If only we could access an authentic image of God, our religious searching and our religious squabbling would be ended.
Or would it?
- See! He’s smiling. I always said he’d be smiling….
- Whaddya mean smiling? Just look at the corners of his lips! He’s frowning!
- That’s just typical of you men! I know it’s only a face, but She’s clearly a woman!
Yeah, it would be something like that. Nevertheless, ever since human beings invented God, we’ve produced image after image to embody our notion of what God or Gods are like. Some of these are meaningful and beautiful even to those who don’t share the religion of the maker. For example I find the Hindu representation of Šiva as Lord of the Dance very moving as He dances the creation and destruction of the universe. I’m sure many atheist scientists also find it meaningful.
The Hebrew tradition of faith is explicitly against images of God. The God whom they invented forbade them to make material images of Him. They made this prohibition for two reasons:
1. They knew that if their invention of God was to have any value it had to point beyond itself to One who could not be fully grasped by the human imagination. They therefore used images only in words, names, phrases, prayers, stories and commands to point to this One who out of his mystery, spoke to them. This is an extraordinary discovery. They knew that as soon as you accept this or that image of God as real, you become a slave of the one who invented that image. But when you know that any image of God is by definition wrong, you remain free to listen to the whisper that comes from beyond the edge of the universe.
2. They believed that God had placed his image in the midst of creation, in man and woman, not wholly in man nor wholly in woman, but in man and woman together. They believed that this was God’s selfie, the creation of man and woman. But what a confusing selfie! Because of course, questions immediately arise. What man and what woman? Tom Cruise or Nelson Mandela or Pol Pot or Buster Keaton or Albert Einstein or Ludwig Van Beethoven, or Julius Caesar or Plato or Abdul Mohammed Saq? ( who’s that last one ? He’s my next door neighbour.) Hilary Clinton or Sarah Palin or Marilyn Munroe, or Eleanor Roosevelt, or Mother Theresa, or Miley Cyrus or Joan of Arc or Cleopatra or Elma Taylor? ( Eh, who’s that last one? She as my first girlfriend.) Did it mean powerful men and women rather than weak? Good people rather than bad? Or does it just mean that we should see God as the creator of humanity?
The Hebrew and Christian bibles in effect answer these questions by saying, yes, all of the above.
The big story the Bible tells tries out the image of God as the creator of all worlds and all life but is forced to see contradictions in the story of a creator who is always being foiled by the wicked cunning of his precious human beings. Still the storytellers stick to their task and leave their readers to puzzle out the contradictions.
They also tell stories of how God lets himself be seen in the lives of particular people, like Abraham Isaac and Jacob, or David or Solomon, not because they are perfect people but because they are prepared to allow that strange whisper to influence their lives. They become part of the story of how God is creating a good universe. This story therefore is not merely an invention, as it includes human lives. This means that it has real sex, real births, real pain, real blood, real death, in and through which, its storytellers and editors believed, the image of God becomes clearer, if only in the sense that all the easy, trite options are ruled out, and the non- human nature of the mysterious One becomes evident.
The story of Job is how a man pits his own notion of God’s justice, his own image of God, against God’s power, and finds himself utterly routed, brought to his knees, by a vision of a creative process beyond his understanding.
Jonah is the story of a pious Israelite who pits his own image of God’s exclusive love of Israel against God’s command to go to a foreign city, and finds himself utterly routed, by God’s perverse humour which has him swallowed by a whale before doing what he is told. Even when he has done his duty with a bad grace, God laughs at his sulking.
Jesus, whom Christian believers see as the true image of God, also told stories which offered people new images of God. The most famous of these depicts God as an indulgent parent who unwisely lets one of his sons have his inheritance and independence early, enabling him to go off and make a mess of his life. When he eventually returns the daft old man is waiting for him and welcomes him back so enthusiastically that he insults his other son who has served him well. But when he is made to face his own folly, the father excuses his crazy love by saying it’s as if his son has come back from the dead.
Yes, that’s Jesus unflattering, almost blasphemous picture of God’s love for humanity, and we can only take it seriously because he, the righteous son, made his life an offering on behalf of all the unrighteous ones. The story of his life becomes for believers the true image of God. Does that mean that no other images of God have anything to add? Far from it. The story of Jesus is a shining image that enables us to see in other religions , philosophies and people, aspects of God we could not have known otherwise.