What picture comes into your mind when you think about “God”?
Traditional western Christian images of God tend to lean toward Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel scene, with a very male, bearded God reaching out to a reclining Adam. Fans of the TV show the Simpsons would have no trouble identifying God as a sandal-wearing, toga-clad guy who’s about twenty feet tall.
Michelangelo’s God, painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling between 1508 and 1512, has permeated the western perception of “God” for centuries. Of course, at the time the fresco was created, we were also pretty sure that the Earth was the center of the universe. Our understanding of “God” was little different than that of the ancient Greeks’ perception of Zeus living on Mount Olympus.
Both those who take the Bible literally, and therefore the “God made man in his image” line as a physical rather than spiritual concept; and those who want to dismiss faith altogether, arguing that human religions are dangerous fairy tales of humanity’s childhood, cling to this image – for diametrically opposed reasons. The former fears the loss of certainty that comes from letting go of Zeus-god. The latter needs the image in order to turn it into a caricature to be mocked.
However, although it might have been the predominant image of our ancestors, Zeus-god was never the only one. Indeed, the word in the New Testament translated as “God”, Theos, is more accurately rendered as Divinity than it is as parent, or king, or judge.
Divinity has no gender, no human aspect. Divinity is Theos.
Metaphors for God like “breath” and “wind” appear throughout our sacred texts. In John, the writer has Jesus describe God as “Spirit”.
A broad and growing list of theologians that includes Karen Armstrong and John Spong speak eloquently of these images of God that held meaning for and inspired the founders of our faith.
Panentheism (not to be confused with “pantheism”), for example, is a view of Theos that understands God as is both intimately connected to every particle of Creation, and yet is instilled with consciousness in a way that is beyond Creation and human comprehension – both “immanent” and “transcendent”; both uniquely personal to each of us, and yet uniquely encompassing the universe.
There are those in the progressive sphere of Christian faith who suggest that we need to stop talking about “God” altogether. To simply say, once and for all, that “God” is so incomprehensible that to even try to describe God actually leads us away from a deeper understanding of faith.
I don’t think that’s possible for most of us. Human beings have an innate need to describe Creation. Theos, intimately part of Creation, has to be part of that description as well.
The challenge is accept that all of our descriptions will be inadequate. That when we talk about God, whether as Christian Trinity or as Cosmic Consciousness; as Father, Mother, or Friend; we’re talking about just one aspect of Theos – the aspect that we have encountered in a single place and time and circumstance.
There’s another image of God that can help us do that. Love. The image of God as “love” is as deeply embedded in our faith as the Zeus-image is. However, the word we translate as “the love of God”, agapé, means much more than a warm fuzzy feeling toward people we like. Agapé calls us to recognize our interconnectedness, our oneness with each other; the unity, as the interfaith movement puts it, in our diversity.
Rather than a single image painted on a ceiling far out of reach overhead, agapé’s version of God is a montage; a collection of pictures hung on our living room wall for all to see and touch; a reminder that we are all, no matter how close or distant we may be, one family, ever-changing, ever-growing.
All part of Theos; of Creation; of each other.
As you go about the world, may you see the face of Christ in those you meet.
And may those you meet, see the face of Christ in you.