Shattering Our Images of God
A lot of people are atheists because when they hear the word God they think this refers to a supernatural man, a cosmic male parent with a white beard who lives in the clouds and sits on a golden throne. Or even if God doesn’t literally look like that, still God is this all powerful male personality that watches us at every moment and makes conscious decisions about what happens in the universe. If that is what it means to believe in God, then atheists you can count me in with you. However, this is not what or who God is.
Throughout history people have tried to describe God in various ways. The first thing we have to realize is that all of these images of God, trying to say what God is like, whether like a father, like a spirit, like whatever...they are all just images that fall short. These are metaphors and symbols that are trying to describe a reality that simply cannot be described with words and concepts. Its okay for us to use images and metaphors as long as we don’t confuse those with the real thing. That is a big part of the problem: Many Christians became convinced that God was literally a cosmic male parent, but that is idolatry. That’s confusing an image with the real God.
The philosopher Alan Watts, whom I’ll probably quote a lot, once used a great analogy for this. Imagine that you had a window that was covered with a painting of a blue sky. You are with your friend trying to tell them that in order to see the sky we have to scrape off the blue paint, but your friend says to you that we shouldn’t do that. Someone worked very hard on this painting and its very pretty with its white clouds, etc. Yet you know very well that the painting of the blue sky is not at all the same thing as the actual sky. So in the same way there have been people, like Jesus, who have come into contact with something, some reality that is like this sky. They called it God. Religions were born from these experiences with divine reality. People wrote things down, they created creeds and doctrines and stories saying “Look at the blue sky!” They are all meant to point us to the reality of the sky, but countless numbers of people have instead gotten stuck on the blue paint. They confuse the paint with the sky.
No wonder we have stopped believing in God. The image of God as a father is nothing more than blue paint. That doesn’t mean it's wrong to imagine God as a father or that we should stop doing that. We just need to recognize it for what it is: an image, a metaphor, because if we insist that God is actually a supernatural father then of course you are going to have people declaring to be atheist. I would too. At a certain point you discover the image as inadequate. All images are inevitably going to be inadequate. God is bigger than the idea of a supernatural father. No matter how detailed and beautiful the painting of the sky, it will never be the actual sky. Any image of God is like a box, and as beautiful as the boxes might be God is too big to fit into any of them.
In the Zohar, a foundational text of Jewish mysticism, there is a story of how Abraham came to know God. One morning as he observed the sun rising it occurred to him that this great sphere of light must be God, and he worshipped it all day. When night came, however, the sun went down and the moon rose in its place. Abraham’s faith was shattered. He said to himself “This silver orb must rule over the golden one I worshipped all day, since the golden one was darkened before it and does not shine anymore.” So he worshipped the moon all night. When morning came and the sun rose, Abraham wept for joy and said “Of course! There is a King who rules over all of these orbs!” And in that moment he came to know God.
The story illustrates that coming to know God, just like coming to understand life, is a process. Often in order to come closer to the truth we have to have our faith shattered. We have to stop clinging to old ideas and images. In future posts I want to share some of my favorite images and metaphors for God, but don’t make the same mistake of taking those ideas for the real thing! They are only pointers. You have to experience God for yourself.