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Published Date: April 30, 1989

Published Date: April 30, 1989

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Images of God

From the beginning of time, people have been telling stories about God. Deeply rooted in the human instinct is a persistent belief in some sort of divine power, a power every civilization has searched for and tried to explain.

Some have sought to deny the existence of God, but to me that is comparable to denying that the world is round. I understand that an organization called “The Flat Earth Society” actually does exist, and is dedicated to promoting the notion that the world is flat. Even when confronted with photographs of our planet taken from outer space, these people stoutly maintain that such evidence has been faked (at great expense) for the purpose of convincing us all that we live on a sphere! So to continue our illustration, the person who claims to be an atheist seems to be equally immune to the preponderance of evidence.

The vast majority of human beings do accept as true the existence of God, and we naturally tend to be inquisitive about God’s nature. We want to know what God is like. Is God everywhere, as the Psalmist suggests: in heaven and hell, in the sky, and in the uttermost depths of the sea? To believe in God at all is to acknowledge that God is limitless, but to understand this is impossible.

We try in vain to get a grasp on the timelessness of this Deity who has been our dwelling place in all generations, even before the mountains and hills were brought forth, or even before the world was formed – a Deity whose existence is from everlasting to everlasting. The enormous incomprehensibility of the United States federal budget is nothing compared to this God whom we worship! Perhaps John Newton described God’s eternity best when he wrote:

When we’ve been there ten-thousand years,

Bright-shining as the sun,

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise

Than when we first begun!

Such arithmetic as that is beyond our feeble knowing.

And yet we say this infinite, unsearching God knows each of us intimately: our down-sitting and our uprising, even numbering the hairs of our heads. An ancient Judaic prayer states:

O Lord, how can we know you? Where can we find you?

You are as close to us as breathing and yet farther than the farthermost star.

When justice burns like a flaming fire,

When love evokes willing sacrifice,

Do we not bow down to you?

You living within our hearts, as you pervade the world,

And we, through your presence, behold.

As Christians, we naturally rely primarily on the Old and New Testaments, but we are also heirs of countless prophets, scholars, writers, and artists of insight and imagination who over the centuries have handed down to us what might be called visions of God. Christian believers can see overwhelmingly powerful, cumulative evidence of God, but when we try to focus the picture more specifically, the way becomes difficult.

A picture of God? Dare we even contemplate this for a moment? God is very private about such things, choosing never to be revealed directly, but to be revealed in a burning bush or a still small voice. Even God’s name is remote. When Moses says, “The Israelites will ask who it is that has sent me to lead them out of Egypt. What shall I tell them?”, God simply answers, “I am who I am! Tell them that I AM has sent you!”

Perhaps some of you are like me. Whenever I try to visualize God, a picture flashes across my mind of a white-bearded, somewhat pudgy Italian, with very little clothing, staring down from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. And yet it is almost blasphemous to make such a representation, because it limits God to a replica of our human existence. Trying to form a visual image of God is dangerous indeed.

When the Bible tells us that we are created in God’s image, does this mean that God actually looks like us, or that we look like God? I don’t think so. After all, our human bodies are really incidental to our true selves. (This will come as a comforting thought to many!) Our real being – those attributes by which people know us, and that in us which is eternal – is spirit. And the Bible tells us that God is Spirit! So trying to have a visual picture of God is like trying to visualize ourselves without our bodies.

God is those things we can only speak of using images. God is love, light, a mighty fortress, a shield. In contrast, adjectives which describe human bodies are inappropriate when applied to God.

Consider: We can say of humans that they are old or young, black or oriental or caucasian. We can describe the color of their eyes or hair, their stature or build. Yet I hope you will agree that it is obvious that none of these attributes can be used to describe God. But now I’m going to add two more adjectives to the list, adjectives that are basic when describing human beings: male and female. And I would add that for me it has been a wonderfully liberating and eye-opening experience to realize that the Church has never made the claim that God is male.

It is true that the Bible uses predominantly male metaphors when speaking of God, but not exclusively. In the parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd’s concern for the sheep and the subsequent rejoicing in its recovery (Luke 15:1-7), Jesus gives us a male metaphor for God: a shepherd whose sheep we are. But Jesus immediately follows this with another parable, telling again almost exactly the same story but this time it is a woman who cannot find a silver coin representing one-tenth of her life savings (Luke 15:8-10). This story is also a metaphor for God, with God now likened to a woman. I must admit that this realization required some major thought-readjustment on my part.

And hear again verses from the Old Testament: The Lord says

                “You will be like a child that is nursed by its mother, carried in her arms, and treated with love.

                I will comfort you in Jerusalem as a mother comforts her child.” (Isaiah 66:12 TEV)

The God presented by the biblical authors and worshipped in the Church today cannot be regarded as having gender, any more than God can be regarded as having race or color. In recognizing this truth, we will be more free to use inclusive metaphors for God.

Within recent decades the idea of “inclusive language” has transformed the way many people write and speak about each other. In 1971 the National Council for Teachers of English adopted guidelines (revised in 1985) which preclude the use of words like “man” when referring to both men and women, and many colleges and universities now regard non-inclusive language as incorrect. Thus recent biblical translators have reworded many passages to reflect he original meaning and intent in today’s usage.

For example, when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” Or, when Jesus says, “Let your light so shine before men…” the verse could very properly be rendered. “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and glorify God in heaven.”

The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. has been a partner with the other major denominations in introducing inclusive language in worship, in publications, and in church school curricula. The new hymnal for The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. which is now in preparation is charged by the General Assembly to use inclusive language when referring to the people of God. I have the privilege of serving on the committee producing this hymn book, and I can truly say that I am amazed and delighted with the clarity and sensitivity with which many old hymns have been revised. In every case the meaning has been improved, and the poetry in no way impaired.

On the question of appropriate language for God, The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. has taken a middle position. At the 1985 General  Assembly, the church reaffirmed the traditional trinitarian language – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – but it also strongly encouraged the use of the many biblical metaphors for God, including female metaphors, to enlarge and inform our thinking and to help us better understand the full nature of God.

Jesus called God “Abba – Father.” These words express Christ’s intimate relationship with God, but they do not mean that God is somehow of the male gender. Rather, the words indicate that Jesus proceeded from God and was of God, as a human child is from and of its parents. And when Jesus says, “Anyone who has seen me has see the Father,” Jesus is not saying that God looks like Jesus did as a man on earth, but that Jesus came from God, and would go to God, and is God incarnate!

The Lord’s prayer begins, “Our Father.” That is wonderful language, and a beautiful way in which human beings may address their God. But I hope that you and I will be enabled by God’s grace to say these words with a new broader understanding: An understanding that yes, God is Father, but that scriptural metaphors also tell us that God is Creator, Shepherd, Shield, Parent, Guide, Love, Light, and Mother; and that we who pray together to this infinite God are neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, but all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

Three women smiling at the camera, each is holding a present.

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