such standard exists outside of social constructs, then each morality is equally valid, since there is no standard by which to evaluate them. To each his own. You say that you are not a moral relativist, and you may well not be, but it is the logical end of your philosophical presuppositions.

Soli Deo Gloria